Some very minor spoilers ahead.
It has been said that “all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor”. The argument could similarly be made that all games are social: in our minds we are constantly evaluating our performance in front of an imaginary audience (or imagined community), measured against the imaginary performance of other players (my story is better than yours, etc.).
How much we think a game is “important” or culturally significant, then, can significantly change how much fun we have with it. In a way, you could even say that “fun” is really just a word for “imaginary acknowledgement”. The more worthy and respected a game seems—the more of our peers seem to value it—the more our achievements within it seem meaningful and worthwhile.
It’s a circular thing. If everyone says it’s good, it simply begins to feel good to be good at something that’s supposed to be good. Similarly, if enough people say a game is bad, it’s pretty hard to stave off the feeling of wasted effort and time long enough to find that you might in fact enjoy it (the above in two words: confirmation bias).
Where am I going with this? I want to make an exaggerated argument here that the rarified praise DXHR has drawn has perhaps been unduly inflated by its charm. Undoubtedly, as an exercise in world building, DXHR is a towering achievement. But in terms of the core gameplay, the case can be made that the game design is—to begin my exaggerations—almost lazy and irresponsible.
Too Much Agency...
My main problem with this game is that agency isn't earned, it's simply a given. For the most part, the game offers so little resistance that all the agency that exists is persistently accompanied by a feeling of redundancy. Ok, these are pretty harsh statements, so I need to back them up.
Let’s talk about the stealth game. Here’s a typical scenario: you have two guards, a turret, and a camera guarding a narrow passage way. Hmm, that sounds pretty good. Make me shoot the camera with a stun gun to temporarily put it out of commission, strong arm the turret to face a wall to safely avoid detection, knock out the two guards then drag them out of view before the camera reboots and tracks back to see the bodies. Fun.
Except, hold on a minute, here’s a computer terminal with a trivial level of security which turns off the camera and turret. Oh, and actually, then there’s this vent here where you can just walk past all four altogether. Wait, what? I mean, come on.
The Infamous Vent Option
The thing is, most of the stealth scenarios in the game don’t even rise to a meaningful level of challenge in the first place. It’s 70% two guards patrolling a hall without any overlap, and maybe 15% situations where you actually have to hide bodies (and 3% what the heck, all of a sudden there’s 30 hostile civilians in one corridor).
Or really, it’s even simpler than that. The typhoon. Seriously? That’s an “I WIN” button if ever I saw one, and there’s more than enough ammo for it to go around and then some.
Veneer of Due Diligence
Rare is the game that gets away with letting the player simply ignore entire swaths of obstacles wholesale. Yet DXHR does exactly this, and even more audaciously, does it in the name of “choice.”
We can see that DXHR suffers from too much agency when we look at the XP system and the lack of a level cap. To be blunt, no level cap is essentially a way of saying, “look, we couldn’t be bothered to balance the game from start to finish so that specialized builds are viable, so we’re just going to hand out praxis points like candy and blame it on the player if he isn’t prepared for an unpredictable boss fight.”
But there’s more. Presumably, the XP system is to reward players for extra effort. In practice, though, it instead punishes the player for exercising the options provided by the game. You can totally walk through that whole warehouse using glass shield, but then you’d be losing out on a significant XP opportunity which you will never be able to make up, which means that vent option is not really an option at all.
This again is laying the blame and responsibility on the player, when they could have provided a level cap (and all the requisite balancing that requires) so that you could stealth the whole level without touching a single guard and not automatically be left shorthanded for it. In a game that purports to offer so much choice, why is that not a real option? (Even Vampire Bloodlines knew of, and tried to address, this problem by giving the same XP no matter how you solved a combat zone).
This kind of legerdemain-yness can even be found in the hacking and dialog systems, where randomness is a crutch overly relied upon due to a pervasive lack of actual challenge. You know it’s a bad situation when you can get your hack detected within 2 seconds on the first try, and unlock every single node without getting detected at all on the second. Indeed, the hardest part of the hacking game is getting the laggy/sticky interface to click on the frigging capture flag instead of the nuke or stop button (seems to be a common problem in Scaleform UIs). And as for the dialog challenges, it’s still 50% guesswork and 50% reload spam until you find the right combo to pass a random seed—just a façade of skill where none exists.
...Equals No Real Dilemmas
At first glance, then, these systems seem challenging and meaningfully interactive. But a deeper analysis quickly disabuses that view. What we have instead is a plethora of systems rife with inconsequence and redundancy. All the praxis points and experience gained in the game don’t actually matter because the player has so much agency to begin with. That’s DXHR’s way of “balancing” for player choices—just lower the bar to the point where nothing is really necessary.
And that’s why that vent is there, so you can basically fail at character point distribution, hacking, stealth and pretty much everything else and still get through the game with ease. Even the boss fights are reduced to one minute farces with a couple of mines to keep them disabled and a full blast to the head with an automatic weapon1. If we can berate Oblivion for letting the player complete the main campaign at level 2, it’s hard to see why we should let DXHR be an exception; you can handily beat DXHR without a single augmentation, too.
