By Quintin Smith on November 25th, 2009 at 6:30 pm.
With the triumphant release of the 1.4 patch, The Nameless Mod total conversion for Deus Ex has finally been announced complete, a whopping seven years after its inception. Seven years! What were you doing seven years ago? I think I must have been a tiny baby dressed in hammer pants, struggling to beat my brother’s Galaga high score. And yet these were seven years well spent- with 13,000 lines of recorded dialogue, 20 new weapons, 100 tracks of new music and a playtime of between 15-20 hours, The Nameless Mod is by far the largest Deus Ex mod ever made and a bizarre one at that.
The Nameless Mod (henceforth TNM) is set within a strange parallel universe interpretation of a real-life Deus Ex community forum, making its title a very clever pun. TNM re-imagines messageboards as virtual worlds where all the politics and cults of the boards become more literal, and your character is called upon to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a moderator. It could well be the nerdiest detective story ever written. Or, to let the mod’s developers Off Topic Productions describe it: “TNM is different from other Deus Ex mods because they usually start off with a good idea for a game, and then ruin it by not including voice acting and having horrible writing and character development. However, with TNM, a very lame idea has been implemented well, with decent writing and believable characters.”
An exception to this rule is of course Kieron’s baby The Cassandra Project, which was a good idea only partially ruined by its small team being utterly overwhelmed by the work involved.
But to say TNM is somehow hobbled by its setting isn’t quite right. It’s true that the characters and references in Forum City often seem written for someone other than you, but they also lend heart and a curious sense of place to the game because the team behind TNM wrote what they knew. When incidental details are thrown in about one moderator not liking another, or you learn why someone dislikes the forum’s newbies (in the game an impoverished gang of dispossessed and simple folk) it always makes total sense. The world, inexpertly presented at times, still impresses through being ambitious and hugely developed.
It surpasses Deus Ex at times, if we’re talking density. Certain conversations in the game give you the chance to ask about a half-dozen different people or topics, chats are always spiking in different directions depending on your decisions, there’s a wealth of private emails to be read and the whole mod is littered with PDAs, books and newspapers to be browsed if you’re in the mood. While this shouldn’t be wholly surprising for a game made by the Deus Ex community, I even prefer the structure of The Nameless Mod to Deus Ex. Instead of the game tugging you by the hand from locale to locale and informing you of your duty like some demanding, nano-enhanced mother, TNM opens by giving you your mystery (find where this mod went, unravel the conspiracy) and Forum City is soon yours to explore in its entirety, its inhabitants yours to interrogate, its many vents yours to kick in. TNM doesn’t concern itself too much with pacing, instead leaving you to deviate and nose around the game world as you see fit. I love it for that. As a detective story it feels less like you’re being drip-fed plot and are instead piecing together the truth yourself, and as a game it feels like you’re being treated like an adult.
Which is another pleasant thing about TNM. About as frequently as you come across a line of dialogue which falls flat you find the kind of mature writing that would raise red flags and be cut from the script of any big-budget game. Tech magazines with articles on not just how technology in the game world works, but why it supersedes previous tech. Finance periodicals describing which of Forum City’s businesses would make solid investments. Books on the history of voodoo. A character who’ll answer questions about holes in Deus Ex’s plot. An exchange about the advantages of letting your family-owned business be swallowed up by a larger corporation. A programmer talking about his hobbies. You know, boring stuff. And yet it all had me utterly rapt and was instrumental in drawing me into this world. TNM is actually eye-opening as to the kind of things the games we pay for aren’t saying due to a concern for delivering entertainment TO THE MAXIMUM. It’s a peek into a world where scriptwriters don’t care if some of what they write goes over the heads of their audience.
Which isn’t to say TNM is a stuffy, wordy thing. Just like Deus Ex all of this is optional, and the game proper offers as much exploration, stealth, murder and gun-fighting as you like. TNM even goes further by giving you access to four sliders which control player health, enemy health, and the density of both items and enemies in a level. I’d give a kidney for that final slider to be in every game ever made. I can even think of a ton of games where I’d slide it skywards.
The one criticism I’d dare to level at such a ludicrous labour of love as this is that I don’t think Off Topic Productions did all they could with this setting. A single-player game set in a pretend online virtual community is, contrary to what the team might think, a fantastic idea. It leaves the door wide open for all kinds of plot devices to do with admins breaking the rules of reality, or viruses, or people’s real lives leaking into the world, or deleting content or accounts from servers. I don’t think TNM realises its potential, and weakens itself in simultaneously trying to appease the community it came from while trying to tell a plain conspiracy story Deus Ex fans will all appreciate.
But this is only a tiny, baby criticism. As a mod TNM is proficient in execution and staggering in scale, and as an epilogue or headstone to Deus Ex it’s heart-warming. The Nameless Mod’s entire cast of characters is made up of people who adored Deus Ex enough to try and build something of their own on top of it, in the process somehow immortalizing themselves within the game they loved. It’s part tribute, part comedy, part fan-fiction and part game of its own, and it’s worth playing, to say the least.
You’ll need a copy of Deus Ex (obv), and you’ll need to download the mod itself and the 1.04 patch from here. An interview with the Chief Creative Officer of Off Topic Productions, Jonas Wæver, will be arriving on RPS a little later in the week.