Emergent Gameplay: Deus Ex Made Me Part 4

By Kieron Gillen on July 1st, 2010 at 6:40 pm.

And just one last one here, unless Obama suddenly mails us to tell us how Deus Ex inspired his political career or something. It’s the lovely Ed Stern, Writer at Splash Damage who finds himself thinking about what actually writing these articles says about games…

Ed Stern, Writer, Splash Damage: I wonder what those younger than I (an option exercised with increasing frequency by the general populace both offline and on) make of all this reminiscing about a decade-old game. Back ten waist-inches and a hairline ago when I was wowed by Jet Set Willy (the game, not the medical condition), what would I have made of an Eisteddfod of oohs and ahhs celebrating, oh I dunno, Pong? We still had Pong then. Pongs linger, as I prove every day. But no one was singing Pong’s praises then, emitting ringing endorsements as to its permanent qualities, assembling This Is Your Life-like to chorus how inspired they’d been by Pong, how they still toiled and moiled within its long, broad shadow, how they’d be content to one day equal, let alone surpass, Pong’s towering, pinging achievement a decade before. Was DX really an early high water mark, one the medium may have receded from since?

As previous witnesses have attested, only now is it clear what an odd time DX emerged in: what now seems a mythical age of adventurous gamesmiths bending genres still warm from the forge backed by budget-unbothered risk-embracing publishers at a moment of rare convergence of hardwares and softwares. 3D First/Third Person Shooter/Hacker/Slasher/Bangers were still freshly amazing, and any environment or character that wasn’t a blank low/no-poly single-texture surface felt like an interactive Rembrandt. These days games look better, are eight, sixty-four, five hundred and twelve times as expensive to make. But they’re not twice as much fun. Granted, our expectations were different back then. Games were Hard. We’d stick with them until we got some enjoyment out of them no matter how Fawlty Towers-esque the initial customer service. Sometimes the rewards were grudging. But Deus Ex kept on, and keeps on giving.

Never mind the extraordinary elegance and number of equi-effective gameplay mechanisms that DX will let you switch between. Pull back and smell the themes. Before DX I’d never played a game that was about very much. I’d never heard of Steve Meretzky’s mind-boggling games for Infocom (such as the still brain-slapping A Mind Forever Voyaging). Indeed I hadn’t played Thief, so the stealthy start to the first mission nearly defeated me entirely. I’m still not sure how many prods of the stun baton it takes to stun a DX NPC, nor for how long: panicky and discovery-prone, I kept prodding and re-prodding them, my stimulus not significantly less spasmodic than their reaction.

I didn’t actually like the thematic stuff at first. My initial reaction when I found references to the Illuminati was pretty much “Pah. Smarty-Pants Game designers. Well I’ve read Foucault’s Pendulum too, thank you very much.” It didn’t occur to me that once the meme had been introduced, the game would then DO something with it and then confront me with my reaction by forcing me to make a choice with no clear pantomimed binary right-or-wrong consequence. I’d never previously struggled to know what the Right thing to do in a game was. I’d always had to mentally change gear to play a computer game, in fact that had become a semi-ritualised part of the pleasure. Ahhh, computer game, leisure, I can now park my brain, or at least all but the problem solving/pattern recognising/reaction twitch parts of it, because I’m not going to have to intellectually or morally parse this game as a text as I would a novel, or article or the news. And suddenly, for the first time, my other brainular lobes woke up, startled from accustomed slumber, and had to Deal.

Replay Value is a Grail for designers, pursued by diverse and sundry paths. But I rarely replay RPG’s all the way through, because just a few tastes of the alternate dialogue-options/mission choices usually give me enough of a flavour of the proceedings; I don’t feel like if I continue, I’ll learn startling new things. But Deus Ex, it’s a whole new You. And everyone changes around you as a result of what you do. And the redundant content paths! Am I right in thinking that lots of people just missed out on the entire Paris section because certain of their choices would remove the need to go there? Can you imagine being allowed to have that much content in a game that a player might, while still completing the game, just miss?

