An interview with the main writer of Deus Ex 1, Sheldon Pacotti.
Hello loyal fans! This interview is a little late in coming thanks to some particularly lazy and rude people (you know who you are, but luckily, you're probably not reading this, muahaha). At any rate, enjoy the following interview where I (Eberon) go into detail with Sheldon Pacotti about his profession, his work on Deus Ex, and what we can hope for in the future.
1) When writing the story for any game, what process must the task go through in order to be finalized?
Well, it's really a helter-skelter group process, story-by-committee in a lot of ways. One guy doesn't sit down and write a plot and that's that. Several people -- at least in our process -- sketch out parts of the game, and then the whole design team meets to pick apart the ideas and fit them into an overarching structure. The jury's still out on whether that's the best way to shape a player experience, but it seems to work for us and gives the designers a great deal of freedom when they're building their levels.
2) Most of us know or have heard about Spector's collection of "spook" literature. Did you have access to this library when you were working on the game?
Well, I certainly never felt the need to go to the library. The office has a whole shelf of books devoted to conspiracies. I read this one book called Treason: The New World Order, which really freaked me out at the time. I think the author was "Gurudas." He went into such painstaking detail about every incident, down to how many kittens FBI agents were reported to have killed during a raid, that after a while I started believing the accounts and the whole paranoid worldview. I think I'm the only one who's read that particular book cover-to-cover, but it certainly had an impact on the content of Deus Ex.
3) What parts of the story were you most satisfied with when they were translated into the game engine with graphics, sound, and voices?
I think I like the encounter with Lebedev the best -- at least that's what comes to mind. Lebedev was never built up the way he should have been, but I like the fact that the player is put in a morally ambiguous situation (kill Lebedev or not) and that several outcomes are possible. If he kills Anna, then JC bluffs his way through some UNATCO conversations later. If he doesn't kill Anna, she has a nice, dramatic role in the escape-from-UNATCO mission. I don't know... I think I was most satisfied when a part of the story had a direct impact on mission-flow and yet was something more than "go east and then southeast, frob the foozle and get the secret code."
4) Were you fairly pleased with the response from the rest of the team that your ideas received?
Yes -- I was able to add quite a few of my own ideas considering how late I came onto the project. When I showed up, nearly all of the maps were geometry-complete.
5) What were some guidelines you had to keep in mind when writing the story for Deus Ex? (stay within "x" theme, don't talk about "x", etc.)
Hmmm.... Not many, really. Naturally, I couldn't write a fantasy-adventure, but with 400 NPCs standing around, there was plenty of room for almost anything I wanted to write about. I had a bartender in Hong Kong urge players to read Olaf Stapledon, for example, though I don't suppose that's an example of good writing. In general, I think it's best to stay faithful to the world you're creating. It really bugs me in games -- DX included -- when a player can come across a zany allusion to some '70s science-fiction movie or something. That stuff just calls attention to the writer and by extension the real world.
6) Are you pleased and excited about the writing progress so far in Deus Ex 2?
Well, we're definitely pushing the envelope regarding player choice. We're trying to keep at least two balls in the air at all times, storywise, so that players won't feel like they've hit a choke-point, like when they were forced to turn against UNATCO in DX I. So far it's been a challenge to balance player choice with a strong narrative, but we're getting close. I have a feeling that I'm going to be as surprised as anyone to see how the whole variety show comes together this time.
7) What process do you personally go through to prepare to create a storyline for a game?
I'm still figuring out the process. So far on DX II, I've tried to sketch out the plot the way I would go about defining the plot for a novel, namely by creating a hierarchical tree of bullet points for the key dramatic moments, but since mission-design is a pretty chaotic process, dependent upon technology and geometry and consensus among a half-dozen designers, I'm discovering that a better approach might be to pick a small cast of characters and focus on each one's involvement in the gameflow. I imagine that sounds pretty abstract, but that's where my theories stand at the moment. We'll find out during the course of development whether reality accommodates my frail vision.
8) Do you feel that you have been given enough creative freedom during your past projects, or has it been a non-issue? Have you ever gotten into a dispute with fellow designers about your feelings?
By its very nature, a game puts certain constraints on the writer, an example being the need for conversations to reinforce mission objectives. If I were writing a novel, I certainly wouldn't have wanted the opening scene with Paul to be focused on map directions and choosing a weapon, but those things become important in the context of a game. A corollary is that the needs of level-designers and other team members also impact the writing. I think that's just something you accept when you work in a particular medium. I have my stories and novels for when I want to be a control-freak.
9) What do you feel is the most gratifying part of your job?
The actual writing. Sitting in front of the conversation tool and filling the cylindrical heads of NPCs with something to say.
10) We all know that good fiction is based on non-fiction. What non-fictional qualities in people, if any, did you pick out and place into the characters of Deus Ex? Were there any other things that inspired you to write the varying sub-plots that are in the game?
I'm definitely a believer myself that all good writing proceeds from primary-source material. I have Drexler's books, textbooks on biochemistry and physiology, Warren's conspiracy library, books of interviews with gang members, a pamphlet given to me by a true-believer in the Illuminati who sat by me on a plane... I can't say that any one sub-plot in Deus Ex was inspired by a "true" story, but I'm always actively gathering "facts" to go into what I'm writing.
11) Do you have any regrets now that the game has been released and has circulated about?
Not really. I think we did the best we could under the circumstances. I would have liked to have had more time for voice-recording, but overall the voices came out quite good compared to most games. I also would have liked to have gotten rolling on the writing a little bit sooner. Hopefully I will this time around.
12) How do you keep track of all of the branches in an interactive script? Do you have in-house software for this, or do you creatively mis-use business software to your advantage?
Oh, we definitely have custom tools. There would be one deeply suicidal junior programmer on the team if someone had to transcribe all of the branching, flag-checking, and cinematic commands out of a Word doc.
13) Why the big emphasis on immune response in the game? Modern thinking in
nanomedicine discounts this problem (see http://www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/index.html#NMFAQ, item #8) Is it
something you made up, or was it based on information you were given at the
This storyline of DX I was pretty well established by the time I joined the company. I tried to come up with a somewhat consistent technical explanation for the Gray Death, killswitches, augmentations; etc. Basically, I fictionalized that the nanobots were actually nanotech-protein hybrids, packaged inside viral "capsids," which in addition to mechanical functions had biochemical interactions with cell nuclei and other parts of the cell. In truth, I believe that if the gee-wow predictions for medical nanobots come to pass then the devices will actually look more like biomolecules than little diamondoid submarines, so I'm fairly happy with the technobabble in DX I. But I'm neither biochemist nor physicist.
14) There were some ideas and branches of the story that were cut out of the initial plan. Could you explain a few of these? Was there a piece of the story that you particularly wish had made it to the final product?
The White House mission was cut toward the end of the project, as you might have read. The decision made sense in terms of time, budget; etc., but I think Washington would have been a fun place for players to explore. From a narrative standpoint, it could have helped ground the last bunch of missions and tie them together with what happened in New York. Originally, Washington D.C. was going to be where the player faced down Walton Simons, I believe, not to mention the place where he learned that a coup had happened in the United States. As it turned out, the player has to learn this information from overheard conversations in the bar in Paris and use his imagination during the Vandenberg and subsequent missions. Many more plot threads were cut before I signed on to the company: Russian-Mexican troops attacking Austin, illuminati in Great Britain, and so on. You'd have to ask one of the more senior team members about those...
As always, the staff of DeusEx-Machina.com thank Mr. Pacotti for the time he took out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. Look for more interviews and features from us soon!