Deus Ex (2000) is more relevant than ever.
Forget that, for a moment, the game puts us in the role of J.C. Denton (J.C. as Jesus Christ, get it?), an agent of an international anti-terrorist agency after an attack in New York has changed the political landscape.
Forget that it takes place during a pandemic that only increases the enormous inequalities of a system more entrenched in a few monopolies.
Forget that, in this game, political polarisation has led to political office-holders becoming populist figures who fully embrace their ridiculousness in favour of shorter news cycles, with each new scandal covering up the last.
Your first target is a terrorist leader who surrenders as soon as he meets you. If you listen to him, he soon starts explaining several things that, in the reality of this game, are entirely true: there is a group of oligarchs who control everything under a police state, the pandemic ravaging the world has been artificially created to make the population more submissive and, erm….
… immediately reveals its anti-Semitism.
On a narrative structure level, the idea isn’t so bad: here is someone the game has introduced to us as our first villain. When we offer him a chance to explain himself, everything he says seems reasonable, especially in his emphasis on using the vaccine on the people most in need. The game has emphasised through one of the opening cinematics the image of slums blighted by corpses that have succumbed to the disease. The character then begins to explain that it is all part of a conspiracy and ends his speech by, well, going a bit further. That was, when the game was released, nothing more than looney, fringe ideas.
If you have spent even the slightest amount of time interested in the occult, UFOs, cryptozoology and other paranormal mysteries, it is very hard to escape the fact that most of these stories are sourced and bred by white supremacist groups. They work like those spam and phishing e-mails that try to make you believe that someone is going to give you money or some other gift by a quirk of fate but are (intentionally) misspelled. They are filters: if you’ve believed this, you’ll believe anything I tell you, so I can drop my propaganda without any problems.
Later in the game, we discover that the virus plaguing humanity is not only created in a laboratory, but that the laboratory is located in… Hong Kong. That’s where the virus has been transmitted from.
The idea behind the terrorist leader is that you first feel hostility (he’s your target), then that his talking points are reasonable (he wants to help those in need) and then he immediately goes on to say a bunch of nonsensical barbarities, invalidating all of the above. He’s not a villain, he’s not a hero. He’s a lunatic. And narratively it works, in part because that’s the journey that awaits us as the players in handling J.C. Denton: Am I on the right side? Should I help others? Or should I simply accept that in this reality there is no right choice? When our own brother comes to warn us of the dangers of “globalisation” (sic), how are we to react?
The science fiction scenario in which Deus Ex is set is not about the presumed fortune of “guessing” the future: after all, international terrorism was already a problem in the 1990s and the previous pandemic, AIDS, had occurred in 1981 with a US government happy to ignore it and let the most affected population die just because it did not benefit them politically. William Gibson said that science fiction writers are not soothsayers, but people who have paid attention to certain elements of their environment and wondered what impact it has on the human experience.
What does Deus Ex wonder about the human experience? Indeed, nanotechnology, the police state and transhumanism are as explored as sunglasses and black trench coats: they are pure aesthetics inherited from the cyberpunk genre, just as today we continue to imagine futures with the neon signs that have populated Hong Kong since… World War II. It’s a game that includes (at first) two cyborg companions to our American protagonist: a German brute and a cold Russian agent. It’s a stereotype without much depth. Even the late inclusion of grey, big-headed aliens in the last stage of the game is an aesthetic trend of its time.
Warren Spector explained that part of the origin of Deus Ex stems from how annoyed he was that the team behind Thief: The Dark Project (1999) was so focused on making the stealth experience as good as possible, that he wanted the option to drop stealth and attack when he saw fit. I can’t help but think that, while Spector’s ambition is commendable, that frustration was misdirected, annoyed that the design focused on the game’s core verbs rather than diverting production resources to a multitude of mechanics just as difficult to implement properly.
If we talk about the “pacifist” option of the game, we see some of its limitations. Non-lethal weapons are not very effective, as we can fire a tranquiliser dart at a guard and he still has time to run to an alarm button to warn his comrades before he is actually unconscious. Also, avoiding unnecessary deaths only has a special narrative weight (or, at least, the game takes account of it) in the first three missions. We can crouch in the light very close to an enemy without being detected, but crouch in the shadows a long way away and be noticed, something that could have been avoided by using some kind of visibility meter like the one in Thief. A similar problem occurs with the security cameras, where it is not possible to destroy them with gunfire and they have a rather strange range of vision where they sometimes seem to detect you without being pointed in your direction, something that was much more legible in System Shock 2 (1999). Overall, it seems that the stealth option presented to us in the game’s tutorial is rather sloppy in terms of making it clear to the player what position they are in.
