Deus Ex: Free From the Conspiracy

In anticipation of Deus Ex: Human Revolution I replayed Ion Storm’s masterpiece, Deus Ex. As I once again traversed through the web of conspiracy and explored the open levels of Deus Ex, I marveled at how, up to this point, no modern game has rivaled the smart design and complex story AI of Deus Ex. I believe Deus Ex is unmatched in the level and depth of freedom it gives the player.  

The pinnacle of Deus Ex’s design is the story system. While branching narratives and multiple endings have been done in games before and after, what separates Deus Ex is the small touches, the little nuances. Specifically, the game tracks your relationship and behavior towards certain characters, which changes the way they react and perceive you. All of a sudden, a character you saw as inconsequential in a bar shows up later and changers their demeanor based upon how you treated them before in the bar.

Or, even more than just a simple exchange, the game tracks your play style. Take the first mission, Liberty City. Your brother tells you to avoid killings if at all possible and if you play the mission without killing a soul, your brother reaffirms your actions. If you become a John McClane, your brother reprimands you, but other character in the game might encourage such direct confrontation.

Some of you may still be wondering why this is important. It’s important because Deus Ex is a game in which your many of your choices have consequences but in a way that isn’t clearly denoted or obviously scripted. The first time you play the game, you may blow off the guy at the bar, not knowing he’ll be a regular character later. He doesn’t introduce himself and most gamers will probably perceive him as part of the scenery.

But even more than that, the way you play the game becomes a choice. Do you kill the guards, or avoid them? The game AI is smart enough to tell the difference and characters will change their behavior towards you based on how you play the game. What all this means is that Deus Ex is one of the most believable and reactionary game worlds ever made, one in which the level of story and world interaction is far deeper than almost any other game.

And while Deus Ex provides that freedom of expression and interaction in story, it does it even more so in the level design. This is where a lot of players have frustration with the start of the game because the game doesn’t guide the player. It simply tells them to go arrest a guy at the top of the tower and drops them in the mission.

Instead of opting for finely scripted missions, the levels are left broad and open, with alternate routes, various ways to interact with environmental tools and tons of hidden nooks and crannies that can help players find gear and tools that will allow them to progress. This gives the player a great level of freedom in approaching each mission. Most new players don’t realize this and try to take the mission head on, which is the hardest way to try to accomplish the mission, although it’s certainly doable.

And yet, as open as these levels are, they’re focused. There are chunks of the level the player can leave unexplored, sometimes significant parts, but each level is clearly converging to key points and objectives, which means the player still has a sense of being guided while also having that freedom to explore.

Most open world games suffer from an overwhelming sense of openness (Elder Scrolls series) while others offer open space with very little to do in that space (Grand Theft Auto series). Deus Ex strives for a fantastic middle ground that no game since has truly explored. It has the freedom, but with a strong sense of smart and deliberate design.

But perhaps the most important freedom the game gives you is the freedom of play style. Do you want to be a gun toting baddie and play the game like an FPS? Go for it. Or are you the type who prefers stealth and secrecy? You can get through the game without tripping off a single alarm. Or do you prefer to be the hacker who turns the enemy’s security against them? You’ve got yourself some good tools.

This isn’t even addressing the augmentation system, a series of superpowers the player gets that allow for alternate play styles that might not even seem supported at first. With leg speed and combat strength, you can become a swift instrument of melee justice. Or with active camouflage and silent running, you can get through the game as an invisible man.

While some would argue some of the skills the game gives you are more useless than others—lots of Deus Ex fans say swimming is a useless skill—what that range allows is for is experimentation and freedom in player choice. Deus Ex doesn’t have game play, it has game plays, because there’s no singular right way to play the game.

This is so much the case that the player can play through the entire game without killing a single person. Every combat encounter can be avoided, evaded and snuck around if you try hard enough. It’s a challenge, something only the most dedicated of players have tried, but it’s completely doable, a testament to the flexibility of the design.

These three elements (player choice in story, navigation and play style) make Deus Ex one of the all-time greats. It’s a masterfully designed game and is a magnificent thesis on what smart modern game design should be. It’s a shame the industry has learned very little from it. My great hope is that Deus Ex: Human Revolution will help ignite those core design tenants once more.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing