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Deus Ex: A Personal Retrospective
by Dolgion Chuluunbaatar on 07/25/12 07:49:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

(this post is originally published on my tumblr blog: thedoglion.tumblr.com)

Deus Ex...I reinstalled it, and am playing it again. Currently I finished the Hong Kong chapter, so I would be about half-way through. So I have some thoughts on the game. 

One thing that is very apparent is that Deus Ex's graphic engine is the original Unreal engine, and this allows for very large game environments to explore with few loading times. I think that this is a real strength of the game. It has this early PC FPS feel to it, you know, from an era where shooters weren't ports from consoles and actually had huge, elaborate levels.

Also there is no real physics engine to write home about, this has only become a mainstream feature around the time of Deus Ex 2. I like the simple, clean look of the game, and the little eye candy there is, really literally shines. You know, Deus Ex is famous for it's awesome shiny floors and iconic level design.

In Deus Ex, you really feel like a badass agent, especially when you infiltrate a top-secret location like a science lab, a terrorist hideout or a shady government agency. This is similar to Thief 2, where the game just sort of dumps you into an environment, gives you a goal and then lets you figure out how to reach it.

The game accommodates a decent amount of different ways to do things, but it does nudge you towards being stealthy and rewards exploration with goodies like skill points and items. At no point did it feel like the game was handholding me or looking down at me, like so many games do these days. 

Overall, the title comes off as confident of itself, of its own quality. Excessive handholding and teaching the player explicitly how to do the dumbest things is one thing I really hate in games, and it reeks of insecurity on the designer's part. As if they feel that their game sucks so much that they could lose the player at any point, and feel forced to constantly show me the way so that I don't quit out of cluelessness. But I digress.

Deus Ex respects the player, and this is not only apparent in the game design, it is also apparent in the writing and exposition. If I want to, I can hack into people's computers and read their emails, often containing delicate details that concern my character and that he's not supposed to know, sometimes containing a kind of "lore" that helps flesh out the fiction.

The conversations between characters are well written and in a kind of level that feels grown-up. Things are only explained to me if it fits with the overall context of the game. The fiction of the world does not bend over just to try to accommodate me the player, requiring me to put a bit of effort on my part to enjoy the plot. I appreciate that.

Then there are several instances where I can make decisions, and these are very elegantly integrated into the story. I find that Ion Storm really knew well to give me just the right amount of story choices to make me feel like I'm really acting out the story as JC Denton without completely making him feel like a blank slate.

Then there are lots of little things that when added up, really complement the experience. I love the sound effect when I get a transmission and the little text field that pops up on the upper part of the screen, pulling me into the story without taking away my focus from playing the game. I love the little interactions that NPCs have amongst themselves. I love the wall textures (I recommend using a texture mod) that don't look like shit when you get up close. I love finding new ways in a level only to realize 5 minutes later that it was an alternate route to a place where I'd been before which I could've seen if I'd just paid more attention. I love the little memos left that always have a new explanation or story point for why once again, I can have a handy number code for a keypad ahead.

Deus Ex is by no means a perfect game. I'm not sure if it is the best game of the decade from 2000 to 2010. There's many things that can and will be made better in games in the future, such as more sophisticated simulation aspects, more non-linearity through better NPC AI etc. These are technical problems that still need solving.

What is commendable about this game though is that Ion Storm knew how to make this game work given the limitations they had at the time. This game stood head and shoulders above its peers at the time, and many of today's games. Replaying it in 2012 shows just how much good design and game writing is more important than fancy presentation and gimmicky features that seem to hog modern games.


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Comments


Eric Schwarz
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A few points:

I think the Unreal Engine simplicity holds up remarkably well today for just about every game that uses it. It might have been the tech limitations enforcing certain art styles, or some of the primitive but eye-catching effects (like those shiny floors) but the game is definitely attractive in its own way. What's more, games of that era tend to have a very functional look - there's no pointless clutter to sift through, only things important to gameplay. You get the idea in terms of setting but the visuals make it clear that you are still playing a *game*, and the mechanics of that experience are fully readable.

