Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Weird World of Deus Ex (Part 2)

[Part 1 can be found here (yes, from that long ago). This works as a standalone post, though.]

Ambience. On the pier of Liberty Island at night, dark, breezy synth music accompanies the sloshing water and dinging bell of a rocking boat. The rest of New York is a low-bit image on the horizon. Here, beyond the boat, the water and the slow march of a lumbering mech up ahead, the night is quiet, until your cyborg brother and fellow government agent jogs up and gives you the lowdown on the terrorists that have taken over the island. In conversation, the music shifts to quiet intrigue.

Across Liberty Island, the sense is of waiting, and a certain obliviousness on the part of the enemy. Beyond the pier, National Secessionist Forces, the terrorists, stand at posts or stroll endlessly up and down predetermined paths, semi-concealed from each other by high walls forming partial courtyards and secluded stretches of ground. In the middle of it is the headless Statue of Liberty, where the terrorist leader and a captive agent are hiding. Your mission is to reach them—to free the agent (optionally) and confront the terrorist leader.

If this is your first time playing Deus Ex, the mission can be hard, a crash course in strategy and creative use of limited resources. Through combat (or learning how to avoid it), it's the first time you'll come to grips with most of game's mechanics in a properly experimental context, even if you already slogged through the tutorial—how to move around, how to jump, how to swim, how to aim and shoot, pick up items, probe and rearrange your inventory, creep around, slide up ladders by your chin, carelessly lose functionality in certain limbs—and how to die, with shocking ease... as the camera spirals over your corpse, trenchcoat splayed like a trampled dystopian petal.

Liberty Island at night with a destroyed Statue of Liberty

The challenge of combat is what pulls you into the game, the trickiness demanding your utmost careful attention. Relatively straightforward missions like these actually aren't the most interesting part of Deus Ex, but it's here that you're forced to tune in to the basic logical workings of the game's world, getting a feel for the essentials. When you reach the Statue and get inside, and confront and speak to the NSF leader, you'll also get the first of your narrative choices, with different options for how to respond. This encounter serves as a prologue, working in the story's first crucial shades of grey as the NSF leader gives you his side of the story.

So far so good, without much time to consider the impression the game has already left on you. But the mission ends with whatever decisions you make here, and then you move on to something quite different.

What follows is a kind of debriefing. You head to UNATCO HQ, the command base and nerve centre of government agency operations, where you'll find yourself monitored under the cricket-pulse of roaming CCTV cameras, stepping around the crackling, whirring mindlessness of cleaning robots in a charming image of corporate domesticity. The aim of your exploration here, a respite after the action-heavy opening mission—and devoid of combat unless you go out of your way to provoke it—is to make conversation. This is where you really start to settle into the fiction, introduced to the wider context of the world's politics and events through casual encounters with... well, a bunch of people in offices, and soldiers on their piss break, or something.

UNATCO HQ is also where it'll probably first sink in that you're enjoying the game. As the steep learning curve and highly technical engagement of the first mission gives way to a downbeat, relatively passive level, you'll find yourself absorbing the ambient environment rather than focusing on the action. Your attentions aren't so preoccupied, so that for the first time you really notice the music, take in the sounds, and generally just chill out. It's where you first realise how tuned in you are, triggering a cosy little feedback loop of pleasure as the details of the world and the story trickle in through conversations and the snooped emails of casually hacked computers.

A colleague objecting to a restroom intrusion

The people you meet are liable to be interesting through their idiosyncratic alienness as much as their compelling, empathetic characterisation, creatures of strange comedy with their programmed responses, jerky movements, over-inflected lines and stretched plastic faces. You'll find that figuring out the limits and possibilities of self conduct has become a sudden focus. It's a bit like encountering a civilisation whose customs you're not quite familiar with, where a faux pas is easily triggered by violating some previously unknown rule; or like a village where all the locals act a bit weird and there's the creeping sense that any moment they might take off their faces and reveal themselves to be hideous extra-terrestrial mutants. There's something a bit off about their rigid simplicity, which curiously draws you in and makes you particularly attentive to your own behaviour in relation to them.

The compulsion is to test the boundaries, in an environment where such things are typically very pronounced. As a military base, and an office environment, words like discipline, rank, government, authority and protocol guide your behaviour—but they also pretty much ask for mischief. You are, after all, playing a game, and one that promotes exploration and experimentation. Knowing that it's a game with gamey limitations makes you want to test how far this goes, how deep its realism when there are quite obviously certain limitations, and what it takes to violate acceptable behaviour. It trains your rebellious urges. And the pleasure is that even though it's simple, it can still be surprising—for example, the woman who objects to you entering the ladies' restroom and reports you to your boss, a social code easily violated in the player's indiscriminate exploration of rooms. (If you do this, your boss later chides you.)

Despite their comical nature, these denizens do simply but effectively reveal the human variation of the organisation you're supposed to be working for. Casual remarks, grumbled complaints, compliments, remonstrations, and contradictory whispers of conspiracy, UNATCO employees spin around to talk to you as if you were halfway through a conversation already, while you stand there impassively like you're waiting for them to move out of the way. It's quirky and oddly candid (except for the ones who wind up suspicious for not being candid), but it does the job, turning UNATCO into a tangled ball of recognisably human motives and intrigue. That word authority looms again, under all those cameras—a dozen voices quietly complicating the picture even as you receive your next assignment.

