Is Deus Ex Still The Best Game Ever?
Part Five: Living, Playing, Ending

My chronicle of returning to Deus Ex fifteen years later, to see if I’m right when I tell anyone who comes near that it’s the best game ever, is nearing its end. You can read the whole saga here.

In this fifth part I contemplate the significant change in approach in the last third of the game, and then make my choice for the ending.

I think, had Deus Ex ended in Paris, I’d have been happy. Er, clearly with a lot more story crammed in there, but length-wise, that felt like a good time to wrap up. The six locations that follow are each excellent in their own ways, but goodness me, it does go on.

Complaining that a game is too long is rarely met with applause, but in Deus Ex’s case, there’s a strong shift in its approach come everything post-Paris. Until this point, the game has been about locations – exploring towns, meeting contacts, finding ways into specific buildings, negotiating, and of course, learning the over-riding story. But from Chateau DuClare onward, all this is gone. It then becomes a much more straightforward process.

It’s vital to point out that these locations – the Chateau, the Cathedral, Everett’s home, Vandenberg, the MJ12 Sub Base, and Area 51 – are each superbly delivered. If only all first-person games could be so intricately designed. Each has multiple approaches, pioneering the concept at the time (or perhaps evolving it from System Shock and Thief) and unimproved upon since, letting you approach a situation as the set of tools you’ve created for yourself allows. The levels all feel extraordinarily bursting with possibility, and you’re always certain that you’ve missed at least half of what could have been found.

And yet, they feel so different from Hell’s Kitchen, Hong Kong and Paris. The latter levels feel like playing. Those earlier hub levels felt like living.

Forgive me for glossing over those last few hours of the game so briefly, but this series has already gone on quite long enough. Will shall, as a wise man once said, skip to the end.

Or ends.

Here’s a nice moment where my memory of the game was a lot worse than the reality. I’d come to believe, I think a lot because an awful lot of people have said it since, that DX springs three different endings on you at the last minute, forcing a trinary choice without warning. Which is complete nonsense.

The three endings offered by the game are:

1) Joining the Illuminati – killing Bob Page and teaming up with Everett, and using Area 51’s tech to RULE THE WORLD.

2) Merging with Helios – joining the AI to create a three-part benevolent dictatorship that RULES THE WORLD.

3) A new dark age – Tong’s plan to destroy all global communications and NO ONE RULES THE WORLD.

And yes, the absolute nature of each is established in the final mission. But the truth of them, the reason you’d make any of those choices, was developed since the very first moment.

The game is always about philosophy and politics, and the more you read, and the more bar staff you talk to, the more deeply you’ll sink into that. (Although not nearly as deeply as I remembered, but I’ll get back to that in my final piece.) If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have heard a lot of opinions about the positives and negatives of meritocracies, dictatorships and feudalism. And less subtly, you’ll have heard the rantings of Bob Page, Morgan Everett, Tracer Tong, Walton Simons (whom I dispatched rather ignominiously with a single tap of the magic sword), Paul Denton and Gary Savage in your head as you went along, each arguing for different resolutions.

These three endings are certainly extremes, but they’re justified throughout, deeply established, and bearing in mind just how complex that final Area 51 section is, certainly not rushed. I’d ended up remembering a moment of almost having to click on one of three dialogue choices. The reality is having to complete a selection of a number of different tasks in a huge, meandering level.

I went for merging with Helios. It felt right. I think it’s fair to say that the fairest form of governance would be the impossibility of a truly benevolent dictatorship, and since this is fantasy, I figured I’d let that be a thing that worked out.

However, I remember that fifteen years ago, aged 22, I picked Tong’s far more romantic reset to a dark age. I’m not sure why, now. Tong sells it well, certainly. But to suggest that communication is the great evil is utter madness – and removing communication, severing the world into microcosms, is to damn billions to misery and death. Not cool, Tong. Not cool.

And Everett was a prick, lying to that poor old man and torturing him with false promises. He certainly wasn’t going to get any power from me, then or now.

