Emergent Gameplay: Deus Ex Made Me Part 3

By Kieron Gillen on June 26th, 2010 at 10:58 am.

Following on from the first two parts, here’s the influence of Deus Ex on two developers in very different places. EA’s RTS Lead Designer Saul Bass was in the industry for five years… and then left. Meanwhile, Aubrey Hesselgren was in Tiverton. There’s a dark future for you…

Samuel Bass, Lead Designer, EA RTS Group

I’d been in the Industry for around 5 years, having gone from a wide eyed innocent to someone so burnt by his last project that he quit the Industry – and gaming – at 23 and went back to school. It was pretty rough, as I’d been making my own games since I was 6 years old or so – there was a Hunchback clone starring my Dad somewhere along the way – and it had always been my dream to work as a professional, yet here I was, walking away from the whole thing. Six month later, however, I was slowly getting back into games, having picked up – and gotten hopelessly obsessed with – System Shock 2, and Deus Ex seemed like the next step in the road back towards being a gamer; it sounded like some kind of Cyberpunk take on Ultima Underworld and that, plus Warren Spector’s Martian Dreams credibility, was enough to sell me on the game.

Finally, it came out, I spent some of my paltry student monies on a copy, threw it on my P400 (with Voodoo 2 SLI) and dug in. Needless to say, I was hooked from the get go; I loved my stealthy, exploratory, righteous JC Denton (real name “Don Henley”, for reasons I cannot explain), I explored every corner of every map, tried to get every Aug Upgrade, every skill bonus, solve every side story, the whole thing. That said, this was the experience of a million gamers the world over, and this is an article about how Deus Ex made me a game designer. For that, I need to go to one specific incident.

(spoilers follow)

I was in Hong Kong, and had started digging into this Maggie Chow woman and her Dragons Tooth sword. I ended up in her fancy penthouse condo, trying to see if I could negotiate something, when she (or her maid, can’t remember exactly) sprung a bunch of armed MJ12 henchmen on me. Being stealth JC Denton, there was no way in hell I was going to win in a direct firefight, so I picked my usual hopeless cause option and decided to die as dramatically as humanly possible. Pulling out my stealth pistol, I blasted out the floor to ceiling windows of the condo and dived out, figuring I’d fall to my death.

I didn’t.

Instead, I ended up on the balcony of an apartment across the way and a story down. I wasn’t dead, I was somewhere else. Somewhere that, as I quickly learned, tied directly into the story I was playing out.

My jaw dropped, my brain raced and, all of a sudden, I realized something – I wanted to make games again. Deus Ex made me back into a game designer.

Aubrey Hesselgren, Technical Game Designer, Splash Damage.

Tiverton is full of inbreeds (not that there is anything wrong with that), and that’s where first saw Deux Ex. I bought it on a whim. Looked cool as shit, like The Matrix, with the wrap around glasses and all staring up at the sky.

I get it home, ready to get crazy with some shotguns and killing and stuff. Next in my face is a leather clad beardy clone of my dude, at some docks, no less.

I’m here for some bullet time ripping shit up, so what’s with the conversations? And how come I have to drag drop stuff onto shortcut keys just to change weapon? And what the hell is a “holstering”? Why do I have to remember the passwords myself? Haven’t you heard of “red key card”, stupid designer men? And there’s no god damned ammo anywhere. And I can’t just hoover it up like a cool space marine. And why do I have to make room in my inventory? These crates stack like laughable 3D tetrominoes. Tracer Tong, you are a shitty Morpheus. What is this crap? Tiverton, have you sold me a fake matrix rip off? Goddamnit, I only just returned Grand Thrift Aunt!

And soon, it’s all over, and it’s a completely forgettable passage of corridors, incomprehensible storylines and random assortments of enemies: Aliens and dinosaurs and robots and cyborgs and dogs and cats and children. Children! You’re making me shoot children! And how come the save games are like ten meg a piece? That’s like 10% of my Sea Colon! Deus Ex is a shitty linear shooter.

