Dark Futures Part 5: Clint Hocking

By Kieron Gillen on July 13th, 2010 at 1:00 pm.

Clint Hocking’s career started with sending his resume into Ubisoft Monreal “on a lark”. Six week’s later, he’s working on the original Splinter Cell, ending up as a designer/scriptwriter. After its enormous success, he rose to the position of Creative Director on Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Far Cry 2 before leaving this year to chase new horizons. Away from his game design, he’s a prolific essayist on his own blog. And in keeping in that, rather than a traditional interview, Clint has wrote us an essay…

A number of really smart people who I respect tremendously have already spoken in this series about Deus Ex as a landmark in the Immersive Sim genre. I certainly agree with them that it is. I would go one further to say it is not a landmark of the ‘strangely gnarled tree’ sort that helps travellers know where to turn left, but rather a landmark of the Mount Everest sort which not only stands unmistakably out of the landscape, but whose sheer mass shapes the entire region and whose majesty both dares and inspires us to climb it.

Yet despite its importance and its influence on an entire generation of game designers, in looking back on Deus Ex ten years later, I begin to suspect that its landmark status as the quintessential Immersive Sim is not the thing that will remain its lasting legacy. What a beautiful contradiction that would be.

Indulge the guy who has been accused of hating game stories to talk about story for a minute.

Deus Ex, fictionally speaking, was a post-modern conspiracy story set in a cyberpunk universe (without the cyberspace). It brought us a futuristic, street level view of corruption, pollution, technology and violence, and it also gave us the sweeping panorama of historical mystery, winding through an eclectic (yet mysteriously coherent) set of international locations.

On the cyberpunk side, if we look at the dozens, even hundreds of cyberpunk novels and films created in the decade that surrounded Deus Ex, I think it is safe to say that the cyberpunk world of the game has stood the test of time better than most – and certainly better than Ice-T’s mangaroo J-Bone in 1995′s Johnny Mnemonic. About the harshest criticism you can level against the cyberpunk aesthetic of Deus Ex ten years later is that the graphics aren’t very good – a criticism which, if I recall, was levelled even at launch.

On the conspiracy theory side, Deus Ex has also stood its ground. Of the many conspiracy themed books, films and television shows of its era dealing with everything ranging from the Knights Templar to the Kennedy Assassination to Area 51 – and frequently any or all of those things in combination – Deus Ex stands almost alone today as one of the few works that is not laughable in retrospect. If you don’t believe me, set aside Foucault’s Pendulum as a satire of our societal conspiracy fetish, and then remember that we used to think David Duchovny was Geek Cool and Gillian Anderson was Librarian Hot. See? You’re laughing, and I’m right.

So, the point I am winding my way toward is that I believe the lasting legacy of Deus Ex will not be in its status as the Mount Everest of Immersive Sims for the same reason its lasting legacy will not be as a work of cyberpunk conspiracy fiction.

Both cyberpunk and conspiracies were, I believe, fundamentally tied to the zeitgeist of the decade surrounding the turn of the millennium. Cyberpunk reached its zenith with another Keanu Reaves movie in 1999, and that same year the final images of collapsing financial skyscrapers in Fight Club predicted the events of a bright September morning two years later which gave rise to conspiracy theories so idiotic and offensive that conspiracy theory itself fell almost instantly out of fashion (torpedoing, coincidentally, a game called Majestic, which I believe was shockingly prescient in the context of the rest of this article). By 2003, when Trinity and Ted’s Bogus Journey murdered cyberpunk and buried it in a shallow, unmarked grave, the zeitgeist that had made Deus Ex so resonant was suddenly in exile.

The same thing happened to the Immersive Sim.

By 2001, with Saddam’s alleged weaponization of the PS2 and the launch of the XBox, the Console Wars had been declared. A generation of increasingly hardcore gamers who had grown up playing three games a year – with their headphones on, their noses pressed against their giant 21″ monitors, locked in their dorm rooms until 4am nightly – dismissed the idea of console games as being for kids. We didn’t play games on the couch. We didn’t want a broader range of games. We wanted fewer, deeper, better games – and bigger monitors so we might eventually be able to step right inside them and gorge ourselves on delicious Matrix steak. We wanted Immersive Sims and we called the shots because we were The Gamers. All two million of us.

And then came Halo. And we laughed at it. And we mocked those who played it for needing sticky aim because sticky aim sucks. And suddenly we found ourselves working jobs we hated in order to buy shit we didn’t need, and like every generation before us, through stubbornness and closed-mindedness, we became the very thing we hated and let the thing that we loved wither and (almost) die.

As the size of the game-buying population exploded more or less in lockstep with the arrival of Generation Y, the Gen X notion of the importance of the Immersive Sim rapidly faded. Largely assisted by sticky aim (and the much broader design philosophy that underlies it) games became something you could play at a house party while drinking and being cool and talking. With chicks. As soon as the distinct sets of People-Who-Played-Games and People-Who-Got-Laid embraced to become a Venn Diagram, everything changed forever. Gaming became part of a new culture; a culture that was less elitist, less technical, more social and more accessible. The requirement to deeply explore and push at the edges of a rich and complicated system space in order to find the fun or build your own was out of fashion. Games from then on would simply give you what you paid for instead of asking you to work for what you paid for. Even I have to admit that it makes a certain kind of sense – especially if you’re talking about something besides games. But fuck it – you play the hand you’ve been dealt (though I am sure there are probably games now where you can trade the hand you’ve been dealt for a better one if you don’t like it).

I could extend this elegy on The Dying of the Immersive Sim for many, many pages, but that’s not the point of this article. I’m here to talk about what I believe will be the real legacy of Deus Ex for all the generations to come, and I am here to suggest that if we can decouple our understanding of what makes Deus Ex important from our nostalgia for ‘Zeitgeist99′, then there are things to be learned that are in desperate need of application to the design challenges of today.

The truly great games – the games that last because of their nature as games – from Chess to Poker to Pac-Man to Tetris to Doom, all have one feature in common; it’s that they offer strong feelings of agency. Now, agency (in my opinion) is the very stuff of games, so all games offer some feelings of agency. In particular, Immersive Sims tend to offer a lot of agency by merit of the generally high interconnectedness of their generally numerous systems. In fact, it is hard to separate Immersive Sims from games with lots of agency and Deus Ex is firmly a part of both sets. But it is really important to point out – as is evident from the list of high agency games at the start of this paragraph – that Immersive Sims are (or tend to belong to) a subset of high agency games. It is decidedly not the other way around; high agency games are not a subset of Immersive Sims, nor are the sets equivalent (Tetris is not an Immersive Sim).

Now, I am not going to argue that Deus Ex is important because it is a high agency game (it is), but rather that it is important and will continue to be important for many decades to come despite the fading relevance of the Immersive Sim because of how its agency is distributed. In other words, the real legacy of Deus Ex is not that it offers more or better feelings of agency, but rather that it offers an unusually sophisticated delivery of agency.

Perhaps more than any game before or since, Deus Ex offered meaningful agency to the player at – and connected across – three diverse levels of play. At the Narrative Level, it offered players choices about which path to take through the narrative, the decisions the player made would impact his options at the Progression Level in terms of the choices he had about how he upgraded his character. Those Progression Level decisions would further impact the Input Level decisions the player would be required to make when encountering a specific challenge.

In summary, Deus Ex was a game where your ability to pick a lock in order hide in a closet to avoid combat with a guard was in some way meaningfully connected to and derived from how you felt about different characters in the story.

Think about that for a minute: by creating a chain of influence that cascaded between the narrative and the WASD keys, Deus Ex allowed players to experience the repercussions of their immediate Input Level actions as they echoed upward into the very plot of the game.

Holy fucking shit!

Now, I don’t want to claim that the guys at Ion Storm Austin delivered some miracle that came out of the blue. I believe a lot of people were contributing over a great long time to this significant achievement, and Deus Ex really only synthesized a handful of not-that-disparate things that I think were fairly well understood individually (kind of like, dare I say, Citizen Kane did). It’s not a small achievement, to be sure, but what is truly important, and what I think will prove to be the true lasting legacy of Deus Ex is the degree of subtly, artistry and – indeed – beauty, with which the above challenge was met. It is not just that Deus Ex offers players agency across all three levels of play, and that the player’s agency at the different levels runs into, blends and harmonizes with his agency at other levels, but that it does so in a way which is exceptionally aesthetically rich and pleasing to experience.

In short, the entire scope of the design space described by Deus Ex was rendered as uniformly game-like as was possible at the time; Deus Ex was ‘complete’ in a way very few games have ever been.

A decade later, when I look at the challenges the Immersive Sim has faced in remaining relevant to the current population of gamers, I often wonder what we can do as designers to build upon something as profoundly beautiful as I find Deus Ex to be. I sometimes fear the only path to this kind of completeness passes dead-center through the heart of the shrinking Immersive Sim set, which itself is entirely nested within the larger high agency game set. But really, that fear is irrational. It is obviously born of my deep cultural attachment to Zeitgeist99 and my membership in Generation X.

Look at chess – certainly one of the most beautifully complete games of all time. It does not even have Input Level agency. You can’t make meaningful decisions about how a piece moves – only where it moves to, which I’d call Progression Level agency that determines the context for subsequent moves.

Look at poker, a game without a Narrative Level at all, but which offers an elegant uniformity of agency across its many level of play – including levels of play that Deus Ex does not even touch, such as the social context and interaction of other players at the table. Poker is as complete as Deus Ex, (perhaps more so) has no Narrative Level agency, and is obviously not an Immersive Sim.

Chess. Poker. Deus Ex. These games are complete because they offer us agency in the entirety of their scope. As we move forward into a world where gamer culture is (as I described earlier) less elitist, less technical, more social and more accessible, and is engaged by players who are hanging out and talking… often with chicks, we find our games increasingly overlapping with the outside world. To be engaging for players, modern games need to acknowledge the context in which the game is being played instead of denying it, as Immersive Sims tend to do.

The (new) reality is that everything from Achievement Points to Twitter and Facebook feeds to Drop In Co-op to Mii’s and Avatars to Level Editors to Augmented Reality to motion controllers and gaming in the Cloud has created an entire new domain of rules that for the most part designers don’t even question – never mind design to support meaningful player agency.

If the real legacy and the real lesson of Deus Ex is that completeness comes from giving players agency in the places where they care about playing, then the application of that lesson unfolds in three steps.

We need first to acknowledge that today’s players are aware of the magic circle – they are often willfully and happily partially within it and playing conceptually with their sense of presence therein at any given moment, regardless of how immersive the game is. Second, we need to offer them more than the mere ability to enter and exit that circle. We need to let them touch it, manipulate it, and explore and test its limits. We need to think of the edges of our games as being game objects themselves, and we need to systematize those objects and make them part of play. And finally, we need to have the courage to reject the notion that doing so will somehow ruin our game.

A great many people believe there are things players should not be allowed to touch, that some parts of the game are too important to play with, that at some level the decisions of the designer must be sacred.

I believe the opposite. I believe that the players’ agency is sacred. I believe there is no part of a game too important to play with. While some seek to make a straw man of this stance by suggesting I am in favour of shipping uncompiled code and calling it a game, I find that to be a greedy reduction of the argument. The game does not lie in code – compiled or otherwise. The game is what is happening inside the player, and the reality is it was never ‘our game’ to protect from ruin in the first place.

I believe that the ‘Dark Future’ predicted by Deus Ex is only dark to those who hope to cling to their authorship like priests in a fire lit apse mumbling the Sacred Word in a dead language. I believe the end of times comes when we finally understand that the God From The Machine is not the Hand of the Designer reaching down to intervene, but the hand of the player reaching up to touch the Divine.

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70 Comments »

  1. Baboonanza says:

    Wow, I really liked that article. It’s a very different approach to looking at Deus Ex than the other guys have taken, and spot-on about the development away from the ‘Immersive Sim’.

    I do have the feeling that the ‘Immersive Sim’ will come back, it’s absence is more of a break due to cost and technical constraints. There are games out recently that have facets of a game far in advance of Deus Ex and it’s only a matter of time before these elements are re-combined successfully.

