Sat Aug 6 14:53:24 EDT 2011

deus ex, and the problem of player choice

A recurring thought I had while powering through Deus Ex this week last month, so that I could play the leaked version of Deus Ex: Human Revolution on an informed basis; was that Deus Ex would have been a really awesome game to play... eleven years ago, when it came out.

(Massive, unmarked plot spoilers ahead. Also, no screenshots, since I wasn't expecting to review either game.)

In the lonely, neckbearded association of freaks and other, bigger, freaks known as "PC gamers", Deus Ex is regarded with reverence shading into outright worship. Its very name is a shibboleth, separating real gamers from the casuals, distinguishing the Holy Elect from the debased fratboys who teabag each other in MW2, play video games based on real world sports, drink Coors light, and maintain an ever-changing collection of exciting venereal diseases.

Deus Ex is a big deal.

Personally, I didn't think it was that great.

The graphics aren't great. Well, of course of course they aren't, the game's more than a decade old, so no rational person could possibly knock it on that. I'll give it a similar age-related pass on the indifferent level design, though it's odd that Deus Ex is so bland when Unreal Tournament, using the exact same engine and coming out at the same time, had real architecture. I have to give the vague attempt at facial animation a pass as well.

Some things aren't quite so forgivable. The voice acting is just really horrifically bad, even by the standards of late 90s video games. The gunplay is terrible, so the game punts halfway through and gives you a lightsaber that will let you instantly kill any human in the game, which makes combat short and unexciting. The stealth gameplay is lousy, lacking any meaningful feedback, and the enemy AI is absolutely brain dead.

The standard response of every enemy in the game upon seeing you, heavily armed super-soldier JC Denton, is to stand in the open and start shooting. If you damage them enough, they'll eventually put away their weapon and try to run away... except the game never flags them as non-hostile, if you actually spare their life, they'll re-arm and try to kill you again. Whoops.

These are all quibbles. The real problem is: I read about the game before playing it. In fact, I've been reading about the game for eleven years before playing it, and in the course of doing so, acquired some preconceptions, something that didn't work out real well for me with Phoenix Wright either.

Every single person who has reviewed, played, or glanced at the box art of Deus Ex has raved about player choice. At great length they have spoken regarding the paramount importance Deus Ex places on player choice, in tedious monologues they have rhapsodized about the unlimited possibilities open to the player.

And so, the preconception that I acquired, was that player choice was critical to the plot of Deus Ex.

It's not. Deus Ex is as linear as Ronald Reagan sitting on a horse, holding a straightedge.

To it's mild credit, there are three different endings. You can choose to side with the Illuminati, destroy technological civilization, or merge with the Helios AI.

To additional credit, all three endings are quite morally ambiguous. The Illuminati, while not quite as outright evil as their offshoot, Majestic 12; are about as amoral as a starving rat, and display a contempt for individual liberty somewhere between Stalin and Reileen Kawahara.

You can destroy the worldwide communications infrastructure, killing billions and insuring "perfect liberty". This is known as the "blithering idiot" option.

You can also merge with Helios, the most attractive option for a soft-hearted old transhumanist like me. Except Helios is about as stable as a pencil balanced on its tip, its reasons for wanting to merge don't make a whole lot of sense, and it's not at all clear how much influence Denton would have over the resulting gestalt. I certainly wouldn't have jumped at the chance to plug my brain into it.

Crucially, you don't really see the outcome of any of the endings, besides the Illuminati path. This is because Ion Storm were planning a sequel, and didn't want to ruin its story. So there's zero closure, and worse yet, when they actually made the sequel, they made all the endings a little bit true, (Denton sided with the Illuminati and merged with Helios and killed the internet) and the resulting game was terrible.

The problem with this three way "choice" is that you make it at the very end. There's something like ten minutes of gameplay after various crucial choices, but there's no branching. You can't rule out one ending by siding with a faction early on. No matter who you kill, and you can kill a lot of the NPCs, you're presented with the same exact same choice. If you save your brother in Brooklyn, he'll show up later to advise you on the One Choice, but it doesn't affect the fucking plot. Player choice is meaningless if the choices have no effect!

As I alluded to earlier, Deus Ex lets you kill a lot of plot-critical NPCs. This is unusual in video games, since you have to a lot more work behind the scenes to wire up the plot so that it doesn't completely fall apart when big chunks are missing.

This is a noble aspiration, and actually quite interesting in-game, but of course there are hard limits at play. You can't let the player kill everyone he meets, because then there wouldn't be any plot at all. So Deus Ex does have invincible NPCs, but the way it treats them is bizarrely schizophrenic.[1]

For example, at one point, you are ordered by UNATCO agent Anna Navarre, your superior, to kill NSF terrorist Juan Lebedev. You can do that, or you can instead kill her. This is hard, because she's way better equipped than the player is at this point, but it actually is possible, which is cool.

If you kill her, her partner, Gunther Hermann, is very upset. You're ambushed by him and a small army of UNATCO troops and combat robots at a subway platform.

