Interview: Hell is Us creative director talks civil war, gateway drugs, and quest markers

By Kes Eylers-Stephenson,

Hell is Us is a third-person melee-action horror game from Rogue Factor coming in 2023 for Xbox Series X|S, PS5, and PC. Kes sat down with creative director Jonathan Jacque-Belletête for a chat at Bigben Week...


hell is us interviewJonathan Jacque-Belletête, creative director on Hell is Us — Rogue Factor

We saw plenty of stuff over at Bigben Week — in fact, we have Steelrising and The Lord of the Rings: Gollum impressions live right now — but Rogue Factor's creative director Jonathan Jacque-Belletête managed to tease something in my desensitized gaming brain when talking about his upcoming game Hell is Us recently. Hell is Us sounds like a response to everything we are starting to tire of in some big-budget AAA games — ludicrously large open-worlds, on-rails exploration, and shallow story-telling. No, those things won't do for Jacque-Belletête and Rogue Factor at all...

Who is Rogue Factor's Jonathan Jacque-Belletête?

"I've been in the industry for what, 22 or 23 years now? 23 years, yeah," opens Jacque-Belletête when talking about his career thus far. "I worked many years at Ubisoft, and then we left [and] we started Eidos Montréal. We brought back Deus Ex. So, I was the art director on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Then [I was] the executive art director of Mankind Divided." From here, he reveals that, while under Square Enix, Eidos Montréal actually attempted to do Final Fantasy XV — which you can read all about in a separate article.

"Then, Guardians of the Galaxy — [I] was art director on that. And at that point, I was like, you know, what? I want to do my game," Jacque-Belletête says. "My friend Yves (Bordeleau), who's the general manager at Rogue Factor, we had been talking for years about working together, but it was never really the right moment. Then I was like, 'I think this is it: I'm a bit a bit done with the whole AAA studio thing.' It has nothing to do with Eidos — I mean Eidos is like my family, man. I mean, we built that shit from... we were four at the beginning when we really started doing Deus Ex. When I left, we were 500, you know? These guys are my brothers and sisters. But no, the whole AAA thing, I was just getting bored and I was just getting too comfortable."

Necromunda: Underhive Wars AchievementsNecromunda: Underhive Wars — Rogue Factor

"You need to feel a bit threatened to really go forward. Do you know what I mean?" It's a surprisingly resonant feeling for a writer. You tend to be on the edge of creativity and always want to write something fresh and new, so you place traps behind yourself to keep spurring forward. Perhaps you start work on something no one asked of you, or find a way to distance yourself from work that was good but you are now tired of — "it's a creative survival instinct," I respond.

"Exactly! Yves was in the process of finishing Necromunda. I'm like, 'Let's not do another Games Workshop game. Let's make our own thing.'" Rogue Factor had also developed Mordheim: City of the Damned, making all of their active years Warhammer-related until it pitched Hell is Us to publisher Nacon. "'Let's convince Nacon that they should let us do it,'" Jacque-Belletête recalls saying. "'Let's continue building the [Rogue Factor] team.' We were, maybe, 25, at that point? Now, we're almost 50. Now, we're here."

What is Hell is Us?

Hell is Us: release date, platforms, and concept

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Almost immediately, I make a mistake by suggesting Hell is Us is currently in a conceptual phase. Jacque-Belletête quickly quips back that it is definitively "not conceptual, it's in production." Given that the game is already scheduled for 2023 for Xbox Series X|S, PS5, and PC, I should have known better. The reception so far seems to have blown the creative director away.

"This game that started with a blank page has been officially announced and had what I think [was] a pretty decent teaser trailer that has succeeded beyond my expectations for something that had no prior marketing. It's a brand new IP, we're at 1 million views on IGN and 500k on the Sony PlayStation Network's YouTube thingy." Just to rub it in he notes: "We're in production. We're definitely in production — the world is done being built and [we're done with] what it's all about, and all that stuff."