So it’s finished. It’s an awful lot longer than I remembered, and I had certainly forgotten huge chunks of it. Now I need to get my thoughts in order, take this wealth of new evidence and experience, and address the question that’s titled all these entries. Is Deus Ex still the best game ever?

69 Comments

  1. Geebs says:

    I liked the last stretch of levels a lot more than Hong Kong, although that was partly because I was playing on an iMac and both Hong Kong and Paris were slideshows. Area 51, in particular, was great.

  2. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    A lot of people like to complain that choice in DX doesn’t matter because in the end, no matter what you’ve done, you still have the same three options.

    I can see that, but at the same time, I feel like leaving it completely open until the very end- and not funneling the player’s choices into one ending or another (paragon/renegade), gives the choice room to breathe. You mind is never made up for you.

    • Stevostin says:

      Agreed. That’s a bit like Fallout New Vegas, where there are few long term choices but a lot with limited but defining impact. I remember calculating on the final screen how little the chances were to have any other player getting the same exact outcome.

    • A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

      Blade Runner took that approach pretty successfully. You just had no clue what actions led to things playing out as they did, which was a little frustrating. Better than ‘Clementine will remember this’ binary choices of Telltale though.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Invisible War is interesting in how the various factions will almost bend over backwards to give you more chances to side with them up until the final chapter, by which point you can actually lock yourself out of them by killing key cast members, and other such acts of destruction.

      Honestly, retrospecting IW would be a lot more interesting that further lashing of praise for the games we already know are classics (and the “BUT IS IT REALLY?” silliness). Now it no longer burdens quite so hard under “the failed sequel”, and the rest of gaming has moved in, some direction or other.

      • Muzman says:

        Indeed. It’s a good illustration of how very wide sets of options can only really become more implausible narratively speaking as things progress. Because you have a limited overall arc to play with, just out of necessity, the freedom ceases to make much sense and the choices have less impact.
        The result is a plot-armoured character with little sense of consequence a lot of the time. Interestingly, the first time I played it the result of this almost limitless indulgence from squabbling powers was that I started to behave like a spoiled child from a broken home and wanted to wreck everything and mess with people. I don’t think that was quite the intention.

        You probably could design some sort of narrative game where you are the centre of everything and still make the choices matter. But a Deus Ex game is probably not the place.
        DX did a better job than IW, paradoxically, by having less ambition to freedom in that regard and concentrating on the game being more reactive in the smaller scale rather than just permitting more in the super broad strokes.

        • Scurra says:

          I guess we’re back to the Alpha Protocol argument again as a decent example of an attempt to subvert linear narrative. The choice of which side you end up backing in that game is not made at the last level, but it is effectively made by your actions throughout, meaning that some interesting ending options may be closed off entirely just because you were a bit too sarcastic to someone, or because you believed someone that perhaps you shouldn’t have, or even because you chose to play the levels in a different order, and the epilogue can play out very differently (to the point that you can entirely skip the final “level” under certain circumstances, and even if you do go there, the permutations of who you face are quite large.)

          But yeah, whilst I’m one of those heretics who prefers IW to DE both as a game and as a story, there’s no doubt that it failed to adequately understand how the ending of DE actually worked as part of the whole game. (HR was much, much better in that respect but probably failed by being too subtle because it was trying so hard to be a prequel that didn’t entirely invalidate DE.)

          • Muzman says:

            Yeah, the AP example is definitely the kind of thing you’d expect in a properly narrative driven game with a lot choice and consequence.
            It hits that problem of economics with modern development though, where they’re asking themselves if they can justify walling off a certain amount of core content for X number of players and other such calculations. Unhappy publishers at budget meetings. How do they make players aware of choice and consequence without too much hand holding or sign posting? etc etc. I don’t blame anyone for not getting it right.
            Those sorts of things are why you see pretty concrete splits of hard linearity on one hand or wide openness on the other, or even when they put them together, Rock Star/GTA style, it’s narrative over here, kitchen sink over here, in the one game.

            I like IW too, for the record. It’s one for the few true sequels (or attempts at a true sequel I suppose), particularly in sci-fi games. That they were beset by so many horrors while having to follow one of the most complicated games around is still kind of stunning.

  3. Horg says:

    You know, and anagram of ”JC Denton” and ”Helios” is ”Licensed to John”.

    Is this merely a coincidence? Has John simply changed his philosophic outlook on life since that first play through, OR HAVE THE ILLUMINATI GOT TO HIM?!

    • Stugle says:

      the first leader of the Illuminati was Adam Weishaupt. ‘The names Adam’ and ‘John’ both consist of four letters; ‘Walker’ and ‘Weishaupt’ both start with ‘W’ – You are close, but the truth blinds you: John IS the Illuminati!

  4. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    You forgot the petrol station! Love that little level, one of the most realist.

    I get what you mean about length, I don’t think I’ve ever played it through in one go before, I usually lose a bit of steam around the catacombs and pick it up a few weeks later. Which is an odd admission for what I do consider the best game ever, but the enormity of it is part of the appeal. You can’t say they skimped on content or lacked an editor. What would you cut? Catacombs, I guess. And I actually think liberty island and castle Clinton are the weakest segment of the game, but probably a necessary ‘tutorial’. But that’s it, there’s no real filler there.

    Forgetting Hong Kong the later levels are my favourite. I love Vandenburg’s opening. Dropping you on the roof at night so you can observe and plan before sneaking in/plunging through skylights. Curious to see your conclusion, John!

    • marlowespade says:

      Yes! Of all the levels in DX, that’s my most fondly remembered – just a lonely gas station out in the desert, and you with a single objective and a hostage inside. It’s a wonderful pace-breaking moment of reality, where it’s so mundane as to stand out from every other location in the game. I’m glad someone else remembers that level.

      • jonahcutter says:

        Same for me. The tight quarters made for a tense, precise experience. And the real world banality had a kind of palate cleanser effect for the rest of the game.

        A vicious struggle between a few determined foes in some remote and forgotten location. Love it. That level is one of my enduring memories of the game.

  5. NonCavemanDan says:

    I completely get what John said about an ending ‘feeling right’ for him.

    It’s been ages since I’ve played Deus Ex but I distinctly remember doing the standard thing of saving before the end so I could see what each of the options were. As two of them played out, all I could think was “this doesn’t make sense”. Not that the endings were nonsensical but that it didn’t make sense for my J.C. to do this, it wasn’t the ending that capped off the story I’d been playing through.

    I don’t think how an ending to a game was handled has stuck with me as much as it did with Deus Ex (maybe Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines where I got an ending that other games would consider a GAME OVER screen but, again, felt right for the story I’d been playing).

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      I’d be so okay with more games doing what Vampire did (even if the last third of that game was mostly butchered, the ending you’re specifically talking about was kind of great). Playing a doomed character who makes a lot of stupid mistakes and getting an appropriate ending can be kind of fun. Who remembers Daggerfall? More relevantly, who actually finished Daggerfall’s main plot? There’s a similar option/ending there.

  6. 321 says:

    “[…] address the question that’s titled all these entries. Is Deus Ex still the best game ever?”

    god damn right it is.

  7. Vandelay says:

    Just want to say, no matter what happens in the final piece or who you offend with your ultimate decree, this was a wonderful feature. More of this please! Thief next? System Shock 2?

  8. kud13 says:

    The endings in Deus Ex were also significant, because they were so tactile you weren’t just saying “I pick side X to rule the world”. You were taking active steps to alter the structure of a gigalnti complex to influence the fate of humanity. You could see the coolant draining, you coud see helios’ blocks from the net being disengaged, you were shutting down Bob Page’s power stations.

    I also felt the game lost some of its coherence after Hong Kong. Paris always felt a bit “stitched” together for me- it didn’t have the same “living” feel–rather, because of the curfew, it felt like seeing glimpses of what life was before.
    Starting with the cathedral, every map became an infiltration objective (excluding Everett’s home). The level design was still brilliant, which was enough to carry it (and I will never stop prattling on about how awesomely atmospheric the Ocean Lab was), but if you look past that, it became a game of objectives–with JC being propelled ever forward, with no chance to stop, relax, and try to get some down time taking in the local scene.

    Bloodlines does this, too, incidentally. At a certain point, you stop living the world (or your lovely slice of it), and you begin saving it. And I feel it’s fine when you’re gearing up for that “one final level, no way back”. But when your last third to a quarter of a game becomes this “extended setpiece”, it becomes much more jarring

    • Wedge says:

      I mean, is it really surprising? The later plots of most all games are usually moving towards more action based conclusions while the development resources are usually dwindling and crunched. I’d be more interested to see if there are any (comparable) games with an ending section that provides the most open portions of the game.

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      Serrit says:

      Yeah totally agree with your point about the the series of active steps that made sense for each ending making it feel more “satisfying”. I think the extended time between you being presented with the choices, starting down a route, and finishing the route, allows for more thought and doubts about whether that’s truly how you want to finish.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        Imagine if Human Revolution had done the same thing. Kept the actual ending ‘choices’ identical, but made us work for them. I could definitely have been satisfied with that.

        • kament says:

          Well, there is a bit of legwork involved for two of them – you don’t get to side with Sarif or that luddite what’s his name, unless you talk to them. Doesn’t work. Now, if that huge empty level was put to a better use than “go talk to people or maybe don’t, up to you”…

    • gfs555 says:

      I agree that after hong kong you go only one way in the game, but i thought interesting that until there you accumulate skill points and select you skills./augs. from then on, you work out the levels according to the skills/augs you selected. if you prepared your stealth skills, you can be a ghost in the last levels. If you prepared the weapon skills, you go beserk in the last levels and so on. if you wanted to change your way of gameplay, still possible, but made the last levels a lot harder to handle.

      Still best game ever because of this.

  9. unraveler says:

    Complete a specific task to select the ending > Pushing 1 out of 3 buttons.

    • kament says:

      Yup. Shame they couldn’t pull it off with DXHR, as they planned to.

    • tomimt says:

      As much as I like DXHR, the button press ending was pretty lackluster and anticlimatic way to end the game. I do hope they do something else with the new upcoming title.

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      gritz says:

      That’s stupidly reductive. Your “pushing 1 of 3 buttons” is informed by the entire story up to that point.

      The game is saying just saying “pick A, B or C”, it’s saying “after everything you’ve seen and all of the lessons you’ve learned about the exercise of power over the masses: what do you choose?”

      And it never tells you which of those answers is right or wrong. Each outcome can be justified by the arguments laid out in the previous 40 hours of gameplay.

      • Distec says:

        Okay, but pressing one button out of the three or four lined up directly in front of you is still incredibly anticlimactic, and it’s a decision I didn’t find particularly satisfying. And visually they were all very samey.

        The original DX’s handling certainly wasn’t perfect, but I’ll take any scenario to “work out” the ending over simply picking my finale from a menu any day.

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        Harlander says:

        What you say is true, but reducing the actual act of choice to pressin’ the button still feels unsatisfying. The original Deus Ex didn’t really give you much more, but it was enough to feel like you were really doing something to bring your ending into being.

      • kament says:

        That’s stupidly reductive.

        Not from a gameplay standpoint, it’s not. There is a reason developers wanted to make different subquests each leading to one of the endings.

  10. povu says:

    Thanks for not mentioning the catacombs, I will continue to believe that that level does not exist.

  11. ThricebornPhoenix says:

    I love the later stages. Some of them are shorter, and maybe have less to explore and find. They certainly have fewer friendly NPCs… that’s actually the best part, though. The game gradually builds up steam – both plot- and play-wise. You build a network of connections but have to keep moving and eventually find yourself isolated from them, more and more surrounded by enemies as you move toward the belly of the beast. I suppose it sort of counterbalances how powerful you become through augmentations, skills, and weapon upgrades. You literally have an army at your back when you start the game, and naught but the occasional voice in your head (not always reassuring) at the end.

    Some of the best scenarios and most well-hidden secrets are found after Paris, too, I think.

  12. trivial says:

    I’ve really enjoyed this series, and I’m sad that it’ll be coming to an end. Thanks for doing this!

  13. Continuity says:

    Professional critics always moan about the length of things, forgetting perhaps that those of us partaking purely for pleasure often savour a slow romp through a huge game.

    I always felt that Deus Ex’s size was one if its admirable qualities, its not as though it degrades significantly in quality, though granted the style does shift.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Indeed. DX is long, but I wouldn’t say it feels padded, the usual sin of anything that advertises itself by number of hours.

    • gfs555 says:

      Anybody remember Another world (Out of this World in some places)? It was a good game for the time, but it was too tiny. I felt mad when the ending came so fast. Deus Ex is a good game because it is long enough to absorb us into the ideas of the game and also because of the diversity it offers through its whole length. I started this year another atempt to finish Invisible War, but that is not so good, so it is in fact lengthy and boring, which makes it harder to finish. I did not have that problem with Deus Ex until today, having replayed it many times.

  14. Unknown says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t mention Morpheus! That was my favorite part of the entire game.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Didn’t even FIND Morpheus on my first playthrough. This goddamned game.

  15. Michael Anson says:

    The endings were downright awful. There were no grey choices, and the assumption was automatically that the three endings would be instantly and immediately successful. Which is such a shame, because the storytelling up to that point was pretty excellent.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      The entire game was ‘grey’. The whole thing. I can’t speak for everyone, but I like an ending that has some closure, even if only a little. ‘Grey’ endings tend to be jarringly obvious sequel hooks or lazy to the point of nothing actually happening at all. Give me a MEANINGFUL choice anyday.

      As for the assumption that they’d be instantly successful, it’s the END of the game, it’s pretty much necessary to just assume because you can’t actually keep telling the story, can you? You could have ten minutes of epilogue cutscene, I suppose, but that doesn’t feel very Deus Ex to me, it’s a game where you’re in control almost constantly.

      Nah, I think DX got its endings right, far better than the majority of games. Even if they were its weakest point (possibly), they were still good.

      • kud13 says:

        To be fair, just looking at the cutscenes for the endings, the game appeared to imply that the Illuminati ending was the “good” ending. Simply because it featured your allies, giving you a small sense of closure.

        In the end, though, as someone else noted, your ending quote tied with the philosophy you’ve adopted throughout the game.

        • Josh W says:

          Ah but you see though, the Illuminati ending is about friends and family, about a small cosy club running the world. The Helios ending is about idealistic isolation, about abandoning humanity in order to make the world better, and the Tong ending rejects the notion that you can make it better, or that you and your friends have any right to be in charge, it’s walking away from the reigns of the world, and not letting anyone else grab them either.

          In many games, retiring to your castle with your allies in comfort would be a natural end, but this game questions the notion that you have won such a position just because of your success during the games events.

          On the other hand, the helios ending also assumes that you are the one person who can change the world, due to your destiny as one of the first artificial humans. They could conceivably have allowed you to abdicate in favour of your brother, or someone else nano-augmented, although that line of thinking is precisely what the next game follows up.

  16. Quirk says:

    John, I haven’t always been kind to your articles.

    This, though. This is good stuff. This is vintage RPS: exploring – and indeed challenging – a very personal connection to a game. It is a relation of experience, soberly and reflectively, that gives interesting context to our own experiences. It’s some of the best stuff I’ve seen you write.

    Thanks.

  17. Frank says:

    No, really, it *is* too long. Best game ever? Sure, I think so. But wow is it long.

  18. Farsi Murdle says:

    However, I remember that fifteen years ago, aged 22, I picked Tong’s far more romantic reset to a dark age. I’m not sure why, now.

