A Conversation with Mary Demarle


Mary DeMarle is the Executive Narrative Director of Eidos Montreal. She was the lead writer of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and helped introduce a new generation of gamers to one of the industry’s most lauded franchises. Known for her nuanced and complex storytelling, DeMarle has thrilled millions of gamers with Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. At DICE Europe 2017, she’ll be discussing the challenges of keeping teams inspired during multiyear development cycles. In the interview below, she talks about the evolution of Deus Ex, her evolution as a writer, and whether or not the Illuminati actually exist. 

What can people expect from your DICE Europe 2017 session? 

I’m there to talk about the idea of how when you work on really long projects -- I work on triple-A games that can last four to five years in development -- and when you work on things that long and that hard for such a period of time, it’s often hard to keep inspiration and to keep motivation. It can be challenging to really push yourselves as a team and to move even farther and to keep innovating. When you start at the beginning of project, you’re all excited, but four or five years later you’re struggling through. I’m basing this on my experience working on the games I’ve worked on in the Deus Ex license, using key examples of things that the team dealt with in order to find ways to dig deeper and get to that end goal -- feeling proud and happy with what we accomplished. 

As you mentioned, at the beginning of a project there’s a lot of excitement. Teams are really enthused about starting something new and exciting. What are some the challenges you’ve faced at the end of the development cycle in terms of keeping your team engaged? 

A lot of times it’s through the course of the cycle, because in the very beginning -- even though everybody is excited -- it’s hard to get everyone excited about the same vision. When you are individuals working on a project, you all have to get in line with the same vision while finding something for yourself that you feel you're really contributing to. Then as the project goes on, the challenge changes. You've been working for a year or a year and a half, and you're not seeing the fruits of your labor because of technology problems and things like that. Then the challenge becomes: how do you keep that original vision alive? In the end, the challenge is, "Okay, now we see where it's heading, but do we have time to see it through? Do we have time to keep this going? How do we stay excited about ideas that we had four years ago that are starting to come to fruition? Maybe not quite along the lines of what we were hoping for, but maybe they are and we're losing some perspective." Those are some of the challenges you're dealing with over the course of a long project. 

Deus Ex has an impressive blend of having an intricate world, being critically acclaimed, and being commercially successful. What were some of the challenges achieving that blend for the franchise? 

When we first started on Human Revolution, the challenge there was that everyone knew the original Deus Ex. We were excited about working on the franchise, but could we remake it? We were a new team. We’d never dealt with it. The challenge there was, "How can we get that vision going? How can we believe in it while everyone is looking at us thinking, 'You don't know what you're doing. You don't have what it takes.'" Even within the team itself, looking at the core creative group pushing this forward, there were thoughts of, " Do they really understand this? Do they really know what we're dealing with here?" Those were the challenges on the first one. 

When the vision for Human Revolution finally came alive, people thought, "Wait a minute. You really do know what you're doing. It is working!" Then the challenge for the second game became, "How do we do it again? How do we push this even further? How do we make it bigger, better, and deeper?" Those were the challenges we were facing, along with changes in the technology, changes to the team, and new people wanting to put their stamp on the game. 

Going into Human Revolution, did you find it more of an advantage or more of a burden to be working on a highly respected IP like Deus Ex? Was it hard following the great work of Warren Spector and Harvey Smith? 

We were lucky that it was ten years in between Deus Ex titles, because we all had beautiful memories of the early games. But memories and what you're actually dealing with don't always jive, so it was nice to have the break in between games. However, we also knew that we had this huge challenge of people thinking, "You're not them."

One of the positives going into Human Revolution was that we were really naive. Our naïveté and our passion really helped us get through the development cycle. We were able to put on blinders and say, "We know what we're shooting for. We know where we're going. And we're going to get there. Let's just believe it and get everybody going." When we dealt with every struggle along the way, we had that hope and that naïveté pushing us through. We didn't have that on the second game. [Laughs] On the second one we were like, "Now that we know what we're doing, do we really have the courage to see this through?"

Would you say that part of your success on the first game was that you were a new team that didn't know how to fail?

I would say so. We didn’t know how to fail because we didn't know how to do it. Everything we tried was an experiment to push us forward. There was a lot of excitement in that and there was a lot we learned from that. At the same time, we knew there was a lot of pressure. We were told by many -- not just from the fans of the original games, but from the developers of the original games -- "Don't fuck this up guys! Don't fuck this up." That left us with a feeling of, "Oh no. We can't fuck this up."

Mankind Divided’s world is full of analogs for racism, terrorism, questionable violence by police officers, and social inequality. Were there any concerns as a creative or from your publisher about the impact of potentially sensitive issues having an effect on the game’s success?

