Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week, we revisit a game so influential that people say, whenever its name is mentioned on the Internet, someone will re-install it on their PC.
#39. DEUS EX, by Ben Newman
What is choice? Answering this question—even in an abstract, philosophical way—is difficult; choice and free will has been the subject of discussion since the Greek stoics, with nobody arriving at anywhere near a consensus to this day.
How, then, does someone answer this question through gameplay alone, a burgeoning medium that is not blessed with the sort of intertextuality and reference material allowed to other mediums? The answer came on June 23, 2000 in the form of Deus Ex, a game that rejected contemporary expectations of player agency and instead decided to rip the shackles off players completely. Through the lens of Y2K anxieties, Deus Ex was an exhibition of how to intertwine meaningful choices with a singular narrative. To this day, the game is the high watermark for the possibilities of long-term player consequence in games.
Despite being made before the September 11 attacks, the New York skyline of Deus Ex’s first level features no Twin Towers. In the game’s lore, the towers had been destroyed by terrorists. Before 9/11, this omission was evidence of that the game would be good fiction; post-9/11, Deus Ex now stands as a sobering warning of where this century is going.
Following a few menus and an introduction to Alexander Brandon’s timeless score, players are dropped head-first into this post-war-on-terrorism world. They assume the role of Special Agent JC Denton and their first mission is to defuse a terrorist situation at the now-destroyed Statue of Liberty. The terrorists of Deus Ex are not foreign entities; they are domestic. In this game’s world, the American people feel as though they are subject to an encroaching force, while the streets are flooded with an illness where a vaccine is reserved for the rich and powerful. Whispers of our present day, despite being made in 2000, are everywhere in Deus Ex. Much as today, however, the game’s heroes and villains are not clear; as the game goes on, Denton and the player grow more confused at the boundaries between friend and foe, freedom and slavery, and the right and wrong choices.
When people talk about Deus Ex, the narrative and dialogue choices normally take centre stage, but the sheer amount of gameplay choices on offer is staggering. Players can fall into usual cyberpunk RPG tropes—a sneaky shadow, a tech-heavy hacker, a combat-heavy tank —but how players can augment their version of Denton is what is surprising. Deus Ex is certainly more of an RPG than an FPS or a stealth game, but despite these genres taking a backseat to the RPG elements, they are still more than serviceable. Deus Ex was one of the first efforts to interweave each first-person subgenre—Thief-like stealth, Half-Life-inspired shooting mechanics—with a deep and rewarding role-playing systems. Deus Ex’s gameplay is very much a product of the 2000 zeitgeist, but not in the way that leaves it dated by modern standards. Instead of feeling old and clunky, Deus Ex’s combat feels like a cherished time capsule.
Players are never pigeonholed into one style of play, with the game accommodating builds from totally disparate skill trees. The result: a game with a whole variety unique builds. Each gameplay style was adequately accommodated by the game design, too; each level had numerous ways to tackle the issue at hand, each with its own narrative consequences.
The way the player chose to play, too, would impact how friendlies interact with Denton, with nonchalant comments about his mercy (or lack thereof), adaptability in the field or preference for certain weapons. Of course, this is to be expected in 2019, but in 2000 such attention to player action and choice was unprecedented.
Deus Ex’s Hong Kong mission is perhaps the greatest example of densely-layered, consequence-driven game design. Hong Kong may look pretty dated by today’s standards, but the level still evokes a certain amount of charm and intrigue, largely drawn by its organically-evolving level design and the reach of player influence on the fabric of the city. The area is riddled with interesting nooks and crannies as players will, inevitably, become distracted by the central mission. Almost every time a player goes through this area, though, the game will naturally shepherd them to where they must go, with each individual choice or journey up to this moment impacting the narrative in some way.
As mentioned, Deus Ex’s sense of timelessness comes from its use of contemporary topics to create everlastingly appropriate themes, but this only tells half of the story. The game’s trust in the player ensures its replayability and lasting appeal. In a world where developers and publishers are pushing players to multiplayer spaces to experience ever-changing gameplay situations, Deus Ex is a reminder that single-player games can evoke better avenues for open-ended game design. As the industry pushes towards narrower and narrower narrative experiences, playing Deus Ex is becomes more important as a testament to how player agency can be interwoven with a well-told narrative. If Deus Ex lacked any choices that impacted the story, then it would still be a good game, but the way it involves the player directly in a half-reality, half-fiction narrative is what ascends the title to greatness.
Along with visionary games like System Shock, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex is woven into the foundation of strong single-player experiences. By proving that players could be trusted to make tough choices, the title paved the way for games to become something more interactive. The not-so-distant world of Deus Ex is not only a cautionary tale against the political follies of today, but a shining diamond of single-player’s potential.
Last week, we talked a bit about how 2007’s BioShock continued a design ethos known as the ‘immersive sim’; one that, for several years, seemed to have been left in the year 2000. Now, however, the concept of an action/adventure with simulation and RPG elements seems so widespread as to permeate almost every corner of triple-A video games.
In 2016, the latest Deus Ex game, along with Dishonored 2 and the announcement of System Shock spiritual successor Prey, together suggested that the specifically first person, stealth-oriented immersive sim was resurgent (YouTube’s Mark Brown even released an episode of Game Maker’s Toolkit on the subject). Unfortunately, both Deus Ex and Thief have taken a break at Square Enix—while developer Eidos works on an upcoming Avengers action/online game—and the Dishonored and Prey IPs are also both taking breaks at Bethesda. These moves suggest that, although developers were keen to return to the immersive sim genre, the reception amongst consumers has not been enough for publishers to keep going with such series.
However, in the years since, immersive sim elements have been disseminated across series and genre lines, in much bigger series from The Legend of Zelda to Hitman (in a follow up video, Mark Brown calls this the rise of the Systemic Game). And, of course, the indie game sphere has never stopped making immersive sims—from the notable but otherwise poorly received Underworld Ascendant, to White Paper Games’s upcoming The Occupation.
In the future, fans of the genre have the System Shock remake to look forward to, as well as whatever comes from the inevitable BioShock sequel, that industry speculation specifically guesses will be announced later this year.
Thanks for talking immersive sims some more with us, and Deus Ex in particular. Next week a massive, divisive action-RPG series builds to a long-awaited conclusion, for better or ill, and we will be talking about it on OnlySP’s 50 favourite games.