Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Weird World of Deus Ex (Part 1)

[Revised version posted 07.09.12, cut down and tweaked to stay on point. Part 2 link added and errant first person fixed 17.09.13.]

Deus Ex, the 2000 first-person action role-playing 'cyberpunk' game, does not make a stellar first impression. The first thing that greets you is a menu screen with a very simple spinning logo, accompanied by a somewhat pompous little synthy theme-tune (let it get going) that does its best to hammer at any 'I am not totally lame for playing this video game or video games generally' thesis you might have been attempting to construct over the years.

Coming at it as a cyberpunk fan, as I did, stumbling across mention of it as a highly-rated cyberpunk experience with the likes of Neuromancer, The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell in mind, aghast would not be too far off the mark to describe how I reacted. At this, the menu screen.

It's no slick William Gibson novel, that's for sure.

A graphically dated J.C. Denton in his trenchcoat and shades

This is J.C. Denton, the cyborg character you play as. You can make him blond, or black, or give him a goatee. I think the sunglasses are mandatory. It is my opinion that there is something inherently funny and weird about sunglasses that's always just about equal to how cool they look. It's the way they dehumanise the possessor, or convey, as Gibson states of his character Molly Millions, 'an insect calm'. When a character is never not wearing shades, it really does something to how we perceive them, humanity-wise.

J.C. Denton may look cooler to some than he does to others. He does suffer from some rather chunky, squared graphics, and a rigid impassivity bordering on paralysis that gives him the bearing of an augmented lamppost. He may or may not have a double chin in the picture above; it's hard to tell. This pretty much sums up how Deus Ex wears the stylish aspects of its cyberpunk heritage—like a nerd attending a convention, dressing up for the part, maybe for the fun of it, but not necessarily pulling it off. It's maybe even a little embarrassing.

On top of this is his voice: a deadpan monotone that strains badly when forced to inflect. And he's far from the only character you might struggle to take seriously at first glance. Among the many others, two significant characters you're introduced to early on are Anna Navarre and Gunther Hermann, two ruthless cyborgs working for the same government agency as you do.

Cyborgs Anna Navarre and Gunther Hermann in conversation next to vending machines

Gunther has an awful German accent like a Terminator parody, and the appearance to match. Anna is a similarly cartoonish Russian (I think). Neither would be out of place as campy Bond villains. And while they thankfully remain among the most outlandish characters, and you do kind of get used to them, the accents don't get any better from here on out—far from it.

More than one character in the game makes a quip about Denton's choice of clothing, and Gunther is treated as the butt of jokes about as much as he is a force to be reckoned with. Deus Ex is a game that by no means sets out to be a comedy, but it comes with a healthy dose of often self-referential humour. These characters, though, and the quality of the voice-acting in general, sometimes make it very hard to tell when it's being intentionally funny and when it's not. The world of Deus Ex is pretty goofy at times.

But J.C. Denton's impenetrable, vaguely comical persona is actually highly effective. Denton feels like he has a distinct presence, but his personality is minimal and inscrutable enough that the whole range of behaviour that is open to the player feels credible. His are sunglasses of possibility. When it comes to the player's dialogue options during conversations, there's almost a sense of mischief in some of the things you get to say, the outrageousness of certain options emphasised by having it said in such indifferent tones—like he might kill a homeless person or two and then go for a beer. And you can do that.

View of distant rooftop with NSF soldier

Choice is Deus Ex's Big Thing, as anyone who's ever heard anything about it will know, and it comes in a few different ways. As an action role-playing game, you can choose to approach missions in certain ways—guns blazing, hacking, being stealthy (read: crawling through air vents), or most likely a combination of all three depending on your resources—spending experience points and selecting the right augmentations and inventory items accordingly. You have to decide when it's wise to use up your disposable lockpicks and multitools to get at the stuff that lies behind closed doors or booby traps, which weapons are worth lugging around, and which abilities—strength, swimming, advanced jumping, etc—will allow you to get to places or take alternate paths that wouldn't be available to you otherwise.

A well-thumbed inventory is one of Deus Ex's greatest pleasures. While daunting at first, the items you carry become the most considered aspect of your game. It's about knowing your tools, experimenting with them, and using them with a little imagination as you puzzle out different scenarios. Not to mention sleuthy porings over an abundance of hacked emails and recorded conversations.

Importantly, the choice in this game all takes place within a controlled narrative, a series of levels each with its primary objectives, which change depending on your actions, and its optional secondary objectives, rewarding on both the level of experience points and immersive narrative detail, often with consequences of their own. You choose who to help and who not to help, picking allegiances that may or may not last, the stakes getting higher as you proceed.

View of Hong Kong canal with fishing boat

The best of these levels are the city hubs—namely New York, Hong Kong, and Paris—central places that can be explored and revisited during sections of the game, with missions that branch off in and around them taking place in warehouses, labs, sewers, corporate office spaces, and so on. Deus Ex is not completely open-ended like a sandbox game, but the focus can be a good thing. No making Denton fat on hamburgers, getting him married, or having him wear leotards in all the 332,345,565 colours you can collect scattered around the globe. Everything is meaningful and somehow relevant to the main story.

The story of Deus Ex is a thousand cyberpunk/sci-fi ideas and tropes you've seen or heard before, mixed with an A-Z of conspiracy theories and a small library of references to literature, movies, and probably other stuff too. It makes for a complex plot and a world with a fairly rich backdrop, with a particularly civic-minded approach to the usual cyberpunk themes of technosocial fallout, mapping as it does the various political ideologies and realities of the people involved. You encounter a lot of people living in miserable conditions, and though the missions are not always about saving them, you are forced to confront them.

With choices, of course, come consequences. But in Deus Ex, nobody's out to lecture you—or if they are, there's at least one person around lecturing the opposite. Deus Ex works with shades of grey. The majority of decisions aren't clearly marked as 'good' or 'bad', and it generally doesn't encourage such a simplistic dichotomy, instead getting you caught up in the sticky details and the problems of a bunch of people who are themselves rarely clear-cut on the morality front either. There's no karma metre that designates clearly your position between good and evil on a spectrum. But options will open and close, so it makes things interesting.

New York subway station with woman looking on

If the story and gameplay are both deep and layered in their own way, where Deus Ex really finds its own is where the two meet. This is obvious, in theory: the gameplay immerses you in the videogame world; the narrative gives the gameplay meaning; actions feel consequential, etc. But we might be forgiven for thinking that some of these things work almost in spite of each other. We're sucked into the details, the mood and the conflicts of this world even as this world is... well, ridiculous. Hideous. Unashamedly gamey. Just take a look at J.C. Denton above. Take the dodgy voice acting, the grotesque-looking denizens, their clunky environments. Take the AI behaviour, sometimes simplistic, very robotic and occasionally downright catastrophically stupid; or the retro-synthy soundtrack that plays throughout—sometimes, during its more excitable moments, like someone's not even aiming for specific keys on the keyboard.

So what's happening here? Cognitive dissonance? The usual allowances made for a game being a game while the story rolls on in the background?

Or what if the world of Deus Ex manages to be one of the most engrossing and immersive game worlds you're likely to experience because of these things? Might all this weirdness actually, somehow, work in its favour?

Read on in Part 2.

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At 3 October 2011 at 21:15 , Anonymous Roman Kalik said...

A great post so far.

At 3 October 2011 at 22:02 , Anonymous Chris said...

Cheers, Roman.