Perhaps that’s why Spector defined this game as a non-stop action story. Which doesn’t help when the combat is quite cumbersome: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve failed to draw the right weapon or accidentally put it away in the middle of a firefight when trying to activate something or pick up ammo from a corpse because I’m about to run out of it. It’s probably more my fault, but the direct combat doesn’t really feel right until you’ve progressed through the skill upgrades which, in turn, are very limited and only unlocked within the linearity of the game which raises the difficulty immensely.
Certain elements of the gameplay loop show their limitations due to the repetitiveness of the situations. It soon becomes apparent that every map contains at least one number pad and therefore some tablet or character that will give us the code to enter. It also ends up becoming strange that conversations with certain NPCs revolve around them finding some weapon or type of ammunition and offering it to us in exchange for credits. Instead of having regular merchants or shops, this idea of bartering (which could fit perfectly into the worldbuilding) comes across as rather artificial because it is so unusually frequent.
What many current games can learn from is the intelligence with which the game reacts to our actions. In general, many games take these decision structures as matters of great impact without paying attention to the small details that make a game truly immersive. The best known case in Deus Ex (perhaps because it happens so early in the game) is when your boss, Joseph Manderley, berates you for going into the women’s bathroom. What seems like an inconsequential action has a simple line of dialogue but generates a clear reaction in the player: my actions have repercussions, however minimal. On another occasion, the player may wander around the UNATCO base where a soldier (depending on the time of the game) informs them that we shouldn’t be here or that they don’t have much to do there at the moment. They would be simple guides to the player but they make it look like these characters are alive, just as when a member of the terrorist group NSF, as we infiltrate their helipad, muses that he’s getting too long on his watch. These are moments of credibility.
A clear example of how poorly defined player agency is. At the beginning of the game, one of our first objectives is to rescue hostages in an subway station. The peaceful option is to infiltrate the ventilation system and sneak up behind the terrorists to free the hostages and get them into the metro wagon, which leaves them safe in the next station. Later, after deserting UNATCO, you must make your way back to Battery Park. As you alight from the wagon, your violent ex-partner Anna Navarre (if you haven’t killed her in a previous mission) is waiting for you. Aha! Behind me is the exact same ventilation shaft I used to free the hostages. The player can infiltrate there to find… that the exit door has been bricked up. Yes, it has a certain logic within the game world that UNATCO does not want to have such a glaring security flaw in the subway stations, but the player who has come to a logical conclusion on how to avoid the confrontation is, in fact, forced to take part in it. Even if we manage to defeat Navarre, another ex-partner, Gunther Hermann, will be waiting for us upstairs and he is also invincible, forcing us to fight and lose or surrender.
However, there is an element of replayability in certain scenarios. With prior knowledge of some of the plot twists, it is possible to gain prior access to secret terminals and passages that make the main path both easier and shorter. On one occasion, one of our contacts sends us into a trap in the hope that we will either fall into it or, on our return, be caught by her troops. If, knowing this, we decide to explore our contact’s office before embarking on the mission, we can deduce the password to her terminal and discover that the object she sent us to retrieve has been in her possession the whole time. This particular case has a small flaw where the secret passageway to her office can be discovered by accident by activating through the wall the perception area of one of the guards inside, but it is certainly a clever design.
In fact, the approach to maps as semi-realistic, functional spaces is one of its best aspects. The scenarios strike a good balance between believable spaces and environments that guide and inform the player. Part of that success is how they spark curiosity in an organic way, not only to read newspapers, books and tablets with information that can be useful to us or the desire to access all the terminals trying to understand what secrets each user keeps, but also in elements such as open windows that invite us to locate metal boxes to pile to form stairs or use those same boxes to block alarm systems.
Interaction with the environment is the defining element of immersive sims and where we come face to face with the contradictions of the genre and, in particular, of this game. The term, attributed to Spector but coined by Doug Church, would have to encompass a largely systemic and reactive type of game of which Deus Ex would be its most popular exponent but whose roots go back to Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1990) whose top-down perspective does not recall its successors — such as the truly considered father of the genre, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992) — which gives a rough idea of the problems of defining the term. As technology and the accommodation of conventions has allowed for greater immersion in games, these systemic and reactive elements have become popular and populate almost every game. Once again in this blog we are confronted with the problems of limiting the definition of a genre by its mechanics, as these are hybridised into other genres.
