In the worldwide debut of both Eidos Montreal and its first project, Deus Ex 3: Human Revolution, art designer Jonathan Jacques-Belletete demonstrated how his team challenged status quo thinking by creating a visual language centered around two esoteric art styles, the Renaissance and modern-day cyberpunk. He showed the first look at the third game in the award-winning series.
In the Game Developers Conference session entitled “Creating a Unique Visual Direction: The Successes and Failures of Creating a Near-Future Cyberpunk Setting with a Renaissance Twist,” Jacques-Belletete chronicled the first failed attempts at merging the two art styles directly, and by doing so detailed the re-birth of the series.
Warren Specter’s first game, Deus Ex, hit the PC in June 2000 to rave reviews. The series saw a sequel in 2003, Deus Ex: The Invisible War, which received distinctly lower review scores and matching lower sales. Deus Ex 3: Human Revolution is a prequel to the original due in 2010.
Deus Ex 3 is a first-person shooter/role-playing game that takes place before the events of the original title. It features changes to the series such as camera switches that move from the first- to third-person perspectives during special attacks and in cover situations. In an illustrative video showing environmental patterning and architecture, the screen displayed a temporary Dpad configuration showing the ability to turn lights on, teleport, exit, and unfreeze time. These are likely to have been place holder actions. The game also delivers new characters, weapons, environments, and character abilities.
Jacques-Belletete showed a Polaroid shot of the original five team members from May 25, 2007, followed by shots of a growing team that, in 2009, grew to 130 people. The Montreal team started the project with no pre-made software engine, no technology tools handed to them, no art bank from inner-company teams, and a studio not prepared to take on the size and scope of the project, he explained.
“My idea was to merge Renaissance and cyberpunk art styles together, which as you’ll see, didn’t turn out all that well at first.”
Drawing from traditional noire themes, night time, fog, smoke, and clutter, Jacques-Belletete also looked at trans-humanism literature espousing the idea that humans “should” evolve with technology to improve the human condition. Reading books such as “The Singularity is Near” (by last year’s GDC keynote speaker futurist Ray Kurtzweil), “Radical Evolution,” “Citizen Cyborg,” and “More than Human,” and meeting multiple times with researcher Will Rossellini, the CEO of MicroTransponder, he sought to establish a universal visual voice for the project.
“I found that anonymous quote, ‘Don’t expect anything original from an echo,'” said Jacques-Belletete. “We didn’t just want to make a bigger, shinier version of the same old thing.”
He hired top designers Jim Murray (which drew Batman Vs. Judge Dredd), and Thierry Doizon (Barontieni), who pointedly disagreed with the idea of merging such distinctly different styles. “The first efforts just didn’t work. It created friction, and those guys hated me. The first efforts didn’t look credible or wearable.”
But Jacques-Belletete’s perseverance paid off. He showed 16 shots of military shooters, including Killzone, Turok, Fuel of War, Gear of War, and Dark Sector, among others, all of which looked strikingly the same to illustrate that realistic visuals don’t always work. “With such great technology and tools in the industry’s hands, you’d think these futuristic shooters would have vastly different art styles. But they don’t. By taking the realistic route versus an illustrative one, we wanted to avoid the Uncanny Valley. When you look at the characters in Heavy Rain–a great-game, mind you–those characters are just scary looking. They don’t look realistic at all…I’m sure I’m going to catch hell for this.”
Going back to the drawing board again, Jacques-Belletete reached out to modern day fashion, which merged eccentric shapes and styles in a variety of different ways, and which struck a chord with his team. Secondary and tertiary attempts at blending old and new styles took on a more subtle, less direct approach, and worked into clothing that looked like trendy fashion wear some would wear, he explained.
“I’d wear those jackets,” Jacques-Belletete said to the crowd’s laughter.
He showed quick videos of lead characters Adam Jenson and Hass discussing the controversial shooting that caused irreparable damage to their team, displaying a dialogue tree that used Dpad choices on screen. He explained that once his team was able to see how modern fashion incorporated old and new styles into a singular whole, his team’s progress saw enormous progress with character outfits and designs, and after environment, architecture, and everything from window design to weaponry.
“To conclude, to create original art for a game like we did,” finished Jacques-Belletete,” you need to find a visual constant and to be as original as possible, to find your own visual voice to avoid creating just another echo.”