Level design is, of course, the main strength of the game, and the massive, open levels with multiple routes have never been replicated, not even by the recent Human Revolution. Part of the appeal is simply the "wow" freedom factor, but I think it translates into much better and more fluid gameplay as well. The game isn't about taking the "stealth route" or the "combat route" - it's about using a series of tools and skills to navigate a maze in such a way that benefits your play-style. Deus Ex doesn't have "stealth paths" or "combat paths" because its levels aren't narrow enough to force you into one.

This free level design also leads to incredible replay value. I played through Human Revolution twice - once stealthy, once guns-blazing. I saw probably 95% of the game the first time through and am certain I saw everything after the second. In Deus Ex, over a decade later, there are *still* new things I run across every time I go back to it, and new gameplay options that never occurred to me before, all because the level designers chose not to force me into a series of corridors.

I actually think it's interesting you brought up the physics. Deus Ex was one of those early games that used physics simulation to benefit gameplay, but it was different in that it was actually well-implemented. "Picking up crates" seems a bit silly and gamey as far as skills go, but by tying it into the RPG progression systems it allowed for a lot of interesting and varied routes, and also allowed for some impromptu strategies that were well ahead of its time (i.e. throwing huge objects at enemies). Modern games have physics, but the vast majority of them still just use them for show - the only real advancement I've seen on this sort of thing have been in games like Crysis, where you can, say, drive a car through a building and collapse the roof on top of enemies.

On respecting players: this is all true, although Deus Ex also doesn't and has never had a massive target audience. I don't think it's fair to belittle other games for hand-holding when the point of them is to hit as wide a demographic as possible. And for what it's worth, Deus Ex *does* have a pretty hand-holdy tutorial.

It is really nice to play a game like Deus Ex and not have to deal with Obvious Exposition Man... going back to games made by BioWare and Bethesda really can be difficult once you become aware of just how forced some of the writing can be, I admit. But, let's face it, Deus Ex has a simple plot that's easy to follow, just like most games. This is a success but it's hardly a unique one these days. Where it truly shines is in following the "show, don't tell" rule of characters - we learn far more from their actions, how they speak, their voice actors, their e-mails left behind, etc. than we could from a "Hi, I'm Janet, this is my life story" exposition dump, and in a much more engaging way.

I don't think Deus Ex has some of the "best" C&C ever, but it has some of the most engaging and meaningful. By making JC Denton a defined character and giving him a set of pre-established relationships, Ion Storm created a character that was easy to understand. Trench coats aside, JC is sort of an everyman but with a bit more personality to him, and as a result we care about things not just because of how they impact us as players, but how they impact JC Denton, the character. That's an important distinction you don't get in a lot of other RPGs, and also avoids that problem where the game feels like it revolves entirely around the player. And, by being able to go "off the rails" and make choices that aren't explicitly outlined by the game (like shooting Anna at the airfield), Deus Ex creates a feeling of agency that a dialogue tree can't match.

The saddest thing about all of this is that there are so few games that have really developed Deus Ex's ideas further, even in isolation. BioShock got closer a few years ago, and even Human Revolution, as good as it is, is still kind of a halfway point between Deus Ex and more modern shooters in terms of the sophistication of its gameplay and level design. I'm still holding out hope for Dishonored, though.

Bart Stewart
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Nicely said, and I agree fully. Deus Ex remains a master-level clinic in tight player-centric design -- there's choice, but choices have tradeoffs.

In the environment, in tools (like weapons and lockpicks/multitools), and in the RPG skills and augmentations, players almost always have multiple ways to solve gameplay challenges. At the same time, each way of solving challenges has some kind of gameplay-affecting limitation or side effect, which means the player is always being asked to make interesting choices.

This aspect of Deus Ex's core design shows up almost immediately after the game starts, when Paul asks you what weapon you want. The GEP gun can destroy most obstacles, but there's nothing left, uses rare ammo, and will alert every enemy in the vicinity. The dartgun is silent, but human enemies don't go down immediately and it's useless against 'bots.

