Sneaking, Soundtracks, and Riker-Porn: The Deus Ex Letters ContinueS

Our retrospective letter series continues with part two. The first letter can be found here, and an index of all letters can be found here.

From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: bionicman

Leigh,

It's difficult to talk about Deus Ex without talking about "PC Gaming" in toto—that hard-to-quantify thing that brings out such vigorous debate, such fanged forum haranguing. Your early days with Space Quest and Prince of Persia stand in contrast to what I think of as my own PC gaming memories, which are of the mid-to-late 90's, when PC Gaming embraced the standalone 3D graphics processor and as a result became as much about hardware as it was about software.

To my mind, that era was when PC Gaming got good—not because of the hardware per se, but because of what it made possible. Finally, the games felt like they were reaching some sort of lofty potential, something at which older games had only hinted. Forget consoles—I was a PC gamer through and through. This was where it was at, this was the forefront of interactive entertainment.

Deus Ex does not put its best foot forward in the early hours, but it gradually unfolds into something grand and complex.

I've since come to appreciate the many fine qualities of earlier PC games, as well as the console titles of the 90's. But I still remember the first time I went up against advanced (for the time) AI in Half-Life or saw shimmering water effects and colored lighting on the walls in Unrealand thinking, "Oh, yeah."

But as you rightly point out, that same period marked the point at which PC Gaming left a lot of people behind. The games became so complex and impenetrable; partly because of the way the games were designed, but also because players had to worry about screen resolutions and anti-aliasing settings, a persistant meta-game of tweaked numbers, fruitless forum searches and driver alchemy. It all became a little bit intense, and I can see how it would feel unwelcoming (though honestly, even in the days of DOS I did my fair share of time-devouring Config.sys wrangling).

But I'm digressing here, and I want to stay on topic: Deus Ex. Deus Ex!

Your early impressions are both wholly valid and a clear sign (to me) that you need to play more of the game. Deus Ex does not put its best foot forward in the early hours, but it gradually unfolds into something grand and complex, a true masterwork of interlocking systems, meticulous scaffolding and twisting branches.

"Good god damn, is this game ugly," you say. And good god damn, are you right. Deus Ex is not a good-looking game. When you and I played Final Fantasy VII, we both remarked upon the fact that even though the characters and animations were crude, it stood tall on a kind of abstract emotional beauty, and was in many ways more aesthetically appealing than other, glossier games.

This is not true of Deus Ex. It's simply not an aesthete's game—it's ugly throughout, a cold rock-garden of blocky polygons and pitch-black, empty night sky. But where FFVII revealed its beauty through soft colors and right-brained abstraction, Deus Ex reveals a different type of beauty—hard lines and orderly grids, the left-brained beauty of design, order and architecture.

I must take a moment to stand up for Alexander Brandon's fantastic musical score. You describe it as "the kind of thing I'd expect to hear someone make as a joke at the expense of "dark, futuristic" video games," but in my opinion, the music of Deus Ex is the very pinnacle of dark, futuristic video game soundtracks!

The UNATCO Theme (which readers can play over on the left) is so terrific that I wish it played every time I entered my apartment. It's like the best parts of Harold Faltermeyer's "Axel F" combined with something out of Crusader: No Remorse. I truly miss that kind of synthy sci-fi goodness. Frozen Synapse channels Brandon's score to great effect, but I haven't heard anything like that in a AAA release since the first Mass Effect. And as I've frequently lamented, that game's sequel made the unfortunate, predicable move towards Hollywood orchestration and lost a lot of its charm along the way. I guess they just don't make 'em like they used to. (Unless, of course, we're talking about the soundtrack to Suparna Galaxy.)

Despite the voice-actors' uneven and often leaden delivery, Deus Ex's writing is another one of its strengths. Far too many modern games try to puff themselves up with meaningless quotes from the great thinkers—a profound quote from Nietzsche fades up against a black screen, then fades away. The chanting begins... and then its twelve solid hours of blood, boobs, and disembowlment.

Sneaking, Soundtracks, and Riker-Porn: The Deus Ex Letters Continue

But when Deus Ex references Thomas Aquinas's city on the hill, it feels genuine and proves to be thematically merited. Despite the overwrought darkness of it all, there is a sophistication to the game's thematic material that feels as rare now than it did then. You refer to the character on the cover of the box as looking like some kind of "nerd messiah," and you're righter than you might know—here is a game the title of which is "Deus Ex" and whose main character is named "J.C." Go big or go home, the expression goes, and you've got to give the writers credit for going big.

(Side note: I'm certain I can't be the only one who learned what a Deus ex machina was because of this game. Talk about putting spoilers right in your title! Despite what that UCSD study has to say about people's preference for spoiled stories, that name still strikes me as kinda hinky. It's like if The Usual Suspects had been called Surprising Identity Twist.)

So yes, Deus Ex is ugly. And yes, it suffers a bit from the video-game equivalent of TL;DR. The fish-mouths do have a tendency to gawp, and NPCs have names like "Lady in Sweater" and say things like "You're too stylish for the National Guard, too muscular for the NYPD. You must be from UNATCO."