    Because it’s the easiest option. The others make you go deeper in Area 51 and take on all those transgenics, whereas the dark age ending is simpler. I did the same thing the first time.

  19. Muzman says:

    Interesting the Helios ending came off that way. I think it’s the most open ended of the lot really. You’re not given a concrete idea of how this might go. Or at least I thought (although true of the dark age too I suppose). Helios is the properly transcendent ending. There was this great quote from William Gibson I read years go that Ive never been able to find since. He was saying that if you’re really doing the transcendent in science fiction, there comes a point where all (or most) relevant parameters for prediction break down. There’s no longer any true points of reference and speculation fails. The future becomes unimaginable. That is the essence of the transhuman/post-human/ singularity concept on a human level. So a game largely about trajectories of history and power, secret and otherwise, converges on a single point that we can’t see beyond.

    I took that ending to be going for that effect. It’s a bit of a trope to open-end something that way, but as with a lot of things Deus Ex, it uses it better than most. Rather than not bothering to imagine they actually were arguing what happens next might be unimaginable..(but of course it wasn’t, and that’s one of the cool things about Invisible War (maybe the only cool thing, depending on how you look at it); Denton actually deciding that there was more to think about and imagine yet and trying to do that.)

    I once had a spirited discussion with someone that the Dark Age ending was the actual true ending of the game. Which it clearly isn’t, on any objective assessment. So much in that game is pointing towards the merger narrative and you being the ‘chosen one’ almost. If it was a book there’s be no question. The argument was that it was also the most morally correct one too and my negative reading of destroying global communications and whatever else into the bargain – causing untold damage and suffering, wasn’t really looking at how much more ‘free’ people would be this way. But he was of a libertarian bent so it makes some sense there.
    I do wonder how much of that latent teenage libertarian or anarchist spirit explains enjoying that choice.

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      If the choice between liberty or death comes up, it’s one a person can only make for themselves – and the Dark Age ending potentially makes it, rather abruptly, for millions.

  20. Ultra Superior says:

    “I think it’s fair to say that the fairest form of governance would be the impossibility of a truly benevolent dictatorship”

    No, absolutely not.

  21. Sinomatic says:

    The only way that DX (or indeed any game) can be unseated as somone’s ‘Best Game Ever’ is if:
    a) that person had completely forgotten huge problems with the game that now completely undermine their opinion of it, or
    b) something better has come along in the meantime.

    I can’t speak for John, but the problems with DX that he has rediscovered are very well-known flaws as far as I was concerned, and I’ve never yet had another game that I found as entertaining, challenging, fun, interesting, informative and that contained so many moments that blew my mind in terms of what gaming had the potential to offer. So for me? Yes, Deus Ex is still – very comfortably – the best game ever.

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      gritz says:

      I think it’s fair to say that John’s analysis shows that there aren’t “huge problems”, just lots of lesser problems that add up to less than what we all remember.

      • Sinomatic says:

        I wasn’t particularly saying that John had said there were huge problems in DX, merely that it’s what I believe you’d need to find to radically change your opinion (unless, of course, (b) had been fulfilled and something better had come along).

  22. Sweetz says:

    I replayed Deus Ex when Human Revolution came out and Steam says it took me 36 hours! That is longer than I remember. And FWIW I thought it was a clunky feeling relic with a cheesy story that has not held up.

  23. MellowKrogoth says:

    Dude, where are the MAJOR SPOILERS warnings? I discovered Deus Ex only two years ago myself, so I think it’s not cool for potential new players to just list the endings like that. They might be reading this article to see if the game is worth playing.

    • Josh W says:

      “Ending” is in the title, I’m fairly confident that people avoiding spoilers will know to turn around before entering, I’m more concerned that comments like mine will spoil things for people when they see them on the side of the site (didn’t think of that till now).

  24. Eiv says:

    Can the next one be: Invisible War, still the worst sequel ever?.

    Im currently replaying it and enjoying myself as I do so.