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So, I finally got my copy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I pre-ordered the Augmented Edition from GameStop for the art book and the special features disk; I love little things like that which give you an insight into game design. It's fascinating for me to get an idea of how a game is formulated, how each element in the mixture comes together harmoniously into a whole. There are some little things in that design that I want to talk about, but we'll get into the nitty-gritty of that in a moment.
It took me three days for my first playthrough, with around 8 to 10 hours logged each day back-to-back, and probably around 15 to 20 on the final day. It's just one of those games that is impossible to put down once you begin. Like a great novel that keeps you up half the night always dying to see what's on the next page. My time with the game was always tense, with each next step toward the finish line revealing dozens of different ways to approach each goal. I'm now a few hours into the game on the Give Me Deus Ex difficulty, and there literally hasn't been a single thing I've done the same yet. The level of work put into the options given to you as a player is just staggering compared to most games on the market. I love this more than anything about Deus Ex: Human Revolution: it's a game which is first and foremost about the gameplay.
That's not to say that the story isn't present in everything the game throws at you as well. Nearly every nook and cranny of the game seems to have been carefully formulated, nurtured, and selected to serve the greater narrative. Which is excellent in its own right, especially insofar as the game's propensity for taking the bulk of that narrative out of cutscenes and into the game world, making it present if you want it and unobtrusive if you don't. The story provides a framework for the superb gameplay without getting in the way of it. It's a subtle touch that's lost on a lot of games. You can see the opposite effect in games like Final Fantasy XIII, where the story is overwhelming and propagates itself into the gameplay rather than creating a web which supports the game. One of the most difficult things about game design is the marriage of gameplay and story into something coherent and enjoyable for the player. Some games get it wrong. Some games get it right. Some games split the difference. Deus Ex: Human Revolution generally gets it more right than wrong, but it's the wrong part that I really want to talk about today.
The only real bone I have to pick with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, is Adam Jensen, and in a greater sense the trend in certain games to leave a character's motivations and intentions open ended.
My problem is this: in a game that is as story dependent as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it is nearly impossible to execute a Multiple Choice Protagonist properly. What is a Multiple Choice Protagonist, you ask? It's pretty simple: any time a character is written in such a way as to leave their motivations and methods up to the player, you have a Multiple Choice Protagonist. The idea being to give the player the ability to formulate their own interpretation of the character in question rather than having the writer pre-define it for the player. In a deep and rich story driven environment this presents problems because the story of the game must be written in such a way that any individual player's interpretation of the character and their choices must be accounted for somewhere in the narrative.
Some games are entirely based around this phenomena. inFAMOUS did a pretty good job with the concept, but it sidestepped the actual part where the player gets to form their own interpretations of Cole. inFAMOUS at its core was just two stories, and depending on which route you took you got one story or the other. Other games which give the player the ability to define their protagonist include The Witcher, Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II and Mass Effect. All of these games are narrative frameworks which are built from the ground up around a player's choice in the narrative. Some elements of the story are out of the player's reach, but in their interaction with the story through their character they are able to define the motive and method of the protagonist. Unfortunately, they all share the same troubles I'm about to point out in the portrayal of Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Adam Jensen is purposefully played as close to blank as possible in order to facilitate the Multiple Choice Protagonist phenomenon. He isn't completely devoid of personality, though. He retains a slight sense of humor, and an intense amount of anger and drive. There are even moments when this invisible badass/walking arsenal is vulnerable in surprisingly human ways. It's quite pleasant to watch and find a new facet to him you hadn't seen or noticed before. Furthermore, the dialogue options which you have to choose from are varied and each one seems plausible as a response from your custom-tuned security chief. They remain individual enough for you to choose from them, seeking to define Adam as you want him to be, while never quite stepping outside the boundaries of who he is within the greater story of the game.
The problem only creeps into view as you get deeper into the game and you begin to pick up strange, counter-intuitive vibes from Jensen as he converses with other characters. As Jensen's vested emotional interest in the story grows, his interaction with other characters likewise becomes more volatile and direct. This leads to the inevitable problem of the Multiple Choice Protagonist, in which the character you play appears to become almost bipolar and flip-flops between all the defined roles and ideologies at the player's disposal. Despite all that the player has built upon the framework of Jensen, through learning more about him and simultaneously defining him by actions and dialogue choices, when the emotion finally starts coming out that illusion of the player-defined Jensen melts away and utterly shatters immersion.
Jensen angrily questions ideals which the player may have previously had Jensen accept with the absolute certainty of faith. He gives thought to ideas that the player may have stringently avoided, and their perceived version of Jensen would never even consider. It becomes impossible to track your Jensen through to the end of the game; he gets lost somewhere in all the jockeying to satisfy everyone's version.
I like risks and new things in games. I think it keeps them fresh, exciting, and interesting. Deus Ex: Human Revolution followed in the footsteps of a lot of games which seek to provide the player with as much choice as humanly (or inhumanly) possible, chief among these influences being the original Deus Ex. It takes some exciting steps in the writing department; when Jensen is not being played in such a way as to seem to be the polar opposite of the vision you have of him, he can be one of the most surprisingly intuitive Multiple Choice Protagonists I have ever played, and much of that satisfaction is thanks to some absolutely stellar writing and acting. Even so, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is unable to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of the Multiple Choice Protagonist route, namely that when the character is presented with multiple options, he must be played in such a way that leaves him disgusted and simultaneously compelled by all of them in order to justify all possible decisions at the player's disposal.
This problem is something Deus Ex: Human Revolution very nearly avoided aside from a few very particular conversations and scenes. Unfortunately for everyone who gets pulled into the tale of Adam Jensen there will inevitably be a moment which breaks their immersion in the world and the character. All it takes is a receptive stance on the wrong side of an issue, emphasis and tone in a strange place, or some other subtle conversational cue. This game, and Adam Jensen in particular, came about as close to perfectly playing the part of the Multiple Choice Protagonist as any other game I've played which features the phenomena. It's just a pity that it eventually, perhaps inevitably, drops that carefully and immaculately maintained ball.