Earlier this year, games journalist-about-town (and Kotaku columnist) Leigh Alexander and I did a little experiment—I had never played the classic JRPG Final Fantasy VII, a game that she counts among her very favorites. The idea was that I would play the game for the first time, and as I went through it, we'd write letters talking about it and publish them. We had a lot of fun with it—so much fun, in fact, that we've decided to start doing the same thing to other games, each time choosing a classic that one of us knows well and one of us doesn't.
For our second series, we'll be tackling the classic PC Game Deus Ex. It's a game which I am very familiar, but Leigh has never really played. Given the pending release of Human Revolution (which, by the way, is looking pretty snappy), our timing couldn't be better. We'll be posting a letter a week for the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy them.
From: Kirk Hamilton
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Welcome to Liberty Island
So here we are again, our letter-writing skills at the ready, set to tackle another classic video game. Last time out, we took on Final Fantasy VII, a game with which you are quite familiar and which I had never played. This time, the tables are turned, and we'll be playing Deus Ex, a game that I played a hell of a lot back in the height of my PC-gaming days.
As ahead of its time as the game was in many respects, a lot has changed since it was released back in 2000. I'm so interested to hear what you think of it, and to talk about it with you. Though thankfully not talk talk, since I have a hard time saying the name of this game in ordinary conversation without kinda sounding like a goof.
When I booted Deus Ex up for the first time, I remember not being quite sure what to make of it. I'd played (and loved) many of the best PC action games of that era, games like Half Life and Unreal Tournament and Max Payne. All of them offered dazzling visuals and action-packed gameplay, so what to make of this strange, lumbering game? Was it a first-person shooter, an RPG, or a simulation?
Even with the in-game note-taking system, I often find myself writing down keycodes and passwords on an actual piece of paper. Like, on my actual desk. Unthinkable!
I mean, can you imagine a current-day video game opening with a level like Liberty Island? I shudder at the thought of how many people have lost interest in Deus Ex over the years just because of that level. (I hope you'll soldier through). The first time I played it, I expected to go in guns blazing, but all I managed to accomplish was a couple of pathetic shots from my pea-shooter pistol before a handful of angry NSF soldiers led me to an ignoble death.
And yet ultimately, I think the opening level is well-designed, engaging and fun—at least, once you figure out that in Deus Ex, stealth is the name of the game. I hope you came to a similar conclusion pretty early on.
I can already tell that my own J.C. Denton (named, of course, "DentArthur Denton") is destined to play through the game as a sneaky n'er do well, leaving heaps of bodies in his wake. If you play similarly, get ready to have your superiors give you crap for it.
Deus Ex was billed as being all about player choice, which seemed like a new selling point at the time. What's always struck me about the game is how organic the choices felt, how easy it was to go down a path without even realizing that there were multiple alternatives. It's a far cry from the black-and-white "Press A to save child, Press B to execute child's pet" choices we see so often in the Mass Effects and the Fables of the world.
Even on the second time through, I felt a bit paralyzed by the choices on offer-a familiar sort of paralysis, that moment at the start of the big, stat-driven RPG where I have to choose which attributes my character will take. It always flummoxes me. What if I choose the wrong one? What if I specialize in something that's worthless, or miss the best ability? Will I spend hours playing an inferior version of the game?
So many other things struck me as I got started-the wildly uneven voice-acting, how much I'd missed having a dedicated "lean" button in a first-person game, and the bad-even-for-the-time graphics (as tempted as I am to try out the cool-looking new High-Def Mod, I think that our archival purposes decree that we should play the game as it was originally released).
And of course, the text! Text upon text, mountains of books, newspapers, computer journals, emails, all filled with weird political stuff and conspiracy theories. Even with the in-game note-taking system, I often find myself writing down keycodes and passwords on an actual piece of paper. Like, on my actual desk. Unthinkable!
I'm anxious about how you're finding all of that. Are you bored by the slow beginning and the unwelcoming PC-gamishness of it all? Are the political overtones interesting you at all? Do you already think you know where this whole story is going? Did you go into the ladies' room at UNATCO headquarters?
Can't wait to hear your thoughts.
From: Leigh Alexander
To: Kirk Hamilton
Subject: Re: Welcome to Liberty Island
"Our letter-writing skills at the ready?" Man, you already sound like a goof!
...Sorry, I'm just surly. It's been a long time since I played this type of game on PC, and I am very unused to it. I'm not about to go Wikipedia-ing dates or anything, but if I remember correctly, this is about the time that PC gaming lost me.