But there is a richness to this game. It's something that unfolds slowly but steadily; one system layers on top of another, and then another, until you're creeping through the sewers beneath Hell's Kitchen, following a tipster's lead, hacking through security into the back entrance of a secret base that you might've missed altogether.

Stick with it. Keep playing. And put a lot of points into Army Space Man's pistol skills, because in the right hands, that Stealth Pistol is one wicked little bastard.

~K


From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: Re: bionicman

Kirk,

Since last we wrote, I've become terrified of what'll happen if I do anything other than gradually fall in love with this game. I figure an angry mob of Internet PC Gamers will storm my home and destroy all my snobby limited edition clear vinyls because I dared tease our friend Mr. Brandon's Deus Ex soundtrack. Which I still think sounds like the backing track to the holo-porn stash I imagine Commander Riker must own, but I won't provoke the fans anymore.

Sneaking, Soundtracks, and Riker-Porn: The Deus Ex Letters ContinueS

Actually, wait, yes, I will. But not right now, because first I'm going to talk about how I finally beat that Liberty Island section. Holy crap, how long did that bit take you people back in the day? Lately on Kotaku you wrote about how Grand Theft Auto IV's more fun if you quit staring at the mini-map. This is the kind of game that makes me miss mini-maps, flashing beacons and the like, so bad.

I kept thinking, isn't the game going to tell me what to do? I started off sulking – I mean, how is it my fault I'm confused? Why would the headquarters of UNATCO, who are my apparent colleagues, be found in the middle of this area crawling with hostiles? Why do these terrorists fire every time they think they see "a guy in a coat," but a couple of secret-agent-vagrants are allowed to chill dockside unmolested?

You know, hung up on things that felt like serious logical fallacies. Of course, I'd been given expository dialogue as well as a goals list to remind me of my context and my objectives — you mean I actually have to use that? Damn, I thought I hated hand-holding in games, but a jello-wristed, pale-bellied dependency on it sure has snuck up on me. How embarrassing.

I began having fun with Deus Ex once I stopped expecting it to be Metal Gear Solid 2.

When you wrote about Portal 2, your primary appreciation for it seemed to come down to "it makes you feel smart." Deus Ex has been making me feel stupid, a sentiment I might not have experienced if I'd played it "back in the day" when its conventions were the norm and you were expected to just know them, and if I hadn't been so acutely conscious of the cultural divide between the modern PC gaming audience and me.

Sudden thought: Someone who's learning gaming in Flash titles and on iPhone now… what if they decide to play Portal ten years from now? Will they be confused and frustrated? Will they feel hesitant and alienated, like we'll all make fun of them if they don't ‘get' it right away?

So now here's the part where I piss those guys off again: I began having fun with Deus Ex once I stopped expecting it to be Metal Gear Solid 2. My favorite franchise is the stealth franchise; I'm using the crossbow and tranq darts because it's the strategy most similar to my favorite weapon in MGS3, the Mosin Nagant tranq sniper. I'm just gonna leave that there for the readers to pop a vein about. They all know how to post rage-face pics in Kotaku comments, right?

But if anyone can hear me over the rushing of blood in their temples, I think it's worth noticing that our impressions of a game can be enormously influenced by the design conventions we're used to already, the ways we expect a game to behave. The experiences we bring with us—like the cultural alienation that had kept me away from Deus Ex in the first place—are inestimable in determining whether you'll have fun or not.

Undoing those prejudices takes a lot of work, especially in a game that starts you off with crates and gray corridors. You're right; now that I'm properly in UNATCO (throwing trophies! Stealing passcodes! Entering RESTROOMS!) and this party's getting started, I understand already the extent to which that beginning stage didn't do this game justice.

Sneaking, Soundtracks, and Riker-Porn: The Deus Ex Letters ContinueS

And I can appreciate the bit you point out; how subtle and how smart Deus Ex is. You have to be interested in listening and reading—the TL;DR element you pointed out—but I mean, this is what I love about games. Not to mention that if I can sit through a television season's worth of MGS cutscenes, I can certainly deal. I'm already looking for more books, more newspapers.

I wouldn't say I'm having fun yet, but I'm ready to try to. So here's the bit I'm most interested in: I've already made several choices, in both dialog and play, that the game might judge me on later. I'm an augmented government tool, and yet the game gives me the option to show compassion for enemies clearly labeled "terrorists"?

What's the reason to care about Army "J.C. Denton" Space Man's ethics? Where in the narrative is that? I've chosen stealth all this while because it's easier, not because I care about his morality. So how about you? "Player Choice" being the high selling point of Deus Ex, what do you choose, and why?

Smashthestate,

~L

PS: Forgot Manderley's password already. Should have written it down.

PPS: "J.C". I am generally, like, so leery of dudes who use a set of initials as a first name. What are they trying to hide?!


Coming up next week in Part 3: Deeper into the darkened streets of NYC as choices are made, consequences are accepted, and LAMs are diffused.


You can contact Kirk Hamilton, the author of this post, at kirk@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.