The main problem with an immersive sim is that it embraces other genres under one umbrella. The case in point, Deus Ex, could be a first-person shooter with RPG and stealth elements. Here the questions arise: Is it a good shooter? The same year No One Lives Forever (2000) and Perfect Dark (2000) placed us in spy stories, the latter also with an inevitable visit to Area 51. It is a good RPG? Fans of Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) might disagree. Is it a good stealth game? This is the year of the debut of Hitman: Codename 47 (2000), so this is not its main strength as we have already established. Is the main problem of immersive sims that, as ambitious as they are, they cover too many fronts without being strong in any one aspect?
Having recently played System Shock 2 and Thief: The Dark Project, my answer would be: yes and no. SS2 focuses heavily on a reactive and immersive but combat-oriented system and, while it fails in some of its more RPG aspects by limiting player agency, it is a tremendously atmospheric gaming experience. Similarly the tone is prodigious in Thief, but here all the focus is on being the pinnacle of the stealth system, which makes its direct combat system anecdotal, intentionally weak. Deus Ex boasts a balance that has not aged well, appealing, then, to the sum of its parts even though all of them show weaknesses.
As a liveable world, as a system to explore, it remains a good playground. Lately I read a lot of complaints about how Rockstar Studios hasn’t made a new Grand Theft Auto in eight years, while, in that same period of time in the past, has made three spin-offs. But my question is: Who needs a new GTA? The current one has a huge amount of activity nowadays in its online mode and roleplay servers, it’s still full of people trying impossible feats with their vehicles or weapons and trying to exploit all its physical systems. Most of the complaints Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) has received on its release have to do not with its core mechanics or story, but with how undeveloped the city seemed. Vehicles and NPCs disappear around the corner? The physical rules governing the world are not consistent when my character changes from one game state to another? Then I can’t predict and act accordingly, so it’s not a place to experience. People enjoy worlds that they can inhabit, explore, understand and finally master. Instead of trying to understand what the designer wants us to do, players look for logical conclusions or self-imposed challenges that have to do with the rules that govern that world. If I spot a trap in a corridor in front of me and it occurs to me that by shooting the triggering mechanism I will avoid further trouble, then shooting it and nothing happening becomes a problem. That is the philosophy behind the immersive sim and it is, I fear, a Herculean task.
It is possible to reach one of the last locations in the game without the necessary tools to progress. Unlike System Shock 2, which penalises you for not having progressed the necessary skills by offering an ending in two environments (one organic, one mechanical) that require a balanced mastery of your combat options, Deus Ex has a solution that prevents blocking. It’s just that the solution doesn’t feel very natural. Let’s say you arrive at a locked door. You have no lockpicks and — due to issues to do with the excessive strength of explosives in the game — it is made of an indestructible material. The game has trained you to explore, to look for someone who has the key or perhaps an alternative way. However, we find ourselves in a narrative moment where there are no guards, scientists or workers circulating or doing their jobs in a working environment where it would be logical to find that key.
But there is a hole in the ceiling.
Yes, you are offering an alternative. Yes, you are encouraging exploration. But you’re also telling the cautious, lockpick-saving player that they had to consume a resource in order not to waste 30 seconds jumping over boxes and sneaking through a hole in the ceiling. The underlying question is: Are you offering alternative methods of resolution when they are not properly balanced? Because what it sounds like in that situation is that the original idea was for the player to open that door with lockpicks, but someone realised that they might not have one with them. They could have left a box hidden with the lockpick, but what’s the obstacle then? Especially at that point where you’re probably 18+ of the 20 or so hours it can take to complete the experience. You’ve done this a multitude of times before, so it’s not a challenge of reflexes, tactics or intelligence. It’s a pain in the ass. It would be less painful if Deus Ex didn’t also contain superb examples of how to implement these alternatives: Liberty Island is a great level for this very reason, because you can either force your way in through the front door or sneak in through the back door and both options have advantages and disadvantages, but they feel appropriate and fun.
The thing is that immersive sim has ended up meaning first-person games where you can pick up soda cans off the floor and throw them away. The complexity of making them and framing them in a broad commercial sector has prevented the genre from germinating as such. In terms of gameplay experience, Deus Ex is not so different from the feeling of playing a heavily-scripted work like Half-Life (1998). Smashing wooden crates with a red crowbar doesn’t help to avoid the comparison either. Sure, you can go around doing a lot in a way that the game wouldn’t consider “right”: killing soldiers by jumping on them until they’re crushed, accessing areas by jumping from long falls and breaking your legs, hiding in a small hole in the wall and forcing enemies to come in a line of one to eat your flamethrower. It’s fun and it’s part of the charm the game has acquired, like the famous climbing system using mines as stepping stones, but it’s something that goes against the very concept the missions seem to have been designed for: you’re offered several paths and you choose to go cross-country.
It’s almost as if, gasp, immersive sim means nothing at all.
Part of the premise, directly influenced by the success of The X-Files (1993–2002), is that all conspiracies are real. The same idea is raised in the literary trilogy Illuminatus! (1975) in a satirical tone: if all conspiracies are real and the conspiracies contradict each other then they must all conspire against each other in competition, implying that no conspiracy really works, throwing everything into chaos. This approach is less a fantasy framework as in Deus Ex and more an absurdist position that ridicules the incoherence of the discourse. The thing about conspiracy discourses is that they end up attracting the very people who are willing to accept them, so it is not surprising that both works have inspired their own conspiracies, such as the tenuous relationship between Kerry Wendell Thornley — author of Principia Discordia (1963), one of the theoretical foundations behind Illuminatus! -and Harvey Lee Oswald, JFK’s assassin; or the absence of the Twin Towers on the skyline of Deus Ex’s New York, only a year before 9/11 but, in reality, a consequence of the game’s limited memory capacity.
In that sense, it doesn’t stand up to comparison with a saga like Metal Gear Solid which, more aware of its ridiculousness, embraces more generalist ideas about war and the human condition, only occasionally pointing to real events from a more absurdist angle. For all the derision he receives for his convoluted narratives, Hideo Kojima knows how to take influence from his favourite writer, Kōbō Abe, to translate timeless, humanistic ideas about cycles of violence into the form of fever dreams. Instead, Deus Ex’s adoption of references is an accumulation of 90s particularities, not unlike how we see today one of those Image Comics with armed women in sunglasses and catsuits as an excuse for empowerment. A product of its time. Today, Deus Ex is presented as a reactionary narrative disguised as a revolutionary discourse.
We could almost trace a precedent here to many other games that would use the idea of a political but not ideological discourse and that is carried over to our days, where the two terms are confused. So when we find developers rushing to clarify that their game is not a political statement what they usually mean is that their game is not intended to be a partisan proclamation, but that doesn’t stop them from showing their ideological biases. Think of the way Bioshock (2007) was applauded as an example of maturity for its critique of objectivism — a critique supported by external factors, such as the existence of magical powers and some inconsistencies in the characters’ attitudes — but Bioshock Infinite (2013), by contrast, was recognised as mere aesthetic decoration that culminated in pure moral aloofness. Now, take in comparison the almost naïve attitude of its predecessor, System Shock 2, when it equates the Star Trek-like socialist space utopia with the alien hive-mind archetype of 1950s anti-communist paranoia. There is something more genuine in this narrative pragmatism than in the lack of compromise in acknowledging certain biases and trying to please “both sides”.
Perhaps where the play allows itself to best develop these themes is in an optional conversation with a bartender in a Hong Kong restaurant. There, the bartender talks about how the worst instincts of human beings must be suppressed and that this is tantamount to civilisation, so the only way forward is a dictatorship that allows private individuals to avoid satisfying their needs before those of a nation as a whole, as opposed to weak democracies that end up surrendering to the most powerful corporations. Denton (not the player who doesn’t have a dialog choice) differs, believing that democratic freedoms may involve many weaknesses, but at least they are still freedoms. It is also a game that believes that quoting Pynchon or Chesterton makes it somehow “sophisticated” as you encounter AIs with names like Morpheus (remember, a year after The Matrix), Daedalus or Icarus. If some of these issues pass for mature, it is probably because many players were exposed to them here for the first time.
This is one of the arguments I hear most often about Deus Ex, that the story is very well written and complex. But the truth is that its emotional resonance is on par with the voice acting. Your brother may or may not die without us knowing much about our relationship with him or his possible loss having any impact on J.C. Denton. A scientist is introduced to us talking about sending his daughter (whom we don’t know) on a dangerous mission only to discover in the scene immediately afterwards that his daughter has been kidnapped. There is a reason why Nicolette, a woman who takes us to the French château where she spent her childhood and reminisces aloud about life there, is remembered fondly: because at least she seems to have a life.