OK, Tracer Tong still seems a rather silly NPC name. And Manhattan to Hong Kong remains an odd non-stop helicopter trip. And yes the Australian in the bar, and The Dancing, ohhh The Dancing. But I just can’t think of another game that lets you do so much, so many different ways, and makes them all Mean something. Significance, for me, is still the biggest problem facing games as a medium. Games are, to a first degree of approximation, still meaningless as a game of chess. Or if we even manage to evoke emotion (however woefully broad/sentimental/melodramatic), we apparently needs must pummel our backs and chests in triumph, for we have equalled if not surpassed all forms of now-obsolete Olde Arte. In truth, we puff and pant to give any of our characters or situations even two dimensions, even a hint of depth, let alone let them stand as fully-realised properly-imagined characters capable of surprising you or themselves. There’s the age-old test of invented character: once you turn the page or they’ve left the stage, do they carry on living in your imagination? I won’t say that I’ve been haunted ever since by Deus Ex’s NPCs, but I did at least wonder what happened to them, even ones we never got to meet. Poor the Denton brothers’ mum. Did Pa Denton talk you into it? Did you talk him into it? Were you both made an offer you couldn’t refuse; were you fired with enthusiasm for the project? Would you be proud of your boys now?

I suppose the main effect Deus Ex had upon me was to reconsider what games could do as a medium and narrative form. Clearly not all games were going to be Think ‘Em Ups, or problem-solving sandboxes filled with so many Melee/Sniping/Hacking/Explosive sands. But they might not require you to park your brain to play them. They might even tell or show you something about the world, or yourself, that you didn’t already know.

Oh yes, and the music’s really good.

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35 Comments »

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  1. jsdn says:

    15th Deus Ex articles within two weeks. Just thought I’d point that out.

  2. LionsPhil says:

    I did at least wonder what happened to them, even ones we never got to meet. Poor the Denton brothers’ mum.

    Bob Page has the answer, near the end of the game, in the Area 51 bunker I believe:

    Bet you didn’t know your mom and dad tried to protest when we put you in training. They loved their little boy, JC, and that’s why they’re dead. I’m sending up the man who did the job.

    Never mind the extraordinary elegance and number of equi-effective gameplay mechanisms that DX will let you switch between.

    Actually, it’s not entirely what he’s on about, but since we’re coming to the end of Deus Ex-fest, I may as well bring it up. Minigames. Deus Ex was better because it didn’t have any.

    Back when System Shock 1 and 2 had you doing little wiring puzzles to bypass things, they were still pretty rare, and a pleasant enough diversion. But by Deus Ex, hacking/lockpicking-style tasks had become something you’d (likely) do several times per level/chapter/area. And I think dropping them to just a progress bar was a stroke of genius, even if an acciental one, because their reappearance in the likes of Bioshock and Mass Effect 2 (the abysmal demo of which triggered this) has made playing a FPRPG like playing a MMORPG. Here is a small, repetative task: please grind it to continue. If the thought “oh no, not this tedium again” enters the thought during a game, something is wrong.

    Honestly, does anyone find recurring minigames fun?

    • Xercies says:

      No, in fact one of the things that i thought wa great that deus ex did and its sequel was put a health bar on the door on both damage, and lockpicking and the same with computers. it sounds silly but it definitly made the game much funner that you just had to get the right tool for the job or put down its health bar. Not many games have followed that kind of thought. its really simple. i hate the minigames in Bioshock and Mass Effect that you have to do for hacking. Everything should have health bars!

    • Wilson says:

      Yeah, I think it’s good point. With the technology of the game, it didn’t strike me as particularly out of place to have those information bars, and it’s nice to have the certainty with that kind of thing.

    • Cooper says:

      Agreed, to an extent.

      First-Person games tend to boil vast amounts of ineraction with the world down to simple key presses.

      This is accepted. I open doors, pick things up, drop them or throw them, I talk to people, I switch things on etc etc. Often with one or two keys.

      This is not cutting corners, this is fluid, uniterrupted, intuitive interface design (something Deus Ex didn’t often manage too well in other places.)

      I have a lockpick in my hand, there is a lock. I click on said lock and should start unpicking it. Maybe, if we have skills in a game, this could take more-or-less time depending. this -makes sense- in an interface schema of simple commands for complex interactions. All Deus Ex is really missing is convincing animations. That lockpcik should, you know, be in the lock. Not waved in the general direction of the locked object…
      (This is something few first person games get right – consider the bandage & med pack “hotkeys” in many games like Stalker, compared to the (admitedly overly viscerous) animations in FarCry2)

      Adding minigames plays havok with what is a nicely streamlined interface, can be immersion-breaking, not to say frustrating. If you are going to have the minutiae of world interaction like the lockpicking in Thief2, spread that fine resolution of interaction with the world the -everything- so it fits with the general interface design.

    • bob_d says:

      The Deus Ex lock-picking felt exactly right for that game, but I must confess I kind of liked the lock-picking in Fallout 3; it was just barely a mini-game. The mechanics managed to deal with both player and character skill, and it was quick and managed to be somewhat satisfying when done correctly. I actually found myself wishing they had made it closer to actual lock-picking in how it worked, though… The computer hacking in Fallout 3 didn’t work nearly as well, I thought.

      @ Cooper:
      The reason why few games get the animation right is because you really need a partially-procedural animation system that modifies a lock-picking animation, for example, such that the character’s hands are aligned with a particular point in the world, even if the body isn’t perfectly aligned. Only modern game engines do that, and only if they’ve spent the money to implement such an animation system (GTA 4, FarCry 2, etc.); it ain’t cheap.

    • Zwebbie says:

      With minigames mentioned, I’d like to point out how clever Deus Ex’s hacking was. The world went on in real time while you waited for that horribly slow bar. That’s quite tense when there are still enemies alive in the area, since they can sneak up on you while you’re busy hacking. Clever, clever!

    • jeremypeel says:

      @ Zwebbie: Yeah, detachment time-wise between hacking and the rest of the game world destroys tension, if only for a short while. I must admit, I grinned when I saw the complexity of Fallout 3’s hacking and I enjoyed actually having to think about it, but it essentially asked us to complete a crossword midway through stealth sequences.

      Knowing that there’s a guard returning at any moment from just down the corridor makes turning off a camera the sweaty-palmed, nail-biting endevour it should be. I also actually really like Thief 3’s solution to the problem, which rarely gets mentioned. It kept you in the game world in real time (iirc), whilst asking for a modicum of precision and fumbling – not too much for it to be called a minigame in it’s own right, but enough to let you feel like you were doing something.

    • bill says:

      @Zwebbie:

      I think that’s what’s missing in Bioshock. In that you can be in the middle of a massive firefight, but if you click on a vending machine then everything stops and you’re invulnerable while hacking.

      I rather liked the Bioshock hacking at first, for about the first 3rd of the game infact. But after that it started to get very repetitive and annoying. One option would be to make it more varied, or shorter and faster. Another would be to make it very simple and in the real world (a SS2 style game but displayed on the monitor in the 3d world). The other of course would just be Thief / Deus Ex style slowness.

  3. YogSo says:

    I may be very wrong, but I don’t think there’s any way to skip the Paris section. The only skippable ‘content’ in the game is the moment of the capture: JC can be captured at the ‘Ton or, if he escapes from there, in the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Finally, if he manages to catch the metro, then he is captured in Battery Park, after a little confrontation with Anna and/or Gunther. There’s a way to evade Gunther and leave the enclosing at Battery Park, but then the game can’t proceed. After all, Deus Ex is, narratively, completly linear. And that’s the great thing about it, there was no need of “open sand-boxness” in terms of story to provide a meaningful and personalized experience.

    • YogSo says:

      PS: Also skippable is the completely optional “quest” of the MJ12 base in Hell’s Kitchen sewers.

    • jeremypeel says:

      Ah yeah, I remember my awe at finding that MJ12 base, and then later when I realised it linked directly to the main plot and the emails and such I’d discovered there added depth to the story whilst being completely option.

    • Jonas says:

      I’m afraid that you are correct, there’s no way to skip Paris. And that’s probably a good thing when it comes down to it, because Paris is brilliant.

  4. LionsPhil says:

    Hong Kong’s canals, and the VersaLife back entrace (in fact, that’s more a case of the front entrance route being skippable if you listen to Tong). You’re basically right, though; Deus Ex’s “skippable” bits are “side quests” and the bits of levels that are there for compulsive explorers (like the sunken cargo ship on Liberty Island).

    • LionsPhil says:

      (Sigh. If it helps your webmonkeys track down the problem, the comments system seems to fail fairly reliably the first time commenting on RPS with a fresh browser session. Some cookie-related issue?)

  5. EBass says:

    Well thats not really a “Section” so much as a side quest in a section. You never need to go diving in the collapsed tunnel in Hong Kong for example.

    What about rescuing Savages daughter? Can you refuse to take that on? I forget.

    • kyynis says:

      I don’t think there’s a way to skip that, but you can fail the stealthing and get the girl killed. Never tried what happens if you return to Savage after that, I always quick loaded if I failed.

    • Lacero says:

      If my memory is working today he thanks you for trying and then doesn’t give you an upgrade canister. PUTTING THE FUTURE OF MANKIND AT RISK OVER HIS PETTY EMOTIONS.

      Those set pieces were what Deus Ex did best, the large open areas like Paris and Hell’s Kitchen made the atmosphere, but the small areas with lots of options made the game.