  2. Olli T. says:

    Jeez, Deus Ex is a good game, but come on.

    • Fraser says:

      People love to brag about how intelligent and mature the RPS community is, but even here, knee-jerk anti-intellectualism is thriving.

      Hocking was, if anything, less positive about Deus Ex than most of the other interviewees (not to mention 90% of the RPS commenters): he said it was a complete game that exemplified its genre, not the pinnacle of gaming.

  3. AndrewC says:

    “To be engaging for players, modern games need to acknowledge the context in which the game is being played instead of denying it, as Immersive Sims tend to do.”

    Now there’s something grumpy PC players could do well to think about. Nice.

    However ICE T played a Mangaroo in Tank Girl, right? And Deus Ex’s storytelling is quite often laughed at today. And Gillian Anderson is still hot, dammit And could he please wrangle it so the cool-down periods for checkpoint respawning is changed in Far Cry 2?

    But still: nice stuff.

    • Baboonanza says:

      “To be engaging for players, modern games need to acknowledge the context in which the game is being played instead of denying it, as Immersive Sims tend to do.”
      I disagree. Maybe to be monetarily successful in the console market that is true, but the games I love are games that remove me from the context of my surroundings and immerse me in their world (or mechanics for strategy games). I want my escapism.

      That’s what PC gaming is all about IMO.

    • AndrewC says:

      I’m reading into his words, obvs, but I reckon he was saying the Immersive sim was, 10 years ago, a force for expansion and liberation from the twitch-games that had been the norm before but that, now, they are a force for conservatism, dragging games back into their darkened-room ghetto and away from the light of the rest of culture.

      It may be what you want, but he’s asking you to question why you want it. That’s what I think he’s getting at anway.

      And Anyway again, I’d argue that modern games are riddled with Deus Ex-isms – with complex overlapping systems that provide a sense (or an illusion) of agency. Red Dead Redemption, I felt, did that ‘layers of systems’ really well. Not at all on the same level as Deus Ex, of course – the influence may be subtle, and the effects small and hidden behind all the sturm and drang of modern console flashiness, But you could totally argue Deus Ex won the war and the victory is slowly but ever more increasingly being shown in even the biggest, most mainstream games.

    • Baboonanza says:

      ‘I’m reading into his words, obvs, but I reckon he was saying the Immersive sim was, 10 years ago, a force for expansion and liberation from the twitch-games that had been the norm before but that, now, they are a force for conservatism, dragging games back into their darkened-room ghetto and away from the light of the rest of culture.’
      That might be part of his argument, though given that Deus Ex is rooted in the zeitgeist of 90s conspiracy I don’t see why an Immersive Sim can’t be as reflective of contemporary culture as any other game.

      I took his argument to be that successful games must be things that don’t require the dedicated attention of the player, so they can check their Twitter feeds or play at a party. Which is utter bullshit, because while that is one perfectly valid way to make some games it doesn’t give the deeper more rewarding experiance that I crave from PC gaming.

      The reason why we look back on things like Deus Ex so fondly is because they absorbed us into their worlds and mmade an impression on us. Forgettable action games have their place but I’d like to think that the future of games has something more meaningful as the end goal.

    • Baboonanza says:

      Or more succinctly:

      If I’m watching a ‘Empire of the Sun’ it doesn’t improve the experience if I’m constantly reminded that I’m sitting on a sofa in the 21st Century watching a film on my 40inch TV. I certainly don’t want Facebook or Twitter anwhere nearby.

    • AndrewC says:

      I don’t think he was saying games should be so casual you can check your e-mail while you are doing them, but that games can be made more full of ‘player agency’ if they acknowledge the environment they are played in – ie being on a computer attached to a series of overlapping networks full of information and other people. games should be designed so that using your email while playing them adds to the game.

      Or, on a more basic level, it’s a bit weird for a game to pretend to be so ‘immersive’ that it is not a game. I think that’s what his ‘magic circle’ is. We are always aware, and get a great deal of fun from playing around with where the game starts and ends – like all the fan-created silliness around TF2. We both role-play the game and meta-game the game; we are both in an out of the circle at the same time. These immersive sims start feeling a bit dour and stultifyingly self-serious – like those lovely goth soles that still walk around in long dark leather coats – for ignoring this aspect.

      ‘Here’s all this new stuff we can use’, he’s saying, ‘let’s use it rather than turning our backs on it and staying in our little, mildly solipsistic ,enclosed, half-scripted, half-simmed worlds’. His ‘magic circle’ is, perhaps, starting to feel like a prison.

      Well that’s what i’m getting out of it anyway.

      Or: imagine if you are watching a horror movie about a phone call that delivers curses, and then your phone rings! Wooo!

    • Baboonanza says:

      Now that makes sense, thanks. I agree that it’s an interesting place to take things, as long as it’s recognised that there are meaningful experiences to be had by remaining ‘in the circle’. Not every game has to break the fourth wall.

  4. Baboonanza says:

    The last paragraph implies that the author believes the end-game of the ‘Immersive Sim’ is to create a simulated world in which the player has full agency and the story is emergent from their actions.. I assume this is what’s meant by designers not ‘clinging to their authorship’ – allowing the player to make their own story, one that may be radically different from the one the designer wants to tell.

    That’s what I always imagined, and it’s a game I’d like to play. It already happens in games like Eve Online, but I’d like to see it done in a single-player game.

  5. Sobric says:

    Ooooh his conclusion made me all tingly

  6. Auspex says:

    Parties where people played games, drank booze and then had sex?

    Why was I never invited?! I like all of those things…

  7. Ian says:

    many people believe there are things players should not be allowed to touch, that some parts of the game are too important to play with, that at some level the decisions of the designer must be sacred

    I wonder whether this runs parallel to the postmodern view about the reader — and what the reader brings to the text — being as important (if not more so) than the author’s original intent:

    “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”

    Is there a way of designing a narrative that, much like — or even more so than — Deus Ex, allows for the player’s actions to radically alter what happens next and that still makes sense when taken as part of a game’s story? Does it even remain a narrative at that point? Do we just get left with plot (‘and then this happened, and then that happened’)?

