This took rather longer than we thought. But after five entries, and two weeks, I've come to my conclusions. You can read the whole saga here, if you've not yet caught up, as I chronicle my experience of replaying Deus Ex - a game I've always maintained is the Best Game Ever - fifteen years later. Was I wrong? Is it even possible for me to be wrong? Read on.
Is Deus Ex still the best game ever?
Well, to start, that’s a really silly question to ask. By what measurement? By what definition of “game”? It’s a daft question, and whoever asked it is a twit.
Is it still the best time I’ve had when playing a game? Upon its original release? Yes. Now? Hmmmm.
As I was writing up the entries on the game, pointing out flaws as I experienced them, commenting on weaknesses I was genuinely surprised to find, someone commented on Twitter that it was like “a death by a thousand cuts”. No grand, overriding failure, but enough issues and niggles that an unexpected weakness began to appear.
Except, there are grand, overriding failures too. As I discovered, there are massive holes in the code for detecting your actions, accusing you of kills others commit, and deaths that haven’t happened. And of course the failure it was born with: it’s a really terrible shooter, with appalling AI.
Yet, I’m still not sure if I’m ready to pull the “best ever” title.
My problems with DX get deeper. And I’m completely unsure whether I missed things this time out, or simply invented great chunks of the game in my imagination.
If you’d asked me two weeks ago, I’d have told you about the really fascinating conversations I had with the Mole People living in the New York sewers. Conversations about their understanding of local governance, anti-capitalism, and living outside of the establishment’s systems. What I just played was a completely ridiculous section in which a corridor of clones trotted around and around in circles, while NSF troops (supposedly working for good) indiscriminately shot at me for just being there. Conversation, after I’d tranqed all the troops, were stilted nothing, with just one child telling me anything useful about a hidden room of goodies.
So what happened? Did the game go senile over the last fifteen years, its NPCs devolving into gibbering nitwits? Did I utterly make up all the stuff about the wisdom of the Mole People? Did I read about it somewhere else after playing? Or did I miss in-game books and newspapers that covered the subject which I’d then misattributed to the characters? (I ask these questions as if they’re rhetorical, but I am confident far wiser commenters than I shall provide the answer.)
My expectation going in to this return was to see if the philosophical and political content of the game would still seem as revolutionary and intriguing to me as it did when I was 22. But instead I discovered there was far less of it than I remembered. Or, at least, it was far less overtly delivered. There’s that wonderful conversation with the Australian barman, and a few other moments like that. But mostly it’s in the form of bits and pieces to read. Take this, in a book on a desk, this excerpt from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:
“...SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of parodies. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least...”
Maybe that was enough? Maybe to my forming political mind, something as extraordinary (if hideously tiresome to parse with its ghastly use of semi-colons) as this would be challenging and influential.
Also, I love that I have to Google so many of the authors mentioned to see if they’re real or invented, so well written is all their fiction. No, Jacob’s Shadow is not a real book. No, Travis Crockett isn’t a person who wrote The Reluctant Dictators, about the formation of Order of the Cincinnati. It was a writer at Ion Storm who informed me,
“Skeptical at the viability of the untried democratic system, Washington took counsel in the story of the Roman general Cincinnatus who was called from retirement to serve as Dictator for sixteen days in the defense of Rome, after which he returned home to his farm. In the wake of the Revolution, the United States was vulnerable to any number of outside forces, and Washington felt that a strong, central authority had to be present that could assume control of the government if necessary – and ‘temporarily’ suspend the Constitution if required.
Washington resigned as President after only two terms in office, but remained President of the Order of the Cincinnati till his death. The Order still exists to this day, a shadow organization of the wealthy and powerful that has been linked to any number of other organizations ranging from the Illuminati to the Trilateral Commission.”
Before I played, I’d barely heard of the Illuminati, and certainly not the Trilateral Commission, nor things like Bilderberg and so on. It was interesting to peer into that pit of conspiratorial lunacy. It was around the same time I was playing The Stone, which covered similar ground. I learned, quickly, that I was not a conspiracist, but it was interesting to read around.
Of course, replaying and discovering the Illuminati use “Illuminati” branded computer interfaces made me laugh out loud. Way to keep things secret, guys.
It’s great writing, it’s content we obviously don’t frequently see in games, but is this Best Ever stuff? It is, in the main, just extraneous text littered about levels, rather than cleverly interwoven into the plot. (That’s not quite the criticism it appears – it adds flavour and texture that makes the plot far more meaningful.)
