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

Illustration for article titled Sneaking, Soundtracks, and Riker-Porn: The emDeus Ex/em Letters Continue

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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"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!

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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.)

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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.

Illustration for article titled Sneaking, Soundtracks, and Riker-Porn: The emDeus Ex/em Letters Continue
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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.)

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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."

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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.

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~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.

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Illustration for article titled Sneaking, Soundtracks, and Riker-Porn: The emDeus Ex/em Letters Continue

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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Illustration for article titled Sneaking, Soundtracks, and Riker-Porn: The emDeus Ex/em Letters Continue
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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"?

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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?!

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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.

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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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DISCUSSION

I'm writing this assuming Leigh won't read it, even though some comments are directed at er. Hopefully Kirk will, 'cause he's the coolest guy, but regardless: you guys, this is awesome. I really wish I could do this kind of thing with people, but I don't really have friends who will both think and write about games. It'd be a blast to take them through No One Lives Forever, or, by contrast, have them walk me through the Ocarina of time. I don't see that happening, though. Now that I'm no longer spending all my time visiting the hospital, I have no excuse for not growing my social circle, but as it is, none of my friends are really into that. Plenty are into games, not so many in wanting to discuss them or explore non-Japanese, non-Bioware games.

EDIT: Believe it or not, I came to Kotaku to comment and wind down from a long blogpost I'd just finished. Um... yeah.

"I went up against advanced (for the time) AI in Half-Life"

Still is, compared to most games out there. About the only guys who've topped enemy AI in games are Bungie, Monolith, and Epic—all shooter developers, of course. GSC's done an amazing job too, and it's modders have made it even better.

"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."

The last letter had me wanting to play it a little bit, and this confirms I really ought to. I think I said this last time... but might I conclude that Deus Ex is like System Shock 2 in that regard? It gets exponentially better as it goes on?

At the same time, I've heard Liberty Island is its best level. :(

"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."

Damn mathletes... or maybe I mean mathcitechts.

"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."

Is this the game's theme? I ask this because my browser isn't letting me click the link on the left, sorry. :(

I can't say I like the game's theme, but, then again, I really dislike what sounds like electronic music that's attempting to be orchestral. If you're going to do it, do it right and hire Daft Punk (Tron Legacy OST) or do the Deus Ex: Human Revolution soundtrack.

"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."

OH COME ON

[www.youtube.com]

How could you have missed this? D:

"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."

I just finished a 1,695 word blog post on why a game so many discredit for having lots of blood and disembowelment is actually one of the better, more intelligent games of our time. It was intended to be a summary.

[alphatown.wordpress.com]

It's here, if you want it.

"(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.)"

Actually, I hadn't considered it a spoiler. I thought it was talking about the idea that man had become greater by augmenting himself to do great things—that it was referencing what you could become over the course of the game. As it was an RPG, this made sense.

THANKS A LOT

(Oh. This is an article discussing an old game, isn't it? I guess I should shut up about spoilers then. By me, I mean the people who bitch about spoilers regarding old games. That said, I really should finish Deus Ex.)

"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."

Oh man, Leigh, you totally need to play STALKER. I have two friends I just introduced it too and it's clear they have to really start rethinking about how to approach it before they can enjoy it. I guess being a fairly new hardcore gamer (of less than six months, in fact) helped me when I tried it out for the first time.

Part 1 - [www.megaupload.com]

Part 2 - [www.megaupload.com]

With AMK and Complete 2009, it becomes a transcendant experience, so long as players don't pussy out. It manages to be a better horror game than Silent Hill 2, a better RPG than anything Bioware's ever done (though the characters themselves don't have great dialog—the fact that they actually have great AI makes up for it), a better shooter than most, a better post-apocalyptic game than ANY, and the greatest living, breathing video game world ever envisioned.

The only reason it isn't the greatest game of all time is because it has a shit ton of bugs, weak characters, and System Shock 2 is even better.

If you don't come away from it feeling like a better human being for the experience, there's little hope for you.

"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?"

Same questions I have. I got so confused. Luckily, Old Man Murray figures it out. It's all a test, you see.

[www.oldmanmurray.com]

"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"

I'd suggest taking this differently.

Don't let yourself feel stupid. Overcome something and then feel really smart. Portal is no challenge. Valve's entire design philosophy is to get you to subconsciously just do what you ought. It's why Portal's kind of a shitty puzzle game. It's a great game, mind you, just not really a good puzzle game 'cause you really don't need to think about the puzzles. It's all instinct.

"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?"

No.

Think back to what you said about the hand-holdin'. You're used to it, because it's a thing now. It wasn't a thing then. Presumably, in the future, someone playing a present-day game will get into it with relative ease, because the archetypical present-day game is ready and willing to teach them.

Deus Ex is like System Shock 2 (I mention it a lot because it's a very similar title: it's an immersive sim—FPS/RPG hybrid for those who don't know what that is—with great writing but is somewhat of a challenge to get into. Also, they're both considered some of the greatest games of all time.

"My favorite franchise is the stealth franchise"

...on the consoles. For you it might be the stealth franchise. Doesn't mean it is for everyone. For PC gamers, it's a minor footnote in the face of Thief or No One Lives Forever.

I realize you were probably pseudo-trolling (YOUR NEXT REMARK LEFT ME A CLUE OF GREAT IMPORTANCE!), but, hey, it's worth responding seriously to get the names of two great games that console gamers have barely heard of out there.

I also want to point out that part of what makes Deus Ex special is the fact that you don't have to play it like a stealth game if you don't want to. You can, but you could go run and gun if you felt like it. That is, to me, the allure of THE ENTIRE GENRE. Whether it's STALKER or System Shock 2 or Deus Ex (admittedly, I have a really hard time playing it because its stealth system is so broken), the immersive sim genre is absolutely fantastic because it is the sum total potential of what video gaming can be: a tool to transport players fully into a world that is not their own.

Final Fantasy VII may be a great game, but you can't really be in it. You can't live there, the way you can in an immersive sim's world. It's a different sort of game, and perhaps an equally valid one (I use these qualifiers because I haven't played it, so I cannot comment concretely)

"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."

A friend blocked me to night because I praised Bulletstorm in front of him. He hates Gears and hated Bulletstorm's advertising campaign, so he thinks it's this generation's worst game. Never bothered to play the game—just hates it on stupid principles. It's one of this gen's best games (I was trying to blog about it last night and ended up spending a good three or four hours on the campaign by accident).

"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."

This is exactly what I meant when I talked about imsims earlier.

No other game can do this the way an imsim can, and that's why imsims are best.

"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"?"

Deus Ex is what we PC gamers like to call an RPG. I don't think many console gamers have ever played one before, so allow me to explain. See, an RPG is a game where you're allowed to define your character through various choices. You may be an augmented goverment tool, but you're still in the driver's seat. Those plot choices are yours to make. Go forth and make them!

"What's the reason to care about Army "J.C. Denton" Space Man's ethics? Where in the narrative is that?"

He is you. They're your ethics. What ethics do you want to have? They're not in the narrative because it's your job to put them there.

"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?!"

A coworker can't remember my name, so she's taken to calling me by my initials. It's not my fault that both my first and last name are incredibly uncommon (so uncommon, in fact, that they are often confused with some other slightly less uncommon names) and that I'm the only me on Facebook. I'm hiding nothing (except, of course, my name from the internet, but that's mainly so my game-hating family can't google me, which is another ball of wax entirely).

I realize you're kidding. I am too—somewhat.