View of street in Hell's Kitchen, with fire escape and man in the distance

After that, you head back out and take to the streets and parks and underground tunnels of New York City—entering dystopia. The game specialises in sparsity, the landscapes depopulated, bleak, empty and ominous. The details are rats and pigeons and garbage. It's always night time. Deus Ex doesn't exactly have much in the way of art direction—it's... blue and grey, and bleak out of plainness, with a visual design that's derivative and ugly with it—but in a way this, and other contrivances designed to cope with the limitations of the game's engine, works in its favour by giving us what is quite a relevantly shabby world.

This extends to the objects found in your inventory. Aside from weapons, ammo and infiltration tools, the only things you can pick up are meagre items like soy food, candy bars, soda, cigarettes, and a harmful street drug named zyme. When these are all you have, it turns the scarcity and monotony and singularity of some fairly typical videogame inventory items (e.g. health-giving food) into something that's reflective of the condition of the world. You want food? You eat soy food, the universally bleak, synthetic diet of the people... if you can find it. (Or candy bars, which are hardly nutritious either.)

The poetry of technical limitations extends to the dismal population. From the moment you set foot in Battery Park, explore the streets of Hell's Kitchen, or descend into the tunnels where the mole people live, you'll encounter a sparse, grimy population of poor, miserable, wretched civilians, either huddled around burning oil drums or roaming back and forth along scripted paths. What for soldiers, cyborgs and other militants is the rigidity and discipline of military formation in these repetitive, restrictive movements, for civilians is the aimlessness of lost souls: men and women trapped and hopeless, small boys wandering up and down like ghosts in search of food. Their faces are stretched, pale, gaunt and ugly, a rough skin job as much as anything else, but oddly fitting. The repetition of the same few character skins throughout the game is clumsy and noticeable, but kind of adds to the sense of an indistinguishable, uniform misery—one dying junkie being much the same as another. And what is true in New York is also true in Hong Kong and in Paris, cities that you visit later.

A homeless kid, after given food, says, The cleaner-nanites make my teeth slippery!

Outside of conversation, grey voices against the atmospheric soundtrack, these people react to the world in fear. Most of them wail and flee when you brandish a weapon or when they hear gunfire; a few, in anger, will bring out their crowbars. If you hit them back with enough force they will, like any hostile and like yourself, detonate into explosive, bloody giblets—completely absurd, but definitely grim.

The game walks a fine line between simplistic AI that's fun to exploit and a population that feels genuinely reactive. Hostiles are somewhat humanised by their simple-minded, often comical barks of alarm, but they're still obviously pretty dumb. Open fire in a populated area and civilians panic and try to get away, though you can usually follow them and find that they all congregate amusingly in a designated corner of the map—in one case, the men's restroom. (This game has a thing about restrooms.)

The fun of the game is in grasping all the rules, paths and processes and learning how to manipulate them. More often than not, it's finding the AI at the very edge of its limited capabilities that provides the best, most edgy and most hilarious moments, half the surprises coming from half a dozen programmed reactions igniting off each other in unexpected ways. In Maggie Chow's apartment in Hong Kong, I dealt with the triple shock of the maid, who I hadn't spotted watching me from the door, going suddenly berserk and hopping around shooting at me simply for touching a computer (with no way to apologise or otherwise try to placate her); accidentally stepping on the pet cat on my way into another room and alerted to this fact by its dying shriek; and under a hail of gunfire, panicking and launching myself through the penthouse window, only to find myself flying across the street, through another window and into another apartment I hadn't even known existed. There I raided the fridge.

Goofy AI is fun when it works in the game's favour—when you find yourself strategising around it, but that strategising pulls you deeper into the game, its world and its workings, even as absolute realism takes a hit. And if the world of Deus Ex seems a little bit daft or rough around the edges, it is at least ludologically compatible, a space for play and experimentation, not sealing off chunks of its world for the sake of rich or realistic static presentation.

A stand-off with a hostile, berserk maid in a Hong Kong penthouse

The story itself—the thing that links it all together, with its ongoing plot inflected in many great and small ways by your actions—isn't too shabby either, and you will encounter difficult choices, interesting (if often hammy and weird-voiced) characters, and compelling motivations to find out what exactly is going on as the conspiracy develops. Much of this is conveyed through glorious information overload—all the conversations and codes and maps and emails and terminals, the important bits collected in your admittedly clunky but vital inventory—which, with the ever-present task of gathering intel in order to find the best strategies to complete each mission, conspires to suck you into the world even further.

When you start layering everything on, it's not hard to see how it comes to form something greater than the sum of its curious parts. There's no denying that the graphics are simple, that most characters are unintentional eyesores, or that 90% of the voice acting is terrible. There's no denying the decidedly videogameish movements and behaviour of the world's denizens. But like any medium that has to change and distort the rules of reality, albeit with half of these rules changed due to technical limitations and therefore semi-accidental, it ekes out its own imaginative space, pitches us at a slightly different level of reality.

With Deus Ex, this seems to work at nearly all levels—all the way up to that oddly dated, borderline quaint synthy music, which wraps up the whole distinctive package. The effect is so pronounced that you may even grow to love the awful theme music that plays when you first load up the game, for the slice of Deus Ex it promises.

Labels: , , , ,