‘Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’ Director Jean-Francois Dugan On Building Levels And Unexpected Sequels

Deus Ex: Human Revolution was an unexpected hit, reviving the classic PC gaming franchise with a fresh, open-ended take on both stealth gaming and cover shooting. But it also wasn’t a game, executive director Jean-Francois Dugan admits, that Eidos Montreal ever expected to make a sequel to. Two years after the end of the first game, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided finds the “Augmented,” people with cybernetic implants medically grafted to their bodies, are targeted for harassment and deportation due to “The Incident,” an event in the first game where most of the Augmented were driven temporarily insane. Attempting to manage all this chaos, centered around the city of Prague, is Interpol agent Adam Jensen, Augmented himself after being caught in a bomb blast, attempting to unravel a conspiracy that wants to get rid of the Augmented for good.

Dugan was kind enough to speak with us about an unexpected sequel and how you write an open-ended story for a such a complicated game..

Let’s start with the big question: Deus Ex: Human Revolution had five endings, and Mankind Divided picks up two years later, in a very different world. How’d you pick one to follow up on?

To be honest, when we built Human Revolution, we didn’t think we’d make a sequel! (laughs) It was a one-time shot kind of thing. We had a complete story. We said “If we have to make another one, we’ll figure it out when we get there.”

Our approach has always been, only three people know what happened: Eliza, Jensen, and the player. What was broadcast to the world was a set of information, not always correct, and there are rumors and legends coming out of those events. When you look at some of the tragedy that we experienced, there have been some of them that there’s a big conspiracy around them. We don’t really where the guilty parties are, who financed or sponsored them, we only have fragments, and that’s our approach. The only thing people know is that a lot of people were killed, and there are restrictions against augmented citizens now. So no matter which ending you choose, all those endings are valid.

Every level in the game has potentially dozens of ways to finish your objective. How do you build that?

The important thing is that even before you start building, you have to understand what kind of mechanics do you want to push forward. For us, it’s about being able to go in either guns blazing, totally stealth, or with hacking. Those stories all revolve around the same kind of logic. So we build the story around the logic of what our character is doing during the game. We always keep in mind the player’s approach. We always try to challenge players. We challenge ourselves with certain maps. Does it work for the playstyle? Is it too obscure? As we play, we find the weaknesses and tweak until it feels right.

How much time does it take?

On a specific level, it can go from three or four months to sometimes a year. When it’s a smaller map, it’s easier to spot the weaknesses. But when you go to a city, there are so many ways you go around, we have to do playtests with people outside the company. Sometimes we discover an idea doesn’t work, or we were assuming that the players would be in a different mindset. Sometimes they take a different approach. It challenges us and our own assumptions, and we change missions, or the order you play, or give a different justification for something. When it’s a more open map, it takes more time to get it right.

The original game had a fairly complete set of mechanics. How do you add without going overboard?

It’s definitely more organic. We start the project with certain ideas in mind, but we never change the vision. Otherwise, you’d never ship the game, but you need to be flexible, sometimes things need to change. It’s a combination between a strong vision early on and being flexible in the details to make sure that we’re fulfilling the promise of the initial vision.

Considering all the angles and ways you can get through the game, how do you tell a story when a player can derail a story just by poking around?

It’s a nightmare! There are five or six people in a room and we’re yelling and pushing. [Laughs.] Seriously, though, we always start with the core story, the overarching intrigue. No matter who you are, you’re going to experience that story, you’re going to uncover a conspiracy. We have a story we want to tell. It’s very organic.

Adam, in the game, has to trust his augments. They’re what’s keeping him alive. But in the last game, they rather brutally betrayed not just him, but everyone around him. How do you write a man who can’t trust his own body?

The angle we took, it’s like anything in life. How much can you trust what’s around you? How can you trust yourself? Sometimes you have to make decisions. You can choose to say “I’m not doing what I want in life” and I think most of us stand up and say “I’m going to assume my choices, and even if they lead me to unexpected places. I make those choices and assume them to the end.” When you do that, it’s a life-changing experience. That’s the approach we took with Adam. He never asked for his augs, so he’s trying to cope in the first game. Now he’s “I’m this. I’m this guy. I have this abilities, these pitfalls, these dangers, I will try to use them the best way I can. I will assume what comes out of it. This is what I’m going to do with the tools I have.” It’s more coming to maturity, and accepting who he is.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is out tomorrow on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.