And why are people on the internet having shits over this? Every piece of it is clunky, and awkward. Why are they talking about how they saved Paul? That’s stupid. That’s not possible. They scripted him to go out in a blaze of glory. You’re lying. I don’t believe you! Well there’s no need for that kind of language! Okay, alright, fine, I’ll try again.

Oh, you didn’t mention the ladies’ toilet that time Mr. Manderly.

Hey, why are you being critical of me shooting in a shooting game, Quartermaster Carter?

Oh, THAT’S how you pronounce Jaime. “Hi me”!

Oh, you mean I shouldn’t over-charge my biocells due to free radicals damaging the maximum yield of the battery power over time?

Oh, wow, there’s a friggin’ massive underground base down here!

Oh, “007″! Lucky guess! Just think – that never could have happened without an awkward, unnecessary keypad interface.

Oh, my stealth pistol only makes a sound where the bullet hits. Oh, I’ve drawn a bad guy into their own gas bomb. Oh, I just socially manipulated the fuck out of that dude. Oh, this wonkoid crate physics let me stack up to an alternate path. Oh, ducts! Oh, I didn’t actually kill anyone just then, and the exit door isn’t just fucking locked for no reason at all as a result. And I still feel vindicated in taking that approach, and not like I just broke the game.

Oh, Paul!!! You’re alive!!! Oh brother, I am so happy to see you! Please come on more adventures with me! No? Oh well.

Oh but that kid is still annoying. Yeah, I guess you can have my candy bar. I wanted that. I don’t know what it was for. It’s just fun to consume things. If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that I’m fat and I don’t like kids. And that taking health off for double clicking on a cigarette pack is not helping me give up smoking.

So what I basically did was, I played the game with no idea of its real breadth. I assumed that every choice I made was the choice intended by the designer overlords. I trusted that the designers were making me make these intended choices in order to build up to some kind of impressive denouement. I assumed that choosing poorly would result in a protracted dead end and “Fission Mailed” reset scenario. It didn’t even occur to me that there was any way to nudge the plot sideways – not without an FMV and a dropdown menu telegraphing the fact, at least. Paul HAS to die now because there’s probably an important bit of plot later on referring to how he died. He HAS to die now, because who would waste time on plot which only 50% of people will see? None of these freedoms occurred to me, and I played it like it was a linear shooter. I was not so impressed.

But then I tried it again after being nudged by JP, and everything which had seemed counter intuitive to the development of a linear shooter – (obnoxious accessibility issues, maps where you might skip 90% of the content), were in fact what made the game. This was not a story that someone had to get off their chest with a video game to prop it up. This was a possibility space to ground-hog day your way through.

The affordances thrown up by the interfaces presented were not streamlined out to save the player from frustration – instead, they were fully catered to: a keypad is electrical, so yes, it responds to EMP blasts. Not knowing a key code doesn’t stop you guessing that pass code, and you need not provide a bloody-minded designer the evidence that you’ve actually cracked a terminal and read the e-mail with the correct code in your current quick-save alternate time line.

While catering so deeply to the player’s whim introduced accessibility issues (and thinned focus on individual elements), it also opened my eyes to a way to make story heavy games which didn’t feel totalitarian or at odds with a player’s freedoms. This massive shift in authorial control and trust in the player made me understand what it is that makes games special. Everything about it stands out as exactly the kind of thing you’d never put smart money on. And yet it fucks all up to heaven and god.

Deus Ex is a shitty linear shooter, and it’s what excites me about games, and why I get sad when a game devolves into something I’d rather watch than play.

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49 Comments »

  1. GetOutOfHereStalker says:

    dues ex made me skin and eat a homeless man

  2. Wilson says:

    These are all good articles, though I wasn’t initially planning to read them. I’m going to have to play the game again…

    Also – what exactly is going on with GetOutOfHereStalker? I saw the text changed. Was the first thing he wrote not acceptable, or did he change it himself? I’m not bothered, just curious.

