Deus Ex: Human Revolution presented an interesting, albeit slightly divisive, take on the usual cyberpunk aesthetic, and it's clear that a lot of thought was put into the game's art direction. It comes as no surprise then that some websites would be interested in discussing the subject with the title's art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, like The Critical Bit did in this in-depth interview. Here's a generous excerpt from it:
Tell us about the importance of visual allegory and motifs in games. How do they affect the player’s perception of the world? How do they impact the narrative?
I believe these are some of the most important aspects of the production design of a video game. Sadly, my personal opinion is that very few game developers understand this. Visuals in a game should be as much about communicating as decorating (probably the former even more than the latter). The world we live in is a world of visual messages and constant visual communication. Our brains are constantly assessing and analyzing situations, people, and places, based on their respective visual stimuli. We do this at a conscious level, but even more so at an unconscious level.
Because of all this, I believe it’s imperative, through production design, to infuse a video game world with higher meanings and motifs in its foundational art direction. If done right, it creates a soul and a potent flavor for the game. When you Combine a highly crafted world with a passionate attention to detail and mise en scène, the world suddenly starts living inside the player’s head, long after he turns off his console.
As far as their relationship to the narrative, I believe it’s a two way street. For example, in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the concept of the Renaissance analogy, the Icarus myth, and all their related motifs and symbols first came from the production design side. But, they were fully embraced by the narrative designers who began juggling with all those variables as well. It ended up being a constant dialogue of ideas between the two departments, and they both highly influenced each other as to how they would treat those main ideas in their creations. Basically, it made the concepts even stronger!
One of my favorite parts of Deus Ex: Human Revolution was the abundance of visual storytelling. There were many locations which conveyed a lot of narrative information through objects. Adam Jensen’s apartment is a good example – You can find out a lot about that character by exploring his home. Tell us about how you design art assets that can tell a story.
A lot of it has to do with the original brief for a location. For Adam’s apartment, right from the get go I called it “The Adam Jensen Museum”. Right there, it gives a very clear idea to the team about the visual narrative purpose of the location. It needed to be a place where just by walking around, looking at things (even some pretty small details), you would learn a lot about Adam; about his life (past and present), his likes and dislikes, his current state of mind, and so on. We spent a tremendous amount of time working on, thinking about, and designing these scenes throughout the game. It’s what we call the “show, don’t tell” principle. Here again, my belief is that few game developers fully understand this concept. Video game visuals are so much more than texture size, shader tech, polycount, and dynamic lighting. But hey, that’s my theory.
One of the main hurdles when creating good “show don’t tell” scenes in a game, especially in one as big and with as many different locations as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, is the amount of props that need to be created to fill the rooms and create the desired scenes. We designed and created more than 1300 props in the game, all of which were first conceptualized then modeled and textured following a precise visual direction. Not only does this give the game a very homogenous look, but it allowed us to have a lot of clutter and credible placements of objects (even if we purposely went overboard with the cluttered mess).
For the objects that are more story based, follow the “show don’t tell” principle, or are about precisely communicating a character’s personality, we’d sit down in a group and brainstorm about what would best fit the character or location based on their narrative briefs. Often a lot of crazy and over the top ideas would come out of these meetings, which needed to be toned down a bit!