    • YogSo says:

      @Lacero: Still, it is pretty awesome that the game allows you to go on even if you fail the rescue. As I said, Deus Ex is linear in its one-predetermined-level-after-another structure, so you are forced to play the gas station level after the X-51 lab and before the military base, IIRC. BUT, plot-wise, rescuing Savage’s daughter is not needed to advance the story in any meaningful way, so if you (sadly) botch up that particular “quest”, the main story can and must progress: there are more important things at stake than saving just one single life. Of course, any JC with a trace of self-steem WILL save the girl no matter what, and not only because of the upgrade canister reward (and XP bug exploit that was removed in the latest patch XD ).

  6. kikito says:

    What a shame.

  7. Crusoe says:

    Whatashame

  8. fallingmagpie says:

    Desperate.

  9. Orange says:

    Son of a…

  10. Thiefsie says:

    Where did the 3rd article go?

  11. perilisk says:

    “unless Obama suddenly mails us to tell us how Deus Ex inspired his political career or something”

    Well, he certainly attracts enough conspiracy theories.

    Wait a second… Bob Page, re-arrange the letters… GEP B. Oba. Holy crap! A message from future Republicans. If only the fools realized the GEP gun hadn’t been invented yet.

  12. bill says:

    I’m not really an RPG guy. I enjoyed KotoR, Morrowind and Chrono Trigger, and that’s been about it so far.

    Having failed to get into Planescape, I’m currently trying to get into Baldur’s Gate 2. It’s going ok.

    But what it’s made me realise, along with reading the archived copy of Tom Chick’s negative Deus Ex review, is that in many ways Deus Ex is a very genre-standard RPG. Of course, I always knew it was an FPS/RPG, but because it was presented like an FPS it somehow made it seem less Standard RPG.

    Essentially it’s structure, it’s actions, it’s sub plots, it’s dialogue, it’s inventory, and pretty much everything else is the same as Baldur’s Gate. Under the surface.

    But I think that by making in a real time, 3d, first person, physics-based RPG they made it so much more than most RPGs. Which with their remote viewpoints and static worlds don’t seem very involving. Maybe that’s why I spend hours messing about in Morrowind, but got border of Final Fantasy and Planescape very quickly. Maybe that’s why I find KotoR more interesting than Baldur’s Gate.

    Why don’t we have more 1st person RPGs? Essentially Bethesda are the only guys doing them. They seem to combine the best parts of both genres. Emergent FPS gameplay is the fact you can interact with your environment however you like. Jump on tables. Duck under tables. Try to get to that ledge.
    RPG brings much more depth, complexity and consequence. Together you have a great mix.

    • KittyWolf says:

      You can’t simply take a storyline and shove it into a gameplay type. Could you imagine trying to play something like Chrono-Trigger in this medium? “Whoops shouldn’t have cast that ultimate attack I just wiped out the entire city.” and “How come I have to look at Lavos’ groin?” I’m just saying, stick the game to the medium, don’t try to force the medium into the game.

  13. Maxx says:

    I have been waiting 15 years for a game to compare……………..
    Bout the closest thing gameplay wise is the stalker games…
    One hit head shot kills on the player n all…
    npc detection… blind firing…
    LEANING
    crouch… crawl… walk
    but it needs modded to be perfect…
    Metal gear is comping close…

    but other than that… Deus Ex is one of a kind

  14. Schilcote says:

    Am I the only gamer in the world who LIKES Bio/System Shock-style minigames (not that I’d call System Shock’s hacking interface a “game”, it’s less game-like than Guess The Number)? Not that I DISLIKE Deus Ex’s system, but I certainly don’t mind the diversity. Perhaps future game developers should have an option to turn the minigames off, simply using random chance to determine the degree of success?

    Everyone likes Paradroid, right?

  15. KittyWolf says:

    Man I can’t even remember when I started playing this game… High school sometime. All I know is that I didn’t even know what politics were before this point. I didn’t even learn who Warren was till like 3 years ago. However you put it, up till the advent of Fallout 3, this was the most immersive FPS RPG experience I’d ever played. Sure Hong Kong never feels like Hong Kong, but that’s ok cause I’m buisy talking with the Earth’s future AI overlord. To this day, Deus Ex remains on my “favorite games of all times” list

  16. ToniPop says:

    Beautifully written. Ed Stern’s golden age nostalgia is heartwarming.
    I’m still struggling with accepting the fact that games have derailed from the path they were on back in 2000.