Decisions, Design, and J.C. Denton: The Deus Ex Letters ConcludeS

Our retrospective letter series concludes with part four.
An index of all letters can be found here.

From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Augmented Reality

Leigh,

Hello! After a couple weeks' delay, I'm finally back to write the fourth and final letter in this series. Sorry for the setback—we've both been caught up in a bit of travel, and I've been further sidetracked by, appropriately enough, my time playing and writing about Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

In your last letter, you asked me if there is a moment that defines Deus Ex for me. There are several in fact, though to reveal a few of them would be to spoil the story, and that would be a shame. But there will come a time when Army Space Man will make his return to UNATCO headquarters, the whole story turns on its head and gets about 500% more interesting. I won't tell you explicitly what happens, you'll just have to guess. Can ya guess? Noticed any foreshadowing? Got any theeeeories? *nudge nudge wink wink*

In my review of Human Revolution, I made much ado about the fact that it "feels" so true to the original. But what does that really mean, and why is it important? I've become enamored of the idea of all actions in these games occur "In the simulation," and I think that's a big part of what it means to be a Deus Ex game. It was something Ken Levine said when I chatted with him about Bioshock Infinite—this idea of a reactive game world, where our every action is registered and has repercussions.

So Deus Ex is this massive, meticulously engineered sim, a game that forces choices on you from the moment it begins until the moment it ends; some of them are large, some are small, but all are choices. Most of them pass without much pomp and circumstance—Will you shoot the guard, or knock him out? Will you choose to become stronger, or to breathe underwater?—but all of which have far-reaching repercussions as the game progresses.

Playing video games can feel like bouncing around in a padded room; especially many modern games. More and more, I'm finding that I like games that listen to me, that let me get in there and do things my way. So I'd say that Deus Ex reminds me how much I like large, highly structured, open-ended simulations. Wow, that is a mouthful! Can we maybe come up with a better term for this kind of game? "Latticework Games" maybe.

…No, that sucks. Help me out here!

You write about Japanese games like Catherine that offer choice and branching storylines, but I think past the opacity of some of their systems, the games are pretty different. Catherine does give players the opportunity to make choices that alter its story and that story's outcome, but it doesn't make the players agents of change to the extent that Deus Ex does.

Few games do, of course—Human Revolution offered a mere fraction of Deus Ex's branches, choices, and options, and it made the mistake of allowing players to have every possible augmentation, effectively neutering all of the in-game tactical choices. And of course, that's because modern games cost so much more to make, both in terms of manpower and actual money, that making a game that is built like Deus Ex but looks and plays like Human Revolution would take untold years and millions of dollars.

I'm not ready to say that I always prefer to have Deus Ex's numbers and statistics over a simpler system like the ones in Catherine. In his reliably terrific write-up of Dead Island over at Grantland, our friend Tom Bissell derides the game's focus on RPG elements, saying the following:

You leveled up and rolled the dice in Dungeons & Dragons because it was impossible to run such systems under the game's hood. You know why? Because there wasn't a hood. Video games not only have hoods but also engines, and all manner of delightfully invisible computation can be dealt with and handled there. So I ask: Why isn't it invisible more often? Why this useless Gamification of what are already games? Why do we tolerate it? What do we actually get out of it, other than some mouse-brain satisfaction of knowing exactly where we are in the maze?

I like your description of treating the game a bit like an actor, moving through various scenes without too much of a sense of how it all ties together.

He may very well be right. The in-game choices in Deus Ex hinge entirely on the leveling and statistical decisions we've made throughout the game. Without those, the difference between sneaking through the vent and blasting through the front door would be entirely a matter of in-the-moment choice. But would that really be so bad? Human Revolution does this to some extent, and there's certainly a case to be made that it's no less enjoyable because of it.

I've talked so much about design and structure and scaffolding that I'm starting to sound like one of those "gameplay only" critics. In the end, I guess that stuff is just easier to talk about than Deus Ex's story or characters. That's partly because technology has come so far that it seems unfair to gang up on the terribad animations and Minecraft-esque character models, the flat vocal delivery, etc.

And partly because, as much as I love Deus Ex, I have to admit that the characters and story never really did much for me (though I do enjoy the story more than I do the characters). I'm into the big ideas here, I think that transhumanism is like, interesting or whatever, but I just can't bring myself to care about the voices chirping at me over my in-brain intercom, the conspiracies upon the other conspiracies. For a game that's so concerned with overarching design, I find myself playing it in a very moment-to-moment fashion. I like your description of treating the game a bit like an actor, moving through various scenes without too much of a sense of how it all ties together.

