With long-running series Deus Ex’s latest instalment, Mankind Divided, slated for next year and plenty of information already circulating the series of tubes that is the internet, Power Up Gaming was recently given the opportunity to sit down with the creative minds behind the sci-fi franchise, Eidos Montreal. After getting hands on with a demo build of the game, we had the privilege to speak with the studio’s executive audio director, Steve Szczepkowski, about enhanced audio and aesthetics, player choice and even a hypothetical pub encounter with Metal Gear Solid’s Snake.
It was also our pleasure to interview Steve alongside Mateja Simovic, editor of fellow gaming and entertainment website Capsule Computers. So, here’s to hoping some of your eager questions were answered in this Power Up Gaming two-on-one developer interview.
Mateja Simovic: In this demo, you guys were stressing the choices that a player can make. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there was a bit of a qualm with bosses, in which there was sort of one particular way to go about dealing with them. How have you guys gone with that element in terms of the new boss fights?
Steve Szczepkwski: I believe we addressed it in the director’s cut where we did fix that mistake that we made, but we’ve learned from everything that we’ve done through what the fans told us they liked and what they didn’t like, and we addressed all of that to try and make sure we could get the fans the best Deus Ex game that they wanted.
Austin Flynn: You’re actually showing off a lot of new augmentations and, like I said, they’re great. Can fans expect more than what you guys have shown? Are you upping that level a lot? Because that’s kind of the wow factor, in my eyes, in the game are the augmentations.
SS: Well, you just said it. It’s the wow factor and I felt – I think we all felt – in Human Revolution that while we did deliver and scratch the surface, there was so much more that we could do. But at the time we had some engine limitations. We’re on a new engine now that’s completely proprietary for Deus Ex and allows us to customize the engine to deliver more to Deus Ex fans. That’s why you’re seeing such a big jump. I mean, other than cloaking, you didn’t see too much augmentation use from the combatants and today you’re seeing the hyper jumps; you’re seeing all kinds of things. We’re able to put that in the player’s hands now because of the change we made to the tech. But there’s a lot more that you didn’t see. Hells yeah.
MS: Can you tell us a bit about this stuff?
SS: Negative. *laughs* That’s a nice try. I teased you for it though.
AF: See, I wasn’t going to go that far, but I’m glad you tried!
MS: Sorry if I’m being brash.
SS: No, no, not at all. That was your debate style and you lost. *laughs* No, no, no. It’s all good. But, honestly, we want to keep some surprises. We’re going to have more marketing campaigns and if we play all our cards now, from now until next year would be kind of boring, so we want to keep it fresh and exciting and just keep teasing you. Consider it a long burlesque show.
AF: And that’s what people want; a burlesque show from their game.
SS: That’s right!
MS: Can you tell us a bit more about the story and Jensen’s role and how it’s all going to be affected? I guess by player choice.
SS: Like I said, it happens two years after Human Revolution. Jensen’s definitely a bit more seasoned. I think he has a bit of a bitter taste in his mouth as to what happened at the end of Human Revolution. He made a comment referring to that in the walk-and-talk where he says, ‘I tried that last time. It didn’t work out so well.’ So, the cynicism of Adam that we all love is still there, but the world is different now.
The world is a darker place, more suspicious. You know, I could say the same way our world changed after the events of 9/11. Some subtle, some dramatic. It’s very similar in this world, where terrorist attacks have been happening after the events of Panchaea, where millions of people who had augments went crazy and attacked whatever was around them. So, obviously now society is not too trusting of the augments and that’s why they’re in segregation camps, which is a bit like District 9 in the Deus Ex world. We wanted to play off that because we feel it’s a powerful theme. There’s a lot of dark themes. While Human Revolution was a bit of that, you know, the gold and the reaching for the sun, well that’s fallen now and this is the aftermath. We’re going to walk right through it.
MS: Sounds suitably cyberpunk.
AF: Yeah, and you said yourself that Adam’s a little bit more bitter now. He also looks a little bit different though, right? There are different design changes to him that I think fans will appreciate and notice. What do you have to say about any of the character development that you guys went through to change him up a little bit?
SS: Again, without revealing too much, you will see that he has different looks. There’s a different look that you’ll see other than the one you saw today – and that’s all I’ll say on that.
AF: We’re asking a lot of questions that you can say, ‘There will be more, but we can’t tell you what it is’. But that’s good.
SS: Back to the burlesque show. But, as you can see, just by looking at the pictures we have displayed, he’s much more redefined, he’s just sharper and everything. From a design point, again, part of that is a credit to the engine we’re using. Everything just feels and looks a lot more credible now, and the level of detail has gone from that to microscopic and I find it shows. I’m a huge believer in the truth is always in all the little, little, tiny – like I said – the little elements that all together make for a big, drastic change, and I think when you look at those posters it speaks volumes.
AF: You can see that it’s brushed steel for Christ’s sake, I mean, you can see the little lines on it. That’s… that’s insane.
