Deus Ex
INSOMNIA

Deus Ex (2000, PC)

By Matt Warner / January 19, 2008


When I first saw the screenshots and read the about the ambition behind Deus Ex, it seemed like one of those games with its head in the clouds and no way to deliver on all the promises it made. The gist of it was that it set out to be a hard science fiction "shooter RPG" taking place in a dystopian near-future setting where terrorism was commonplace, the underclass were being wiped out by a plague many suspected was government-engineered, and a half-dozen shadowy organizations, from the Illuminati on down, were all vying for Control of the World. In the middle of all this was you, and you got to play what amounts to a cop.
   That was the set-up, and all I needed at the time. I picked up the game based totally on the strength of its spiritual predecessor, System Shock 2, which I'd absolutely loved, and figured it was going to be more of the same: Encounter baddies in a large, involved environment and solve a number of combat and situational puzzles in your method of choice, while developing your character down one of a handful of skill paths. Play the psychic, the combat guy, or the hacker. Expect spooky AIs whispering in your ear throughout and expect to get some kind of amazingly overpowered lightsaber-y weapon near the end, the option to be good or evil for added replay value, and a healthy sprinkling of journals to pick up so you could follow the backstory if you felt like it.
   I was right about the AI and the lightsaber.
   This game is basically System Shock 3, but seven years before BioShock and with a much more open-ended slant on the 'Shock style of game. It's really the ultimate expression of DIY character development within a game world, but without the ridiculous handholding so many other games resort to in order to move the plot forward. The focused linearity of 'Shocks 1, 2 and Bio isn't here; you're free to roam, and the plot is there in abundance but doesn't leap into your arms for you. There's reams of dialogue, there's often a peaceful (or at least sneaky) solution to puzzles, and many levels exist solely to further the plot. You're left entirely to your own devices for much of the game, only given a broad idea of what has to happen or which point you need to reach. How you go about that is entirely up to you.
   That's not to say the whole game is entirely freeform — it isn't. But it manages a linear design in such a way that you neither notice, nor care even if you do.
   Nearly every scenario has five-plus ways to complete it, and half-finished concepts abound. The designers would toss in three or four obvious ways to go about something, then maybe stack some crates to a back window or give you a robot control widget and just let you figure shit out from there, were you so inclined. The game had enough "open" systems in place to basically compensate for anything you could possibly do.
   The Brute Force and Stealth n' Assassination approaches are always viable options as well, so if your tricky Bond-like play of brazenly bullshitting your way into a huge corporation's main building doesn't work and you get turned away at the door, you can always opt for the unofficial Plan B and just blow the everliving crap out everything in your path. Or, just skip all foreplay before you even get to the prom: Knock everyone's head in from half a mile away with your customized, ridiculously overpowered rifle, then stroll into an empty level and do as you please. No quicksave/reload shenanigans necessary.
   On top of that, because of the way the game was designed, smart players are given access to what amounts to the entire plot well before it's supposed to happen, but only if you're clever (and only if you care). You spend a good one-third of the game on the side of Law and Order, so it's a bit disconcerting to discover a huge underground base underneath a manhole cover in the central part of New York City, or maybe a prototype weapon designed by a shadow government in a hidden room behind your dead brother's ex-girlfriend's apartment; but, as you might expect, these places tend to be secretive and require quite a bit of effort on your part to find. None of these hidden areas have big neon signs over them.
   Should you not find any of these, the game continues as normal. If you do, though, you get a lovely sense of chucking a giant monkey wrench in the works, when in reality the game is perfectly prepared for the player to find this stuff on the off chance and reacts accordingly. Crack open the developer cheat and take a look at the quest flags: There are hundreds of them, flagging virtually everything you could possibly do, from walking into the women's bathroom by accident to killing off major characters hours before they're supposed to even play their part. Nothing goes unrecorded. This was a herculean bit of coding on the part of the developers, and it's rare you see shit like this anymore these days; usually, design of even forward-thinking games leans much more in favor of heavily controlled player herding for major plot events, not a "maybe the player will do this" approach.
   While the moral lines are not actually color-coded (i.e. there's no "Good Points" and "Bad Points" to accumulate), human nature means that most people will guide their nanoaugmented private-military-science-project-cum-UN-peacekeeper JC Denton through the game as either a good-guy cop, or a total asshole. People tend to go for extremes in these kinds of games. Cleverly, the rationale for both makes sense in the game world, so the morality of the choice is totally up to you. No matter what you do, it's never wrong.
