Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Posts Tagged ‘deusex’

A Decade of Deus Ex

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 23, 2010

10 years ago yesterday, Deus Ex was first released. I’ve discussed my irrational attraction to Deus Ex before, so I can’t help but be a bit emotional when I see the loving treatment Rock Paper Shotgun gave it yesterday. The roundtable verdict is particularly relevant. I have the exact feeling as the guys in that article: I am afraid to replay Deus Ex, as I know it won’t be the same now as it was when I first played it. Hacking around the Deus Ex mod tools (worked on an aborted Deus Ex Fortress that went nowhere), being a professional game-sausage maker, and being an adult know ensure that.

PC Gamer has also been running an entire Deus Ex-themed week, with some nice articles and previews of the Deus Ex 3. If you’ve never played Deus Ex, Taking Liberties is the best attempt I’ve seen to break down why Deus Ex is so important from a game design perspective. It has convinced me to go back and play the first level of it again, because I know that will hold up. As for Deus Ex 3/Human Revolution, I am largely avoiding all media out of a fear of getting overhyped or overcynicaled by it. It is a game, it sounds like it may end up being pretty cool. Art is pretty nice.

Oh, and it’s on sale right now on Steam for $3. $3! I already own 3 copies of it or I’d buy it again.


Posted in Game Culture, Game Design | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on A Decade of Deus Ex

Why Deus Ex Is Important

Posted by Ben Zeigler on October 20, 2008

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.

Posted in Game Design | Tagged: , , , , | 11 Comments »

BioShock has too many mechanics?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on April 18, 2008

A few days ago, John Rose from Nihilistic Software wrote a feature for Gamasutra. The basic thrust of the piece is that if you overfill a game with game mechanics, they complicate the game, confuse the player, suck development time, and dilute the game’s identity. I totally agree with this premise, and I love his concept of a “play aesthetic”. The idea of that is that a game will have a central thrust and point, and any mechanic that fails to reinforce that thrust should be struck from the game. This creates a focused, cohesive experience. So far so great. Then he decides that giving players different options on how to overcome goals always dilutes the play aesthetic and says that Bioshock suffers from too many mechanics.

Okay, that’s just crazy. Here’s the choice quote:

BioShock is an example a great game whose giant mechanic set only weakens its play aesthetic. While the title’s story and environment have set the bar for many games to come, there’s just too much to do. In many a difficult situation players are left to decide between their guns, plasmid powers, hacking, stealth, and the use of one-shot items.

There’s one very clear and specific problem with this statement: The Play Aesthetic of BioShock is player choice within an interactive environment! That’s the whole point of the game! Everything from the plot (which is clearly about choice/lack of choice), the power up system (you get to choose your own evolution), to enemy encounters (Big Daddy fights are specifically left open ended to encourage different ways of dispatching them) reinforce this central aesthetic. With every choice a player makes, they integrate themselves more fully with their character and their environment, and the game really is about building that relationship (only to have it questioned by the plot). You can make an argument that BioShock didn’t go as far as it could with this Play Aesthetic (the hacking minigame in particular sticks out as being counter to player choice, and I have serious problems with the last 3rd of the plot), but I don’t have a clue what the “Real” Play Aesthetic of BioShock is that is somehow betrayed by giving the players options. Also, Irrational/2K spent a lot of time refining their mechanics throughout development. The original design had a much more complicated ecosystem involving dynamic population of various enemies, but that was reduced to the much more focused Big Daddy/Little Sister dynamic.

In my opinion BioShock is the best game of the past 5 years to embrace the Play Aesthetic of player choice, and that’s why it’s such an awesome game. I still Think Deus Ex is the best choice-based game of all time, but that’s for another column.

Posted in Game Design | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »