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.