You will soon have your god, and you will make it with your own hands.
This started out as a nostalgic look back at Deus Ex and why, for me, it’s the greatest game I’ve ever played. But with more details of Eidos Montreal’s prequel Human Revolution coming out of E3 recently, it’s evolved into something else. Now it’s more a comparison of all three Deus Ex games: what the first did right, what the second did wrong, and how the third might be doing a bit of both.
Ten years later is a good time to look back. It’s all the more appropriate with Human Revolution due for release before long — especially since Deus Ex fans are apprehensive about whether it’ll stay true to the series (by which they mean Deus Ex 1, but more on the sequel later).
Deus Ex was an important game, that was obvious right away. Even before its release it was much hyped in the games media. It was a Warren Spector game with a rich heritage. For people familiar with the Ultima games of the early 90s in particular, there were expectations, and for good reason; Deus Ex has an impressive pedigree. It’s often considered a member of the same family of important titles like Ultima, System Shock and Thief.
It’s been ten years, and it’s difficult to gauge just how significant Deus Ex’s contribution to the medium has been. It’s strange that a game considered a classic and widely praised didn’t spawn a flood of clones. Nothing has followed directly in its footsteps besides its own sequel, and in fact there are some characteristics of Deus Ex that modern games seem to shun. But it’s probably fair to suggest it contributed to the ongoing maturation of the industry. Its near future setting allowed it to deal with real political issues, not just philosophical ones, and Deus Ex’s accessible first person gameplay opened it to a potentially large audience. Its commercial success might have helped pave the way for BioShock years later, and the melding of shooter and RPG is increasingly common now as a method for character advancement. It’s been a significant game in the history of the medium, and arrived at an appropriate time: a game for a new millennium.
My own relationship with Deus Ex has been long and personally important. I didn’t follow the industry closely in those days and didn’t know which games were considered noteworthy. So I hadn’t played the Ultimas, hadn’t played System Shock in 1994, Thief in 98, or System Shock 2 in 99. Deus Ex was my first introduction to this family, and immediately it was something special. I remember it keenly. The first mission, the game loads and places you on a dock on Liberty Island. The sound of the sea, the wind, birds, the boat’s engine idling on the calm water behind; the music evoking just the right mix of suspense and adventure; a dark mood, pale clouds lit from beneath by the city of New York across the bay; and rising above a short distance away, the decapitated statue of Lady Liberty. It was a density of atmosphere I’d never experienced before, and I knew things had changed before I’d taken a step. That was the moment I realised a potential of games I’d never considered.
Following its release it was immediately praised. The combination of action, adventure and RPG came together to form something new and compelling. It was, in fact, difficult to describe. It puzzled the occasional checklist reviewer who marked it down a little because, well, the graphics were a bit dated. Or the voiceacting was a bit weak. The shooting gameplay was clunky. All true. The graphics were less impressive than other recent releases, character models were generally ugly, the shooter gameplay wasn’t as fluid as Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament, stealth wasn’t as involved or nuanced as Thief.
A lot of the recent previews of Deus Ex: Human Revolution based on the E3 presentation are frustrating for the way they speak about Deus Ex ten years on. Previewers are quick to defend any changes in DX:HR by arguing that, well, Deus Ex was actually really rough and messy now that we think about it. The technology was dated even then, there was a lot that could be ‘fixed’. That’s true. It’s also not the point.
Fortunately at least one DX:HR developer understands that. PC Gamer suggested to art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletete that Deus Ex’s artistic message was inconsistent because greasels and karkians didn’t seem to fit into the world, to which he responded:
Yeah, yeah. But hey, it worked. It totally worked.
Smart man, him. That’s the point that needs to be made: Deus Ex worked. Its ‘flaws’ are meaningless. It’s gone beyond the point of criticising any single part of it as weak or messy. Not even the sum of its parts any more, it is simply Deus Ex. That’s why any changes to the game in sequels or prequels are always dangerous: the moment you change something, even to make it better, it becomes a little bit less Deus Ex and a little bit more Something Else. It’s also why defending changes in the prequel by using the rationale that, hey, Deus Ex wasn’t perfect you know, misses the point entirely. We went through that with Invisible War, we’re going through it again now.
It’s a conundrum for all concerned: everyone wants the ideal followup to a classic game, but how can that ever be possible when every change necessarily makes it something different? The ideal Deus Ex is only ever a dream, the ideal sequel never possible. Not back then, not now. There are some characteristics of Deus Ex that help explain its longevity, however, and which any followup should keep in mind.