These tradeoffs mean that you're constantly evaluating different ways of handling new situations... and that's sustained through much of the game. Burn batteries to power augmentations, or look for purely physical/environmental solutions? Spend resources to explore for goodies, or conserve resources for head-on fights? Invest skillpoints in combat or technical abilities? All of these choices and more directly affect gameplay -- that's what I mean by "tight" design.

The story plays into this as well. There are multiple factions, whose interests are expressed by self-interested NPCs. Choosing among them imposes tradeoffs as well. Everything fits together... which it would in a game about deep conspiracies, wouldn't it?

Finally, the original Deus Ex was very literate compared to other computer games (including all that have followed). There were several remarkably well-thought-out (and startlingly fair-minded) NPC conversations on the tradeoffs between liberty and security in a world of increasingly invasive technology. Talking seriously -- and never condescendingly -- about ideas that matter repeatedly saved (optional) NPC conversations from being mere expository info-dumps.

Even the little details were remarkable. Seeing the name "Gully Foyle" (from Alfred Bester's science fiction classic _The Stars My Destination_) in the 'Ton's guestbook, or a cook named "Swelter" (from Mervyn Peake's _Gormenghast_) in the Templar castle, blew me away. The creative team on Deus Ex wasn't afraid to have a little fun, and that made the game feel just that little bit more satisfying.

I'm hoping that the upcoming Dishonored approaches this level of player-centric design tightness... with better graphics. ;)

[Edit: Just wanted to point out that I wrote and posted this comment before I saw Eric's. Scary. :D]

Ali Afshari
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Eric and Bart summed up exactly what I love about Deus Ex. I remember learning on my 2nd playthrough that Hermann, Navarre, and Simons could be eliminated with a kill-phrase through dialog options...awesome stuff.

Marc Vousden
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One of my enduring memories of the game was weighing up the use of multi-tools / lock-picks / looking for codes. Having different routes to an objective was so much more rewarding when your ability to take the route was a reward for your choice of augs / tool usage or email sifting.

In "the nameless mod" (total conversion mod that took 7 years) vending machines in a weapon shop offered the ability to buy tools with credits. "tooling up" before a mission rather than fortuitously coming across weapon caches was an interesting change in perspective using the same system.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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@Eric

I have to agree, the designers really found a super elegant way to integrate crate "puzzles". It only makes sense that some crates would be too heavy for a human, and only through augmentations JC could be able to use them for an alternative way. This has the nice effect that it made me feel awesome, because I'd invested in that ability and it really does give you the feel that you are a cybernetically augmented badass.
Your comment on the advantages of the old, cleaner graphics in Deus Ex is exactly what I meant.

I don't know if Ion Storm had a particular demographic in mind, I think they pretty much just wanted to make a great game, that they poured their creative energy into the game and through that came up with many quite groundbreaking and actually genre-defining concepts. It's the kind of game that THEY wanted to play themselves.

I think the plot is great, and not that simple. It's quite heavy with the conspiracy elements that were all the rage at the time, but it pulls it off through its overall tone and by its sophisticated gameplay. I find it remarkable that it doesn't feel campy or like ridiculous cliche ridden jerk fest. I think Deus Ex is just....classy.

And aside the plot, the fiction itself, the world that Warren Spector created has a depth to it that is often only seen in big open world fantasy RPGs. There is lots of backstory and quite heavy on philosophical concepts that just put the game on a whole other level than the usual stuff you see in games. I think this is the aspect that I like the most about the game. I'm really tired of space marines and orcs and stuff like that. I like it when games ask you difficult questions, and by that I don't even mean moral choices a la Bioware, but just provoke thought with the things that happen in the world and that you get to observe.

@Bart
Absolutely agree too, the constant trade-offs are a real challenge and allow for truly meaningful choices in the game, as well as non-linearity. I don't even know anything about the references that you speak off, but I can imagine that at some point in the future, I might reading a book like "The Stars My Destination" and then at some point after that playing Deus Ex and it completely blowing my mind when I DO catch the reference, hehe.


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