It's a common trait of video game stories, isn't it? A bunch of scenes happen, some characters are introduced, we learn a little bit about the world, some more scenes happen, and then we end up taking part in a big conflict. We never get much of a sense of Denton's motivation, and why would we, really? We are his motivation. He moves into action because one of us pressed the "W" key.

But then, that doesn't always have to be the case, does it? You're absolutely right that J.C. Denton and Metal Gear Solid's Solid Snake started out as more or less the same character—a blank slate, enough to hang a video game on. And both have evolved in interesting ways—J.C. Denton, by way of our actions, became a hero or a monster, and that transformation was largely reflected through the lens of his brother Paul. Snake, on the other hand, has spent the last ten years growing without our help. Over the course of several Metal Gear games, he has become this iconic, battle-weary man who spends his time navigating incredibly complicated personal relationships and whose ultimate motivations remain obfuscated behind a facade of recalcitrant grunts and cigarette smoke.

(Side note: God, how cool is Snake?)

Decisions, Design, and J.C. Denton: The Deus Ex Letters ConcludeS

Ten years ago, I probably would have told you that I didn't care if the character I control onscreen is little more than a cypher, an onscreen representation of my will. Today, I'm not so sure. Maybe we can blame Cloud for that, or maybe Snake. Or Cate Archer, or Manny Calevera. I get enough out of Deus Ex's systems and gameplay that it still very much resonates for me as a gamer, but it doesn't press my story-buttons in the same way that it once did.

But what a game, what an achievement in design, what a hell of a thing. I try to imagine a non-RTS AAA game of its depth and complexity being released today and I simply can't. The fact that Human Revolution channels even a percentage of its predecessor feels like a triumph. Despite its graphical shortcomings, in all the ways that make it "Deus Ex", it holds up remarkably well. Which is a good thing, since we may never see a game like this again.

So with that, I'll throw it to you. What do you take away from your time with Deus Ex? How have games gotten better since then, how have they gotten worse? What do you make of the great, glorious Thing, this blessed bovine beauty that we PC Gamers have been yammering on about all these years?

Thanks for taking the time to play this one with me. As you've mentioned, next time around, we'll do one of your favorites again; that should be interesting indeed.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go put on the UNATCO theme and walk purposefully around my apartment, being certain to leave my ATM PIN lying around wherever I can.

~Kirk


From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: Re: Augmented Reality

Kirk,

It's interesting. I've always thought about how to weigh the implementation of choice mechanics in terms of whether I had a meaningful emotional response to it. Did it deepen the story for me, make a character more real, did I feel like there were real consequences for what I was doing?

But a game like Deus Ex is an important reminder of how valuable it is in and of itself to make gameplay choices within complex systems; the only thing more satisfying than a finely-oiled machine is the ability to own it, where your experience is completely distinct from someone else's.

Decisions, Design, and J.C. Denton: The Deus Ex Letters ConcludeS

On the other hand, though, I'm not so sure that an architecture of mechanics so sophisticated it makes the game itself virtually invisible is what we want. The choices I made in Deus Ex were often random; sometimes I used one entrance over another simply because I reached it first. The strategies I employed were simply to indulge my own strengths and weaknesses as a player, not because I conceived of myself as birthing some kind of real identity for JC.

Those choices were related to my own natural aptitude (or ineptitude, depending!), luck, or mistakes I made that I hadn't saved recently enough to want to go back and correct. I didn't always know which augmentations would be best for me; sometimes it was just whim. I named JC "Army Space Man" as a satire of the kind of hollow construct my prejudices assumed he would be. But the game was so clever at letting me play it how I wanted to that any idea of who JC was becoming, or any personal relationship to the story, became continually more distant to me.

Why is something not a "weakness" for me in MGS when it feels like one in Deus Ex?

You're right that the only thing Deus Ex and Catherine have in common is that opacity that surrounds their choices (that was the only reason I brought it up, actually — more precisely, that you don't know what the game is judging and isn't until you get a result). Catherine is a story that asks people to think about the definition of maturity, what the right balance of freedom versus order should be, and about what the defining traits of a healthy adult man ought to be. It's a story of the individual, of small human matters.

Deus Ex made me think about video games, mostly. I remember reading, or hearing at some point, Warren Spector saying the game's title was a sign of its times, in part a send-up of the absurd deus ex machina circumstances that categorized most game stories. By contrast, the Deus Ex team wanted to do something more grounded in player agency.