SS: You can see it in the game too. It’s not just our image. It’s not a fake sale.
AF: Since you’re in charge of all things audio, are you trying to do anything new with this as far as sound goes? How is the development going as far as that’s concerned?
SS: Well, right off the top, I don’t know if you guys noticed but the huge thing is that Mankind Divided is completely in 5.1. You can still play it in stereo, but Human Revolution was only in stereo and (the upgrade) is great. I saw at one point in the demo there was dialogue and you could hear people talking behind, and a girl in the audience looked back because she thought someone was there. To me, that moment was like Christmas because that’s just such a cool thing: being able to be competitive with the other games out there.
So, it’s in 5.1 and again, I’m huge about being very, very picky on trying to go for certain unique sounds. I try to stay away from the generic. It’s a cyberpunk world, so I want things to stand out a little bit and the one sound right now – and maybe in two months I’ll have something new – but the sound that I’m stoked about now is the drones, because I spent probably close to a year trying different sounds with the audio team. And it never really felt right to me, but then we fell onto the sound we have now. I always knew I wanted a very insect-like, almost wasp tone. I wanted something that kind of made the hairs on your neck stand up when it came near you, and I feel like we came really close to achieving that. What we have now, I really like, and dare I be so bold to say that it’s close to being like a signature sound for me. I hope people react to it the way I do, but either way I’m just really happy it came out the kind of way I envisioned it.
AF: I feel like as a sound guy, when you see sci-fi you’re a kid in a candy shop. You can do whatever you want.
SS: Man, going back eight years when I was being interviewed for the position of audio director on Human Revolution, they didn’t tell me what the game was and when I was walking out I said to the producer, ‘Can you tell me what game it is?’ and he just looked at me and said ‘Well, think Blade Runner.’ and I had to go change my pants. I was like ‘Please, let me get this.’
So, like you said, what’s great is you get the best of both worlds. You’re still grounded in reality, which I like because I find that as much as I love Star Wars and all that, it’s a bit freer because you’re so far in the future that you can kind of forgot about the reality of today and just do what you want as long as it’s credible with what you’re seeing. But in our game we’re not that far. So it has to walk that fine line between reality and sci-fi entertainment, and it’s a fun balance to walk.
MS: I actually have a question about the NPCs. Can you tell us a bit more about the partners that Jensen will be working with? Is that a no-go zone?
SS: I can tell you a bit. One of the NPCs, or characters, was Chikane. That’s Jensen’s pilot. He’s a great character. There’s a great dynamic. It’s kind of similar to the dynamic people enjoyed with Pritchard. He’s different, though he’s not Pritchard. He’s got his own surly sort of style, and there’s a great interplay between him and Jensen. The actors really connected well in the studio.
The one thing I’m really happy about, that we didn’t have in Human Revolution – and I don’t know if you noticed it today – is female combatants. There were a lot of females involved in the fight as opposed to Human Revolution, where they were more in a civilian, non-combative role. Well, it’s 2030 and there’s female cops in the game, there’s female combatants as well as female civilians and, from the audio perspective, I find it adds a much richer palette because the male voice will kind of sit in a frequency range, and when you add the female, you’ve now expanded your dynamic range of what you’re hearing. It’s a much more colorful palette than just hearing male voices coming at you. I find they even sound more visceral and scary, you know, when the woman’s shrieking and, to me, I’m like, ‘I’ll take out the trash. I’m sorry!’ So I’m thrilled to have them, and we’ve got so many good actresses that, I’m telling you, these people are peeling the paint off the walls on the studio with their screams and their war cries. It’s really visceral.
AF: You hear them from a few rooms over and say ‘Yup, we’re paying them well for a reason.’
SS: That’s right. They come with no voice left and we say, ‘Perfect! You left it all on tape – or on digital tape.’
AF: I guess my last question would be, and this is just kind of a fun one, but say you have Adam walk into a bar and he sits down next to Solid Snake. They’re both drinking beers. Do they become friends or do they not like each other? And who wins in an arm wrestling contest?
SS: Oh, well, if Adam’s using his augmented arms I don’t see much of a contest. But, I think they would kind of get along. I think they would have the mutual respect for each other. I would refer, without dating myself – I love Westerns – think of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. They’re both kind of badasses, but when they had a common goal they worked together and put that aside, and then they both went their own separate ways. They didn’t become best buddies, but it was just that mutual respect. So, I would say that’s how I would envision it.
AF: ‘You’re a badass. I’m a badass.’
SS: ‘We don’t need to tear this place apart. Let’s just have a drink. Leave it at that and go our separate ways.’
AF: ‘We’ve both been through too much as it is.’
SS: Exactly. *laughs*
AF: Well, 2015 has been a great showing for both franchises.
SS: Absolutely. It’s going to be a big year and we’re looking forward to it.
AF: We’d like to thank Steve for being so generous with his time. For continued coverage of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, keep it locked to Power Up Gaming.