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Analysis: Natural Universes And  Deus Ex: Invisible War

Analysis: Natural Universes And Deus Ex: Invisible War Exclusive

August 10, 2009 | By Lewis Denby

[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, writer Lewis Denby replays Deus Ex: Invisible War, and ponders the reasons why something isn't quite right, analyzing possible barriers to immersion and highlighting the importance of sense of place.]

I'm playing through Deus Ex: Invisible War again. It's been far too long since anything of its kind emerged into this crazy electronic world -- the last was probably Bloodlines, way back in 2004 -- but with Deus Ex 3 peeking encouragingly over the distant horizon, now seemed like a good time to return. It's been too long. There are too many memories. I needed something concrete.

See, I remember adoring Invisible War. There were -- and still are -- plenty of dissenters, plenty of people who felt let down by the simplified mechanics and streamlined experience of the highly anticipated sequel. It's understandable.

Invisible War selected a core few aspects of the Deus Ex principle to work with, and eviscerated the rest. It was a smaller, tighter game than its predecessor. It was, in Ion Storm's eyes, more refined. A lot of fans didn't want that.

I always felt I understood the logic behind the alterations. The lack of skills, the single ammo pool and the abundance of air vents were all there for a reason.

The title was a game in which you could play as any character type at any point in the game, restricted only by your creativity, not by the decisions you'd made up until that given point. Almost every mission began with multiple routes immediately obvious.

Do you crawl through that vent there, or do you blast in through the main door? Do you hack that security terminal in the room on the right, or send your Spy Drone in to distract all the mechanical beasts lurking within? Do you pick up that rocket launcher, or the silenced pistol? Nothing's restricted, and nothing's overly punishing. It's just about your choices. It's about doing what you feel like.

This design ingenuity remains as fabulous today as it did six years ago. Returning to it now, however, feels strange. It's not the inexcusably small size of the levels, I'm sure of it. I was fine with that back in the day, so why wouldn't I be now? And it's not the slightly suspect voice acting, either. Deus Ex's was terrible, and I can still lose myself for days in that original title. Indeed, my problem with Invisible War now seems to be something less tangible. It seems to lack a certain spirit, the sort of charisma that overflows from every inch of the first, milestone release.

It pains me to say it, but there's just no atmosphere in Invisible War.

Barred From Entry

I have a real obsession with bars in games.

There's no logical explanation I can think of for this. Perhaps it's because they often feature in those moments of respite from the action -- but then, I can think of plenty that don't. Perhaps it's because of the music -- but then, there are so many different varieties at play that it seems unlikely they'd all resonate so substantially. It seems there's just something about wandering into such an ordinary place during what is often an extraordinary scenario. Goodness knows we journalists spend a lot of time in bars. Perhaps it's just a comfort thing.

Either way, when I think about some of the most atmospheric moments in video games, a number take place in such environments. And, currently at around the mid-point through Invisible War, my time in the grimy, underground Greasel Pit is the only time the game has felt truly alive.

It really is the epitome of seedy. A dark, dank cellar in the futuristic slums of Seattle, it's a dodgy betting shop for vicious fights between pairs of poor Greasels. It's full of thugs and pilots and neon lighting. It's absolutely, positively ultra-cool.

So why isn't the rest of Invisible War up to the same quality? Sure, the missions are often fabulously tense, but what about the city hubs that punctuate them at regular intervals through the game? They're small and terrifically claustrophobic, which certainly doesn't help, but there have been similarly enclosed games that have dripped personality at every turn. What makes this such a different experience?

I think I've narrowed it down to two possibilities.

The Real World

The first is that there's no immediate point of identification with the various regions of Invisible War. One of the most captivating things about the original game was its close-to-real-world setting, shoved just far enough into the future to include the high-tech wizardry that made the game tick.

The sequel fumbles with shiny sci-fi cliches like there's no next millennium, and feels like a less identifiable place as a result. No one ever seems to stop and question why the future will be rendered predominantly in grayscale. Even in the more interesting areas -- Cairo being a reasonably competent example -- it's oddly dull and monotonous.

But System Shock 2 remained largely grey. So did Half-Life. So I don't think it's quite that. I do, however, think it's related.

Consider your favourite example of an atmospheric game. Mine, at present, would be something like BioShock, but I could just as easily pick Half-Life and its sequel, both System Shocks, Silent Hill, Vampire: Bloodlines or a whole host of others. Heck, even something as seemingly innocuous as World of Goo has heaps of the stuff. And the one thing these atmospheric games have in common, always, is a convincingly crafted, tangible, flowing world.

Invisible War lacks this. It's not got anything to do with the size of the hubs, or the minute amount of people populating them -- not as such, anyway. There's just so little pretense of it being part of an actual place. There's a loading screen over every level transition, for a start, so it's never a seamless world. That certainly doesn't help, but it's not a deal-breaker -- a number of the examples above find themselves in a similar position.

More importantly, Invisible War is rendered as a series of disconnected, disorganised game arenas. The layout and functionality of these places simply doesn't work, or make any logical sense. They're boxy, artificial locales that in no way could you imagine people actually working in, relaxing in, living in -- even existing in.

I'm almost certain that's the barrier to my immersion this time around. It's worth pointing out that I still think Invisible War is a masterful game, mechanistically near-perfect, and certainly one of my favourites of the past decade. But its world design is a major stumbling block, one that's plagued too many titles over the years.

Whether you're striving for hardened realism or joyous escapism, the universe in which the game takes place needs to feel natural in its own context. When it doesn't, things start to quickly fall apart, and the reality of it being "only a game" begins to cut through the mix a little too starkly.

[Lewis Denby is general editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Wander over to his website for more information and contact details.]

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