Our retrospective letter series continues with part three.
An index of all letters can be found here.
From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: I Choo-Choo-Choose
"What do you choose, and why?"
I'm glad you asked. I'm tempted to answer, "I choose choice!" but there's more to it than that.
Player Choice has become something of a Big Marketing Buzzword these days—many AAA games offer some kind of choice, or at least the illusion of choice, and multiple endings are just as marketable as multiple weapon loadouts. In Fable II, do I choose to specialize in magic, even if it causes me to look like some sort of radioactive freak? In Mass Effect, do I choose to pacify the colonists, or do I simply shoot them en route to my goal? Do I free the captured slaves in Fallout 3, or do I join the slavers and go capture more innocents? Or do I simply kill everyone and be done with it?
In truth, Deus Ex's choices aren't nearly so constrained as either Mass Effect or Fable, nor are they quite as open to interpretation as Fallout. But I like how many of the choices in the game go beyond simply "did you kill or not" and "with whom did you side in [this conflict]?"
Part of what makes the choices in Deus Ex interesting to me is the lack of clarity surrounding them, and indeed, the game. In fact, I think that the opacity of the experience is one of the things that can make it so unwelcoming to newcomers; too much opacity, too soon, perhaps.
But in referencing these newer choice-based games, I must say how strange that we are "learning" a way to make choices in games… color-coded responses, crystal-clear button prompts. The world sits and waits as the game asks us, "Are you sure?" Deus Ex, on the other hand, has us making choices we didn't even realize we were making. It feels somewhat uncomfortable after years of explicit decision-making, but it also feels refreshing and dare I say a bit dangerous.
Do we really require a reassurance that "Yes, you are making a decision here"? The choices in Deus Ex are organic, particularly as the game gets more complex; one of my favorite things about this game was finishing my first playthrough and talking with other people only to realize that I could have done things that I never even knew were possible.
In a lot of games, there is an Option A and an Option B. In games like Deus Ex, there is frequently an Option C, D, and even an E that exists so far outside the proverbial box that it's all the way back in. Games of that ilk are feeling rarer and rarer; indeed, it's as though Bethesda is the only studio still making them. No doubt this is due in large part to how expensive and time-consuming games have gotten to make—one shudders at the thought of dedicating a week to writing and programming three hours' worth of content that the majority of players won't even see.
But then, what to make of the paradox that the very thing that makes those choices cool ("Wow, I played the game twice and had no idea that was even possible!") is the thing that makes them so difficult to implement?
It's also worth making the distinction between choice and customizability. Earlier this week, you sent me a funny email about how Army Space Man did some redecorating by stealing the UNATCO flag and lifting plants out of Manderley's office. (Picture is to the side here). I'm impressed with Army Space Man's lovely office! He did a lot with the tools made available to him, and has certainly demonstrated a good deal more flair for interior design than my own Dent ArthurDent.
In rearranging things as you did, do you feel as though you're testing the game's limits? Bucking against the unappealing flatness of it all? I get the sense that you want to make yourself known, to put your mark on this world; and understandably, that desire is only heightened by the drab surroundings, and, it must be said, the drab protagonist. JC Denton exists in that weird place in between "blank slate" and "expressive, fully realized character." He's not Gordon Freeman, and yet he's not Solid Snake, so it's hard to figure out just what our relationship is to him.
If anything, the morals of Deus Ex play out through the secondary characters, primarily JC's brother Paul (and lo, how the biblical allusions continued, and they were good). As the story proceeds, you'll begin to get an inkling of the conflict to come, and where on the moral spectrum the various characters come down.
The fundamental quality of "choice" presents a challenge not just to game designers, but to storytellers as well. Would the impact of a Metal Gear game be diminished if at the end, players were allowed to make huge, narrative-altering decisions? Would the character of Snake be diminished? After all, it is possible to play through MGS4 killing people right and left, and it is equally possible to play the game as a borderline pacifist. But when it comes time for the big decisions, Snake makes them himself. I'm curious—as an avowed Metal Gear diehard, do you find that you prefer it when your protagonists are defined? And perhaps more importantly, if there were a skin or mod that let you make JC look like Snake, would you use it?
PS Hey maybe that mod is real, and our commenters can tell us where to find it.
PPS I'm kidding.
PPPS Sort of.
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: Re: I Choo-Choo-Choose
It's interesting when you talk about the opacity of choice as being something that feels rare to you, feels dated. I hate to keep coming back to the cultural divide between PC gamers and console gamers — which can be extrapolated in the most broad, general sense possible to "people who were raised by Western games" and "people who were raised by Japanese games."
See, the opacity is what I like about Deus Ex so far. But I disagree that games like that aren't being made anymore. Look at even something as recent as Catherine — it has eight endings, and only an extremely dedicated niche has been able to parse out what choices and behaviors create which outcome beyond the obvious.