    Is this kind of freedom only allowable in RPGs, or could it work in — say — Half Life 2′s world (perhaps if I save Eli Vance)? While we accept that characters in films must make stupid decisions in order for the film’s narrative to unfold, are we selling computer games short by insisting that they be ‘cinematic’ in both visual style and story-telling?

    we need to have the courage to reject the notion that doing so will somehow ruin our game

    What happens if we do try to fragment the narrative to support all the possible choices a player may wish to make (both stupid and not-so-stupid) — do we end up with a ‘choose your own adventure’-style experience (perhaps better termed the ‘Dragon’s Lair’ approach), or something better, more uniquely ‘ours’?

    I’m really looking forward to seeing where this line of thinking takes Mr. Hocking — if, indeed, it can be taken anywhere…

    • JuJuCam says:

      Is there a way of designing a narrative that, much like — or even more so than — Deus Ex, allows for the player’s actions to radically alter what happens next and that still makes sense when taken as part of a game’s story?

      Alpha Protocol made steps in this direction, but crucially and tragically the Narrative Level of agency was almost hermetically sealed apart from the Input Level of agency, so it felt almost like you were playing two games: One in which you ran around killing or disabling enemies, and another in which you jet-set around the world and talked to a lot of different people and made decisions about your attitude towards them that would have far-reaching consequences later on.

      One of these games was more interesting than the other.

    • iamseb says:

      Is there a way of designing a narrative that, much like — or even more so than — Deus Ex, allows for the player’s actions to radically alter what happens next and that still makes sense when taken as part of a game’s story? Does it even remain a narrative at that point? Do we just get left with plot (‘and then this happened, and then that happened’)?

      One approach to this might be to adopt a narrative imperative separate from individual characters, such that certain events are inevitable and if they don’t involve one character another would step in to fulfil the role. Sure, this is an artificial restriction on the impact of wider agency, but it’s fairly invisible to the player within the context of the game.

      There’s an awful lot to be explored here, and this article’s going to keep me chewing over a few ideas for weeks.

    • Ragnar says:

      Yes, ‘cinematic’ is the arch-enemy of agency.

  8. vanarbulax says:

    “About the harshest criticism you can level against the cyberpunk aesthetic of Deus Ex ten years later is that the graphics aren’t very good.”

    Pfft.. no. Admittedly I haven’t played all the way through Deus Ex, and this is from 10 years later since it was RPS coverage which convinced me to pick it up on a steam sale, but its aesthetic is what put me off it. Even if it does something amazing at the end it can’t retroactively stop the past 6 hours from being terrible aesthetic/message/narrative wise.

    Also from this description of the Immersive Sim, the ultimate Immersive Sim is Dwarf Fortress.

    • Baboonanza says:

      Why do people continue saying this?

      Dwarf Fortress is a Sim, but in no way, shape or form does it fit the Immersive tag. You don’t even have a direct agent in the world (in fortress mode anyway, and adventure mode is just a poor rogue-like).

      Now, a dwarf-fortress game in which you were one of the Dwarves might qualify as an Immersive Sim. It would also be a very strange game.

    • Cooper says:

      Nonsense.

      Dwarf Fortress is much like the Sims in that agency, if it is found anywhere, is most readily recognisable in the machinations of the individual game actants. Anyone remember that fantastic E3 presentation?

    • Ninja Dodo says:

      ASCI is not, nor will ever be immersive.

    • Bored says:

      Er, lots of books are printed in “ASCI” and are pretty darned immersive.

  9. JuJuCam says:

    Great article, full of great insights, the best one for me being replacing the now nearly meaningless phrase “gameplay” with the more descriptive and useful “player agency”. They’re not perfectly synonymous but usually when I say gameplay I’m trying to mean “the decisions and direct actions the player makes and takes” which is a definition that is neatly encapsulated in “player agency”.

  10. gumbomasta says:

    Best article I’ve read on this site, hands down. Holy shit. I’m gonna be chewing on this piece for weeks!

  11. Justin Keverne says:

    I can’t help but feel that Clint is giving undue priority to gaming as a product of the cultural zeitgiest instead of as one of the formative aspects of it. Deus Ex wasn’t merely a product of a turn of the century mindset it was also a part of that mindeset itself.

    Clint’s essay strikes a similar chord withme that the work of Raph Koster does, both imply that the future focus of gaming will be inthe realm of player agency, social media and community as those are current trends in human cultural development at the moment. They are accurate in their assesment of current cultural trends however tying the future of gaming to current culture reinforces the implicit notion that gaming is a product of culture not a former of it.

    We have the choice moving forward to either stand with current culture and become inoffensive, confirmative and therefore unthreatening, or to stand apart from current culture and highlight a new way forward for culture in general, to be dynamic, nonconformist and dangerous..

    “The reasonable man changes himself to fit the world, the unreasonable man changes the world to fit himself. Therefore all change comes from the unreasonable man.”

    It’s way past time we made a choice, reasonable or unreasonable. A product of current cultural or a harbinger of the next. I know where I stand, we don’t need to conform to the likes of Facebook and Twitter we can make our own future and when we shine bright enough the rest of the world will follow.

    • AndrewC says:

      You change the culture only by being part of it.

    • Baboonanza says:

      @Justin Keverne
      There are 2 problems with your theory:
      1- Deus Ex didn’t reach a large enough audience for it to have a sharp impact on modern culture. The Matrix and the X-Files were seen be 10-100 times more people and had a much more defining influence (especially the X-Files since it was early in the decade and one of the major catalysts of zeitgeist)
      2- Deus Ex is far to late. Using 911 as the end of the era (which seems perfectly reasonable to me) Deus Ex (released in 2000) was literally right at the end. There wasn’t time for it to influence any major cultural works besides internet fan-ficton.

      In terms of style and setting Deus Ex is a product of the 90s culture much more than an informer of it. I actually wonder why part of the reson so few games have tried to emulate it is that it’s cultural image is so dated that it makes the things it does well less appealling by association.

    • Justin Keverne says:

      Deus Ex was late to the party, yet it’s influence was clearly felt by a large enough number of people for it to still be discussed ten years later. Hardly surprising when the games industry is always playing catch up to other media. The very fact Deus Ex was at the tail end of that cultural wave is part of my concern.

