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Emergent Gameplay: Deus Ex Made Me Part 2

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Following on from yesterday’s first part, here’s another couple of developers who were just entering the industry when Deus Ex hit, and the influence it had on them. Both 2k-Mariners of Bioshock 2 fame, Lead Level Designer Jean-Paul LeBreton was starting his career at Human Head when Deus Ex hit while Senior System Designer Kent Hudson was at college making game maps on any SDK he could find…

Kent Hudson, Senior Systems Designer, 2K Marin

What does Deus Ex mean to me as a developer? That’s a very good question, and one that’s impossible to separate from the question of what it means to me as a gamer. I’d been a big gamer since I got my first NES, and around the time that Deus Ex came out I was drowning in linear FPS games. I was enamored with Half-Life, Quake 2 (don’t laugh … ), GoldenEye, Soldier of Fortune (seriously, I said not to laugh … ), SiN, Doom 2, Hexen II and the like. I was building maps in various editors and generally considered myself to have a clue about games. But I hadn’t really thought about getting into the industry as a career; at the time I was majoring in Political Science and had very few ideas about the post-graduation landscape.

Then, in the summer between my junior and senior years of college, Deus Ex came out. I played the demo, loved it, and bought the game on release day (I’m writing this 10 years later to the day, which is extremely weird … even weirder is that a few months ago I set up a Google Calendar reminder for myself to mark this date). It feels comical to type this given how standard most of Deus Ex’s features are now, but I remember walking into UNATCO for the first time and thinking, “Wait … I’m still walking around in first-person … and there are … friendly people here … that I don’t have to shoot in the face … who talk to me .. Wha … what is this?!” I was so used to linear shooters with wall-to-wall combat that I was taken aback by suddenly feeling like I was in a world where story could happen outside of terrible cutscenes. I’d always been intrigued by the hints of an outside world in other games (the first 15 minutes of Half-Life, minor interactive elements like telephones in SiN, etc), but stepping into a fully-realized world rife with colorful characters, player-driven story lines and exploration was magical for me. I’d never played a traditional RPG like Baldur’s Gate at the time, so Deus Ex was my first glimpse into conversation trees, social settings within games and branching narrative.

I won’t bore you with the details of other things I loved (the atmosphere, the ambient music, the non-linearity, the character growth) or apply brainy terms (player agency, moral reflectivity, simulation boundaries) to the simple, uneducated and visceral reactions I had the first time I played the game (“Oh crap, do I kill Anna Navarre or not? What should I d- holyshitsheshottheguy!”), but one standout moment that’s still with me is Paul Denton’s death. I remember coming across his body in the MJ12 lab and being legitimately moved. I paused my game, walked into my girlfriend’s bedroom and simply said, “They killed my brother.” And she knew exactly what I was talking about even though she wasn’t a gamer herself. I was enamored with the fact that the game had reacted to my decisions in such a hardcore, permanent way. I didn’t for a second consider reloading my savegame to try and rescue Paul, because it was so cool to me that my choice had actually mattered in the first place.

Deus Ex changed what I thought games could aspire to, and it got me to finish building the first level that I wasn’t embarrassed for other people to see. When I saw that Ion Storm was hiring for level designers, I invented a stupid experiment for myself to “prove my worth” with my resume: I built a complete deathmatch map in 8 hours. At the time I had a belief that game developers worked really hard and had harsh deadlines, so I thought this would be an impressive accomplishment. And I actually did time myself and finish the map in 8 hours. I packaged it up with my other non-embarrassing level and mailed off my resume. Literally mailed it, with my maps on a CD for which I printed a custom Deus Ex label. I remember telling my mom on the phone: “If they even respond to my email, I’ll wet my pants.” I worshipped the guys at Ion Austin and had no expectation that I’d actually be considered for the job; I just wanted to say that I’d tried …

… and yet somehow, after many phone calls and ICQ conversations with Harvey and the other designers, I got hired. I was in. Less than a year after playing Deus Ex I’d gotten my first job in the game industry as a junior level designer at Ion Storm Austin, working on Deus Ex: Invisible War (yeah, we made some mistakes on that one, but our hearts were in the right place). I also worked on the PS2 port of Deus Ex, which was super cool because we got a chance to polish off some of the rough edges from the PC version (as Kieron said in an email, I got my chance to play with the Beatles).

The rest is history. Ion Austin died, something special died with it, and it’s hard to point to a true successor to the Deus Ex throne. I’ve worked at a few companies now, but my heart has always stayed with Deus Ex; at both Midway Austin and 2K Marin I’ve worked on games focused on immersion, exploration, player choice and internally consistent game worlds. I can’t imagine working on anything else, and I’m still chasing the dream of being part of a game as singularly influential as DX.

