What is a Storyteller Review? This is a game review that focuses on how well a game performs as a Storytelling Engine. It's not an analysis of the game's story itself, but rather a study of the "tools" the developer has given the player, to tell that story. You will probably enjoy this review more if you have already played the game. The criteria for this kind of review comes from the questions that enter my mind when playing a game:
World Detail - How much effort has gone into making the game world feel tangible? This includes things like hidden notes/journals, or details in the game world like graffiti, posters and overheard conversations.
Character Detail - How much effort has gone into realistic character design and interaction? Are there varying body types, mannerisms, and voices?
Transparency - How does the developer balance immersion with information? For example, is the player's health quantified by a percentage, or does the screen get darker and bloodier when their health is low? Also, when the player makes a gameplay or dialogue choice, how clear are the specifics and/or consequences of that action?
Narrative Strength - How easy is it to 'break' the narrative you are creating through your gameplay choices, either accidentally or deliberately? And how tempting is it to break the integrity of the narrative to gain gameplay rewards? (For example - playing an 'upstanding' character, then killing an innocent person to get a good piece of equipment, despite it being a decision that an 'upstanding' character would never make).
Sacrificed Story vs. Elevated Story - What comes first, story or gameplay? Are there points in the game where a gameplay situation is 'forced' on the player, even if it goes against their understanding of the story and their character's motivations? Are there any gameplay design decisions that harm the integrity of the story? Or, are there any subversions of this, where story comes first and foremost - where gameplay sections can be approached differently or skipped altogether?
I decided that the first game to review in this style should be the acclaimed, genre-blending Deus Ex Human Revolution. NOTE: There's one spoiler, and it will be marked.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is set in the near future, where a section of humanity is on the brink of gaining total control over their own evolution. The protagonist Adam Jensen, who is forced to undergo extensive human augmentation, is the only playable character, and the story is told from a mixed first/third person perspective, and intermittent cutscenes.
The World - Our Future A lot of care has gone into creating a world that frequently makes players stop and think about the kind of future they'd like to live in. There is plenty of reading to do in DX:HR, and the "lore" that can be found is pleasingly diverse. The developers "fill in" the gap between our present and the game's future through reports on technological breakthroughs and global shifts of power (although a civil war in Australia would likely be East vs West, not North vs South!).
For every exciting discovery (reflexes at the speed of thought!), there is a sobering report in the newspaper of an experiment gone wrong, or some tragic unforeseen circumstance in another part of the world. You can even read interpersonal exchanges on employee terminals - there's so much content to find. Much of this world's "presence" is generated by sparking the player's imagination through these logs, which is a very effective approach.
You'll also hear people discussing hot button topics in buildings and on the streets, and while these overheard conversations are welcome, they don't feel as naturally immersive as the logs and newspapers. The city hubs themselves are fantastically detailed, but unfortunately they feel more like "levels" than real world locations - crawling around and moving barrels is hardly how I imagined getting from place to place in the future.
The People - Mr. and Mrs. NPC DE:HR loses points here. Adult man shape and adult woman shape is all you get. There's some variation in hair, clothes and even augmented body parts which is nice, but underneath it all is the same basic build. The 'mannequin'-like effect is compounded with recycled animations, awkward feet-shuffling and over-gesticulating. The conversations themselves flow easily enough, and the voice-acting is adequate, using the usual video game approach - important characters sound important, NPC's sound unimportant. Nothing too cringe-worthy, but there are a few exceptions.
However, when Eidos Montreal put the effort in, it really shows. The handful of first-person conversations, where you need to persuade a character to reveal information or to help you advance in a certain way, are excellent. To succeed in these segments you need to tell the person what they want to hear, but you are also free to use the conversations to reinforce the desired personality you want Adam Jensen to have. In one scenario, I directed Jensen to be very confrontational towards an old S.W.A.T buddy, and watched it backfire and force him to sheepishly admit his defeat to the higher-ups. I was denied access to the police morgue, but learned something about Jensen's past and his attitude towards the importance of duty.
