The Cyberpunk Renaissance: Designing Deus Ex with Jonathan Jacques-Belletête

The Cyberpunk Renaissance: Designing Deus Ex with Jonathan Jacques-Belletête
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

June 9th 2016 at 2:41PM

Eidos Montreal's art director discusses how his team have blended different styles to bring something new to the cyberpunk genre

Jonathan Jacques-Belletête may not be the best known name in development, but his work and that of his team is instantly recognisable.

As executive art director at Eidos Montreal, Jacques-Belletête has been instrumental in defining the look of the reinvigorated Deus Ex series and offered his insight on designing possible futures as part of our How To Build A Universe feature.

Read on to find out more about the challenges of blending styles for the first time, the difficulty of ensuring one vision across a team, and why manufacturing is important to designing sci-fi.

Where do you start when designing a world like Deus Ex?
The way that I’ve always worked, and the way that we work together is we spend weeks, if not months reading and researching as much as we can. Even me as an art director, I don’t even begin by drawing – it’s easy to make pretty pictures. There are so many concept artists in the world who can make very pretty images but making interesting images that have amazing content, that make you think differently and make your brain continue thinking about what it just saw is something different entirely. To me, that’s the goal, that’s the crux of what we’re trying to do.

To create something like this, it goes way beyond just the pure glossiness of an image. It’s about reading and researching. Metaphors and analogies are very important for me, so I always try to analyse the subject and themes and try to find something that relates to it, like a fable or mythological story that people know about, something that can serve as an entry point into what we’re trying to explain.

So that’s how I start: tons and tons of research. I fill notebooks when I’m doing early world-building and it’s not even drawing. Because I know that once we find a good idea and have something solid that hasn’t been done before, making it happen visually is almost the easier, more fun part. The hardest part is trying to connect very original ideas together. 

So what did you research for Human Revolution? What was the inspiration?
For Human Revolution, there’s quite a few things we went through. As you’re probably aware, there were two things that really appealed to us.

One was the Icarus myth; I spent weeks back in 2007 trying to find a myth or historical story that matched our theme. I must have read hundreds of them, but the Icarus myth became automatically clear that it fit. Icarus is given wings by his dad – that’s an augmentation. And the warning not to fly too close to the sun, that to me was all about the dangers of overindulging in transhumanism – so yeah, you can augment yourself but there’s a danger to it. To me, that was perfect.

I don’t even begin by drawing – it’s easy to make pretty pictures, but making interesting images that make you think differently and make your brain continue thinking about what it just saw is something different entirely.

We ended up diving even deeper into the meaning of the minotaur and the labyrinth, comparing it to our world that we were building.

The other thing was the Renaissance. It wasn’t as perfect a fit as the Icarus myth, it’s a lot more on an intellectual level but it gave so much flavour to the world. We even coined the word ‘cyberrenaissance’. The comparison with the Renaissance era led to a lot of discoveries during my research, and I worked so hard with my artists to implement this into the game in one way or another. 

So once you have your myth or story that will be the basis for your design, how do you build on it?
Earlier when I said the drawing part is easier? It really isn’t. What I meant was that I know I’m going to be surrounded by such a bunch of amazing artists and we’re eventually going to come up with something great.

The thing is, when you work so hard at finding something that’s never been attempted or mixed together, then when you start the conceptualisation, you realise there are no references to give them. There are references for the two variables you’re trying to clash together, but the actual mix itself does not exist – that’s the whole idea of doing something that’s never been done before.

So you can’t just get into work one day and have a movie, book or another game and say, ‘hey, look, this is what I want you to achieve’. It was literally having tons of references from the Renaissance in terms of fashion, architecture and so on, and then the same thing from cyberpunk, and we had to find a way to clash those two things together in a way that would work.

That’s when you set rules. The parameters I set were, for example, I wanted the fashion mix to look like cyberpunk so fans of that genre could recognise it. Then I said it had to look contemporary and wearable, so if you saw someone wearing that in the street today, your reaction wouldn’t be ‘what a fucking buffoon’. The third parameter was you had to recognise the Renaissance feeling. But how you make all three of those work was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted.

Again when you’re doing something that’s never been attempted, and you’re surrounded by some of the best concept artists in the industry – people who are much better artists than I am – it can be very frustrating if some of them don't really believe in my vision. Some did, but didn’t really feel like doing it. For one of our team, Renaissance was his most hated era of aesthetics. It’s really hard to cope with that when you’re trying to guide them and push them to produce stuff you want to see. It took a good two years out of the four we spent on Human Revolution before it really started to gel, when characters Federova, Barrett, Megan took shape. Adam Jensen literally took two and a half years to make – he went through so many extremely bad designs. You wouldn’t believe how horrible they looked, because no one had ever mixed these things before.

When you hire people and tell them you’re working on science fiction, they all come running because that’s what they want to do. But when you say you’re going to mix the Renaissance with it, they kinda hit a wall. 

Adam Jensen literally took two and a half years to make – he went through so many extremely bad designs. You wouldn’t believe how horrible they looked, because no one had ever mixed these things before.

Was it challenging coming up with something that looked unique? There’s so much cyberpunk out there.
That was the whole idea of mixing it with the Renaissance. And actually back in 2007, cyberpunk was very low profile. The most recent cyberpunk entertainment stuff was the original Deus Ex from 2000, the Matrix movies from 1999 and 2003. And maybe you could say the Metal Gear Solid series has a lot of cyberpunk themes and visuals.

