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Emergent Gameplay: Deus Ex Made Me Part 3

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

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

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

(spoilers follow)

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

I didn’t.

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

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

Aubrey Hesselgren, Technical Game Designer, Splash Damage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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