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Retrospective: Deus Ex (2000)
by Xander Markham on 06/27/11 11:53:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Yesterday marked the eleventh year anniversary of Warren Spector's iconic Deus Ex, one of the most innovative and exciting games of the previous decade. A second sequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, will be released at the tail end of August, and I'll be doing a preview of the first ten hours in the near future on my blog, but for now, here's a short article on what made the original so special.

The  irony of Deus Ex is that despite being a game about breaking out of the limits of the human form, players are given the opportunity to express themselves in a more natural way than almost any game since. Warren Spector, inspired by the successful integration of player choice into his previous title System Shock and the newfound trendiness of cyberpunk thanks to the astronomical success of The Matrix in cinemas the previous year, designed the game to be “an immersive simulation game in that you are made to feel you're actually in the game world with as little as possible getting in the way of the experience of 'being there.'"

The game foregoes all the design tropes and rules which still hold sway over many top new releases today: there are no puzzles, no pre-set action moments for the player to wander into, no forced redirections around contrived path blockades. The player's avatar has no back-story or personality other than an androgynous but suitably evocative name (JC Denton). Aside from a handful of story cues, many of which vary substantially dependant upon choices made over the course of the adventure, the player is left to create their own drama and to form their own character.

Everything in the game revolves and grows around the player. JC Denton is literally built by the manner the player chooses to move through the game, with the ream of RPG elements allowing almost complete personalisation of the protagonist they end up controlling, while dialogue trees in cutscenes give room to develop some semblance of a personality. In gameplay terms, delays and distractions like 'puzzles' are discarded in a favour of a series of problems, most of which are consequences of behaviour earlier in the game and go on to form new challenges when overcome. 

When modern games claim to give players freedom, it usually means you will be allowed to mess around pointlessly in between story sections where every step of progression is strictly regimented. Heavy Rain played up its 'interactive drama', but once a few too many inputs had been missed to no consequence, the veneer quickly wore thin to reveal a game as tightly controlled as any number of others using ploys little more advanced than multiple endings. Much of the same goes for LA Noire.

Although loosely linear in its narrative structure (the story will travel to certain points in a defined order no matter what the player does), Deus Ex gives players so much control and influence over the smaller threads weaving together the story's rope that not only does it not matter that this small degree of control has been taken away, but it instead comes as something of a relief.

As Spider-man prosaically mused, with great power comes great responsibility and one of the most lasting sensations throughout Spector's game is not only the thrill of finding out what consequences your actions will yield, but also the lingering fear that you've taken a wrong turn or bad choice. Having a number of established story beats gives just enough impetus to continue through any doubts you may have about your choices, as well as preventing the continuity of the world from being broken by the presence of one exceedingly influential central character and serving one of the game's central themes about how much control the average person actually has over the outcome of their lives.

While a useful proponent to keep players moving forward, the story of Deus Ex is in truth a rather hackneyed affair, whose William Gibson influences are worn rather too blatantly on its sleeve. But what Spector and his team seemed to realise is that much as genuine player choice makes for more exciting and personal play than a linear set of arrivals and outcomes, an overdeveloped story in a game can deride from the player's experience by taking away the thrill of discovery and exploration that only an interactive medium can offer. Instead Deus Ex demotes the story to the role of background guide, ensuring the player never feels lost or lacking important goals, while deepening the world around them so you'll want to turn every corner just to see what's on the other side, to read every scrap of newspaper or communiqué to gain further insight into what keeps every cog of the dystopian machine turning.

Although a huge number of concepts and ideas are thrown at the player, from Gibson-esque cyber-realities, enhancements and hackers via every conspiracy theory the Fortean Times has ever run, the game creates a world which feels like the natural outcome of having these disparate elements competing for space so their subsequent appearance in the story, no matter how absurd it may get from an objective viewpoint, does not break the immersion. 

The ludicrousness is diffused because it is tackled with a straight face and with the confidence not to hold back or constantly wink at players. There are no sudden deviations in tone a la Fahrenheit or huge plot twists that threaten to be overblown or unconvincing. No matter how many story elements, evil organisations or shady characters the game piles into its story, the experience starts and ends as dystopian cyberpunk, eyes firmly on the road all the way. Every facet of the world, from the characters to the little story-within-a-story snippets that pop up every so often, serve only to further convince players of the solidity and depth of the game's reality. Deus Ex remains one of the most involving games ever conceived because it feels less like walking through a plot and more like exploring a vision.

Despite its faults (the pulverisingly unforgiving difficulty for new players, clunky graphics even for turn of the millennium gaming and repetition throughout the middle act), the most depressing thing about Deus Ex is how little influence it has had over subsequent gaming culture. As the games industry grew and became more mainstream, much of the reckless experimentation that produced many of the greatest games of the late '90s (and a few of the worst: take a bow, Jurassic Park: Trespasser) was left behind in favour of a formula mentality. Derived in thought and execution from the sensibilities of the Hollywood blockbuster, for all its financial success the gaming landscape was made a less exciting place to play. Even Deus Ex's maligned sequel Invisible War dumbed down the RPG elements to make them more palatable, while the trailer for the series' third entry ignores real gameplay in favour of pre-rendered spectacle.

Returning to the original game reveals how badly its visuals have aged, some poorly balanced gameplay and a rather overblown story. Yet it also exudes a powerful sense of character, an enthralling atmosphere and a dedication to immersing players in its world through allowing huge scope for self-expression and exploration. Yet in an era where big-budget games have all semblance of personality formula'd and focus-grouped into anonymity, Deus Ex feels like a look back to a time when the machine of game production was still powered by a human soul. Casting an eye over modern gaming release schedules, Spector's dystopian vision feels more disturbingly close to fulfilment than ever.