A reactive world
Certainly back in 2000, most reviewers and players realised Deus Ex was more than any one feature. Those who worked on the game often used the term ‘immersive reality simulation’. It’s a description you don’t hear nowadays — and in fact ‘immersion’ has become a dirty word in recent years in some quarters. But immersive reality sim is such a useful term for describing what Deus Ex is, why it’s popular, why it’s a classic, why it’s still unsurpassed, and why it’s still fun to play again today.
Let the quibblers debate the definition of immersion; we know what it means. Deus Ex captures you, places you in the fictional world of 2052, with its rich backstory and complex relationships between characters and organisations. Despite the dated graphics, it’s a realistic world in that it’s consistent in its presentation and its rules, with potential for emergence. Remember emergent gameplay? It’s not spoken about nearly as much nowadays, but it was always important in discussions of Deus Ex.
Emergence could be something as simple as throwing a LAM at a locked door to blow it open. It sounds trivial, but it cuts to the heart of how Deus Ex was designed. There isn’t a dedicated Locked-Door-Opener-Grenade. The LAMs have certain properties, doors have certain properties. When those properties impact on one another, emergence is the result. It could also be more complicated, like hacking a computer terminal and taking over a gun turret, which attacks an enemy bot, which explodes and opens the adjacent locked door. Emergence is just a matter of learning how objects interact with each other; simple rules for how explosions affect objects, what is affected by EMP blasts, how gas grenades affect humans, and so forth, which can then be combined in creative ways.
This is key in how Deus Ex allows players to be improvisational, planning approaches and attacks and then adjusting if things don’t quite go to plan. It’s why we feel so in control when playing Deus Ex: because there are so many opportunities we can choose from. In fact ‘choose’ is the wrong word. We don’t choose, we create. That’s the magic of Deus Ex. And it’s much more than just building multiple entrances to a warehouse.
I’ve not heard Eidos Montreal, or any journalists for that matter, so much as mention emergence in the context of Human Revolution. For such a central component of Deus Ex gameplay to be ignored like that suggests it’s not a central component of DX:HR. That would be a shame, because creative moment-to-moment gameplay is a major reason why Deus Ex is still fun to play today. It’s never the same thing twice. A map — and everything in it — is sprawled out before you, you choose how to approach it, and every time something new happens. It’s a far cry from the ‘cinematic’ approach Eidos Montreal is taking with their game, with their liberal sprinklings of cinematic cutscenes and cinematic conversations and cinematic takedowns.
The developers at 2K Games following in the System Shock tradition with BioShock and XCOM are probably the standard-bearers for emergent gameplay in immersive first person games today (though a great many strategy games embrace emergence more than any shooter has). As boring as BioShock was, it gave players a selection of tools, put them in control, and let them go. I have, in fact, heard 2K developers mention emergence while discussing XCOM at E3, so hope remains.
I’m not sure Eidos Montreal is interested in that kind of gameplay. In a presentation many years ago, Harvey Smith explained the role of emergence in games like Deus Ex and System Shock 2, and described Deus Ex as a ‘dated paradigm’. Ion Storm was trying to push creative gameplay further way back then. It’s disappointing that Eidos doesn’t seem to be using the opportunity of a new Deus Ex game to continue where Ion Storm left off, instead falling back on carefully-planned dialogue options and multi-path approaches to give players choice, rather than crafting reactive environments that encourage creativity.
In their excitement to make a ‘cinematic’ game, Eidos is creating something that — in some ways — is almost anti Deus Ex. The leaked gameplay footage from E3 shows control frequently taken out of the player’s hands. The game cuts away to a close up of a conversation between Tong and another man which progresses the plot. At the end of the presentation the gameplay pauses and we watch a cutscene showing Adam Jensen discovering a bomb about to explode, and then leaping through a window into the arms of a large and angry man. Earlier, Adam drops from the roof of a warehouse, the game cuts to third person, and we watch him decimate a group of four enemies. The third person takedowns in Human Revolution certainly look cool. The footage might sell a few copies. But once we buy the game we don’t watch it, we play it. Deus Ex understood that.
This is what ‘takedowns’ look like in Deus Ex.
You choose your weapon, which comes with certain characteristics, such as lethality or non-lethality, you equip it, you sneak up to your target, and you knock them out, or stab them in the head, or slice up their body until it gibs, or carry their body through a map and terrorise your old boss with it, or something less anti-social.
Now here’s what Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s takedowns are more akin to, courtesy of Alpha Protocol.
You get close to your target, some large text prompts appear, you choose to press A or B, and you watch your character ‘take’ your target ‘down’ for you.
