Train2Game interview: Deus Ex: Human Revolution writer James Swallow – Part 1

Deus Ex Human Revolution Train2Game blog imageTrain2Game recently attended the Games Writers Panel at BAFTA’s headquarters in London. There, the Train2Game blog sat down with panellist Deus Ex: Human Revolution writer James Swallow. In an in-depth interview, Swallow discusses writing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, games writing in general, DLC, how to get into the games industry and much more.

Read part 1 below on the Train2Game blog, or on the Train2Game Scribd page, while Part 2 of our huge interview is here. Leave your comments here on the Train2Game blog, or on the Train2Game forum.

First of all, can you tell us what your role as a games writer on Deus Ex: Human Revolution involved?

Wow, that’s kind of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question really! The job of games writer isn’t like saying ‘I’m a journalist’ or ‘I’m a novelist,’ games writer is a very broad church because there are so many different things you can do in it. You can be writing cutscene dialogue, you can be writing dialogue for the third tier characters you bump into in the street, you could be writing text for text boxes that’ll pop up on screen. There are a million little jobs that fall underneath the term of games writer and I think I did a little bit of all of that stuff on Deus Ex.

It’s kind of fun to be able to do that because it gives you a broad understanding of the entire game and a feeling like you’ve really invested narrative in every single element, from basically what’s written on the back of a gum wrapper you find in the street to the main cutscene where you’re confronting the villain of the piece.

How do you even begin to create the narrative for the in-depth world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution?

In a lot of ways it’s similar to the process of working on a television series because the game is made up of episodic sections in the different levels, hubs or mission sections you get. You break the story. We sit down in the beginning and we say ‘OK, what’s the story we want to tell? What is the motivation and the concept of it? Where’s the very highest level of what we want the story to bring to the player?’ And then it’s a question of back engineering it, constructing the skeleton of the storyline, the narrative beats of it, and then trying to find a structure that works with level design, with character design and hopefully the whole thing meshes together nicely and you get an interactive, dynamic , story experience.

 Deus Ex: Human Revolution Train2Game blog image


How difficult was it to link the Narrative of Human Revolution to the original Deus Ex game, released over 10 years ago

Well the original Deus Ex has such a strong narrative to it and so much back-story that it was an embarrassment of riches, we had tonnes and tonnes of back-story we could use. One of my earliest projects on the job was actually writing a timeline that went from 2027, when Human Revolution is set, to 2052 when the original Deus Ex was set.

As we did that we started back engineering elements of the story and saying here are plot threads we can bring back and we can connect them together and hopefully people who are fans of the original Deus Ex games will appreciate the little kisses of history we put in there. I love doing that kind of stuff, I think it’s great fun to bury these Easter Eggs in there and make the story mesh together.

Such as the one after the end credits that links the two games together?

I can neither confirm nor deny that!

With all the choice available to the player in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, how do you go about writing the narrative so it doesn’t become too overly muddled during the course of the game?

You do a lot of writing, lots and lots of stuff.  It is a difficult thing to do because when you start a game you have no idea how your player is going to play it. The thing with Deus Ex is we had the four main pillars of gameplay; you could play aggressively, you could play it stealthily, you could play it in an adaptive way, you could play it with a social approach. There are a lot of different ways you can go through the sections of the game, you could try and mix and match. When I played it personally I found that I’d bounce backwards and forwards between the pillars of gameplay depending on how my mood took me. You can play it as a nice guy if you want by helping people, getting cats out of trees, or you can be a scumbag kicking the dog and mugging the old lady, and all those options are open to you.

How do you construct a game where all of those possibilities are open to a player where they’ll feel real?  It’s hard to do because you have to write dialogue that reacts to the events and the style of gameplay. Do you write hundreds and hundreds of different versions of dialogue? That’s not possible with the technology that exists right now.  You have to try and write dialogue that’ll be generic enough but at the same time not too generic that it’s bland, to try and make it so it’ll fit multiple levels of encounter and multiple levels of narrative.

It’s not easy to do, it’s a big challenge because you think of where you are in a game, of the information you have to put across, you want to give pitch and moment and drama to a character… But you also want to be able to say ‘The princess is in another castle’ and you want to be able to deliver feeling and emotion and you have to do that in one line of dialogue. It’s not easy, but it’s an interesting challenge though.

What are the different challenges of writing for the Missing Link DLC instead of the full game?

Away from Deus Ex I’ve worked on some other DLC as well; I worked on Pigsy’s Perfect 10 which was an add-on for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Working on that what we realised was that generally with a game you have a discreet beginning, middle, end experience and to build on story DLC you have to find a place where you can connect it. With the Enslaved stuff, what we did is we took a character who was playing a supporting role in the original game and we spun out an entire storyline out for him. So it’s kind of a side story, almost a prequel because the DLC ends with the characters introduction into the storyline of the main game, so it connects that way.

With the Missing Link we created a very discreet, compact narrative for our hero Adam Jensen and when we were approached and asked to do DLC we had to work quite hard to find somewhere we could fit it.  And we realised that we had this point in the game where the character is off the grid and this is the perfect opportunity for us to put in almost a missing episode of the story.

It’s interesting with DLC because you want to produce a dynamic, interactive, interesting and ultimately rewarding experience for the player. But you have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t break the story that you’ve already created for the source material. I guess that’s the unique challenge of it, to find a way to make a story that parallels what you’ve got without overwriting it.

Part 2 of the Train2Game interview with games writer James Swallow is here.

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