   As your brother Paul points out early on, you don't need to use lethal force in this game. JC is completely decked out in state-of-the-art nanoaugs and can easily subdue any criminal that regular police would have to resort to lethal force for. JC doesn't need lethal force. He's way too powerful for that. The few times when you do have to kill, it's against some giant killer robot or super nanoaugmented badass who borderlines on the immortal anyway. Lethal force against those far weaker than you should, you'd think, only be used as a last resort and only when absolutely necessary, and the game allows you to pursue this path of your own accord.
   On the other hand, you're a multi-billion dollar killing machine. Not only should you not feel guilty about slaughtering an entire island's worth full of terrorists, that's what you were literally made to do. It makes perfect sense in the context of the game world, and it's something the game reinforces positively as you go. The terrorists are certainly using lethal force against your co-workers, the vast majority of whom are just doing their jobs. The United Nations police force you belong to is never painted as any kind of obvious aggressor. Your team aren't a bunch of jackbooted puppy-kicking Gestapo or anything. They're cops, doing their job fighting off a heavily-armed terrorist force. Most of the time they're even outgunned, which is where you're supposed to come in.
   So really, where do you draw the line? You're blatantly more powerful than most of the enemies you fight. Those guys you mow down so easily are weak for a reason; they're nothing compared to the kind of kill power you have wired into your very body, and it is literally your job to be a military powerhouse when other measures of crowd control have failed. Whereas in most games it's somewhat conspicuous how you can rip a random enemy's arm off and beat him to death with it, here it's absolutely expected of you.
   You've been designed from the ground up to kill everything that needs to be killed. If you couldn't, something is seriously wrong, considering all the money that was pumped in to build you.
   If you choose not to though, that's not really the same sort of thing, is it?
   Whichever path you choose to take it is purely a moral choice on your part alone, and there are ramifications for either one. The game itself makes no moral judgments whatsoever; either approach is rewarded and punished by whichever faction cares more about either outcome. The powers that be aren't real thrilled that their super-expensive biological weapon has a conscience even against targets that are trying to kill him, and your fellow soldiers aren't real happy to have a pacifist in their midst while they're out there taking bullets in the gut from the people you refuse to kill. There is simply no "best" choice.
   (This is one of the things that doomed Invisible War, by the way. They tried to introduce morality, and it just didn't work. Lots of other things doomed it too of course, but the morality thing didn't exactly help. On that note, avoid Invisible War unless you're looking to play it to see how badly it blows the formula.)
   This remains one of the few games I've come across where you can "do anything" and not have it feel like a sandbox. It's completely different from the GTA III model or even the Elder Scrolls model, where the quests are optional. The stuff you do in Deus Ex is not optional; how you choose to go about it is.
   The whole "Killing Anna" event is a perfect example of just how far the designers were willing to take this concept.
   Anna Navarre is a major character in the game. She's your superior in the police force, and is supposed to be able to curbstomp you at will, so when she orders you to kill a prisoner at one point, your character makes an objection on legal (and maybe moral) grounds but it's not like the obvious option is to kill her instead. The game never indicates this outright, but builds a scenario where you might try it.
   After a heated battle to capture the leader of a terrorist cell, Anna orders you now shoot the unarmed prisoner, and furthermore demands you stop talking to him right as he's telling you all kinds of interesting stuff. You can keep talking to him, and she gets more and more pissed off as you do, eventually claiming she's going to report you to the Chief (which she does indeed do if you let her live, and you catch holy hell for it). The prisoner is saying things like "If you leave me here, she'll kill me. This'll be the last time you see me alive."
   At no point does he even suggest you kill your superior officer to save him, but the thought has probably already been planted. It's left entirely up to you to just try it and see if it works.
   It sounds completely ludicrous, though. By all laws of game design, you shouldn't be allowed to kill off a major character so early in the story, especially when she's still got a ton of scripted stuff she's supposed to do. But sure enough, should you unload on her sufficiently, she dies! (And, amusingly, explodes! — Try not to kill her too close to the captive or you're going to be bringing him back to HQ in a bucket.)
   It really seems like it shouldn't work, even with all the hints dropped in the writing. This is one of those "only in videogames" things you do to putz around and see what happens, like shooting your friendly characters in World War II sims or making time paradoxes by killing Ocelot in Metal Gear. Best you're hoping for is an amusing game over screen. To be honest, that's the only reason I thought to do it my first time through. I was never expecting it to actually work. Amazingly, it did.
   Blow up Anna and Deus Ex won't even skip a beat. The game simply keeps going and dramatically re-shifts the plot to compensate for what should've been a game-breaking action. That was the moment when I became permanently hooked all those years back. I'd never seen anything like that in a game before, and nothing has had quite that level of holy shit-ness since as far as plot goes. Some games have come close, but never since have I felt like I was able to get away with something that wasn't supposed to be allowed, and have the game not only allow it, but incorporate it flawlessly into the plot.