      If all the games industry can do is attempt to follow in the footsteps of those who have already forged these new cultural concepts it will always be catching the tail end of that wave. Ten years from now we’ll be discussing something else that was relevant to us but that went unnoticed by the majority.

      Facebook, community, cooperation and self directed play are all aspects of a cultural period that is nearly over. Changes in culture often occur as a reaction to what went before so the themes of the next cultural era seem likely to be privacy, identity and a push back towards self reliance and objectivity. Issues with Facebook privacy and Blizzards issues with RealID show that current assumptions about what is culturally and socially acceptable are already changing. Clint’s on the ball but I think he’s already missed the window.

  12. Eight Rooks says:

    Yeah, he continues to do a tremendous job of competing with Molyneux for the person within the industry whose worldview and creative ambitions I most detest. And that is not in any sense hyperbole, or an exaggeration – reading that essay made me feel ill. FarCry 2 was probably the most misguided, incompetent attempt at providing player agency within an evolving narrative I’ve ever played – no, pretty as the world was, that doesn’t change what I just said – and the idea escapism is somehow dead or obsolete fills me with horror. Like others have said, I don’t begrudge him his attempts to connect games to the real world, but frequently that’s the last thing I want. I dread to think what Demon’s Souls would have been like if Hocking got his hands on it.

    I think my attitude to this whole thing can be summed up in my reaction to the developer – I wish I could remember who it was – who said something along the lines of ‘Players are always going to be jerks, so our holy grail as designers is to create a world which adapts and changes and builds a game around that’. I find that appalling. Literally appalling. I cannot fathom anyone finishing off that sentence with anything other than ‘Our holy grail as designers is to compel players not to be jerks‘. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, while you’d struggle to pick out one person who’d prove the rule, people – taken as a whole – are stupid, thoughtless and ignorant. There should always, always, always be an element of the sanctity of the author to game design.

    Not entirely coincidentally, I bloody hated Roland Barthes and anything to do with literary postmodernism at university. If you’ve got that much of a problem taking control of your work, go do something else for a living, eh?

    • Urthman says:

      ‘Our holy grail as designers is to compel players not to be jerks‘.

      If by this you mean “compel players not to be jerks to other players in multi-player games,” I’ll give you a hearty Amen! But if you mean “design single-player games that discourage you from being a jerk in the game” then I’ll give you a “Keep your snooty ideas off my fun, Mr. Killjoy.”

    • Tim Ward says:

      No, the holy grail is to allow the player to be a jerk and let them suffer the same consequences in the game that their behavior would cause in real-life.

      For the classic jerk example of shooting at someone you’re not supposed to shoot.

      1) Preventing you from attacking them when you would, logically, be able to attack them: bad
      2) Allowing you to attack them but they’re invulnerable: bad
      3) You can attack them and they take damage and retaliate, but nothing else happens: bad
      4) You’re wanted for murder, and can’t progress in the story: good.

    • Veracity says:

      But Demon’s Souls has weird gimmicky multiplayer, no? Ok, it’s not Facebook integrated (wait for the sequel), but it’s interfacing with reality in a way that doesn’t seem incompatible with the article’s suggestions. Does make me ponder a bit why I somewhat actively cringe at achievement pop-ups and the like, as opposed to just ignoring them.

      Thought it was an interesting read, despite not finding much to nod along to in it.

      Only thing I really object to is the claim the writing isn’t/wasn’t laughable. It is and was, at least depending on how uncharitable you’re feeling and what standard you’re holding it to. More thoughtful than most video games? Ok, but that’s not much of a distinction. Foucault’s Pendulum was old news when this game was released, for heaven’s sake – why should we “set it aside” when considering it?

      But I always thought Deus Ex was a bit arse. System Shock was my Deus Ex, in the seemingly common “neat, so this is what video games will be like from now on…oh” sense. I obviously have atrocious taste. Although someone’s (citation needed) scalpel/swiss army knife analogy comparing it to…Thief? might partially explain it. I mostly prefer scalpels, Space Rangers 2 exempted for mad genius.

    • Fraser says:

      Clint Hocking is outspoken about his design philosophy in part because very few big-budget, high-profile game developers are trying similar things, or indeed trying anything the least bit risky. A greater diversity of approaches to game design will benefit games, even if you don’t like all of them. I can’t figure out why anyone would want to play any of the Metal Gear Solid games, let alone think they’re any good, but I’m glad that they get made because they’re different, and that means we can learn from them. If Far Cry 2 was designed to be the same as Far Cry 1 with a new setting, better graphics and different guns, we would have learned nothing.

  13. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I feel Warren Spector would disagree, games are a dialog between player and developer and the limitations of deus ex are as important as freedoms it allows.

  14. LionsPhil says:

    What a rambling mess of an essay. Somebody get this guy an editor armed with a huge pair of pruning shears.

  15. MycoRunner says:

    Okay. What is agency?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Ability to do/change stuff. When you don’t have agency, you can’t do anything. A cut-scene has no agency, for example.

      KG

    • Lacero says:

      So, can we measure this? Say, a single quick time button push has 1 bit of agency?

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Lacero: Were you to try and actually do it in an objective scale – I suspect a fool’s errand – it couldn’t be that simple. It’s a question of how much agency that button press allows. For example, the button-bashing Track & Field involves a lot of button presses, but far less agency than the one-button press in Solium Infernum which makes me declare a vendetta on Quinns.

      KG

    • MycoRunner says:

      Ah, thanks for replying and not mocking me also.

      Some games allow you to do anything, but none of it matters. Others allow you to do nothing except for what matters. A game like Deus-Ex allows you to shape the future of the human race, and also sneak into the women’s toilets. Both have consequences, but one matters a lot more. Hm.

    • Lacero says:

      For the record I wasn’t mocking, I think there is a meaningful and useful way of measuring agency to be discovered, even if there isn’t a perfect one. To clarify, the button push in SI is one of thousands of possible permutations of orders and their timing for your turn, and in SI I would say conversations with your opponents add to your agency

      I’m conflicted on whether a single button push in track and field is equivalent to a single button push in a QTE. I shall have to think more :)

    • Chris D says:

      I am still confused by this. Ok, so games must havve agency otherwise they’re films. But games also have rules, which is what makes them games as opposed to toys. A rule is a limit on agency therefore games are defined as much by how they limit agency as much as by how they give it. Which would mean that the key issue is not how much agency you have but how you allow for it?

