And so continues 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. You can read the whole saga here.
In this fourth edition, I once more fail to save my brother, become increasingly frustrated with the limits of the game's intelligence, and ponder whether real choice is actually usefully conveyed to the player.
I didn't save Paul.
Okay, I’ve been resisting writing this yet again, for fear of the groans of re-re-re-sharing an anecdote I’ve told probably more than any other, but I need to, for context. It was the time I talked on the phone to Kieron Gillen about Deus Ex for about an hour.
I was a freelancer for PC Gamer based in Guildford, he was a voice on the phone I’d never met, but seen many pictures of in the pages of PCG. And he was my extremely forgiving editor. We were talking about Deus Ex, having both finished it, and enthusing about our favourite moments. I mentioned, off-hand, how disappointed I was that JC’s brother, Paul, died. Kieron stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Paul didn’t die?!” And it dawned on both of us, on a new level, quite what a game we’d just played.
Now, looking back at it, Paul’s living or dying doesn’t have a genuinely major impact on the game. But it does have a major impact on your experience of the game. For Kieron, he was breaking out of UNATCO HQ, meeting Paul in the medical facility along the way. For me, I was breaking out of UNATCO HQ, via the medical facility to collect a chip from Paul’s corpse. For Kieron, he was heading to Hong Kong to help Paul escape his kill switch, and to eventually learn more about his relationship with Maggie Chow. For me, I was heading to Hong Kong to meet Paul’s contacts, to break the news of his death to Chow. We were, in the end, playing the same game, in the same order. But our motivations were dramatically different.
So, of course, this time I was determined to save Paul. I’d lost him when I first played through the game, and I’d never seen the version of events as it plays out with him alongside. In that hotel, I was ready for the big firefight, and I was determined that I would see Paul survive it. Fifteen years ago I’d believed he simply could not – that the attacks from the Men In Black were simply too strong to escape, and all I could do was flee through the window as Paul demanded I do.
Not this time. This time I put LAMs in the doorway. The MiBs were dead before they could utter their lines. Then I filled the lobby with gas bombs, and – accepting that I was now a murderer anyway – killed every last green guard in the building, until Paul was safely alive in the lobby, instructing me to head out and make contact with Tracer Tong. I’d done it! Paul was alive!
Except when I encountered Gunther Hermann in that forced scripted sequence in Hell’s Kitchen, he immediately told me Paul was dead. No, no he’s fine, I assured myself. He’s a-okay, I saw to that. Then others, upon my escape in UNATCO, told me the same. I was sent to the infirmary, and there he was, dead on the slab. How? Why? PAUL!
It turns out, from a spot of research I’ve done since, that it’s because I didn’t go out the hotel’s front doors. I didn’t go that way, because there were squillions more guards that way, and Paul pings out of existence as soon as I go through the doors anyway. It was a daft way to go, when I could escape to the roof, sidle down into an alley, and sneak my way to the subway via the sewers. Sure, I still get caught by Gunther, but what difference could it make?
It turns out, all the difference. And gosh, what a dent in the side of Deus Ex’s polished memories. Much as how I was accused of murder for walking through the wrong door at the start, here I was without a sibling because I’d taken the sensible route out of the hotel once I’d assured Paul’s safe exit. Come on, scripting! How can you not have seen that as a secure route for Paul’s life? Sure, if I’ve left him in a building full of armed lunatics – as I so cowardly did in 2000 – then yes, he’d be dead. But this is stupid.
Sometimes Deus Ex is stupid.
A member of the Chinese military police in Hong Kong accidentally broke a window near the entrance to the Lucky Money club, causing the alarm to sound and all the cops to start shooting at me. I’m pretty certain this wasn’t intended as a satire of the terrifying nature of the Chinese police force, but rather the AI misfiring. And once you’re inside that club, well...
And sometimes it’s really smart. It’s hard to think of another game before or since that has conversations like,
JC: The separation of powers acknowledges the petty ambitions of individuals; that’s its strength.
Barman: A system organized around the weakest individuals will produce these same qualities in its leaders.
JC: Perhaps certain qualities are an inseparable part of human nature.
Barman: The mark of the educated man is the suppression of these qualities in favour of better ones. The same is true of civilization.
JC: I’ll take a drink.
All of the Hong Kong section is such a contrast. As Graham mentioned on Sunday, James Morgan has written eloquently about why the Tonnochi Road section of the game is so extraordinary. Which leaves it to me to point out why it’s also so ordinary.
I think this speaks of so much of my re-experience with DX. A game with so much going on beneath its surface, such a depth of smart ideas, rippling possibilities, and concealed conspiracy. But a game that actually on its surface, over-simplicity, false choices, and some utterly, utterly terrible voice acting.
Morgan talks about the “alluring mystery” of “how deep the layers went”. What I’ve been experiencing is how so often the game is a puddle on a painting of a swimming pool. There is no doubt that the scene with Maggie Chow is superbly done. (With the enormous exception, as Morgan also points out, of how offensively fucking awful is her voice acting.) The maid on the fringe, who will, if you hang out too long, eventually pull a gun. The tug-of-war in your mind as you try to rectify a woman you want to believe in because of your brother’s affections, with someone you’ve heard is deliberately causing Triad wars, and seems supremely dodgy. For me, it was hacking her computer, and seeing the email from Simons that assured me she wasn’t on my side at all. And for me, that such unambiguity was on offer in her apartment rather spoils the moment. No longer is it a case of wondering if Paul had a reason to trust her, but a binary case of realising that she’s a baddie.
But then, keep reading Morgan’s piece and he might as well have been playing a totally different game. He talks about exploring the apartment opposite, following up on Chow’s lead with the police, and then returning to her place for answers. At that point the maid pulls her gun, the doors slide back, and it’s a secret base filled with armed soldiers. He goes through a super-violent fight, and finds the Dragon’s Tooth sword.
I went upstairs during my first visit, having been invited to “look around”, by the maid. But she got twitchy, didn’t like my going into Maggie’s office, so I zapped her with my stun gun. There I learned what Maggie was really up to, and then found my way through a secret hatch into the hidden military base. Sneaking my way around there, I took out the odd guard, and found the Dragon’s Tooth sword. Using hacking and stealth, it was mine, and I silently made my way up onto the roof, and jumped down the sides of the buildings until I was back on Tonnochi Road.
And here’s where I struggle. My experience of playing Chow’s apartment was a bit silly. It was obvious she was lying, I accidentally found a secret base and stumbled on a sword I wasn’t yet looking for, and then got out before it could have a narrative impact on me. It only feels extraordinary when I read about how else it could have gone down. While realising, latterly, how much freedom was actually on offer is interesting, it can be extremely difficult to appreciate when you’re only playing the game you’re playing. Unwittingly pick a disappointing route, and it’s going to be a disappointing experience. Especially when that disappointment comes from the game’s glitching on your actions.