Digging into what Hell is Us actually is, Jacque-Belletête becomes animated. "I'm not sure what it is! I'm kidding." He goes on to say "[Hell is Us] is, at its core, still a third-person, melee-combat, adventure game."

Hell is Us themes

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"The theme of the game is the human emotions and passions [that are] the root cause or the root causes of all the horrors and miseries that we cause onto one another," he stresses. "Under the right circumstances and the right contexts — me and you have it inside of us to cause absolute atrocities to other people, and its the truth. It needs a certain context. There's a road that leads there. It's not overnight, but it's in everyone. It's something that's fascinated me my entire life. Why are things like this happening? Why do we do this?

"We started with that. It's very much a game about civil war." He goes on to recall a quote that offers a choice: "There are two armies that are at the door of your city — they're coming in, for sure, to kick your ass — but one is a state (we literally call them professional armies), the other one its people. It is just regular people that are batshit fucking angry at you, your ethnicity, or just your side of the city — whatever the hell is the divide [between people] — and they're there with machetes and guns. You choose the state army — you don't want to see the other side. That's what I find fascinating — this absolute barbarity that we can have as normal human beings — and that's what the game is all about it at its foundation."

Hell is Us uses 'gateway drugs' to hook players

In a Game Informer interview, Jacque-Belletête stated that for humanity, “the library of horrors is long” and Hell is Us wants to open that tale for the player. Intrigued by this, I asked exactly how does a developer make a book so horrible remotely readable for a gamer? How do you make that not only playable, but digestible?

hell is us

"You need a gateway drug," he responds. Then Jacque-Belletête exemplifies what he means using the anime Evangelion, "one of the deepest fucking [shows]... it's so philosophical and religious and just, it's so intense and deep. If this is what [the creators] would say at face value — nobody would go watch it. The gateway drug is: "Look at these big robots, super slick, running around fighting, shooting, guns, this, that." People want to watch that. You start watching it and it's exactly what they're giving you. Then the thing goes really, really deep. That's what [Hell is Us] has to be.

"We have to respect the medium," Jacque-Belletête continues. "I don't want it to be just a highbrow, boring, slow game — but the theme is there. The first BioShock is philosophically, thematically absolutely amazing and insane. It's about the whole Ayn Rand thing and Atlas Shrugged and self-determination and objectivity and, and all that stuff, right? But, I mean, it's a first-person shooter with crazy visuals and upgrades and guns and creatures and environments... if you literally don't care about what they're telling you, you can still have a blast with the game!"

Hell is Us, Jacque-Belletête says, has "exploration, discovery, fighting, crazy creatures... discovering more and more environments that are crazier than the previous one — this is your gateway drug. Then you start seeing what we're actually trying to tell you."

Hell is Us gameplay and setting

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"It happens in 1993. There's a reason for that — it's very much it's a decade of civil war, the 90s," Jacque-Belletête says. "It was a really, really weird decade. You had Sierra Leone, you had Rwanda, you had Bosnia, you had Kosovo. [Hell is Us] takes place in that maelstrom of civilians deciding to chop each other's heads off."

That context is no mere backdrop for Hell is Us, says Jacque-Belletête, but the ways in which you interact with this world won't be superficially inflated, either. "At the end of the game — you haven't saved the country from the civil war. That's like the stupidest thing and it only happens in movies with Bruce Willis. Like, what the fuck? Even the United Nations, a huge part of their job is [managing] the peacekeepers. So, the peacekeepers have never managed to prevent a civil war, and they never managed to stop one once it had happened. So, imagine just one human being! You're not there [saving the country]."

"First of all, you're there to find your parents because you're from there — you've always wanted to go back [but] you were never able to go to because it's a hermit state," he describes. "The chaos of the civil war allows you to to to sneak in rapidly [and] you realize it's not just a civil war going on here is this huge, supernatural calamity. What is it? How is it linked to the civil war? How's it linked to the history of the country? What are these weird [medieval] weapons?

"Those creatures of 'The Calamity' are completely impervious to conventional weapons — it doesn't matter if you shoot at it with a 9mm or if you drop a bomb on it. It does nothing, but these old ancient weapons do. Then there's a drone on top of that [to] use against them. Obviously, the drone isn't a medieval drone. So, there's a weird conspiratorial [vibe] — like, who built that drone?"

Has Russia's invasion of Ukraine altered Rogue Factor's philosophical thinking?

hell is us

"[Hell is Us] is not exactly the same thing," Jacque-Belletête makes clear. "What's happening in Ukraine is not a civil war. It's literally a nation invading another nation. Now, there is an element of the historicity between the two people they are almost brothers and sisters. They're very close to Slavic stock and the history of who had what, at one point in history and this, this, and that. There are definitely variables that you find in civil wars, right? But at the end of the day, it's still very much a state army a state who decided I'm going to invade this other state.

"It doesn't matter, because the results are the same. What you see is a decimation. What you see are war crimes. What you see is families being broken up," he says. "How has it modified what we do? Not really, because when you do all the research that we did for this game, or all the books we read, or books that I had read already we just [find that whats happening in Ukraine] is all there. It's all in these books. If you only had one book to read about all this, It's War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges, and it's not a big book — like 200-250 pages. Everything is in there: the mechanisms that bring people there, the building of myths, what war causes to people, to families... it's all there. So, when you see it happen in real life, it's just a confirmation and you're seeing it in images instead of words."

Speaking to one of these recurring themes Rogue Factor sees unfolding from the scenes in Ukraine, Jacque-Belletête says family is a big part of what makes Hell is Us tick. "First of all, the fact that the hero is looking for his parents, but it permeates everything else," he says. "So [much] of the stuff you [won't] even realize you're doing a side quest or this or that, and you realize — it's not in your face — but it's like shit, this was actually about family again. We make it quite obscure sometimes, but it still kind of comes down to that because again, it's a foundational unit. You could almost say that a family is the foundational divisional unit — my family against that family — it's almost the beginning [of civil war]."

How real is Hell is Us' civil war?

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This poses one of those hard questions when it comes to the question of how art imitates life. Given the level of player interaction required in video games, there seems to be a perpetual debate about how much war and violence it is healthy to interact with. Jacque-Belletête is convinced Rogue Factor is presenting something restrained, but impactful with regards to its subject matter. "Maybe no holds barred is a bit much to say in terms of what we're doing with the civil war, but we're showing the real thing," he says about Hell is Us. "What's interesting is that there's very little war and very little blood in [Hell is Us] because it's not about that. This is what you see in movies. It's not that there's no blood in war, but the real crazy situations that are generated in civil wars — the fucked-up-ness — is psychological. It's a whole other thing and that's what we're showing.

"We're not putting them on a pedestal, quite the opposite. It's anti-war, it's anti-violence, and you don't kill or even hit one human being in the game. Find a game where you fight, you have 3D melee combat, and where you don't want to hit one human being... particularly given the setting," he challenges. "That was one of my criteria at the beginning. I told the team [that] because we're talking about civil war, because we're going to show people in extremely dire situations, the last thing that I want is that we're also fighting humans because we're trying to make it feel really real.

"There are tons of games that you see people in dire situations. Even like Fallout: New Vegas. It's post-apocalyptic and [you see] people that have nothing, but you can still take your gun out and shoot them. There's still a very much a fantasy veneer around the whole thing.

"Us [at Rogue Factor], we're trying to keep it very, very raw — we're not going to start fucking hitting [people]. That's why there are these creatures that you have to fight, but they're not there just so we don't hit humans. There's a real reason they're linked to all this. What are they? Where they're from? How they're linked to the history? Who knew about them?"

