In 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.