[Xander Markham runs a multimedia blog, in addition to writing for movie site Flixist]


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Comments


Kevin Patterson
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I'm a big fan of Deus Ex, enjoyed the article.



Another game that had the same type of feeling, at least to me, was Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines.

I only discovered the game in the last few years, and was blown away at how good it was.

Both Deus-ex, and vtmb give you feeling of being there, i wish there were more games like it...



The closest game to that style that I have played recently was The Darkness, that was a great underrated game imho.

Eric Schwarz
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I also enjoyed this piece, but I think you exaggerate some of Deus Ex's strengths and make some questionable statements.



You do not build a character in Deus Ex so much as direct one. Similar to The Witcher, in Deus Ex you are damned to take on the role of JC Denton - you can choose his methods, but his personality, demeanour, backstory (which is less sparse than you suggest), and so forth are all pretty much set in stone. The choices you have available - though expressed in gameplay and action rather than in dialogue and skill checks - still manage to be mostly binary, and while the story sometimes unexpectedly responds to your actions, the game is ultimately pretty linear and railroaded.



That it does such a good job of funneling the player forward without resorting to contrivance and obvious But Thou Musting is to its credit, but Deus Ex is still a very exact, predetermined experience even with the choice it provides. If you really wanted to make the case for Deus Ex, you should have provided concrete examples of these apparent choices and consequences, because as it stands, while they do abound, they're ultimately pretty cosmetic in the scheme of things - this is not Fallout, The Witcher II, Arcanum, Planescape, or hell, even Morrowind or Divinity II here. For a shooter, yes, it's unprecedented... but by RPG standards, Deus Ex is pretty threadbare as far as that sort of thing goes.



The thing that really defines Deux Ex for me, apart from its rather blatant but still believable and impressive social commentary, is the respect it has for the player. This is something that sounds a little nebulous, but I suppose what I mean by it is that, if you think you can probably do something in Deus Ex as far as gameplay goes... you can. Whether it's sneaking around the back of a building to avoid a head-on attack, setting traps to lure enemies into, reprogramming security systems, hacking into computers to find additional plots and sub-plots, it's there for you to enjoy as a gameplay possibility. This meshes exceptionally well with the very balanced skill and inventory systems, whereby specialisation is augmented by the use of items like grenades, weapon modifications, etc. Deus Ex sports a certain kind of attrition in this, a "do I use my X now, or save it for later?" that I have yet to see handled so well, and the lack of obvious equipment scaling, only growing options, means you don't run into that common RPG problem of your gear suddenly becoming obsolete.



Still, overall I think your take on the game is pretty faithful and made me start it up just one more time (you know the saying). It's interesting what you mention about Deus Ex not having that much influence - I'd have to agree, but am left a little curious as to just why that is. People tend to look at games like Deus Ex and instantly say "there's no way we can ever do that"; perhaps it's that occasional defeatist attitude, spoken out of blind worship, that's prevented efforts to rival or surpass it.



I have fairly high hopes for Human Revolution (some of the most cynical, new-game-dismissing people I know have given it their stamp of approval against all odds), and I certainly hope it's willing to live up to the original's legacy.

Carlos Sousa
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One thing I really enjoyed from Deus Ex was it's incredible amount of details, I don't mean graphics but subtle things like getting damaged in specific body parts, you get shot in arms you get your aim ****** up, you get your legs damaged you can't walk as fast, depending on the damage all the movement left is to crawl of prone... It really "feels like" you're being gradually waisted, I don't remember any other FPS having this!!!



I really liked the character customization, and on the overall this game reminded me of Syndicate, a 90's 2.5d game with really cool atmosphere.



I agree with previous comments, unfortunately it seems like DX did not have so much influence (while being so rich) on subsequent titles. (About DX Invisible wars, I didn't even consider playing it, just by the looks of the cover, I was afraid I would change all my consideration for the original DX)...



And I really hope this new DX is worth it, I really hope they haven't ruined everything trying to mass please players, I think the industry needs some extremes and originality.

Geraldo Nascimento
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Deus Ex is one of my favorite games and I agree with the article, except when it comes to the graphics. The fake reflections (the white gleams) that all 3D models in the game have and the art direction, revealed through the inventive use of textures, make the game's gfx pretty much timeless for me. Gunther, Anna Navarre, Walton Simons, the Denton brothers, they all look great 11 years later.



Now Invisible War, that one aged terribly, it looked ancient when it came out and it looks worse now.

Ivan Beram
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Wow, what utter fanboy rubbish!



I liked the original DX too, I even didn't mind Invisible War, with its obvious flaws. And I'm definitely looking forward to Human Revolution. But making DX out to be something that it is not, something that hasn't been replicated since... BS!



Clearly you haven't played the game recently if you BELIEVE that one. Much of the claims made, fail to realise the truth, that it was all an illusion. Sorry, but the game isn't as “nonlinear” as you may think. The game doesn't provide you with as much “choice” as you imagine. Furthermore, it has “puzzles” and it has contrived action / story moments that the player “stumbles” across because the game is actually quite linear.



If I were Warren Spector, I'd be sitting at home reading this and laughing my arse off.



If you want to read a real Retrospective blog on Deus Ex, try this one:



http://selfinducedcoma.com/2010/11/13/retrospective-deus-ex-part-
1/



It's not a superficial blogger analysis, but an in-depth 6 parter. Though I don't think most would have the stomach to read every one of them, especially the fanboys who don't want to accept the truth about DX.


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