Revamping gameplay and environment design for Hell is Us

hell is us

"[Hell is Us] in not open-world." A few years ago that would've been game-killer as worlds were expanding to the size of countries. Now though, it feels like Rogue Factor are on a new cutting edge — not every game or gamer wants or needs a massive world. "It's more like a semi-open-world — a bit like a Metro Exodus. You can be on pretty big maps, but the mountain you see in the back? You can't race to it. That map might be part of another map later, but there was a loading [screen] between the two. Obviously, on a PS5, the loading is almost non-existent."

Jacque-Belletête then talks about a term he calls 'silver plattering' which sums up another issue he and Rogue Factor see in modern games. "[It's] not hand-holding [which] is more about telling you how things work. Silver plattering is literally telling you exactly where to go, who to talk to — it's giving you everything on a silver platter," he explains. "What you realise in those games that have silver plattering is that none of the discoveries belong to you.

hell is us

"'Oh, you need to find this guy,' the NPC tells you," Jacque-Belletête elaborates. "Well, when the NPC is done talking to you, an objective marker appears — often with like the amount of metres that he's at — then you follow it, then you arrive in a city, and then you go to the street, and then the objective marker has transferred to a door. 'Oh, it's that door,' you open the door inside, it's a bar. There are eight NPCs and now the objective marker has transferred above the head of the person you're supposed to talk to.

"How, first of all, was that exploration? How was that an actual discovery when basically I just flew by wire? Not only that, you could literally squint your eyes and just still see the marker, you'll [still] get there. So it even nullifies level art and level design. In those games, the environment has no other purpose than being aesthetics. Whereas in real life, everything is information. Everything is about 'Am I in the right place? Am I [there at] the right time?' That's literally how we're doing it.

"Remember before cell phones or GPS or whatever, you would give directions? You have to say, 'you're going to highway 20, third exit, you take it, then the first McDonald's you see, you turn on the right, then go a few blocks, then you're gonna see a house. We call it the crazy birdhouse man house because he builds all these birdhouses, there are, like, 300 birdhouses around his house, they're all different colours — it looks absolutely batshit insane. When you see that house, you can't miss it, turn left, go a bit further, then you go see a big rock with graffitis. That's where my country house is, stop there.'"

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"That's exactly what the [Hell is Us] does. We're giving back to the player the use their cognition — asking them to use their cognitive skills to figure things out, which you don't have to do in a game with silver plattering at all. We're also telling them to pay attention to the environment and to what the NPC says. In open-world - modern open world, whatever — NPCs sometimes talk and they talk and they talk. The writer wants to win a Pulitzer Prize, you know? But it's completely inconsequential because even if you don't listen, once he's done talking, that objective marker appears.

"In our game, and NPCs say two, three, five, six lines, maybe? But pay attention, because once he says: 'See all those birdhouses? Turn left, there is going to be a rock with graffiti on it, I hit the thing behind it.' If you miss that when he's talking to you... well, you missed it." Another example Jacque-Belletête mentions is the use of environmental cues like the audio of a wind-chime. It is integrated into the dialogue and the world all to immerse the player in what they are doing without needing to show markers.

Thus concludes our little chat about Hell is Us. We stand up and shake hands to say goodbye, and he says: "Maybe I talk too much." While I wouldn't dispute that, I wouldn't have it any other way. Hell is Us sounds like a fascinating game for a fascinating time, and we can't wait to see how it shakes out next year.

Are you looking forward to Rogue Factor's Hell is Us? What do you think of what Jacque-Belletête has to say about modern games? Let us know in the comments below!
Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Written by Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Working across TrueTrophies and TrueAchievements, Kes writes news, reviews, and a variety of bespoke features. Kes left university after four years with a first-class MA in English Literature — a subject that required research, creativity, and lots of writing. He also has dabbled in teaching, farming, and building websites. Some days, he plays Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to pretend he is a pirate.
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