I remember Deus Ex. I don't mean playing it, since this is my very first time, but I remember when it launched, and the hostility I felt toward it. Wait, let me back up.
Being my friend, you know how particular I am about the types of media I do and don't like these days; this thing's too nerdy, that one's too dumb, this one reminds me of someone I don't like, and so on and so on. I'm a pain in the ass, I know.
But I wasn't like that as a kid. I was a PC-exclusive gamer and I played everything. Dad would have a shelf full of PC game boxes, none of which ever communicated much about the experience therein, so I'd just open stuff up and try it, and if it tickled my imagination or my reflexes, I'd let myself be pulled in, from blunt text-based adventures to jousting games with horrible controls, to the dorky alien worlds of Space Quest. When I got a bit older I learned it was adventure games I liked best, but I could play some Prince of Persia, lemme tell you.
When people ask me how someone with such a strong PC heritage came to be a nearly-exclusive console gamer—since that's what I am these days—I usually blame the Windows PC's rapid rise to power. My Apple IIe adventure gaming took me into the Mac Quadra and Centris era, and I could have played clicky Hypercard adventures and freeware games and stuff like Myst on them for the rest of my life. But then they put PCs in my school when I was in fifth grade or so and I had to learn to use them.
And then there was some box all over the shelves with this sterile two-toned man, bathed in light like some nerd messiah. The box said DEUS EX and I didn't want to play it.
It was culture shock, having been cousins with computers since birth. It felt horribly ugly and backward. When we got them at home, it got worse. Suddenly, things I never had to think of: Drivers, resolutions, sound cards, compatibility issues. I would buy games and half the difficulty would be figuring out how to get them to run. I had to memorize specifications. I didn't like fighting the machines for my entertainment. I turned to the Sega Genesis and the TurboGrafx-16.
Of course, everyone went on playing PC games without me. In the school's computer lab, mute, hostile boys with thick glasses and greasy hands were losing themselves in mazes of muddy corridors, firing guns. They worshiped at the altars of faceless spacemen, of aliens spewing blocky blood. I was not invited to join.
I was mad at Doom, and at what it made the People on TV think that games were about. There were no more bumbling astronauts, funny pirates and friendly princesses, no more dreamlike, thoughtful journeys. And then there was some box all over the shelves with this sterile two-toned man, bathed in light like some nerd messiah. The box said DEUS EX and I didn't want to play it. By the time that game launched I had virtually married my PlayStation.
Time passes, of course, and it's taken me some time to unclench the fists of prejudice in the ways I need to if I'm to be any good at my job, but I've mostly done it. The first thing I did in Deus Ex actually wasn't Liberty Island: It was the tutorial, because there are basic things that all PC gamers know how to do that I've forgotten. And even in the tutorial, they tell you to crouch without telling you it's X you should press. You should have seen me fumble to figure it out, jumping up and down, inexplicably swinging a crowbar, under the watchful eye of these hilarious glaring scientists wearing trench coats. I flail at them helplessly; they stare impassively, legs, arms akimbo.
I mean, everyone in this game has a trenchcoat. And doesn't have a neck. The music is the kind of thing I'd expect to hear someone make as a joke at the expense of "dark, futuristic" video games. And the graphics! Good god damn, is this game ugly. People are discussing things I haven't yet learned to care about, looking like male sex dolls with their pupil-less eyes and gawping fish-lips. In the opening sequence, when they zoomed into that one dude's reddish, pointille eye, I literally vocalized my laughter.
But I like it so far, actually, even though I haven't made it to the DEFCON or the UNIQLO or whatever (kid you not: The game crashed on me). I do like it! I've missed something intangible about "real" PC gaming that playing The Colonel's Bequest lately in my DOSBox thinger doesn't scratch, some old memory that pings the fringes of my awareness when I am using a chunky arrow cursor in chunky menus and using the escape key for things.
And when I catch the luminous city skyline or I hear the ebb and sigh of the ocean I feel like maybe I could get into this.
PS: My character is named ‘Army Space Man.'
Coming up next week in Part 2: inventory and passwords, the hidden depth of Deus Ex, Leigh gets a lesson in stealth-based frustration, and DentArthur Denton kills a few too many people.
Biding your time waiting for the release of Human Revolution? By all means, pick up Deus Ex (it's $9.99 on Steam) and join in!