  3. LionsPhil says:

    The ability to edit posts has always been a powerful tool in the troll arsenal.

    But, yes, these articles are great.

  4. P7uen says:

    Deus Ex made me (nearly) fail Chemistry A-Level.

    I boasted that the savegame informed me I had played 19 hours in the 2 days since I bought it, then took a module exam.

    It did not go well.

  5. mcwizardry says:

    Great posts, do you think Harvey Smith or Warren Spector would share some more thoughts on the tenth anniversary of Deus Ex?

    • Auspex says:

      “Deus Ex Broke Me”

    • jeremypeel says:

      I think part of the aim of these interviews is to weed out the Deus Ex worshippers in unexpected corners of the games industry, rather than talk to just the usual suspects.

      Although, knowing Kieron, I doubt he’s resisted the opportunity to get back in touch with a couple of ‘em.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Yeah – alternative approaches, really. We’ve all read Harvey and Warren’s DX memories a dozen times before.

      I am actually interviewing Harvey at the moment though for something else more forward looking, which should be up next week.

      EDIT: Here’s an interview with Harvey we ran before though, which touches on some stuff.

      KG

    • jeremypeel says:

      Thanks for the link, Kieron – I was never a PC Format reader and wasn’t likely to find that myself!

      “I am actually interviewing Harvey at the moment though for something else more forward looking, which should be up next week.”

      This is exciting. Last I heard he’s working with Arkane in Austin on some kind of FPS/RPG? It’ll be great to hear about new, potentially things from Harvey, who didn’t seem to have a good time of it at Midway at all.

    • jeremypeel says:

      *potentially great, that is.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I dunno; after Invisible War and Blacksite, Harvey’s name seems somewhat tarnished to me.

      Although he does seem to know what he got wrong with the first, ish, mostly. I’m kind of surprised these talks don’t appear to have been posted in the recent anniversary excitement. (In an earlier part of that talk where they talk about DE1; there’s a part 2. [STOP SLOUCHING, MAN. Spector's got far more class.])

    • LionsPhil says:

      Oooh, look about thirty seconds into this preview interview for what appears to be an early version of the hacked camera control interface. Green monospaced text and a numeric menu—very cyberpunk. And JC has orange shades!

  6. jeremypeel says:

    The fact that such a games enthusiast as Samuel Bass could be burned out of all enthusiasm by the industry in such a short time is scary. Deus Ex’s ability to pull him back on track is at least as inspiring.

    And for what it’s worth, I think the EA RTS group are a hugely talented bunch devoted to making complex and interesting games and, hey, actually attempting to push the genre forward.

    • Samuel Bass says:

      Thanks for the kind words!

      It was a rough time, and in retrospect I blame naivete for much of my disgruntlement. As we said on the RTS team, “making games is hard.”

  7. Jason Moyer says:

    Saul Bass? The layout designer?

  8. Flimgoblin says:

    I was too busy MUDding to pick up Deus Ex at launch – and when I got it bargain-price from GAME a few years later I didn’t get past the first level.

    I think it was RPS articles that made me buy it again on Steam a few years back and complete it just in time for Yahtzee’s Deus Ex song to be released on youtube…

    Things I’m hoping to take on board for my own games would be the abysmal voice acting :D (I’ll aim for some sort of player determination there too…)

    • Ed says:

      Since you were obviously aiming for this, I’ll indulge you…

      What a shame.

  9. Nilocy says:

    My first experiances of Deus Ex was playing it at a friends house, and being absolutely flabbergasted at just how darned complex it is. I was about 12 at the time, and I can honestly say its a game up there with all the great FPS’s, HL, Planetside etc.

    Its got a special place in my heart, and I always want to keep playing it… probably because I’ve never actually finished it yet.

    • Samuel Bass says:

      Guess I”m not so good with the “>” symbol…

    • Samuel Bass says:

      That’d be Saul Bass, btw…

    • Jason Moyer says:

      I have to admit I only know him because of his work on Grand Prix, but the bits he contributed to that were amazing.

      Also, interesting take on DX, sir. I think the Maggie Chow stuff is what really sold the game for me on my first playthrough, lots of totally random “emergent” gameplay opportunities in that area.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      By “Grand Prix” I mean “Grand Prix and Psycho”. Forgot about that one.

    • Samuel Bass says:

      His work on Vertigo is top notch also…

  10. Chiablo says:

    Aubrey Hesselgren is either being sarcastic, or is the biggest douche in the gaming industry.

  11. jstckr says:

    I know, it’s awful, isn’t it? And you always have to ask him silly questions and wait if there’s a sarcastic answer to find out which of the personas he is in right now.

  12. RandomStranger#46 says:

    My granny used to play this. Old game is old.

  13. Soobe says:

    OMG’ZORS!

    @ 3:52 in the video linked to above you see the camera pan up from Warren’s hand to his face, then zoom out a touch. JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER FRIGGIN VIDEO INTERVIEW MADE IN THE PAST 2 YEARS.

    Thus, I proclaim this use of that technique is the first documented in the history of the world.

  14. Gassalasca says:

    It was the spring of 2002, and it had been a year since I got my first PC. It was the spring I played Deus Ex, System Shock 2 and No One Lives Forever in succession.
    Imagine a three month period in which NOLF is the worst game you played.
    Soon after I decided System Shock 2 was the one I liked best. But I never got round to replaying it, while in the following year or two I went back to Deus Ex another three times.

  15. theworm says:

    I had a similar incident at Maggie Chow’s place (although I didn’t know you could jump across to another balcony)…

    *Spoiler Warning*

    Had just spoken with her and told her Paul was dead. She seemed gutted and had to sit down. I did the decent thing and wandered into every room in her apartment with her maid telling me off. Eventually I lost the maid somehow and went back to the elevator to leave, but then noticed that she was no longer blocking a passageway off to one side. Crept down there only to find laser barriers, and lots of them! This was very odd. Then before I could investigate further, a bunch of MJ12 guys jumped me. I raced back to the elevator, dived in, hit the button, spammed the slowly narrowing gap between the doors with rifle fire (I think I got a couple of them) and fell out at the lobby, breathing heavily.
    It was only then my mind started to work out what had just happened… “hang on, she has Majestic 12 soldiers in some sort of secret area in her apartment, but she said she was working with Paul against Majestic 12 to … she lied … she deliberately lied to me. It was all an act, and I fell for it!”
    The fact an NPC had lied to me and I worked it out suddenly kicked open a door in my brain to a whole new space. It was the kind of creeping realisation you only get in the best films, the best books, except it was all created through my actions in the game. That certainly opened my eyes.
    After that I was all the more willing to help the dodgy sounding Tracer Tong, grab that sword and kill that woman. That was a satisfying moment indeed.

  16. Hélder Pinto says:

    What a nice article, Aubrey’s text was specially awesome! :D

    Thanks! :)

  17. Samuel Bass says:

    Not if you’re a game developer, writing on the internet. No room for ambiguity there.

    • Samuel Bass says:

      Once again, I fail at the comments system – was meant to be a reply to Aubrey above.

      (gets coat)

    • Aubrey says:

      Dude, I am better at replying than you. Check it out. This is my reply.

      (I loved your story, also. I had no idea about that route! Makes me want to go back and play again!)

    • Samuel Bass says:

      Funny thing is, when I finished my last replay – last month – I went in expecting to do my awesome window leap again, but instead did something totally different. I guess playing as coldly psychopathic JC Denton is indeed different to playing stealthy, righteous JC Denton.

      Loved your story too – reminded me of a good friend who it took a second playthough to convince.