Level design might do a better job of convincing me. They are, invariably, beautifully built. If Valve is the master of the linear corridor, Looking Glass/Ion Storm are the crowned kings and queens of multi-pathed construction. Even the most bland of levels have a distinct sense of place. Sections as seemingly disposable as the gas station become memorable because of the almost nonchalant competence with which they’re built.
As I mentioned in part 5, I found it peculiar how the game switched from a hub-centric design to a series of confined areas in its second half, but it’s hard to complain about how any of them is built. Yes, I’ve struggled with the anxiety caused by not knowing if I’m missing out on anything essential by going one way rather than another, and indeed the disappointment that can arise from being free to accidentally play a level in a far less interesting way than might be available. But it’s hard to argue that this extraordinary volume of choice is ever really a bad thing. Even the most minor moments seem to offer a variety of ways to approach them, and it’s always your choice whether to play stealthily or violently.
Although, on that last point, it’s interesting how the game abandons any sense of value after about the first third. In the UNATCO stages, you’re receiving comment on your approach from all angles. Kill (or indeed, don’t but get it anyway) and Anna and others will praise you, but others including Mr Ammo Man and your brother will condemn you. Perform stealthily and refuse kills and you’ll win disapproval from the facility’s more violently inclined, but favour from others. It feels like tangible feedback (when it isn’t broken), and makes your chosen actions feel far more meaningful.
However, once you’re with the NSF, it all stops. (Perhaps that explains the supposed terrorists’ bullet-happy murderous ways when you’re against them.) No matter how you approach things, no one’s going to say anything. And sure, that’s not inherently a bad thing – I’m certainly not appealing for moralising commentary – but it does remove that sense that you’re having an impact on the world.
Fifteen years ago I played as a pacifist, refusing to kill. Today, having had the game brand me a murderer despite my saintly ways, I gave in and accepted that sometimes I was going to kill these murderers and villains to get through. But more often than not, it was as a result of getting frustrated with the combat, rather than because it felt appropriate. Tranqs are in short supply, and there’s no non-lethal ranged option that allows for takedowns but doesn't also result in enemies trotting about in zigzagged panic, setting off alarms, and ruining everything.
At points, with the difficulty on Normal, you are swamped with and surrounded by enemies, and attempts to take them out one at a time with a stun prod or baton are fruitless. Releasing gas bombs amongst them often seems like it should be a good plan, but then attempting to take them down mysteriously relieves them of their stupor and lets them attack you or run off. So, in the end, it was simply no fun at all to find a non-lethal solution. Far more fun, in fact, to drop a LAM and blow them all to splattery bits.
So yes, the AI is atrocious, the shooting cruddy, the scripting clumsy, the pacing all over the place, some of the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard (including some that’s basically racism), and that bloody ridiculous inventory nonsense. Best Game Ever?
Well, you can take all that, and compare it to the utter thrill of trying to sneak past giant patrolling mechs, then stabbing on your cloak to slide through a group of angry guards, into an air vent, and creeping your way to a secret room bursting with excellent loot. There’s knowing that you just thwarted a situation in a way that felt unique to you, carefully picking out guards one by one as you climb down from the rooftop to the basement. Or by crashing through the front door, guns blazing, slaughtering your way up to the roof.
Let alone the way the whole game is a training exercise to help you make your decision at the end. I love it for that. You’re being introduced to all these people, these views, these concepts, in order to inform you to be able to make a choice – albeit a rather extreme one. And no, it doesn’t need Greys, and it gets far, far too convoluted with about 17 baddies and rival factions, almost none of whom eventually have any real influence. But which future you pick for Earth is very likely changed by the experience you’ve had along the way.
In the end, if I tweak the question to be, “Is this the best game ever of its kind?” then I think the answer has to be yes. But then, there are so few games of its kind, and there are even fewer that are any good.
But let’s not evade any longer. Is Deus Ex the Best Game Ever? No, I don’t think it is. And I’m surprised to see myself typing that, certain that I’d emerge from this experiment emboldened in my conviction.
What is? Well, like I said, it’s a stupid question. But I suspect that Thief might be the best Looking Glass/Ion Storm game. I think Planescape: Torment might be the best RPG. I think Day Of The Tentacle may be the game I love the most. I think The Longest Journey may be the game that has the strongest personal connection for me.
I’m pretty certain you’ll disagree.