Most of the Japanese-bred story-driven console games with which I spent most of my younger life have that sort of vagueness; you don't know what kinds of decisions the game will judge you for until the credits roll. Once you've played enough of them it can engender this kind of paranoia that I actually find fun: Will the game notice if I don't take care of my health? Does it make a difference how much damage the hostage takes? Types of weapons I choose?
Since you don't know what will happen, you learn to become pretty vigilant about your values — you don't know if the game "knows" how many health packs you consume or "cares about" that, but just in case it does, you're going to use as few as possible. Or wait, maybe you should use as many as possible? Shit, I dunno! We'll see when we win, right?
Call me crazy, but I think this stuff is actually really fun. More exciting than looking forward to your final "score" is the game's ultimate judgment of you as a player. Like getting the results of an IQ test, or some internet personality quiz. And I was pretty thrilled when I caught on that Deus Ex might be that kind of game. You and I have privately decided on what game we're going to base next month's letter series on — let's not spoil the audience, but I'll tell you that one is big on the opaque character judgment, and that's part of why I love it.
Because you're right; this idea of "player choice" has become huge in recent years, even defining, especially for great big RPGs. But the polarities have become extreme enough to be quite obvious; the old "will you slaughter these puppies, or give them to these orphans?" trope, or variations thereupon. Generally you know what sort of outcome the choices you're making lead to, or what sort of values they suggest. I liked what Fallout 3 did with certain ethical conundrums; they were more complex, to where I felt like I'd really have to examine myself, weigh my idea of the greater good (or evil, as the case may be!) to decide.
Still, I'm with you; the best choices are organic choices, and not the blinking, color-coded road signs that we've started to see in the modern landscape. Sometimes in real life the choices we make are considered and purposeful, and other times they're immediate reactions to a high-pressure situation; sometimes we don't have time to think. and we just react. Like when in Deus Ex, I realize I've wandered into an optional situation by mistake — I'd planned to avoid a certain course of action, but in the thick of it, Army Space Man's survival becomes more important, so I see it through. Or I figure, well, I've wandered over here, why don't I finish what I started?
In that way, my playthrough so far has a happy spontaneity that I can chalk up in part to the fact that my experience feels just piecemeal enough that I'm not really registering the overall narrative thread. I play like an actor; I understand my objective moment to moment. I'm interested in the characters (I mean, Anna can go die in a fire, and we do NOT talk like these supposed New Yorker NPCs, but other than that), and I'm seeing an interesting personal story shaping up for Army Space Man. I appreciate the emails and the books and the tiny precious details that set the tone for the world. But I think I'm not very interested in the larger storyline, as it is; so far it's blah-blah NSF, blah blah hostages, something something medicine, political something, augmented something...
But I think when a game's missions require such thought, such precision, and when the playing field approaches a certain level of complexity, it gets like that; you think about and cope with what's in front of you and you generally understand who you are and where you're going and why, even if you only retain the larger threads when they are necessary. Actually, Metal Gear Solid is like that for me. I can answer loads of trivia about the games, but if you asked me to describe the entire story? Hah, that convoluted (wonderful! brilliant! Meta!)mess? Are you kidding me?
You asked about Solid Snake; I think he also exists somewhat in that strange plain between "fully realized" and "blank slate." I think, at least, Army "JC Denton" Space Man is given the same amount of initial characterization as Solid Snake is given in the original Metal Gear Solid game. You could, I think, swap them, aside from the specificities of the augmentation program.
The interesting thing about Snake is that I think over time he became simultaneously a spokesperson for the director of his story as well as for his player. Yeah, you can play as a pacifist or as an aggressive soldier, but the game is knit so neatly that it works either way. Either way, it tells you something about yourself, and about the act of playing video games, that the developer wanted you to think about. There are messages, but they're open to interpretation.
In a way, I think that makes him a stronger character, one that can exist, be plausible no matter what I do. I like choice, but ultimately I like the idea of an authored character. My interior design experiment in Army Space Man's office was, I think, my way of expressing that I don't believe in him; that I think he's ultimately a construct, a toy.
Or maybe I'm just afraid of major, narrative-altering decisions, of being able to do things and then regret them later. I can't tell. I've unwittingly stumbled into making Army Space Man a good guy, pretty much — we'll see what I do when it gets hard for me to keep playing him that way, huh?
Do you have a favorite part of this game, something for me to really look forward to? Is there a moment that defines Deus Ex for you? Why is everyone in this game's world so careless with their ATM PINs?
PS: No, I wouldn't skin him as Snake. I'd miss crawling too much.
Coming up next week in Part 4: JC makes some tough decisions, and we go deeper into the night of New York City.