But apart from that – and some more obscure games that most people weren’t aware of – it was almost like we were trying to bring it back. So this idea of trying to be different because it was so cluttered maybe wasn’t something that was in our minds, but I’m always going to remember one of the first things that we said when we started; Xbox 360 and PS3 had just come out, and we figured we could probably just replicate Blade Runner, or at least make a cyberpunk game that looked like Blade Runner? But what would that say about us as artists and creators? It would say that we were copycats, so we tried to figure something out that would set us apart.

We wanted to be different because we just like to make sure our ideas and our games stand out. 

How important is it for there to be consistency across the team? Even a detailed brief can be interpreted differently by various artists.
It’s very important. There are different levels of being on the same page, there are times during production when it’s not quite as important as it is during others, but at the end of the day my role is to guide everyone towards that one goal. That’s the real challenge: when you have such a different vision that nobody can picture in their head at the beginning.

On another level – for example, the way that each artist draws or interprets the brief – it’s not all that important. As long as, no matter what style they have, they’re still striving for the same aesthetic by the end. The real challenge is to make sure everyone’s on board, wanting to make your vision work.

Something else that was really hard was the whole mechanical design of stuff. Human Revolution and now Mankind Divided are games in which we’re really picky about how everything mechanical is thought out and designed. I think we understand really well how industrial processes work and how things are manufactured. Because if you look at anything around you – a phone, a keyboard or mouse – it’s been manufactured and that’s why it looks a certain way, has assembly lines in certain places, different materials and so on.

In the games industry, this is becoming a lot better understood. Since Human Revolution, there have been a lot of games that are starting to master this. Back in 2007, this is something that a lot of concept artists did not understand very well. There are exceptions: the Metal Gear Solid series, and a lot of Japanese creators in general, have always done amazing industrial designs – you can see it in anime, and so on.

I had guys who were more knowledgeable about this, but I had a couple who didn’t understand why it was important to be so nitpicky about how things are manufactured and assembled. 

We’re really picky about how everything mechanical is thought out and designed. If you look at anything around you – a phone, a keyboard or mouse – it’s been manufactured and that’s why it looks a certain way, has assembly lines in certain places, different materials and so on.

How did you make sure the look of the new Deus Ex games stayed in keeping with the originals?
The first Deus Ex was a lot more of an emotional rather than visual world design. Most games back in those days weren’t designed in the way that we do it today. Some aspects back then were handled as more of an afterthought at times.

Basically what we decided to go with was that the a lot of the first game took place at night. The cyberpunk feel was very present, very urban, and we made sure to respect that in Human Revolution.

As far as following precise things, there wasn’t much to be honest with you. For example, you look at the TVs and monitors in the original Deus Ex and a lot of them were still in that 4:3 ratio, there were a lot of telephones lying around the place with landlines – and the game takes place in 2052, right? By the time we were designed Human Revolution, most of these things didn’t exist any more. TVs were now really big flatscreens, and even in some offices not everyone had a phone on their desk anymore.

We wanted to be really close to where technology was actually going, rather than what they maybe miscalculated on the first Deus Ex. So there’s a lot of stuff that we did not respect because we wanted to stay more in line with the futurism and stuff we’d researched.

Also, the first Deus Ex deals with a lot more with the ‘poor’ sides of the world, while the rich are off-screen getting the vaccine. So it looks like the world is low-tech, but it’s not that the tech we invented for HR isn’t around in the original or in 2052, it’s just because you’re exploring spaces that are maybe away from that. 

What advice would you have for devs creating new worlds?
I think the most important thing is to look everywhere else but within the games industry, and maybe even movies. I find that we stealth reference in this industry way too much and I think that’s a problem. Things don’t stand out for the right reasons, or don’t stand out at all.

Go and look at stuff that, at first, doesn’t even appear to be related to what you want to do. Go see crazy shit: underground art exhibitions, modern art stuff. If you’re doing sci-fi, don’t watch sci-fi movies – just watch crazy abnormal stuff. That’s when you’re going to start having ideas that you never would have had within the context of what you have to do. You’ll figure out a way to relate them and include them, and that’s how new things are created.

We can make analogies with science and technology – a lot of the greatest inventions happened because the creator saw something that made him think. Take Velcro, for instance: the story is it was invented by a farmer who was always walking through fields with his dog and those little prickly green balls were always sticking to his dog’s fur. And he realised that the little balls were essentially covered in hooks, and his dog is covered in hair – and then he invented Velcro. At least that’s what I’ve always heard. My point is the guy never sat down to try and work out how to make some cool thing that attaches well. 

f you think you have a good idea, believe in it and believe in yourself. So many people – both on the team and outside of it – were against what we were trying to do with Deus Ex, but the game never would have happened if we hadn’t believed.

If you want to make a sci-fi game that stars a guy who holds a gun and runs in space – don’t play Halo. It’s been done over and over again. Go somewhere else and you’ll be surprised by what you discover. 

Everybody knows it’s a lot of work. Something like Deus Ex, that has so much detail and so much thought behind everything, is an insane amount of work. It’s not something you can just do lightly.

If you think you have a good idea, believe in it and believe in yourself. So many people – both on the team and outside of it – were against what we were trying to do with Deus Ex, and of course we doubted ourselves from time to time, but the game never would have happened if we hadn’t believed.

If you combine things that have never been combined before, make sure you really really believe in it. If you have other people to bring along the journey with you, to help you, it’s not going to be easy because people are going to doubt you. People like their routine, they like to do what’s comfortable, what they’ve always been practising and if you take them out of that with something that’s never been done, you have to be really sure and believe in yourself. 

You can read our How To Build A Universe feature here. More interviews will be uploaded throughout the week