Tooling around Deus Ex
September 06, 2008
Playing through Deus Ex with the Vintage Game Club is like driving a sporty '66 Mustang convertible loaded with backseat drivers. Fortunately, the passengers enjoy the scenery as much as I do, and many of them are genuine Mustang aficionados, full of useful insights and helpful information. We're having a terrific conversation, and you're welcome to join us any time you like.
Going slowly and paying attention can yield benefits, especially if the game rewards such efforts. Taking my time with Deus Ex has reminded me of something I've always known about RPGs, but haven't properly examined: no matter how much backstory or complexity or character detail the writers embed into a game like Deus Ex, most of it is purely optional. If a player chooses a run-and-gun strategy, clicking through dialogue and skipping cutscenes, he will breeze right past those elements, missing them completely. It's quite possible to play Deus Ex in this way, vaguely getting a sense of the overall story, but missing many of the defining features of the game.
This is hardly news to anyone who has played RPGs over the years, but as I've discovered playing Deus Ex this week, personal experience can bring what we already know into sharper focus. Deus Ex is chock-full of writing that adds subtlety and nuance to its characters and story. Sure, it's ham-fisted at times, and the voice-acting can be wincingly bad (as opposed to the preferable sublimely bad), but the care and devotion to storytelling evident in this game remain impressive almost a decade after its release. Blowing through it without paying attention would be like swigging a fine Pinot Noir. You could do it, but why would you want to?
(SPOILER ALERT) One forum poster ("Bus") pointed out the consequences of such a strategy, noting how the dialogue in an early section of the game humanizes members of the terrorist group NSF - but only if the player takes the time to listen:
"Commander Frase, we're pinned down in Hell's Kitchen and I'm not sure what to do... they're slaughtering us in the streets wherever they find us -- this one mech aug, he's like a giant walking tank, I saw someone pour a clip into him and it didn't even phase him. I've lost contact with Alpha and Delta teams, Yusuri and Thompkins are dead. I don't know what to do. We've holed up in a hotel. It's so different than training. Please tell me what we should do. If we leave, they'll kill us all. If we stay, we're dead. I've had to take hostages -- I know we were supposed to minimize civilian casualties, but I didn't have a choice. What can we..."
If one doesn't see that, then the NSF lose a great deal of the player's sympathy. It's interesting to think about how the potential to form an incomplete picture of a character or group is different in a video game as opposed to a movie or book. In the latter, it's actively difficult to miss any basic details without deliberately skipping over portions of the piece. Whereas with a video game, you can easily just not find that datacube. It might be hard then over time to assume that all players received the same level of information
And the remarkable thing is, the designers know this from the beginning. I realize writing for video games is very different from writing for other media, but I still find it unsettling to imagine myself creating a detailed universe of plot, characters, dialogue, and thematic elements - only to surrender them to the player whose main interest is power-leveling through to beat the game as quickly as possible.
I'm not here to tell anybody how to play and enjoy RPGs, but I'm struck by the vulnerability of game writers and designers in this process. They give away more authority and control over their work than even Hollywood screenwriters...and that's saying something!
I think Deus Ex creators Warren Spector and Harvey Smith would be pleased by the treatment their game is receiving from the VGC. It's not all sunshine and roses, of course, and several members have taken issue with aspects of the game's design. But we're sticking with our plan of going slowly, tooling around with the top down, taking in the view. Fortunately, there is much to see.