Ten years later, are there better games than Deus Ex? By almost every measure the answer is yes. But in my mind nothing since has captured that special … something … that made DX resonate with me on a personal level. I still replay it yearly. Deus Ex is my favorite game ever, it’s literally the game that got me into the game industry, and my single biggest career goal is to be part of something equally inspiring, something that changes the way people think about games in a meaningful way and gets some college kid somewhere to go after his dream and try to be a part of something as amazing as seeing your brother laying dead on a slab, feeling genuine guilt about not having saved him, and vowing to get the bastards that killed him.

Jean-Paul LeBreton, Lead Level Designer, 2k Marin

If people bring out the old Heraclitus chestnut “you never step in the same river twice” when talking about great films – works of art you can watch year after year and learn something new each time, about it and possibly even about yourself – games have at least as much a right to that notion, what with the whole interactivity thing, even before you consider the philosophical ramifications of dynamic memory allocation.

I started my first job as a level designer in May of 2000, so Deus Ex is not quite as old as my career. In game developer years I’m all but ready to upload my consciousness and leave my ancient, decaying body behind forever.

Over the years, as best I can remember I’ve played all the way through Deus Ex at least five times, with several more unfinished playthroughs. (Flawed though it was, I also enjoyed Deus Ex 2 enough to attempt a speedrun, and my time of 43:59 stood for at least two years.)

Point being: each time I’ve played Deus Ex, I’ve learned new things about my craft, about how I play and appreciate and think about games. I’ve never crawled through the same air vent twice, if you get my drift.

When I played DX on its release, it was blindingly obvious what it brought to FPS game design: Choice – capital C and everything. With enough depth in the character growth system to blur any notion of explicit “builds”, in DX you can play almost any fine-grained mixture of stealth, hacking, melee, conventional and heavy weapons. With augmentations you can make yourself nearly invulnerable, nearly invisible, or almost perfectly maneuverable, but crucially you were probably only one of those per playthrough. “We are our choices”, indeed. Beyond that there’s the delightful light social sim: be a jerk to everyone, let the Rentons die, go into the womens’ restroom. Mix a very detailed, branching story with strong systemic gameplay, and arguably you’re putting our medium’s best foot forward circa 2000.

A few years later, I returned to DX and played it near-compulsively. Bored with shooters in an era where they were becoming overrun with pseudo-realism and empty spectacle, I enjoyed mining the plot, social sim and possibility space more than before. The capitalized word became Expression. Choosing to play as a vegan (soy food and water only) for no real in-game reason. Crafting an elaborate emergent story with the help of the VersaLife employee who wants you to kill his boss. Contributing GameFAQs to document painstaking research into how the game’s scripting and story branches work. A Kill Nobody playthrough, followed by a Kill Everybody playthrough. Each run a tiny plot on the canvas of possibility. If only more games gave us this feeling.

Time passed. I went to work with my heroes at Irrational and helped make a BioShock.

Today I boot up DX, jack the resolution up to 1920×1080, savor the still-so-bloody-good tracker work from Alex Brandon, and I feel a complex mix of emotions. Nostalgia is a seductive, blinding thing. Despite it, I see the game’s flaws more clearly than ever. Having been at the helm of a comparably ambitious and nearly as sprawling game, I recognize scar tissue where features, levels and concepts were cut. I find bugs in level scripting, but also hidden treasures. I pore over the extracted CON files for writer Sheldon Pacotti’s notes on the significance of certain lines: “[Maggie Chow] only learned a few minutes ago that JC was coming. She read his file, and now she is improvising skillfully, if a little desperately.” At this point, I am crawling through my own powerful associations with the game just as much as its literal corridors – a nostalgic creature of reverence and reminiscence.

The capitalized word that comes to me now is Fidelity. I ponder how incredibly difficult it would be to make a game like that for a major publisher today. Reasonably advanced for 2000, today it’s clear DX’s simple environments and primitive people enabled both its scope and its depth. Our standards have risen in some ways, but are they unequivocally the right ways?

It makes me wonder if someone could break even today, targeting a comparable level of fidelity/depth/scope, or if they’d be raked over the coals by the very same diehard fans for not also providing 2010-quality audiovisuals. Optimistic or simply naive, I hope that someday we will shed our destructive addiction to technology and production value as ends rather than as means. In the Deus Ex I play today, the physics aren’t too janky, the characters not too low-poly, the environments not too boxy to inhibit the experiences: of exploring, experimenting, and imagining. I strongly believe our success as a medium depends upon our ability to rediscover and cherish these very best qualities of games; to trust in the intelligence of our players, and challenge them to learn and grow. That was the golden age DX seemed to promise us, and it may yet come.

Until then, we crouch in the shadows, we crawl through ducts, we hoard our multitools, medipatches, rope arrows and Mentats. We spend them wisely; they are not easy to come by – none so much as Deus Ex and its many lessons.

Thanks for your time, Kent and JP. And 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


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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