In regular conversations, Jensen stays fairly neutral, but you can "bend" him towards a slightly more friendly, or icy response. There is no outright Good Jensen or Evil Jensen - the player largely decides who Jensen is by how he approaches conflict during missions. There's a big difference between a protagonist that moves unseen through the shadows, and one that will clinically and painfully kill a man with his sword-elbows. It's how much Jensen values human life that determines what kind of leading man he is - and for the most part, that is up to you.
Deus Ex - an Augmented Reality Game DE:HR gracefully sidesteps the problems of an intrusive HUD by making the HUD itself a point of immersion. The information about your character's condition and surroundings is exactly what Jensen sees through his visual augmentations. It allows gameplay features that would normally be distracting (such as the Track and Mark system, which keeps tabs on your enemies), to become almost tactile in their execution. I winced the first time Jensen was hit by an EMP mine - his senses were scrambled and his entire brain had to reboot. That can't be pleasant.
One of the issues the game tackles is controlled evolution - something I myself participated in while playing the game, although I didn't realise it at the time. When choosing how to develop Jensen's abilities, I would save up my Praxis Points (see below), and only spend them when I needed to adapt my playstyle to survive the next situation. The room is flooding with hostile guards? About time this little vent-dwelling lizard learned how to become invisible.
One thing that wasn't completely clear was which missions required urgency, and which ones didn't. I loved the 'real-time' aspect of the first mission (if you wait too long to start the rescue operation, hostages will die), but it hardly seemed fair. In such a dense game, most players expect the leisure to explore and familiarise themselves first, and a story that can wait. I was also surprised when Pritchard the tech expert chided me for entering the women's bathroom (totally by accident). From the first hour it seemed like this would be a game that was very aware of it's narrative integrity, and the consequences of breaking that integrity. A hero doesn't eavesdrop in a toilet!
However I didn't encounter any more "time limit" moments in the game; I did try to complete main missions that seemed particularly urgent before starting any sidequests, just in case. Nor did I meet any consequences for my less honest gaming habits - for example, I was able to take whatever I wanted from the desks of the officers at the police station, right from under their noses. However, this is all just anecdotal evidence - I hope that others have found more examples of the game taking offense to their thieving and snooping.
In my opinion, Jensen's capacity for violence comes close to breaking the narrative, but it depends on how you play. I get that some players want to play him as a badass killer. The lethal takedowns are gratuitous and flashy, like the developers are showing off, but I can understand the player using them to create a Jensen that shatters his enemies' morale before he shatters everything else. Not that I ever heard any cries of "Oh JESUS, he stabbed him right in the GROIN!" (rather, the enemies just started shooting). To me, at least, the lethal takedowns were hard to justify, when the non-lethal takedown achieved the same end, without the violent death (and the noise).
Happily, the game makes player decisions very clear and easy to execute (you won't accidentally stab someone with your sword-elbows). The dialogue topics are brief - "NON-LETHAL, HOSTAGES, HIT-MAN", etc - but I greatly appreciated having a preview of what my character would say, below the topic. Just in case it didn't sound quite like what my character would say, be it too cold, too "bad-ass", or even too flippant. There were no moments where I was surprised or disappointed with what Jensen said.
"You are Adam Jensen, except when we are Adam Jensen." So what wins out in the end, story or gameplay? Ideally, they shouldn't be mutually exclusive, but a perfect balance between the two is a rare thing. Deus Ex Human Revolution achieves a nice balance, but still stumbles in many of it's climactic moments. Adam Jensen is the core of the story, and for the most part he is in your control - but when the game takes over the results are frustrating to say the least.
Imagine you're a kid, and that Adam Jensen is your favourite action figure that can do everything. Your best friend, Eidos, lent it to you and told you to play with it however you want. The more you play, the more you enjoy it, and the better you are at playing with it. Then one day, Eidos comes over and says "okay, that's enough, now I want to play with it again".
"But, I'm in the middle of a gam -"
"No, trust me, my game will be just as fun. So Adam walks into this room..."
"Adam wouldn't just walk into the room without making sure it's safe, first."
"Quiet! I made this toy, I know how it works. He walks into a room, and then suddenly BAM!" Eidos pulls out another big action figure with a gun for an arm. "This guy attacks from out of nowhere!"
"Okay, then you use the big guy, and I can use Adam Jensen, and we can play together-"
"NO!" Eidos screams. "We're playing it MY way now! We're playing it my way and I'm not leaving until we do! I've locked all the doors in your house, so we're playing!"
"... Fine. Adam stuns the bad guy with his stun-gun, then knocks him unconscious."
"Nuh-uh! His armour is too strong! He throws bombs at him!"
"But - "
Eidos continues to smash the two action figures together until you both get sick of it, and then his mum Squeenix comes to pick him up. He gives the Adam Jensen toy back, but unfortunately also arranges to have two more playdates in the future.
Maybe you enjoyed the boss fights that came fresh from 1994. But to me, they felt like the developers were wrenching away the super-fun toy and forcing me to play how they wanted. And for what? So they could show me a "cool thing" I care nothing about? I try to avoid acting like an entitled gamer that tells entire companies how to run their business. Actually, it may already be too late for that, but I'll say this anyway:
Developers, fuck your boss fights. If a character can only be described as a "boss", then they aren't a character at all. An equivalent example in film would be the henchman Jaws in the old James Bond movies. At first, I liked the idea of being hopelessly outmatched against Barrett (the toy with the gun-arm). In any other medium, the hero would have needed to find some other way to best him. But in this case what ensued was an unheroic, almost comical mess. I tried the stun-gun on him, which sort of worked. While he was briefly incapacitated I attempted the tried-and-true shotgun to the head - and that still didn't do it. This wasn't going to be Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman. Crickets chirped, the man went "ergh" and somewhere in the code a health bar dropped a little bit. How visceral.
At this point, I was pretty frustrated. Not just because I was unprepared for this gameplay challenge - I was also forced out of the character I'd "made". I had to forget about Jensen's personal code when it came to combat, abandon the grace and cunning of stealth and - god help me - run around shooting explosive barrels when the boss got close to them. Entitled whining may not change a developer's mind, but I hope there are other gamers out there who expect more, a lot more from a story written in 2011, even if it is 'only in a video game'. Until that time, gamers, keep shooting those explosive barrels. They're red, that's how you know.
But enough negativity. Those boss fights are the few crap episodes you skip on the DVD of your favourite series. And, there are some wonderful moments in the game of playstyle positively affecting the story too. If you haven't played up to the second visit to Hengsha, don't read the next four paragraphs because there are SPOILERS.
Upon returning to China, you and your pilot Faridah Malik are forced to crash land, and are then ambushed by mercenaries. Adam Jensen jumps to safety nearby, but the crashed plane is taking heavy fire with Malik still in it. You can then try to save her.
Trouble was, all I had on me was my non-lethal equipment. I didn't have the firepower to stop the mercenaries before the plane exploded and Malik was killed. This was probably one of my favourite moments in the game - Jensen had to leave her behind because fighting would mean throwing his life away, and SOMEONE had to survive to find the truth, dammit!
Or rather, I liked that turn in the story, and that I made that call as a player-director, rather than from a personal standpoint, ie: "what would I do if it was my friend in a burning gunship?" This isn't the story of Casey Ormond the augmented supersoldier, it's the story of Adam Jensen, a character I direct. We aren't the same person, and don't make the same decisions. The actions of Adam Jensen are not for wish fulfillment, they're to serve the story.
Truthfully, I probably could have saved Malik - it would have taken a great deal of effort and time, but it would have been just as rewarding for me, and for the story (NO MAN LEFT BEHIND and all that). But in the end, I chose the death of Faridah Malik - it was the classic tragic event before the third act of the film, when things start to get really serious.
Final Thoughts and Score
As a game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is fantastic and fun to play. However, its storytelling potential is a mixed bag. It pulls you into its world with a detailed history and setting, but fails to match that detail in its character designs. It allows the player to define Adam Jensen through his words and actions, but repeatedly snatches that character away from you when a crisis befalls him. Overall, it's an enjoyable journey that is quite immersive, and always thought-provoking.
How was your experience with Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Did it's storytelling grab you, or repel you? Share your thoughts below.