How architecture adds to the immersion and meaning of a game — Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The attention to detail by Eidos Montreal turns a game into a fantastic experience.

I have recorded and published an episode about architecture in games (focussing on Deus Ex: HR) in 2015. It was an incredible discussion with Simon, a PhD in architecture, who has produced a YouTube video series discussing design within the game. Having watched the series, I tremendously enjoyed watching many hours of a guy running around futuristic cities and analysing design. When I played the game myself, it quickly became apparent that it is more than just another sci-fi game.

Human Revolution takes on the ethics of enhancing the human body through augmentations (transhumanism), which are the result of breakthroughs in Biotechnology research. It takes this and digs deeper to look at the social issues that arise. The poor cannot afford augmentations, and therefore do not have access to life-enhancing, or even life-saving, technology. It’s the typical story of the poor getting poorer as the rich control more wealth and become more powerful; interestingly, this is portrayed through architecture and environmental design. In Detroit, there is a contrast between, say, the Sarif Industries office building and the derelict areas in which the homeless roam in. It certainly feels very atmospheric, walking through the streets with the fantastic ambient music.

Another city area in the game, lower Hengsha, is poor as a whole. The entire city is in the shadow of another city built on top of it — upper Hengsha. This in itself is symbolism for the rich being ‘above’ the poor. On the podcast, Simon took away a bit more than that. He discusses how all historic cities, be it Paris or Rome, have “layers” that build up over time; debris accumulates and the lower areas are slowly forgotten. I have observed an example of this in Cologne, where an exhibition of Roman ruins were displayed below the basement level of a building. In Hengsha, the lower class people hidden away and forgotten by the rich who never see or interact with them, whereas the poor are reminded of their ‘place in society’ by just looking up.

I cannot stress enough just how much I appreciate the effort that has gone into this game and wanted to pay tribute by dedicating an episode on this topic. Further testament of that is the careful design of the ceilings. Considering ceilings are everywhere, it is curious that they are all the same. Think about the types of ceilings you see. You have the ceiling tiles in offices that cover up cables; standard white ceilings in homes; or the slightly less common wooden ceilings. And yet, we do not seem to care. Now in Deus Ex, ceilings tell a story — particularly in character’s personal spaces.

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Here, an office displays the character’s personality and the ceiling is an important part of that. The overall theme is heavily influenced by renaissance design and Simon argues that the ceiling, with its unique pattern, shows that he is a complex individual and a thinker. How differently would the office have looked without a unique ceiling? Not only would the atmosphere suffer, the character would seem more one-dimensional. In any case, the importance of ceiling design can only really be understood when it is utilised to its fullest potential, and it is a tool available for us all to express ourselves, yet it is hardly used.

Finally, the style is something that interests me. It is a society set in the near future and the elements of modern and futuristic design are nicely mixed. When travelling to China or Singapore in the game, it is great to see the contrast in design as well. Hengsha is inspired by current-day Hong Kong, and seeing that creates a unique feel when playing in the city. Having experienced many virtual landscapes and cities in games, lower Hengsha has quickly become my favourite. The Pangu (the structure that supports the city above lower Hengsha) is an enormous structure, and that alone is damn cool. There are many things that made me fall in love with this game and the immersion of Hengsha may have been the most significant to me. The city feels exotic and unique — the chinese-inspired ambient music, unique buildings, the people… all of it comes together to produce this unique setting. Having experienced current-day Hong Kong in Sleeping Dogs, it was nice to see those elements in a futuristic setting.

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Human Revolution has many memorable moments but the design is what puts it a step above all others. As a whole the game is exceptional but the design adds this important layer that is needed to fully immerse the player into a near-future cyberpunk world. It quickly became one of my all-time favourite games for this reason and many more.


If you have not already played the game, I highly recommend it. It has aged so the Director’s Cut with upgraded textures and slight tweaks is your best bet.

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