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Emergent Gameplay: Deus Ex Made Me Part 1

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It’s been a decade since Deus Ex. A realisation struck me: the industry will now be peppered with people whose formative experiences were with Deus Ex. For them it was, in one way or another, inspirational. I decided to hunt down a few and talk to them, about what Deus Ex said to them, how it shaped them, what it taught them and how they bring it into what they make today. By which I mean, drop ’em a line and say “Deus Ex, eh? Thoughts?”. First up are 2k Marin Designer Steve Gaynor (Bioshock 2) and Ninja Theory Senior Technical Designer Rob Hale (Enslaved: Odyssey To The West)…
Steve Gaynor, Designer 2k Marin

I’m not going to claim to be hardcore. I know people who have played it a dozen times through. Folks who do a run every year. Speedrunners. Prod-only guys. Dudes who know the exploits and glitches that enable a 100% nonlethal playthrough. I’m not one of them. But that doesn’t mean that Deus Ex wasn’t important to me.

I first played Deus Ex in the summer after I graduated high school. I was staying with my girlfriend’s family for six weeks. It was then—while I was a continent away from my 3D-accelerated gaming machine—that the Deus Ex demo was released. Her dad was a senior engineer for Intel, so they had a respectable computer, but not one meant for gaming. I first visited Liberty Island in software rendering mode, at around 20FPS. I stumbled through, choppy and pixelated. I died, died again, slowly acclimated myself, and was gradually absorbed into the game’s mix of stealth, shooter and RPG, despite the technical limitations. Somewhere around first light I captured the NSF officer and returned to the real world.

As soon as I returned home I dove into the full game, hard, and didn’t come up for air. Unfortunately, my first choice in the game would eventually be my undoing. On Liberty Island, Paul offers you three weapons: the Mini-Crossbow, Sniper Rifle, and GEP Gun. I chose the Sniper Rifle, and stuck to it– deadly stealth, headshots from the shadows, creeping around the periphery and avoiding detection, but killing with impunity, as quietly as possible.

And, well, Deus Ex is a long game. Very long. And being a sneaky man doesn’t make it any shorter. As the game progressed (at least how I was playing it, maybe as too much of a stealth generalist,) my sniping seemed to become less and less effective, especially against heavily armored MJ12 commandos and Men in Black. The stealth required to avoid them completely became more and more tedious. It was during my 700th or so skulk through an air duct (not terribly far from the end of the game, I would later find) that I just lost interest. Deus Ex had bested me.

But see, Deus Ex has a way of hounding you. Its profile only grew over the following years. It was one of those names that kept coming up among friends as well as games journalists and forumgoers. And so, between my 2nd and 3rd year of college, duly hounded, I resolved to see the end of the game. When Paul so generously offered me my first significant player choice on that dock, I made the right one (as far as I’m concerned): GEP Gun, all the way. And oh, it would be glorious. By the time I merged with Helios, the blood of countless aggressors and innocents covered not only my hands, but the walls, ceilings and floors of Hell’s Kitchen, Hong Kong, and every port of call in between. I’d played my way– maybe not more subtly, intelligently, or strategically, but the way that nevertheless suited me as an individual– and I’d prevailed.

That, at its core, is what Deus Ex taught me: that if it’s designed right, the player of an FPS could excel not by playing better, but by playing differently. My approach, my playstyle, my longterm decisions, became more important than my fine motor skills; who I was as a player was truly important. We were all the same Quake Guy or Gordon Freeman. Maybe some of us died more or favored the shotgun, but we were all duplicates, the same in any way that counted. Deus Ex was different. Your JC Denton was not my JC Denton, and so your Deus Ex was not my Deus Ex; and so, more than any of its peers, Deus Ex made us matter, as players.

There aren’t a ton of noble reasons to become a game designer. Fame, fortune, insider knowledge, no. But, to make players matter, to give their decisions weight and consequence, to encourage players to think of themselves as meaningful agents of change… As a game designer, what more could you really hope to accomplish?

Rob Hale, Senior Technical Designer, Ninja Theory

I was 18 when Deus Ex was released. When I was 19 I got my first job in the games industry. I was just about to go off to university and a future in Music Production when I saw Deus Ex in my local Game. I bought it based on the Box Art and a vague memory of it appearing on Bits. At the time I was using my parents PC to play games and up until just a few months ago the most powerful computer in the house had been my Amiga 1200 and an ageing 486. Deus Ex was in fact my very first experience with an FPS since Duke Nukem 3D and at this point I hadn’t even heard of Half Life – as far as I was concerned Deus Ex was the logical result of the FPS games I had played before and I wasn’t aware just how unique it was. A week later I picked up a copy of PC Gamer where somebody called Kieron had given the game a glowing review and I suddenly discovered that not all games were like Deus Ex.

During the next few months I learnt how to use the level editor, joined a mod team, left a mod team and eventually ended up in a phone call with Kieron talking about Johnny Casino, a talking car and Birmingham. By this time I was at University and failing due to spending far more time modding Deus Ex than going to lectures or doing anything else productive. When I discovered that I had in fact failed my first year I decided that maybe I would give being a Level Designer a try. Fast forward a few more months and I had secured my very first Games Industry job as a Level Designer on an Unreal 2 powered FPS for Runecraft based almost entirely on my experience modding Deus Ex (well that and I was cheap, willing and lived nearby).

Every single project I have worked on in my career has referenced Deus Ex at some point. It’s something of a holy grail for the Designers and Programmers I’ve met and it is probably the most often cited example of a game where things “Just work” (Those who had the pleasure of modding Deus Ex know just how far from the truth this is). Doors are often the most used example of a truly systemic design that not only allows but encourages emergent play – There was more thought put into the Doors in Deus Ex than gets put into most major features of a modern AAA Blockbuster.

For nearly ten years I’ve wished that I could work on a game like Deus Ex and I know I’m not alone in this. It makes me sad to think that with most games needing over 2 million sales to break even these days that games as intelligent and open as Deus Ex just won’t happen anymore. I look forwards to being proved wrong though.

Thanks for your time, Rob and Steve. And stating the obvious, if you’re a developer who was forged in part by Deus Ex, do feel free to drop us a line.

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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