I’ve you’ve recently read anything about Deus Ex 3 and wondered why all of the comments were hyper critical and full of fanboy angst, this post is for you. If you weren’t playing PC games 10 years ago, you missed out on one of the best games of all time: Deus Ex. Deus Ex is an FPS-RPG hybrid, and was released by Ion Storm (no, not the crappy Ion Storm that made Daikatana, the Austin one) in June of 2000. It is probably my favorite game of all time, and nothing since has come close to duplicating why I love it. From reading my quick description and the wikipedia article, you may be thinking “That sounds like BioShock”, but BioShock is really a very different type of game. WARNING: The rest of this post has some spoilers for both Deus Ex and BioShock.
Jonathan Blow (who also mentioned Deus Ex recently) has given a couple of lectures about the conflict between game design and story, and has used BioShock as an example twice. In addition to the conflicts that Blow points out, I have a huge problem with the big plot reveal. So, you spend the first 2/3 of the game trundling through with no free will, following the suggestions implanted in you. Then, once your character goes through the extremely important development of acquiring free will, the gameplay does not change at all. BioShock, despite having a plot that revolves around choice, gives you very few meaningful gameplay choices, and they do not complement each other at all. In contrast, Deus Ex was designed from the ground up to revolve entirely around Choice, in both plot and gameplay.
At one point fairly early on, you (as JC Denton) have cornered Juan Lebedev, head of a group of separatist terrorists known as the NSF. He has peacefully surrendered to you and your partner, Anna Navarre. Anna tells you that Juan is a very dangerous man, and must be killed immediately. She wants you to do it, to prove you can really do what you were trained for. Earlier, your brother told you to talk to Juan, so you ask him a few questions before making a decision. He starts to tell you things about the conspiracy behind all of this, the plague started by your superiors in UNATCO, and what happened to your parents. Anna angrily threatens that if you don’t kill him now, she’ll have to do it herself and it will look horrible on your record. What do you do? In most games, you would be forced to kill Juan to make the game continue. In some games, you would have two choices, between the “evil” choice of killing him and the “good” choice of trying to talk Anna out of killing him. In Deus Ex, you can try either of those or you can murder your partner in cold blood.
Like the rest of the choices in the game, your choice matters. All 3 of the options have completely logical consequences, and there is no “morality bar” that strictly judges all of your actions. The game doesn’t break when you try something unconventional, it just adjusts and keeps going. Killing Anna gets your geek friend in trouble (because he has to cover it up), but Juan shows up later and thanks you for saving his life. The main plot goes on regardless of your choices, because the conspiracy plants evidence to blame you. But you still care, because the lives of Anna and Juan matter to you. You’ve read their personal email and political philosophy. You’ve commiserated with Anna over the crappy quality of food at work. You can see the logic of the terrorists, but understand the good intentions of the anti-terrorists. You might be kind of irritated at your boss, because he scolded you for surreptitiously visiting the women’s bathroom. Oh, and in the end when you get decide the future of humanity, all of the available choices make equal sense.
The plot of Deus Ex clearly revolve around Choice, but so do many other games, such as BioShock and Indigo Prophecy. The element that elevates Deus Ex from a great game to a Brilliant one is the way the choices in gameplay complement the plot choices. A typical mission goal can be achieved through conversation, stealth, hacking, long-ranged sniping, lockpicking, melee combat, or exploration. You gain experience points for accomplishing sub-goals, and can spend those to customize your character. You have to manage inventory space, and can modify weapons and ammunition for special cases. You have a limited number of slots for advanced nano-augmentations that dramatically modify gameplay. On top of that, you have to carefully manage your resources, which adds a survival-horror tension that makes your choices feel all the more meaningful. From reading this list, you (and the designers of Deus Ex 2) surely think it’s all a bit excessive, and the game would be better if pared down to fewer, but more meaningful, choices. Everyone says the best design is the leanest, right?
But Deus Ex 2 sucked. Despite having better graphics, a better interface, and (in my opinion) a better-written plot, the game was vastly inferior. The problem was that the designers stripped it down way too far. Because they were developing for both PC and console, they jettisoned skill choices. They put a focus on graphics and shadows, leading to small map sizes that killed exploration. They took out all of the resource management and unified the ammo supply. Worse, because the game was more “efficiently” designed, it was always obvious that there was one stealth path and one combat path per mission goal. The game changed from using your skills to navigate interesting spaces, to choosing between two symmetrical corridors. Stripped of its gameplay choices, the plot choices fell flat and the game was a universal disappointment.
So, why is Deus Ex such an important, beloved game? It is in an elite group of games where the player gets to make natural, interesting choices that have a logical effect on a realistic, engaging world (the Fallout games are just as good at this, which is a big part of why they’re so beloved). Why is that a compelling goal for a game? Because (wthout real-world consequences) it is something that only games can do. Deus Ex and similar games really move the entire medium forward, and I am eagerly awaiting the day that somone takes the ideas in Deus Ex and raises them to the next level. It’s been 8 years, and maybe Deus Ex 3 has what it takes? If not, expect the backlash to be thunderous, because it helps prove that games haven’t really advanced yet.
UPDATED: Hah, so I just browsed a copy of the game script to refresh me about the Lebedev conversation, and apparently there is a 4th option! If you block off the entrance to the plane where you confront Lebedev, you can ensure that Anna can’t get in, and you can end the conversation with both Lebedev and Anna alive. I never knew that, and it proves my point even better.