From my perspective, there were always worries about that. We always embraced the idea of how what we’re doing was an effort to open a window to the world and look ahead to see where things could go, with, of course, that dystopian cyberpunk feel to it. On Mankind Divided, the scary part for us was that a lot of what we viewed as fiction was becoming closer and closer to reality. Again, on a four or five-year project, the world is in one place when you start and can be in a very different place when you finish. That's another challenge that you hit as a team -- when you're going forward, the doubts start to creep in. "Are we hitting too close to the marrow? Is this going to upset people now when in the beginning it was just fiction?" I definitely had concerns on if we were pushing too far, but you're working on a creative vision and you have to stay true to what you set out to do.

Some, but certainly not all, gamers didn’t like some of Mankind Divided’s more nebulous endings for a few of the plot points. Is there any pressure to wrap things up neatly to give the gamer immediate satisfaction versus being more creative and leaving gamers wondering?

It's interesting that you ask that. My talk won't be specifically about that, but will touch on it. It's part of working on a project for so long and how you keep pushing to make it better. My talk will touch on those unresolved plot lines and how they came about due to the way we were working. I know that some of the fans were disappointed that some of the plot lines were left unanswered. If we had more time then perhaps we would have dealt with some of them differently, but that's part of the issue with developing a creative game and trying to go farther.

It seems that many endings in movies and televisions are delivered in a ham-fisted way. It was nice having endings that are more nuanced.

I like making people think about things and I like having unresolved questions. Hopefully we can have a payoff for some of those questions in the future in some way. It's fun stimulating the imagination of the player and having them figure things out. I enjoy having the player put the pieces together. I do wish we could have wrapped up a few plot lines a little bit better, but that's what it is.

This might be coming out of left field, but for those kinds of endings, was there any influence being in a French-Canadian environment? There are a lot of French films that leave the audience with a sense of, "Huh?"

[Laughs] Potentially! Montreal definitely has a French influence, but it's also very North American.

You’ve mentioned that as you’ve gotten older, you’ve become more mindful of life’s complexities. How has that changed your storytelling and character development?

I'm always attempting to add more nuance to characters. I try to look at all of my plot lines and all of my characters, and say that they can seem one way, but the world is never really black and white. I ask myself, "Where's the nuance? Where's the depth? Where's the different way of looking at it that makes the hero the villain or the villain the hero in their minds?" That's something I've done more and more of as I've gotten older. I think it adds a richness, but experience has also taught me that as rich as that can be, you still have to have a somewhat simple through-line so that people can understand and grasp that complexity.

Expanding on that, one of the things people love about the stories you've told is that you can look at a certain faction and view them as terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on the lens you choose. How do you see that reflected in the world's current situation with all the conflicts happening globally?

I think it's extremely relevant today. So many people see things from a specific perspective and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that perspective. If you're standing in their shoes, you can see it too, but if you stand on the other side of the issue you can maybe see there are other ways to look at it. Without trying to mince words too much, the frustrating thing for me today is that as human beings we want simple answers and we want to understand things right away, but many people are only looking at things from their own standpoint and their own vision because that's all they know. If we have the capacity to dig deeper and really look, maybe we'll start seeing things from other sides.

You’ve talked about Deus Ex as having the theme of “reason vs. emotion.” How have you changed over the years as a writer in terms of crafting something that’s really compelling versus something that makes more commercial sense?

I guess time will tell. [Laughs] When I started my writing career, I was all about character and emotion. My weak point was plot. Plot tends to be more of a reason thing than an emotional thing. You have to have those beats and the emotion underlines it, cuts it, drives it forward, and makes sense of it. As I've gotten older, I spend a lot of time focusing on making sure that I understand plot and then bring in more about the characters. Hopefully by bringing the two together, I can make something that lasts and be a commercially successful thing that we all strive for.

Is that a reflection of how you've not only changed professionally but personally as well?

Probably. [Laughs] I've never thought of it that way, but in the beginning of my professional life I did things more with gut instinct and how I felt about things. A lot of times that led to strong discussions with some of the people I worked with. As I've gotten older, I started to pull back on that and started to be more intellectual about things. I've tried to bring a more reasoned perspective into it. Now I've reached a point where I'm trying to blend the two.

Lastly, since you may or may not have insider information, does the Illuminati really exist?

[Laughs] I don't know. And if I did, I'm sure I couldn’t tell you. When we first started working on Mankind Divided, I was thinking about how I could reinvent the Illuminati. Everyone thinks of the Illuminati as this shadowy group, and I had to look at the characters in the game because they had to play a much more prominent role as we moved forward with the license. To understand it better, I saw the movie and then read the book Too Big to Fail. In reading that, I figured that the heads of these financial corporations are as close as you're going to get to the Illuminati. My gut instinct on that was to say, "There's no way these guys would ever work together because it's all about them. It's all about the individual, and their own greed and their own arrogance. How could they actually get together to connive the way the Illuminati supposedly does?" That was one of the insights into the Illuminati I had earlier on, or maybe I'm just telling you that so you believe that they don't exist.

Return to Conversations index.