So what is the central issue with Deus Ex? That which we wondered at the beginning of what it has to say about the human experience. On a mechanics level, the central theme could be paranoia, something the save system intervenes in as a prophetic ability: approach a mission, fall into a trap and die only to reload the game and, with prior knowledge, approach with more caution. Exploring for fake paintings, loose bricks or chandeliers that open secret tunnels has its own rewards in expanding the story, if not killing certain suspicious characters. But it happens that part of that balance that the game maintains in the different ways of resolving situations has these consequences, that mistrust and selfishness take over. Yes, on some occasions there are, shall we say, more charitable than truly empathetic choices that come with their own reward, such as giving food to a child to reveal a secret passage, but we can also access that route (and others) without needing to help him, which makes our merciful act an aesthetic element, without any weight.
Deus Ex’s core narrative always takes you by the hand. There’s little justification for J.C. Denton switching sides when he does so beyond that it’s convenient and the game wouldn’t progress, a consequence, it seems, of an aborted alternative where Denton would remain loyal to UNATCO that would have meant more than half the game being an entirely different experience. There is no room for big decisions: go here, kill this guy, rescue that other guy, go somewhere else, find the next person to give you orders. We hear these stories of secret groups betraying each other and competing, but we’re barely part of the action. There’s no branching narrative. We get carried away.
With ten minutes left in the game, we are offered three options. We have already met all those involved and their reasons. Now it is finally time to decide for ourselves which action will change everything. The ideologies we are offered are:
- The Transhumanist option: A bad AI and a worse AI have merged into a single being that watches over and controls all security systems, considers itself the new world leader and offers us to lose our humanity in exchange for the (alleged) possibility that we can guide it towards making the “right” decisions.
- The Conservative option: Literally, let the world go on as it is. The game even repeats the same opening scene now with us included. Congratulations on achieving nothing.
- The Luddite option: out of nowhere, a character who had been introduced to us as a pro-Chinese imperialist scientist (and who in the last mission, and off-camera, we are informed has travelled to California, been infected AND cured in the space of a few hours) offers us a primitivist anarchy approach where we wipe out the global information network. Well, at least until they turn it back on.
Arguably, the fact that the game swings between such grey moral choices is one of its strengths, and part of why it’s marked as a mature game, but it also sends another very particular message: human nature is horrible and nothing we do has any repercussions. One of the characters explicitly says that the future will be “20th-century capitalism: a corporate elite protected by laws and tax-codes”. We start in a dystopia and end in the same dystopia. The sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003) does this even more by making all three endings canonical. Denton tried all the options and none of them worked. Everything went back to the way it was because there is no other possible option.
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inexorable. So did the divine right of kings.”
- Ursula K. Le Guin.
When a story tells you that power, no matter what changes the future brings, is always in the hands of the same people, it is asking you to surrender. When they tell you that all conspiracies are real, they are telling you that there is no real valid option because they are all traps. It isolates you. It relativises everything and reality becomes diffuse, without rules. All that remains is disenchantment: why would I want to take a pacifist route through a game that, at a certain point, no longer offers me any incentive to do so, but still forces me to kill in certain circumstances when the story requires it? Why “choose sides” between different groups of equally terrible conspirators? What personal agency do I have left in a world where I can only choose who holds my leash?
The tangle of conspiracies that escape all understanding, the stance that reality has no alternative is neither profound nor uncomfortable: it is nihilistic. And nihilism is the choice of those who respond to everything with a shrug.
Alan Moore said that people believe in conspiracies because it is an enormous comfort to think that someone is controlling everything rather than the awful truth: that reality is much more complex and each and every one of us is responsible for our actions. It is much easier to blame a secret shadow government project than to accept that we can take an active role and listen to our conscience.
Deus Ex is far from a bad game, but time has left it more in its historical importance and grand ambitions than in the results one might expect. The disappointment for me to come back after a few years, when it has been a game I have played multiple times (not always to the end, to be honest) is considerable and I think this text reflects that, but, as I said, it has many design successes hidden beneath that rough surface. There hasn’t been anything like this in a long time and, perhaps, there won’t be again, not for the most obvious reasons. But that ageing (or is it me that is ageing and not the game?) is not just a matter of discourse or outdated technology. It’s a matter of being clear and honest about what you want to convey. It’s about understanding that sometimes a game doesn’t need to be “balanced” and offer a plethora of options as much as it needs to offer fewer but better experiences. It is a matter of focusing on the small tasks.
It’s about being aware of ourselves, in the little things, day by day.