   While the canon plot of the game doesn't have this happen, the incident is certainly not brushed off. It becomes a major plot point as your first big betrayal to UNATCO, and Anna's ex-partner will never let you live for it. He eventually discovers what happened and hunts you down for the rest of the game. Oftentimes in cutscenes you'll take off via helicopter only to see Gunter run in at the bottom of the screen and take a few potshots at the departing chopper. He rants and raves about your terrible betrayal and laments the loss of his partner.
   The Anna-killing thing isn't the only one either, just the first that players are likely to stumble into. If you fully explore the game, it's loaded with this kind of stuff. You can completely gunk up the default plot by being a total tin-foil-hat-wearing bastard. Explore everything and trust no one, because there really are conspiracies around every single corner. Paranoia is not only justified, it's encouraged and rewarded with some frequency. Stuff that you're not supposed to know right until the endgame can not only be discovered, but completely diverted mere hours into the beginning of the game.
   And for all that? You can also just play it straight. Shoot the hostage. Follow orders. The game proceeds as normal. There are no manufactured "plot events" here. You make your own.
   One thing I love about this game (and what was sorely, sorely missing in the sequel) is that it very meticulously builds a world around you at the beginning, and doesn't bring it down for a good long time — you can, however, bring it down yourself way in advance. It will eventually happen anyway, but the ways in which it can happen are completely different. While the game will eventually force your hand for plot reasons, it never feels like it.
   For example, if you don't kill Anna of your own accord, she will eventually show up down the road and fight you to the death, but much, much later in the game, and well after she's been given a good reason (and direct orders) to do so. Likewise, if Paul dies, this becomes a big plot point in the game, where JC is finally shown the corruption at UNATCO because they fuckin' killed his brother, dude. But you can save him! It's quite hard, and definitely not "supposed" to happen, but if you do, it completely alters a key element of the plot.
   Nothing's ever come quite as close to a genuine interactive sci-fi novel that's written as you go. Other games have tried, but the guide rails have always been way too visible. In Deus Ex they blend in perfectly, while still being there to eventually steer you in the proper direction, so the game never loses focus. It's almost magic.
   But of course there are limits. The game isn't freeform and was never designed to be. It has a set plot, and things hurtle towards the same possible three endings no matter what you do. For all the narrative flip-flopping you can pull off, you're still just taking detours on a trip that's leading you to the same destination anyway.
   That's not a negative, though. Considering this is still essentially an action game, it's mind-bending how ridiculously elastic the plot is. Yes, you can't change it, but you can stretch it really really far, without fear of breaking it.
   This is helped along even further because the developers disregarded a lot of key design rules. There are many areas that are just areas. You can walk around Hong Kong pretty casually, and maybe if you feel like it go swimming in the canals or try to jimmy open the back door to a restaurant to see what's in there. Some of my favorite moments in the game are from doing that in Hong Kong. It's such a great, cohesive, makes-sense-in-a-pleasant-way level. You can go to the dance club, wander the back alleys at night over the canals, head uptown with all the neon and activity going on, all that. There are restaurants, high rises, underground storefronts that all seem extremely natural and real, and all these places are loaded with people.
   The people are what really sets this game apart from its 'Shock brethren. There's more NPC interaction here than in your average Final Fantasy (and real interaction), there are countless people to save or kill at random, and the action is very relaxed and broad compared to the narrow survival-horror-y SS2. In Deus Ex you're far more powerful; in SS2 you're constantly being hunted, injured, and trying to get your damn gun to unjam so you can shoot whatever fucked-up thing is lurching down the hall before it eats you and assimilates you into a space-bacteria hive-mind. Both are good times. If you like one but not the other, I dunno. Somethin' ain't right in your brain.
   What's always fascinated me about Deus Ex is how virtually everyone opts for the non-lethal approach, despite the fact that it's harder to pull off and there's absolutely no reward for doing so besides a few dialogue-tree changes. Even if you know perfectly it does nothing (the game treats dead and unconscious enemies exactly the same way) and that the game stops "keeping score" the moment the tutorial mission ends, almost everyone I talk to simply won't start killing people until halfway through, and even then will only kill specific kinds of enemies. Common soldiers of virtually every faction and all "civilians" are weirdly safe, despite their lives being completely in the player's hands.
   And that's awesome.
   Probably has to do with both the brilliantly-realized setting, and the fact that, like I said before, you really don't "need" to kill anyone in this game who doesn't either obviously deserve it, or who isn't already borderline inhuman anyway. In a way, Deus Ex is actually tricking you into role-playing. There's something to be said for that, definitely.

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