GDC Online Speaker Spotlight: Mary DeMarle On Storytelling In Deus Ex: HR

demarle.jpgIn the latest in a series of interviews with notable speakers from this October’s GDC Online, Eidos Montreal lead writer Mary DeMarle speaks out on the complexities and challenges she faced when working on the critically-acclaimed Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

DeMarle was responsible for the game’s storytelling and narrative, and was tasked with crafting a story that could play out in several ways based on a player’s actions.

Before joining Eidos Montreal, DeMarle worked on other titles such as Myst III: Exile, Myst IV: Revelation, Homeworld II, Dungeon Siege: Broken Sword, and the a number of titles in the Splinter Cell series.

Here, DeMarle offers a quick look into her writing process in anticipation of her GDC Online talk, “Building the Story-driven Experience of Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” which will provide an in-depth look at the robust, branching narrative of the recent cyberpunk shooter.

How did you ensure the game’s branching story paths would all coalesce into a cohesive narrative?

Creating a cohesive narrative in a game is never an easy task, especially when you decide to complicate it by enabling player decisions to result in multiple branching paths. The DX:HR production team was able to meet this challenge because of two crucial game design decisions that we made early on.

First, during our conception phase, the core creative team identified “story” as one of the important pillars in a Deus Ex experience. To ensure this pillar received the attention it needed, they then decided to create an in-house narrative design team as an integral part of the game design group. Writers were brought in during conception and present during preproduction to explain the story and cast light on specific story goals for all production departments. They didn’t dictate gameplay challenges, artistic or level designs, animations, or scripted events, but they worked with the people who did create these things on a daily basis, to ensure that every aspect of the game presented and/or reflected a cohesive narrative at all times.

The second decision made was to put choice and consequence front and center in the game’s design, meaning it had to infuse all aspects of Human Revolution, including its story line. This decision forced us to re-examine our pipelines and ultimately implement some kind of tool that could keep track of branching storylines. Both the tool and the processes we ended up using will be discussed more thoroughly during my GDC Online presentation.

How did you go about writing the game’s various story branches? Did you write all the paths first, did you look at player feedback for inspiration, etc?

My approach to writing a game story is to first plot it out conceptually in its entirety, and then break up the story details into varying layers of importance. To do this, I ask myself which details and/or story events are needed to understand the plot in its simplest form, and which details or events can be discovered optionally — through exploration or via alternate gameplay paths — to fill out the main plot and make the story richer. Once I know this, I can determine which story-telling vehicle needs to be used to convey each point; be it a forced dialog or cut scene, or a newspaper article or email. I then start writing the story in layers, dealing with all critical path pieces first.

Of course for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the critical path script often has variations within it that are determined by direct player input. We identified these choice-and-consequence moments up front, during the story conception phase, so we knew exactly how and when each one would occur. We also determined where and how the consequences of each choice would manifest themselves down the line. Because of this, writing the variations became part of writing each layer of story: We wrote the critical path script first, taking it in linear order, and when a branching scene occurred, we wrote all versions of that scene simultaneously.

How do you balance writing with the necessities of game design? Have you ever had to rein in or change your writing to accommodate certain gameplay features?

It may sound simplistic, but the only way I’ve been able to balance writing with the necessities of game design is through close collaboration with the game director, the gameplay and level designers, and all the other departments working on the game. Once everyone knows what needs to be communicated to players, everyone can bring their particular skill set to the table to make the story and gameplay merge.

On Deus Ex: Human Revolution, we started by having a small narrative team build the initial story concept into a fully developed plot. We then presented this plot to our level designers and artists, and worked with them to break it into playable gameplay chunks. We did this before any level production began. Sometimes we had to change the story to accommodate gameplay needs. Other times, we had to change the gameplay to better convey the story. But because we brainstormed together, we all understood why certain things had to be sacrificed or changed.

What was the most challenging part of working on Deus Ex: Human Revolution?

So many aspects of Deus Ex: Human Revolution were challenging, probably because it was the most ambitious project I’ve ever worked on. Managing the sheer density of story material was one thing — there’s a huge amount of writing content that had to be created, from branching dialogs and cut scenes, to emails, newspaper articles, and books. Making sure that every detail remained consistent within each and every one of these story elements got to be a real headache at times.

But probably the most challenging thing for me was writing the endgame narrations. Many players haven’t caught on to the fact that the game has 12 possible endings, not four: The voice-over monologue within each cinematic changes to reflect how you approached the game. Making those subtle variations work within the context of the broader philosophical ideas we wanted to represent was painstakingly difficult.

How will your GDC Online talk address video game storytelling, and what do you hope attendees will take away from it?

My talk at GDC Online focuses on how the Deus Ex: Human Revolution team worked to create a strong, story-driven game that’s different every time you play. I talk about the pipelines we put in place, and the tools we used to not only keep track of branching storylines but also ensure that the entire team always had a clear vision of what we were striving to create. It’s a half-post mortem, half-educational talk.

I hope attendees will come away from it with new insight into story-driven game creation, as well as a potential tool they can use to create and maintain their own design visions.

Additional Info

In the weeks leading up to GDC Online, show organizers will continue to debut new interviews with some of the event’s most notable speakers, in addition to new lectures and panels from the event’s numerous tracks and Summits.

Taking place Monday, October 10 through Thursday, October 13, 2011 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, GDC Online continues as the leading worldwide event dedicated solely to discussing the development and business trends surrounding connected games — including casual titles, MMOs, virtual worlds, and social networking games.

For more information on GDC Online as the event takes shape, please visit the official GDC Online website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Online-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC Online is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.