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Dark Futures: Clint Hocking

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Every Sunday, we reach deep into Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s 141-year history to pull out one of the best moments from the archive. This week, we re-visit Kieron’s Dark Futures series, which spoke to the leaders of the immersive sim. This is part five, an essay written by Clint Hocking.

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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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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