Am I seriously complaining that the game is too easy? In a word, yes. I’m not here to get my hand held in five different ways, I’m here to forge a meaningful experience by overcoming adversity and challenge. And, for the most part, DXHR simply didn’t sincerely support that. Which is to say, that’s not choice at all, that’s just being spoon fed content, even if it is a buffet.
This whole philosophy is neatly summarized in the central narrative (and depressingly non-ludic) axis of the game: why is Jensen exempted from the principal moral dilemma of the world, the one thing that gives it weight and makes it unique, compelling, and interesting? Why couldn’t Jensen, too, have required neuropozyne for his survival? Why doesn’t he have to scrounge for it, fiend for it, and pay for it, too?
It’s an inexplicable narrato-ludic design decision which from the start guts the game of any lasting gravitas. The game takes the phrase deus ex machina too literally and places Jensen on a detached and higher plane of agency that makes it less interesting and real, and moreover, removes us from his character as well. After all, no deus ex machina has ever genuinely provided satisfaction.
Choice and Non-Consequence
Since DXHR has been held up as a poster boy for everything that is good about PC games, I’m going to be contrarian and hold it up as a whipping boy for everything that is bad about the attitude that resilient gameplay is secondary to overpowered player narrative agency.
Mr. Tom Bradwell over at Eurogamer recently published an opinion piece asking, “are choice-and-consequence systems making our games less interactive?” His conclusion was that DXHR gets it right by not restricting narrative agency so that it gets in the way of his ludic agency.
But I don’t think I would be unreasonable in saying that DXHR has nothing to do with choice and consequence at all. Because the operative word there is consequence. C&C is an exclusionary principle, and the purpose of its introduction is to make a game’s narrative more ludic by denying certain ludic opportunities based on narrative motivated goals, or at least by increasing the difficulty of obtaining those goals.
Which is to say, narrative wrangling is also ludic—is also a game—just as ludic wrangling is also narrative (what Mr. Bradwell calls “writable”). The whole point of C&C is to provide another layer of ludic, strategic decisions. I would argue, then, that Mr. Bradwell’s dichotomy of “readable” and “writable” games is, in this case, a false one.
So, in the same way that your playstyle and character build are ignored when it comes to how the boss fights need to be played, what exactly are you “writing” if none of your dialog decisions impact your agency at all? Do we honestly want games where NPC interactions are secondary, ornamental, and unilateral?
Perhaps Mr. Bradwell is arguing against the kind of blind decision making that certain games demand, where the player is forced to pick between exclusionary choices without having any context or a means of assessing one’s options. But that’s a problem of implementation, not with C&C itself. Otherwise, the complaint is really just one that says “we want the vent option in our dialogs, too.” Indeed, it’s this position that reduces narrative interactivity, not the other way around.
I’ve already pleaded the case that there’s no gameplay to a game that offers no resistance, that too much agency is actually a bad thing. So the claim that C&C is reducing the interactivity of games is, to me, rather disheartening. Of course, who am I to question the way others enjoy their games? And yet, I can’t help but feel that this idea that narrative and game can be, should be, and is played separately is a disservice to the kind of games to which DXHR purportedly belongs. The word, after all, is gameplay.
“That’s how it was in Deus Ex”
When I say that this post is an unfair polemic and exaggerated critique, I’m not just saying that in placating self-defense, I really mean it. DXHR is a great game, and this has been a one-sided argument which ignores the notable exceptions and the quality of its many and significant achievements. So the arguments that have been presented here should be taken with a grain of salt; just the Good Soul event alone puts a pretty big dent on the whole “non-consequence” argument. Plus, a game that can hold me for 70 hours over 9 days, unable to sleep and waking up at bizarre hours so I can get back to it, simply can’t be all that bad.
I hate being the guy that complains about an early christmas present because it isn't absolutely perfect. Still, I’m not being contrarian for the sake of being such, either. I wrote this analysis in an attempt to break the seemingly prevailing attitude that DXHR can do no wrong, because it does, and it does so in some striking ways that I think are worth discussing. In many aspects, DXHR felt like Alpha Protocol Deluxe (or AP Lite, depending on your point of view), and the huge difference in Metacritic ratings between the two games seems symptomatic of something else.
Perhaps the real problem is this. Talking about some of the issues I experienced with the game, more than once I received the retort, “that’s how it was in Deus Ex”. This was meant to be the final word on the matter, an end to that line of questioning. The attitude was one that emphatically claimed that some things just can’t—or even shouldn’t—be improved. That is to say, DXHR suffers from a different kind of legacy problem: one of wearing the trappings of an idealized inheritance all too well—of being a game that falls too easily into the “important” category.
It’s hard to criticize what is so clearly a product of love, and, because DXHR gets it right on so many things, perhaps we have fallen under the spell of confirmation bias in so freely giving a pass to those parts that could have been pushed just a little further. To make one last unfair statement, everything about DXHR, from the writing to the level design to character progression, is about spectacularly and unapologetically appeasing the player. And in being so seduced, we might forget to ask if we are actually having fun.
1The final boss fight is even easier. Just put in the code, blast the glass. Done.