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Emergent Gameplay: Deus Ex Made Me Part 4

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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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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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