This is not a criticism of Alpha Protocol; it’s a marvelous game and don’t let reviews tell you otherwise. But despite a few similarities, it’s a different kind of game from Deus Ex. Alpha Protocol’s RPG roots take centre stage, and performing actions and engaging skills is more like rolling a die or playing a card in a tabletop RPG. (And AP doesn’t completely remove the camera from the player and swirl it around ~*~cinematically~*~.) It suits the game nicely. But Deus Ex was never that kind of game. We come back to the term immersive reality sim: a richly simulated world with the player always in control, choosing what to do and then using the supplied tools to do it. You never have to sit back and watch the game play itself for you.
Unfortunately that’s the direction Human Revolution seems to be taking with it’s cinematic focus. It’s not damning. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not the rape of Deus Ex. It’s just disappointing because it’s not what Deus Ex was ever about. ‘Cinematic gameplay’ is an oxymoron. In order to do both you must weaken both. Along with its stable of predecessors, Deus Ex was proud to be a game, proud to put players in control at all times. It had no desire to be a Michael Bay movie, and didn’t try to sell itself on its cinematics. The only cutscenes were at the beginning and the end, bookends to a player-told story. Human Revolution wants to tell a story in its own way, and will drag us along whether we like it or not.
The details of system design is probably not a concern for most, though. The more obvious strength of Deus Ex is its fictional world design, and I suspect that’s an area where Human Revolution will stand tall too.
A believable world
In between loading onto the Liberty Island docks and stepping into the Helios AI chamber about 35 hours later, Deus Ex presents a rich and fascinating world. From New York to Hong Kong to Paris to Area 51 and places in between, the locations have a strong sense of identity and place, and are populated by a big cast of memorable characters. Manderley, a weak puppet of Walton Simons who seems stuck between doing the right thing and not being fired and/or killed; your mechanised co-workers Gunther and Anna who seem caricatured until your emotional showdown with Gunther in Paris; Smuggler, an underground weapons dealer in Hell’s Kitchen, who you can save or leave to die when MJ12 sweeps the area to find you; the Rentons and their ongoing family drama (‘What a shame’); Shea the bartender, defensive about her mechanical augmentations; Jojo Fine, big-talking NSF leader slash pimp; Maggie Chow, retired actress and now involved in the top levels of a global conspiracy; Nicolette DuClare, the heiress of her mother’s fortune but not her ideology; and Jock, your grizzled and slightly drunk pilot (‘A bomb’). And there are smaller characters who contribute to the whole, like Louis Pan, the annoying kid doing footwork for the Luminous Path, Tessa and Mercedes who convince you to pay for their entry to the Lucky Money, or even the two dead zyme addicts in the ‘Ton Hotel. They might exist as only a couple of lines of dialogue or less, but they all belong.
Some are more than just a couple of lines. There’s Morpheus, the prototype AI in Everett’s house who schools JC on issues like social observation, structure and control in a conversation that brings together of number of the game’s themes. ‘The unplanned organism is a question asked by nature and answered by death,’ it tells JC. ‘You are another kind of question, with another kind of answer.’ The NSF leader in the statue speaks about the role of government and big business while defending his group’s tactics. Isaac the bartender in Hong Kong criticises the structure of western governments in the worst Australian accent you’ll ever hear.
The environments, and their well-matched music tracks, themselves become memorable characters. Names like Liberty Island, Battery Park, Hell’s Kitchen, Wan Chai market, VersaLife and many more prompt memories of innumerable great video game moments, and they’re places that stick in the mind years later. I was in Hong Kong recently, and being a shameless fan I wanted most of all to scout out some Deus Ex locations. Best of the lot was finding the real Tonnochi Road, which ends in a y not an i.
The similarities filled a Deus Ex fan with joy. On the left was a King’s Hotel and a Kwan Chart Tower — not quite the Queen’s Tower housing Maggie Chow in the game, but close. There’s an alleyway leading up the side of Kwan Chart Tower which leads to some elevators at the back — just like in the game. On the opposite side of the road are some dirty apartment buildings, in just the right place to be Jock’s.
How wonderful and extraordinary that a game can prompt such moments. This is a hallmark of a classic: something that can forge such strong connections with a player that seeing the real place ten years later is such an excellent moment. If Human Revolution’s environments can inspire such wonder, Eidos will have succeeded in creating a worthy followup. It’s a big ask, but it looks promising so far.
Along with the level design comes the storytelling, at which Deus Ex excells. This is a world in which augmentations and nanotechnology and advanced AIs and secret organisations and rich men conspiring to control the world all seem to belong, and they combine to craft a compelling story in which JC — you — decide the fate of humanity. It doesn’t get much bigger, and could easily fall down if weren’t for the deep treatment Deus Ex gives its plots and themes. The fiction is expanded in numerous ways, from environmental storytelling to an abundance of text — email, datacubes, newspapers, books — that gives background and context to the world of 2052. We learn about President Mead’s domestic political troubles, about the nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, about Page Industries killing thousands of people in order to sabotage a competitor’s attempts at lunar mining, about the history of the Northwest Secessionist Forces and how they’ve been characterised as terrorists, about advances in human augmentation first in mechanics and then in nanotech.
None of these details are essential to the plot, but they enrich the world and create the impression that these places and the people in them live their lives independent of you the player. It’s a world you explore, not a place that’s been created specifically for you.
Sharing the details of this world is what kept us fans happy following Deus Ex’s release, and we chatted together happily awaiting the release of Invisible War. And then it was released. And oh dear … the reactions.
An unbelievable world
I was a moderator on the Ion Storm and Eidos forums during those days when Deus Ex fans made their opinions known in enraged howls of betrayal. The critiques were energetic, though in most cases not terribly insightful. It’s been consolified, the inventory is too simplistic, where are my skill points, why is the HUD a circle, I want to type passwords into computers, where’s the headbob, why are augmentations called biomods, is augmentation too big a word for Xbox players, Alex is a pussy, the maps make closets seem spacious, all the weapons use the same ammo, you’ve dumbed down Deus Ex. There was some truth there, and some of those issues were symptoms. But there were more fundamental problems.
It’s not that it was a bad game. For all the complaints that it wasn’t a worthy sequel, it was still a Deus Ex game insofar as it was a globe-hopping world-changing conspiracy story which unfolded through a combination of shooting, stealth and dialogue, with various ways of building your character, multiple playstyles and solutions to problems. Unfortunately it did all of that stuff worse than Deus Ex 1. Given the surface similarities between the two games, it’s notable how pointing out the flaws in Invisible War results in highlighting the strengths of Deus Ex. In other words, everything Deus Ex did well, Invisible War did poorly. Comparatively. That’s why there were such vociferous reactions from fans, and that’s why they felt it failed as a sequel. Different sets of strengths and weaknesses is exactly how Harvey Smith (lead designer the first time around, and project lead the second) described the two games to Gamespot back in 2004. (His own scores for the games were 90% to Deus Ex and 85% to Invisible War, which are pretty close to their Metacritic ratings too, for what they’re worth.)
The way I always described the difference between them, in extensive debates for years afterwards, was simple and encompassed what I felt were the real problems with the sequel: Deus Ex was a world, Invisible War was a game. Deus Ex had such a degree of detail: a huge cast of characters, extensive dialogue, sprawling maps, descriptions and explanations of every item you picked up which justified their place in the world. It was a world you could live in, explore and feel.
Most importantly, and this is worth stressing, Deus Ex had what a lot of game studios today would probably consider redundancy. If it were made today, most of Deus Ex would be stripped out as unnecessary. Is this map/character/quest/subplot/item important for the gameplay or main plot? No? Lose it then. And yet it’s precisely the ‘unnecessary’ content in Deus Ex that made it an extraordinary representation of a future world.
Take, for example, one of the goals both games give the player: find Tracer Tong. Simple on paper.
In Deus Ex, you leave New York pursued by MJ12 and fly to Hong Kong, have your helicopter captured at an MJ12 base, release the chopper’s weapon locks, blast your way into Wan Chai market, explore and find many new areas and characters, are told by Gordon Quick you need to gain his trust by visiting Maggie Chow and discovering what’s up with a special sword and a triad war, are told by Maggie to visit a police station in Wan Chai, discover Maggie’s up to no good, return to her place, find the sword, are told by Tracer via infolink to take it to Max Chen and end the triad war, go to the Lucky Money Club, talk to Chen, fight off an MJ12 ambush, talk to Gordon Quick, who finally lets you inside to see Tracer.
In Invisible War you land in Trier, walk into a pub, and Tracer’s waiting for you in a back room. For some reason.
Fictionally there’s no reason for Tracer to give you a similar run-around, true, but the point is clear. In Deus Ex you have to work to achieve your goals, and in the process you explore well realised places and meet interesting characters. In Invisible War everything is handed to you. If you need to meet a certain character, they’re bound to be waiting for you around the corner. If you need to get to a certain place, you’ll spend more time on loading screens than exploring the space between here and there. Like it’s some kind of video game or something. It’s stripped down, efficient and unsatisfying, and it’s what’s wrong with a lot of highly polished games today.
