Deus Ex then and now: What difference does it make?
Many people talk about the original Deus Ex
as a game that pushed the boundaries of player choice. And indeed it did.
When I first played the PC game in 2000, I don’t think I’d ever been given so many options—at least in the context of a first-person game—for completing objectives.
Need to get into that heavily guarded building over there? I could snipe guards from a rooftop. I could hack a security terminal and turn the patrolling robots against their masters. I could use my nifty augmentation to turn invisible, or try sprinting fast and hope for the best. Maybe I could find a ventilation shaft and just bypass the whole mess altogether.
There were options, and they weren’t necessarily explicit. Most of the time there was no NPC telling the player to try either A or B. The player could attempt any combination of ideas to overcome problems, even to the point of exploiting the game’s limited AI.
So, yes, Deus Ex
was a game that revolutionized player choice. But it ran deeper than just gameplay.
When I ask myself what truly made it such a great game, I would probably have to echo the words of the Supreme Being at the end of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits
: “I think it has something to do with free will.”
More than 10 years later, I truly think the makers of Deus Ex: Human Revolution
—third game in the franchise and prequel to the original—understood that legacy.
The game’s protagonist, Adam “I never asked for this” Jensen, has undergone life-altering augmentation surgery through no choice of his own. And as with the previous installments in the series, the game’s story arc essentially boils down to making decisions that will alter the fate of humanity. Does one trust humankind to make its own choices? Or, if given the power and the right circumstances, does one have a responsibility to guide and/or manipulate the masses as one sees right and fit?
But whereas the first game, and to a lesser extent the second game, drew me into its fictional universe, the world of Human Revolution
left me relatively ambivalent and—perhaps worst of all—unenlightened.
To some extent, I blame the technology. The original game, graphically speaking, was a less-than-stellar achievement. It had bland textures, Spartan environments. And yet this fit the dystopian setting. Few objects scattering the offices and streetscapes essentially allowed anything—trophies, boxes, potted plants—to be picked up and moved around, tossed at people who were not necessarily programmed to move out of the way but who had the wherewithal to vocalize their annoyance. The environments of the sequel Invisible War
became a little more complex and were programmed with archaic but working physics. Chairs and boxes moved when you touched them.
The environments in Human Revolution
have been given drastically more visual character. Office desks have scattered papers, stashes of beverage containers. And yet, like a Call of Duty
game, it’s almost all super-glued window dressing—sometimes quite literally. The cities are riddled with storefronts that are mere decoration, and for the first time in a Deus Ex
universe, glass does not break or shatter.
This is more a sad observation than direct criticism. I can appreciate the limitations and the necessary tradeoffs that come with creating a more realistic art direction. An environment this detailed cannot be programmed with physics.
But damn it, one of my immediate letdowns playing the game was in realizing how little I was able to affect my environment. So often I wanted nothing more than to jump onto a random desk and see all of those papers and pop cans scatter to the winds. I wanted to mess up the contrived placing of it all. I wanted that freedom.
What disappointed me more, perhaps, was the game’s overall lack of imagination or sense of wonder.
The game’s story, even down to the scattered pieces of e-book literature, typically stays focused on the theme of human augmentation. People everywhere are debating whether or not the government should enforce regulations on biotech companies that many believe have been playing god, tampering with the natural order of the human species. In this sense, the game does an interesting job of using a futuristic lens to reflect many of our current global challenges. People right now are debating similar questions about the role of government in the context of a fragile global economy.
More immediately, however, the player character has a personal stake in finding the people responsible who attacked his company’s headquarters, murdered his loved one and colleagues. The motivation is understandable, to be sure.
But just as soon as Jensen’s search begins to lead him to answers beyond the veil, so to speak, the game backs off. The hints of elite, hidden power structures remain only hints, sometimes mere allusions and character references for people who have played the previous games, often discovered only through scouring scores of hacked e-mail accounts. The main revelations that do occur—usually in the form of a poorly lit cut scene that pulls away from the immediacy of the player’s in-game perspective—fall relatively flat.
I fully agree with Sparky Clarkson’s criticism regarding the game’s incongruous and lackluster finale
. Human Revolution
feels in many ways like a game half-finished, and I wonder if development timeline pressures played a factor.
There is a moment in the original Deus Ex
when the player character JC Denton wakes up in a prison cell within some high-tech, high-security complex. When the player escapes and realizes that this facility is actually part of a top-secret headquarters located behind the scenes of the U.N. front organization headquarters for which he previously worked, that revelation is structurally symbolic of the game’s greater thematic questions. What are we to make of our choices and intentions, of our inherent free will, when we realize those choices and intentions have been manipulated by unseen, perhaps duplicitous forces?
What I realize most after finishing Human Revolution
is this. Despite Eidos Montreal’s noble efforts to channel the legacy of the game’s predecessors, the truth is that Deus Ex
is simply not franchise material. Probably never was.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell
is a franchise, and a good one. Those games are all about the character of Sam Fisher. They’re about the stealth mechanics, and it doesn’t necessarily matter what kind of convoluted story will ultimately wrap itself around that precise mechanical framework.
, on the other, was more of a concept, almost allegorical in nature. JC Denton was a blank-slate, archetypal protagonist. And the game’s vision was far-reaching, but not too far-reaching for the available technology to accommodate. It succeeded not only as a game but as an intellectual exercise, using the genre of cyberpunk conspiracy as a means to provoke thought rather than sheer amusement. Whereas one could argue Human Revolution
is reflective of the current global climate, the original was downright prescient—eerily prophetic of a post 9-11 society.
I was initially glad to see so many of the original Deus Ex
elements revived for Human Revolution
, as anachronistic as many of them seem by today’s standards. The game held my attention and propelled me along throughout. It was mostly after the credits rolled and I reflected on the experience that I realized how little of it mattered after the fact.