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LONG BLOG

The Devil In The Details: Deus Ex retrospective

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GREAT GAME DESIGN #3

The Deus Ex irony is that despite being a game about breaking out of the limits of the human form, players are given the opportunity to express themselves in a more natural way than any game since. Warren Spector, inspired by the successful integration of player choice into his previous title System Shock and the newfound trendiness of cyberpunk thanks to the astronomical success of The Matrix in cinemas the previous year, designed the game to be “an immersive simulation game in that you are made to feel you're actually in the game world with as little as possible getting in the way of the experience of 'being there.'” The game foregoes all the design tropes and rules which still hold sway over many of the top new releases today: there are no puzzles, no pre-set action moments for the player to wander into, no forced redirections around contrived path blockades. The player's avatar has no back-story or personality other than an androgynous but suitably evocative name (JC Denton). Apart from a handful of story cues, many of which vary substantially dependant upon choices made over the course of the adventure, the player is left to create their own drama and to form their own character.

Everything in the game revolves and grows around the player. JC Denton is literally built by the manner the player chooses to move through the game, with the ream of RPG elements allowing almost complete personalisation of the protagonist they end up controlling, while dialogue trees in cutscenes give room to develop some semblance of a personality. In gameplay terms, delays and distractions like 'puzzles' are discarded in a favour of a series of problems, most of which are consequences of behaviour earlier in the game and go on to form new challenges when overcome. When modern games claim to give players freedom, it usually means you will be allowed to mess around pointlessly in between story sections where every step of progression is strictly regimented. Heavy Rain played up its 'interactive drama', but once a few too many inputs had been missed to no consequence, the veneer quickly wore thin to reveal a game as tightly controlled as any number of others using ploys little more advanced than multiple endings.

Although loosely linear in its narrative structure (the story will travel to certain points in a defined order no matter what the player does), Deus Ex gives players so much control and influence over the smaller threads weaving together the story's rope that not only does it not matter that this small degree of control has been taken away, but it instead comes as something of a relief. As Spider-man so prosaically mused, with great power comes great responsibility and one of the most lasting sensations throughout Spector's game is not only the thrill of finding out what consequences your actions will yield, but also the lingering fear that you've taken a wrong turn or bad choice. Having a number of established story beats gives just enough impetus to continue through any doubts you may have about your choices, as well as preventing the continuity of the world from being broken by the presence of one exceedingly influential central character and serving one of the game's central themes about how much control the average person actually has over the outcome of their lives.



While a useful proponent to keep players moving forward, the story of Deus Ex is in truth a rather hackneyed affair, whose William Gibson influences are worn rather too blatantly on its sleeve. But what Spector and his team seemed to realise is that much as genuine player choice makes for far more exciting and personal play than a linear set of arrivals and outcomes, an overdeveloped story in a game can deride from the player's experience by taking away the thrill of discovery and exploration that only an interactive medium can offer. Instead Deus Ex demotes the story to the role of background guide, ensuring the player never feels lost or lacking important goals, while deepening the world around them so you'll want to turn every corner just to see what's on the other side, to read every scrap of newspaper or communiqué to gain further insight into what keeps every cog of the dystopian machine turning.

Although a huge number of concepts and ideas are thrown at the player, from Gibson-esque cyber-realities, enhancements and hackers via every conspiracy theory the Fortean Times has ever run, the game creates a world which feels like the natural outcome of having these disparate elements competing for space so their subsequent appearance in the story, no matter how absurd it may get from an objective viewpoint, does not break the immersion. The ludicrousness is diffused because it is tackled with a straight face and with the confidence not to hold back or constantly wink at players. There are no sudden deviations in tone a la Fahrenheit or huge plot twists that threaten to be overblown or unconvincing. No matter how many story elements, evil organisations or shady characters the game piles into its story, the experience starts and ends as dystopian cyberpunk, eyes firmly on the road all the way. Every facet of the world, from the characters to the little story-within-a-story snippets that pop up every so often, serve only to further convince players of the solidity and depth of the game's reality. Deus Ex remains one of the most involving games ever conceived because it feels less like walking through a plot and more like exploring a vision.

Despite its faults (the pulverisingly unforgiving difficulty for new players, clunky graphics even for turn of the millennium gaming and repetition throughout the middle act), the most depressing thing about Deus Ex is how little influence it has had over subsequent gaming culture. As the games industry grew and became more mainstream, much of the reckless experimentation that produced many of the greatest games of the late '90s (and a few of the worst: take a bow, Jurassic Park: Trespasser) was left behind in favour of a formula mentality. Derived in thought and execution from the sensibilities of the Hollywood blockbuster, for all its financial success the gaming landscape was made a less exciting place to play. Even Deus Ex's maligned sequel Invisible War dumbed down the RPG elements to make them more palatable, while the trailer for the series' third entry ignores real gameplay in favour of pre-rendered spectacle.

Returning to the original game reveals how badly its visuals have aged, some poorly balanced gameplay and a rather overblown story. Yet it also exudes a powerful sense of character, an enthralling atmosphere and a dedication to immersing players in its world through allowing huge scope for self-expression and exploration. Yet in an era where big-budget games have all semblance of personality formula'd and focus-grouped into anonymity, Deus Ex feels like a look back to a time when the machine of game production was still powered by a human soul. Casting an eye over modern gaming release schedules, Spector's dystopian vision feels more disturbingly close to fulfilment than ever.



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About Xander Markhamone of us since 3:08 PM on 02.07.2010

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I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.

In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?

My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.

I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!

Good gaming, everyone!