      I’m also not sure how Clint is using the term. He gives Pac Man and Tetris and examples of high agency games whereas I would have thought they would be low agency. Move in one of four directions, run from ghosts unless you are able to eat them. For tetris you can rotate or drop, left or right. Both seem to be fairly limited, especially compared to modern games.

      Does a grand strategy game always have more agency than a shooter or puzzle game simply because of it’s scope? Or less because you don’t have direct control? Is more agency always better? How do we measure it in any meaningful way?

      Yeah. I’m confused. Anyone?

    • Bored says:

      Arcade games (or ideal ones) could be described as games without false tokens. Take “token” to be an object in the game “world”. Pac-Mac has, besides the eponymous protagonist, pills, big pills (?), ghosts and fruit. You can interact with all of those tokens and they all mean something in terms of progressing in the game. The game world is a maze (or series of them) in which Pac-Man can go virtually everywhere (except the Ghost spawn area). There is no window-dressing. There is no noise. In the context of the game, you can affect everything and everything affects you (through the avatar), so it’s high agency.

      Myst is low agency. It’s full of false promises and pointless tokens that either you cannot affect, cannot affect you (in terms of your progress in the game), or both. It’s got richly detailed environments full of useless props that might as well be cardboard. You can’t stray from the path. You can’t interact with most of the world, so in fact, it doesn’t exist. The game is almost all window dressing. That’s part of the nature of adventure games: to seem to give you a million possibilities, but really only give you a few, and maybe only one, at any given point in the game.

      Either of these games can still be immersive (that’s a completely qualitative and personal evaluation), but neither is a simulation. On the other hand, games can offer simulation and either high or low agency. It depends on how fully you can interact with the tokens in the game, and whether your interaction with them has any effect on your progress in the game.

      Personally, having finally gotten around to trying out Deus Ex recently, in response mostly to RPS, it’s still as unsatisfying as I found the original demo when I first tried it. It feels too much like a proof of concept instead of a complete game. I don’t find it very “sim”. I found the original Quake a lot more sim-like (and also a lot more immersive, despite almost complete absence of real narrative).

      Quake at least revelled to a certain extent in its artificiality. The story was just a “theme” to hold together the disparate parts and provide focus for art and sound design. But when monsters started fighting one another spontaneously, or you could leap off an exploding rocket, there was no greater sense of being inside a world which had some kind of inherent substance. It didn’t matter if it was our world. I suppose it helped a little that it was an “alternate dimension”, but you knew that anyway — it was in cyberspace, the digitally invoked imagination.

      I didn’t find any of the NPC behaviours in Deus Ex the slightest bit emergent or natural. Everything felt wholly staged all the time. It breaks its own rules often. Most of the levels are absurdly contrived. Few games have so many utterly pointless crates, that is, in the world’s context. Of course they have a point, but it’s to spoon-feed you consumables to spend or make towers or hide “secret” passages. I find most “immersive sims” to be equally contrived and annoying. But I do love a good sandbox game like Fallout 3, even though the rules are way too easy to exploit.

    • Josh W says:

      One way to measure agency is degrees of freedom, but that’s only part of it; agency is the ability to act on purposes you set, to become aware of things in the world and cause them to change. I don’t think you have to achieve those purposes, as long as you make some change; it’s very easy to make a high agency game frustrating by allowing the player to change stuff without understanding of what he might want to do.

      So there has to be a loop between stuff people become aware of and stuff they can effect; those degrees of freedom that they have to change their avatars behaviour or the world in general have to connect to the characters or the scenery that they are presented with.

      So imagine a game that allows you loads of emotes, like fable but much more so, except that those don’t do anything. Then imagine a game that allows you to do loads of emotes but everyone is weird and misunderstands you. Those two games can both be frustrating, one because it has low agency, and the other because it’s agency is unintuitive.

      From the other side, the designer side, agency is making the player into this little ball of chaos that can muck things up, run straight at ghosts or pile up tetris blocks to the roof, for no reason you can ascertain, and then somehow help him to gain some understanding of the chains producing the effects of his actions, so he can adapt to his own choices and complete that loop.

    • Nallen says:

      Thanks for asking that, I was on my way to do the same :)

  16. gumbomasta says:

    Allow me to pontificate on agency for a bit:

    The games that had no agency / shit agency were around more in the 90s. Argade shooters like House of the Dead, Area 51 or Revolution X, where you’re just on rails shooting at stuff until you died and had to feed more quarters, are sort of an example of minimum-agency games.

    And yet… why were they so popular at the arcades? Was the agency in those games similar to the appeal of a Whack-A-Mole carney game?

    The PC games I can think of that have very little agency are somewhat obscure, but Rebel Assault, from the Lucas Arts Star Wars scene back in ’95, was an infamous example that comes to mind. It was basically a game where you hit the right button at the right time or die. There were a few arcade elements in there, but control was minimal.

    A lot of poorer Myst clones (Gadget, MAAbus) where you basically just clicked through pretty pictures, had very little to no agency, too.

    It could be argued that Dungeon Seige doesn’t really have agency, with the criticism that that game “practically plays itself,” but I guess the agency comes with how you outfit your characters and move through the levels.

    What kind of agency does an on-rails shooter have? You can choose your weapons and your movement within a confined space, but the actual experience is still linear and inevitable. HL2, a superlative on-rails shooter, seems to provide a ton of agency in the quality of its enemy AI and the variety of weapons you have, in addition to the smart level design that requires players to think on their feet and use the environment to their advantage. The fact that the story is inevitable and level progression linear is acceptable because on another level, the actual experience of playing through the levels strongly encourages the player to choose weapons, movement and creative use of the environment.

