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Exploring a 'Cyber Renaissance' in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Exploring a 'Cyber Renaissance' in Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Mike Schramm
Mike Schramm|@mikeschramm|May 18, 2010 4:00 AM
When Art Director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête sat down to design the overarching look of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, he had two big criteria for his designs to meet. First, he wanted to choose "illustration over simulation" -- rather than creating something exactly real, he wanted to make a game that had a definite style. And second, he adhered to the theory that "design distinction creates desire" -- if a game (he used Bioshock and Team Fortress 2 as examples) has a distinct art style, it will already start to stand out in players' imaginations.

And so, from all of the various genres and settings for the third Deus Ex game, Belletête and the team landed on the phrase "Cyber Renaissance" to describe the look they chose. In a pre-E3 presentation this week, Belletête talked about "Cyber Renaissance," and how it defined the art and architecture of Square Enix's Deus Ex title.
The "Cyber" part of the design is easy -- Human Revolution is set twenty years in the future, and cybernetics are a big part of the setting, with "pro-Augs" and "anti-Augs" fighting for and against an "augmented" humanity. Protagonist Adam Jenkins finds himself augmented without his knowledge (with a black cyber arm, as you can see in the early trailer) after an accident while working security, and so he's torn between the two factions during the game.

"It's like the Renaissance was the stepping stone towards a full-fledged transhumanist era."

The Renaissance part, however, was more of an artistic choice. Belletête and his team discovered that there were quite a few parallels between coming advances in human cybernetics and the early anatomical drawings and discoveries of the Renaissance. "The points that they have in common are striking," Belletête told us. Cybernetic scientists may want to hack the human machine, but Renaissance scientists were the first to try and understand it. "It's almost one and the same era," Belletête said. "It's like the Renaissance was the stepping stone towards a full-fledged transhumanist era."

And so, this idea of a "Cyber Renaissance" defined the team's approach to concept art, which Belletête then said defined the actual models and in-game sets. He showed off concept art of Jenkins' apartment, with high, open windows, Baroque-style furniture, and high tech monitors and gadgets sitting around. The intricate designs around the windows, said Belletête, were actually based on real-life elevation plans of old European cathedrals, adapted into the actual architecture of Jenkins' apartment.

Not everything had the same look, however -- the "Cyber Renaissance" style had to be placed in the game carefully. "It's very punctual," Belletête told us. He showed off more concept art of the game's version of Detroit, and that had a very obvious Blade Runner influence, with lots of Oriental signage, neon lighting, and a big sci-fi billboard signifying one of the clinics that players will eventually enter to add augmentations. "We couldn't have the game without that Blade Runner feeling," said Belletête, but "even though it looks amazing, we still had to infuse our own voice and essence."

The game will have some normal video game locations in it -- one he pointed out was a laboratory. But rather than the usual white walls and checkered floor, the lab in Human Revolutions had neon lighting criss-crossing the red ceilings, and contemporary industrial designs on the workbenches. Some of the architectural concept art he showed even took influence from those da Vinci-style anatomic drawings, with skeletal extensions encircling modern high-rises and skyscrapers

The last architecture concept he showed was a gigantic, multilayered city, with a huge superstructure rising above the vast urban spread. "This is what we call, on the production floor, our Death Star," said Belletête proudly. He told us that the city setting is "where we pushed the vision the furthest," and promised that there was "great, great exploration to be done in this environment."

Belletête then showed off costumes from the game, and said that the team tried to design outfits rather than characters, and combine current fashion influences with cyberpunk designs and Renaissance trends -- high collars, big shapes and big sleeves. Jenkins (whose facial features, we were told, took influence from don Quixote) has two looks that we saw -- an "Urban Adam" wearing a trenchcoat with some Baroque-influenced patterns on it (along with high-tech wired sunglasses), and a "Commando Adam" in an armless flak jacket, showing off his black metal augmented appendage.

"There's a lot of great, great exploration to be done in this environment."

Props got a lot of focus from the art team as well -- Belletête says the game has twelve to thirteen hundred props, and almost every one of them was created directly from concept art. The team also created logos and identities for over 100 fictional companies, both to fill out the cluttered future settings, and to import a little realism into the game's world. You may be holding a gun made by a certain company, Belletête suggested, and then walk past a crate with that company's logo on it.

Finally, Belletête said that while "Cyber Renaissance" determined the style of the game, black and gold were the colors they chose for the production, so you can expect to see a lot of black and gold used in the game's design, textures, and even in the marketing (case in point: the logo above). Belletête's plan is to make Deus Ex stand out from the brown and grey of most current shooters, and to combine all of these looks and influences into a game that's instantly recognizable at a glance.

We'll test his theory when we try to find more about the game at E3 -- stay tuned.
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