Decisions, Design, and J.C. Denton: The Deus Ex Letters ConcludeS

It's especially interesting that Deus Ex is a game about conspiracy and mistrust of authority that was made prior to 9-11 and the other global and political events that have reshaped the way we relate to our world in its wake. The game was made well before 9/11 and there are no Towers in its New York; it's eerily prescient regarding the climate of terrorism-fear that blanketed us in the years that followed. The idea of a virus from which only the "elite" can be rescued is interesting given that, as I write this, people here in New York are migrating to Wall Street for a mass sit-in in protest of the fact that so much of our wealth is owned by such a small percentage of the population.

I've always seen the Metal Gear Solid series, at least later on, as games about video games, too. At least in part. MGS4 has a lot of problems, but like Deus Ex its precision mechanics allow for infinite play styles. And like I suspect Deus Ex is at times, I've always firmly believed that MGS4 was a commentary on the state of games in its day.

MGS4 was supposed to lead the PlayStation 3 — and Japan — to victory in the console war. It's the story of an aging soldier who struggles to negotiate a world of mechanized war and a technology arms race where his values feel outdated, where his friends no longer respect him and where promises made to him by his authority figures go unfulfilled. When you glimpse "No Place For Hideo" amongst the early trailer's punning taglines it's hard not to see the game as a creator's statement on his industry.

And despite the fact I'm an absurdly devoted MGS fan, I remember more about what the games say about video games — how the gameplay choices always seem to echo the story's themes — than about their material plotlines. Both games invoke in me equal incidence of "wait who was this person again, and why was I going to this place again."

Decisions, Design, and J.C. Denton: The Deus Ex Letters Conclude

So it's strange I should feel like I wanted a story that was less scientific and more spiritual for Deus Ex, a character that was less avatar and more authored. Why is something not a "weakness" for me in MGS when it feels like one in Deus Ex?

Maybe it's because, as you noted, the characters and the universe become more purposeful for MGS over time: Snake isn't mysterious because his identity is player-authored, or undecided, or fluid. The more of the story you get at, the more you can feel you understand him, and feel for him. But then again, maybe that's just my taste, the ideal balance of designed character and player-authored individual for me.

Reading all of Deus Ex's texts and examining all the dialog's subtext often gave me moments of insight and never felt heavy-handed, but just like with the larger moments of my experience, I largely experienced them as unconnected setpieces, strings of scenes that I enjoyed playing, but from which I struggled to assemble a story.

I started this series with you skeptical about whether I could "get into" Deus Ex because of all the things I had once found alienating about it, and which I still find alienating. I'm surprised at the extent to which I got into it, came to enjoy playing it, and came to immensely respect it. It's a game designer's game, a lovely bit of architecture. Reading over this recent RPS piece from Jim Rossignol on the values of the PC gaming culture (actually, in the context of why PC gamers complain so much), I can understand why it's so beloved to that audience.

Decisions, Design, and J.C. Denton: The Deus Ex Letters ConcludeS

I will remember having admired the design, and I'll always be able to articulate why. But the one thing that disappoints me immensely is this: In the face of such a flawless machine of logic, I'm divested of ownership of my choices. The game knows how I'm playing, but that means that ultimately my decisions are just mechanical. I have bad aim, so I'll sneak in the back, thanks. I'm impatient, so I'll take the shorter route. I accidentally clubbed a hostage, but I didn't feel like reloading to an earlier save. I am interacting with a video game. Deus Ex will stay with me intellectually, but the shimmer-layer of personal alienation that made me fear I'd never be able to love it still exists.

MGS4 has an action sequence that is utterly pointless, during which you just have to press a button over and over. Nothing in Deus Ex will ever make me feel like I did then.

I love a beautifully-designed game. And I don't think that beautiful design and spiritual impact are mutually exclusive. Just look at pitch-perfect Portal, which tickles brain and heart at the same time. But for the most part the games I love, that are worth writing home (or writing you!) about, are not always a pleasure to play. They stumble clumsily about their mechanics, and yet somehow they manage to stay with me.

The game we're going to play next is one of those. It, too, will watch how you play in order to judge what sort of person you are, and like Deus Ex you won't know what behaviors of yours it judges.

But it's not about politics or even ethics. It's not a story of power and global unrest; it's the story of a man's inner struggle for resolution. It's as surreal as Deus Ex is literal. The design isn't excellent, but its storytelling, its ability to create a mood, hasn't been matched — even by future installments of the series in which it appears. I can't wait to play it again, and I'm particularly excited to share it with you because the music is of such renown. I also can't wait to get your impressions of the voice acting, which as you know has become somewhat controversial again...

Thank you for encouraging me to play a game as important as Deus Ex. It's been fun! And thanks, naturally, to all you readers for watching Kirk school me and put up with my attitude problems.

See you next time!

L


That'll do it for us and Deus Ex, but we'll be back in a few weeks with another game. Thanks for reading, all!


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.

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