(Morrowind and Oblivion are characterised by similar differences. Morrowind is a highly detailed, hand crafted work of art, a world beautiful, frightening and fascinating. Oblivion is a pretty and anaesthetised bore, neutered by Bethesda’s desire to make a ‘better’ game.)
Harvey Smith has explained his own thoughts about the sequel in a conversation with Warren Spector as part of a master class at the University of Texas. As well as a refreshing admission that they ‘fucked up’ in various ways, most interesting is the claim that during development of the sequel Ion Storm listened too closely to their ‘designer friends’ rather than fans, leading to changes in Invisible War that felt important for the game design but which fans didn’t appreciate. To put it mildly.
Along with less complexity in world detail came a different focus on the player character. In Deus Ex you start out as an unproved agent under the control of your superiors, you’re dismissed by Walton Simons as a troublemaker who can be put down at his whim, you need to work hard and jump through hoops to uncover the truth. It’s not until the last third of the game (which is its weakest, probably not coincidentally) when you start giving Bob Page a headache that you become the central player in the drama. In Invisible War, on the other hand, you’re always the most important person in the world. Everything revolves around you, everyone’s either looking for you or is waiting for you, as in the Tracer example above. Only you can change the world, Alex, the game makes clear as it pats you on the head and sends you on your way. It’s simply not as interesting: it’s playing through a game rather than exploring a world. The insistence of so many developers to make their games All About YOU might play to the power fantasy aspect of gaming, but it has consequences for the fiction. I’d rather be a regular guy doing his thing as the world turns than The Chosen One™ who must save it.
Take another example. In the Paris street map in Deus Ex there’s an apartment you can enter on the second floor of one of the buildings, occupied by a couple discussing their future. It’s utterly unnecessary for the plot, there are no interesting items to find there, it’s pointless — except for creating a more believable world. For that, it’s very important, and serves to reinforce the drab and depressing mood of a city under martial law. There are occasional attempts at this in Invisible War, but the maps are so small that it’s obvious and forced.
Right, the maps. This leads to the real problem with the sequel: the technology. Everything that stops Invisible War being great is attributable, ultimately, to a horrid game engine. The small maps prevent a believable depiction of the world, the time spent trying to work with the engine obviously led to large chunks of content being cut out, resulting in a truncated plot and undeveloped characters, the aesthetic ugliness and inconsistency of the game is a direct result of the tech, and let’s say nothing of the epileptic fit that is the game’s physics. Harvey Smith, in the same Gamespot interview linked above, said he wished they hadn’t made their own tech, and I’m sure Invisible War’s pre-production documents would be painful to read now for the lost opportunity. These flaws of Invisible War serve as testaments to the successes of Deus Ex.
All this sounds quite damning, but Invisible War does have some things going for it. The one thing it did better than Deus Ex was creating interconnected game systems that allowed for creative solutions to problems, something Harvey Smith was always passionate about. Again, the small maps prevented the game design from reaching its potential here, but it’s still a notable achievement. It’s possible to complete the game without even picking up a weapon thanks to this flexible design, which might be an odd goal to set yourself but it does suggest stealth gameplay is solidly designed at its core. The game contains a lot of dialogue about political systems and sociology, which might be forced but remains interesting, invoking names like Russell and Tocqueville during its sociological discussions, and Foucault and Montaigne for more philosophical reflections. It’s not simply namedropping, these names and their ideas are important for the choices the player makes to decide the future of the world. And the game does have its moments: breaking into a Seattle apartment at night and evading the security systems almost feels like playing JC again.
More than anything we can appreciate Invisible War for continuing the Deus Ex story: the Denton family story, and perhaps even more so Helios’s story. The AI’s attempts to transcend humanity and transform human society led to unnerving results at the end of Invisible War, and I still get goosebumps watching that ending cinematic. ‘The only frontier that has ever existed is the self.’ Whether it’s a singularity fantasy or socialist dream or a relevant warning depends on the viewer, but it strikes me as the ‘proper’ ending to the Deus Ex story, and is the logical continuation of the Helios ending in the first game.
And now there’s a prequel on the way, made by different people in a different game generation. It will be a different game in many ways, and it will probably be quite good. Eidos Montreal is quick to assure fans that Human Revolution takes its cues from Deus Ex rather than its sequel, but time will tell exactly what that means. Given the intervening years and the disappointment of Invisible War, I think most Deus Ex fans will accept most gameplay changes Eidos makes. The pragmatists, at least, will appreciate a high quality Deus Ex game, and acknowledge that a perfect followup can never be. But what will probably matter most is the creation of the fictional world, one that’s complex, rich in detail, thoughtful and memorable. That’ll go a long way towards making it a Deus Ex game.
If you get the joke, I tip my hat.