This is a very tough fight, but it actually is possible to kill all the soldiers. Except for Hermann, who is invincible, because this was a fight you're supposed to lose! Even if you're gibbed by a rocket in the fight, you'll "wake up" in a Majestic 12 secret jail. Later on you'll meet him in Paris, and you have to kill him to proceed.

This is Deus Ex's vaunted "player choice". Enemies you can kill, except when you can't, except when you're required to.

It goes further. Doors in Deus Ex are actually destructible, if a door is locked and you don't want to lockpick it, you can just blow it open with a rocket launcher. Yay! Except, of course, there are some doors they don't want you to open, which can't be lockpicked and infinitely durable. Come on, guys, seriously?

I had seen hardassed-designer types talk about Deus Ex's freedom of choice, and so I had made the foolish mistake of assuming that player choice would be implemented in a hardassed-designer way. Like how hardasses have dictated that Gordon Freeman will never talk and that there will never be third-person cutscenes in the Half Life series; or how Nethack is a game centered around, obsessed, utterly focused on the permanence of player death, with no take-backs or compromise; I assumed that Deus Ex would stick to its guns, that it would follow its own rules, be internally consistent.

It's not, of course. Like Fallout 3, Deus Ex follows a set of rules until they become inconvenient, then it breaks them. If I had come into it without preconceptions, I might have enjoyed the game. But I did, so I didn't.

And so we come to Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Human Revolution is not a game without flaws. The leaked build has performance issues, low resolution game assets, a very console-like 60 degree field of vision. Jensen has about three different idle animations, and you're going to get real familiar with them during conversation. The pre-rendered cinematics probably knock em dead on the Xbox 360, but are startlingly low resolution when viewed on a PC monitor.

But it's so much more polished than Deus Ex 1.

Consider the XP system of both games. DX1 had skills, and augmentations. There were a lot of skills in DX1, several of which were completely useless. (There was no reason, ever, to put points into Swimming. And every computer in the game could be hacked with a single level in Computers.) It also was badly unbalanced: depending on how you created your character, the game was either a breeze or an utter grind.[2] Augmentations required canisters to install, and upgrade canisters to upgrade. Install cans require a medi-bot to install, upgrade cans could be used at any time. Both of them were irreversible, one-time use items! And the augmentation system was also badly unbalanced. There's the EMP shield augmentation, which is useless, (There is one single enemy in the game that uses EMP attacks, and there's EMP grenades, which are used against you maybe... once.) and the health regeneration augmentation, which is absolutely essential and which the player will always want, no matter how else they've set up their character. You have to activate each augmentation manually, and they consume bioelectricity (BE) points, which you refill using BE cells, much like how you refill HP points with medikits.

Before fighting gresels I had to press a chord of activation keys. Power recirculator, regeneration, environmental resistance, ballistic protection, combat strength. Press five keys before fighting, hit enemy once, wait for HP to regenerate, then don't forget to press all five keys again, or else they'll drain all the power!

Absolute madness. A dozen keypresses, but no actual meaningful choices being asked of the player, no skill required.

In contrast, there's DX3. One single XP system, which unlocks new augmentations. Most augs are passive, requiring no busywork to use. If you're pressing a button, you're actually deciding something. Hit points regenerate, as well as the final cell of bioelectric energy.

Now, there's certainly an argument to be made that things have been dumbed down for the consoles.

It is known far and wide that I am no friend of the Halo kiddies, and if I thought that DX3 had been oversimplified, I would certainly be saying it.

But there is a difference between Farmville and Go. One is casual, the other is elegant.

I spent the last couple hours of DX1 walking up to enemies and slapping them in the face with a sword. With several upgrades sunk into the ballistic protection augmentation, you're a walking tank. With the ADS augment, rockets and plasma rifles can't even touch you. You consume bioelectric energy at a fearsome rate, but there's plenty of BE cells on the bodies of your enemies, and your sword never runs out of ammo.

This never happens in Human Revolution. At least, in the first three hours, and on normal difficulty. Ammo and energy are light on the ground, and Adam Jensen is rather squishy. Point blank, you're carbon fiber death on wheels, but charging straight at an alerted enemy is a fast death. You can do Gears of War style third person cover based shooting, but there just is not a lot of ammo, and the AI uses the big, nonlinear levels to flank the player, and flush them out with grenades quite well.

I haven't finished the game, and the endings of games offer me limitless opportunity for disappointment, but based on the first few hours, I like Human Revolution more than Deus Ex 1.

1: Personally, the way I'd like to see it work is that the game would let you kill any NPC, but if you broke the plot, it would invite you to reload an earlier save, but still let you keep playing, like in Morrowind.

2: Several in-game characters encourage you to use nonlethal weapons, like the tranquilizer darts for the mini-crossbow. Surprise! All the end-game enemies are immune to tranquilizer darts! In the beginning, your brother offers you the GEP gun, and if you accept it, he gets pissy. Surprise! The GEP gun is the single most useful weapon in the game. You can one-shot every boss with it, and the ammo is common! I digress.