    Here’s another tack: Gothic 3 has, on many levels, more agency than Dragon Age, even though it’s arguably an inferior game. Dragon Age, while having great character customization and branching story, has certain high levels of agency, andGothic 3 has less character customization options, repetitive combat mechanics and predictable and grind-y quests. HOWEVER, Gothic 3 has greater a degree of agency on other levels: the world is continuous both indoor and outdoor (only one loading screen at the beginning and that’s it), completely open-ended, and features a more non-linear quest / story structure than Dragon Age. Even though Gothic 3 has more agency on certain levels of its design, it falls down compared to DA because some of it’s core mechanics offer the player far less agency.

    So even though a game may offer more ‘Agency’ on certain levels, that doesn’t make it a better game if it’s core mechanics for movement, combat and motivation are hampered by bad design and bugs.

    BTW, Knights of the Chalice has AMAZING agency in its turn-based combat mechanics, and the AI keeps you constantly on your toes. plug!

    So, Deus Ex. Deus Ex has great agency on a number of levels and they all work together. It’s stealth mechanic may not be as tight as Theif, but it works well enough so that you can do the stealth thing and feel good about it.

    thanks for reading my ramble. that epic essay made my head explode.

    • JuJuCam says:

      @gumbomaster:

      I think light-gun arcade shooters of the early 90′s tapped into a visceral sense of tactility that it’s taken many years to return to (imperfectly) in the form of the wii’s remote. They were popular because they were as close as you could get to actually pointing a gun at something, pulling the trigger, and having that thing perish before your very eyes. And the best of them had surprising depth of agency in target choice and timing.

      But it’s silly to even bring them up in this conversation. Arcades are a very different kettle of fish to the home PC / Console.

  17. Helm says:

    Very interesting thoughts. I’m afraid there are some contradictions but that’s probably due to me misconstruing the text than the man not having made up his mind. It feels as if he’s celebrating Deus Ex for the same reason he thinks it to be outmodded.

  18. Tim Ward says:

    This guy has come closest of all the interviewee’s in this series to explaining why Deus Ex worked so well. The notion of player agency in as many areas as possible is the essence of the “immersive sim”. Railroading and limiting player’s freedom of action just makes you work all the harder for your suspension of disbelief.

    There are things you can do in Deus Ex that I’ve never done, despite my more than a dozen play throughs, but they are still important part of my experience because I made a choice not to do them, and that choice is part of the game.

    And that choice is part of the game not because player choice is some kind of game design ideal in and of itself – thinking it was was the chief idiocy of Deus Ex 2 which is why I keep saying that Spector et al don’t really understand why the first game was so good – but because if the situation depicted in the game were really happing, and you were really the protagonist, you’d likely have to make those same choices.

    That’s why immersive sims are immersive: the fact that you have the freedom to interact with the world and the narrative makes you part of the world and the narrative, thus “immersed”, and it eliminates the usual barrier between game and gamer where the gamer controls the physical movement of their character but not their dialogue/motives/goals/moral outlook &c, which is enforced through the structure of the game world, cutscenes, etc

  19. Jakkar says:

    Really, that was a lot of fairly meaningless waffle =(

    Give me back my five minutes, RPS! I’m gravely disappointed, the interview with the Arkane guys was fantastic – this is just pretentious rambling..

    .. Muh, buh, kwuh. /staggers away

  20. JZig says:

    This is a great article by Clint, and I feel it clearly differentiates the relevant bits of Deus Ex’s legacy from the largely left behind. As I played Deus Ex at a fairly young age I never really had any attachment to “immersive sim” as a genre, while the agency and completeness of vision of Deus Ex are really what made it stick out so thoroughly in my mind.

    Deus Ex was a great achievement in player agency on top of game mechanics that had been perfected over the last decade since Doom. Since then our components of sticky aim, casual facebook integration, and crazy 3d graphics have failed to reach a pinnacle of player agency, and in deed agency has been left by the wayside.

    Recapturing the glory of Deus Ex isn’t going to happen in today’s game market (although I will certainly play DX3 the day it comes out), but there is room for something else to be as complete and dedicated to player agency as it is. That game is what we will be talking about a decade from now.

  21. Justin Keverne says:

    So much of what Clint says is usually insightful but reading this I can’t escape the image of somebody who feels out of touch with current culture trying to understand “what the kids like”. Post-modernism is dying, the moment your cultural movement is comodified and sold on t-shirts and posters it’s already on it’s way out. It’s akin to somebody discovering that this whole free love thing is popular in 1980.

  22. Cinnamon says:

    When you first start playing games it is sort of scary on your own and you want to be loyal to what your king the developer is doing. As we get more used to games we start to get annoyed when they don’t give us any choice and we don’t have any voice in how the games are played. This just leaves us with a long list of complaints that our “king” the developers just ignore. You know what, I agree with Clint. We need no more kings and we want to play our games our own way.

  23. Dmo says:

    As one of the gamer’s who plays games with friends while drinking and possibly sexing I hear how it’s important to bring the outer world into the gamespace. Not necessarily in terms of broader integration with the Facebooks and the Twitters, but the simple ability for people to relate separate experiences or the ability to share them on a mutual level. For example I’ve never had an excited talk about how me and my friends took down the striders at the end of HL2, but I’ve had super animated chats about throw-away turns after a mediocre game of Diplomacy, or, more fittingly, the way someone played a level or scenario in Deus Ex.

    Games are renowned for letting you do something cool (kill a strider, steal Romania) but when the experience lacks those greater levels of agency described by Clint it doesn’t feel unique or special as art generally aims to do.

    When a developer opens their game to the player by allowing the creativity, interplay and agency described they open it up for a greater reception because people can actually talk about their experience with the game rather than the game itself.

    The bottom-line is that developers try to impart awe inspiring experiences, but when they fail to make those experiences feel unique and player-owned they fail as a culturally relevant form. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed Uncharted 2, but who the hell has a reason to talk about it anymore?

  24. John says:

    Beautiful essay. Inspiring and saddening at the same time, and a highly insightful look at where immersive sims fit into the gaming landscape today.

    Still, I think we need to be careful not to paint ‘gaming’ as this or that. Putting agency first and foremost might result in some very different game nowadays, but there’s still room for Deus Exes, they just might not come from the blockbuster AAA developers.

  25. Bart Stewart says:

    I like the analysis, but I guess I’m just not ready to embrace the conclusion.

    Clint’s description of Deus Ex hitting on the multiple levels of Input, Progression and Narrative sounds to me like a variation on Mahk LeBlanc’s “Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics” model. (And it’s probably not a coincidence that Warren Spector and LeBlanc worked together on Looking Glass games.) More importantly, Clint points out that it’s not just that Deus Ex provided meaningful player agency (i.e., Sid Meier’s “interesting choices”) on each of those three playstyle modes — the brilliance of Deus Ex was that the player choices on each of these levels had meaningful and reasonably plausible consequences for choices on the other levels. For some gamers, Deus Ex felt particularly satisfying because all the major forms of play were not only supported but integrated into an almost seamless whole, generating a remarkably coherent gameplay experience.

    Is it even possible to make a game like that today?

    “No” seems to be Clint’s answer. Today’s mainstream gamer doesn’t give a damn about the respect for the magic circle that’s required for a truly immersive game. And since no one will fund the development of a game today that doesn’t cater to the mainstream gamer, we’ve seen our last AAA immersive sim.

    I understand that reality, and I might even acknowledge it, if unwillingly. But please don’t tell me I should learn to be satisfied with it just because multi-level immersive sims have never been and never will be the most popular kind of game. I may not expect to see another such game, but I can and will hope for one someday.

    • robrob says:

      @Bart

      I think that’s a really good point. The article seems to imply that longing for another Deus Ex is wrong because culture has moved on. Only games haven’t progressed, they’ve just moved horizontally. There may not be the money for a big release game to attempt what Deus Ex did, but I think there is sense in the indie crowd going for it. After all, the point of Deus Ex wasn’t its graphics or art assets, it’s a design philosophy which spans genres. Reasonably-budgeted games aimed at enthusiastic, niche genres like Sword of the Stars could easily tackle something like this without the horrendous risk which the big studios have to endure when pushing out their space marine game.

      Also why is there such a huge disparity between the people in these articles articulately stating what made Deus Ex so important and the actual content of the games they produce? They are clearly aware of the importance of things like player agency and interacting systems so why aren’t we seeing these things in the games they produce?

    • Baboonanza says:

      @robrob
      Now that is a very good question. They all talk the talk, but they aren’t walking the walk.

  26. RazorBlade79 says:

    Deus Ex wasn’t brilliant because you could do anything you wanted and go anywhere you wanted, but because it gave you a huge box of tools to do a lot (often way more than the devs intended because of the wide range and complexity) within a more or less linear path.

    of course deus ex isn’t half life, you often have parallel paths and can decide which way to go, if you look at it from the distance though you can see that there is one starting point and three end points with a couple different main plotlines. you won’t ever stray far from it though, and I think that is important as well.

    “meaningfull decisions” is another clever way to immerse the player – deus ex often gives you multiple options and after selecting one you can’t go back. However it does this in a natural, may I say non-Bioware, way. Not by a multiple choice menu. Often it just says, you have to do this, go there or upgrade this; but without saying or implying it, the player has almost always alternatives. this is realized on every aspect of the game, from plot, to gameplay approaches, to choice of inventory content (the tetris style Diablo item management in itself is a great tool to force players to decide), to character “leveling” with different skills and upgrades which CANNOT be made undone.

    all of this isn’t impossible to do nowadays.

    it’s just hard to do it so consequently on every level of the game. Bioshock could have done this (as a spiritual successor to the other great immersive sim System Shock 2) but I felt like it pussied out in almost every aspect: it gave you choices in form of multiple options menus, it made your inventory manage itself, it gave you one single plotline with no variation, it almost removed character development, it reduced the amount of gameplay options to almost only combat, and it made all elements of gameplay which weren’t combat supportive for combat. it has a lot of potential but with it’s design philosophie I convinced this would have been better if they tried to make a Half Life style game because they were only 1 step away from it, and hundreds of steps away from Deus Ex / System Shock 2.

  27. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    A very interesting take. I do think that there’s always time (or at least, there should be) to evaluate what has come before and what is happening culturally. Of course one can (attempt to) move away from both with another approach altogether although that is difficult and the result is likely to be controversial.

    I guess what I’m saying is that while personally achievements, facebook and the like can get lost, remaking old favourite games is not the best way forward, either. The best (or more interesting) games are likely to take at least from two out of three (past games, outside-game-reference/culture and personal inspiration/innovation).

  28. Simon Griffee says:

    A great many people believe there are things players should not be allowed to touch, that some parts of the game are too important to play with, that at some level the decisions of the designer must be sacred.

    I believe the opposite. I believe that the players’ agency is sacred. I believe there is no part of a game too important to play with.

    I wish the editing tools used to create Far Cry 2 were released to the community…

  29. Baboonanza says:

    To RPS:
    I’ve really enjoyed these articles. Partly because it’s very interestng to hear a designers views on an aspect fo game design or where he sees things going, but also because of the interesting discussion that takes place in the comments.

    This sort of content doesn’t often appear outside of places like Gamasutra and GameDev, and there it’s often written by designers for designers. I think this series of articles have done something different and I like to see more of it if possible.

    ps. I LOVE YOU!

  30. Sam says:

    A brilliant essay.

    Does anyone have a list of “recommended reading” that Jim McCauley wrote about ten years ago when he reviewed Deus Ex for PC Format? I can’t find my copy anywhere. :-(

  31. Adventurous Putty says:

    The only thing I could hear resounding in my head when I was reading about the levels of player agency was “ALPHA PROTOCOL ALPHA PROTOCOL ALPHA PROTOCOL.”

    Death of the immersive sim, indeed.

  32. SuperE says:

    I think the term ‘immersive sim’ is unclear and doesn’t really use the word ‘sim’ the way we normally do.

    Even though simulation is a noun, in gaming we use it as an adjective. Basketball — arcade or sim. Flying — arcade or sim. Racing — arcade or sim.

    Immersive — arcade or sim? Sorry, that doesn’t really work. Immersive isn’t a genre of game, it’s (in this case) an adjective modifying another adjective. What’s a non-immersive sim? What is a plain old sim?

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