Deus Ex (2000) Review

A badge of honour for those who produced it; a staple in player’s libraries. Deus Ex has become the foundation for all future immersive sims.

I: Talking About Video Games

The first draft of this feature was a different beast. It resembled those short paragraphs on Wikipedia that summarize the page’s main topics, more dictionary that anything particularly meaningful. About ten pages in, I stopped myself and trashed the whole thing. My goal with this whole site was, and still is, to write something different than what I typically find on PC Gamer or Game Informer. That’s not to discredit or insult those publications; there are various lenses with which a games journalist can assess a game’s quality, focus, or goals. Those two I just mentioned approach games journalism from the angle of a consumer because, for all intents and purposes, those two sites position themselves as places where potential consumers of a game can go determine whether a game is worth their time and money. Those publications are important. But, I believe the kind of writing I want to do here is also “important.” So, I’m going to forget about that first draft of the feature and instead shift my focus to what I think is a much more interesting angle.

Spoilers ahead. In order to talk about this (incredibly old) game, I found it necessary to talk about its narrative in some detail. You’ve been warned! The following games will be spoiled:

II: Decades Of Immersive Sims

Soon, I will become pure energy. I will burn like the brightest star. — Bob Page to JC Denton

It’s with that introduction that I want to segue into talking about my intent in covering such an influential game. (That wording in and of itself also demands explanation; what even constitutes an “influential” game, and what kind of games do individuals consider to be influential in the first place?) For the sake of getting on with it: Deus Ex is absolutely an influential game. It spawned a whole subgenre of games (the immersive sim), and it’s still commended to this day. There’s a reason my opening line mentioned this game being a staple to game libraries across the globe. Deus Ex is a template that most-if-not-all immersive sims draw from, in more ways than just game mechanics. If you’ve never heard of Deus Ex, you’ve definitely played something that drew inspiration from it, or from Thief: The Dark Project (1998). Did you enjoy Dishonored (2012)? What about that soft-reboot of Prey (2017)? Have you ever touched Mass Effect 2 (2010)? All those games use mechanics, story tropes, and elements of game-feel that the original Deus Ex showcased back in 2000.

That’s not to say that these games took direct inspiration from Deus Ex, but rather the tropes and mechanics which debuted in that first Deus Ex games have become embedded in the very genre of the immersive sim. Some examples I like include:

These tropes weren’t completely original to Deus Ex; all the tropes above, and many more, were iterated upon to produce a game whose playable identity is the culmination of a decade’s worth of improvements in the medium. And, I’d argue that till this day, in August 2019, that the iterations of the mechanics shown in the original Deus Ex haven’t really leapt forward in any meaningful way. Games produced afterwards definitely improved upon Deus Ex’s systems and mechanics, but I’m having a tough time convincing myself that any broke substantial new ground. Dishonored (2012) had a focus on stealth, and as a result it featured a more refined stealth system than Deus Ex, harkening back to those first two Thief games, but it wasn’t so different from what came before. Prey (2017) has some of the least-linear level design we’ve seen in a while, but aside from GLOO, the nonlinearity didn’t break much new ground. And, there are definitely games that have continued to iteratively improve in the genre since, don’t get me wrong, but Deus Ex’s implementations were-and-still-are being drawn from nineteen years later, while these other immersive sims from the early 2010s have yet to spawn popular, culture-shocking imitators.

Fig.1 A temple in Hong Kong

III: Smoke, Mirrors, And Recontextualization

You are not afraid to kill, I am pleased. — Anna Navarre to JC Denton

Deus Ex does something I really like. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this for half a decade now. You start the game off as an agent working for UNATCO, an anti-terrorist organization. About a quarter of the way though, you’re shown that Paul, your brother, and the organization as a whole is corrupt, sneaky, and pretty evil. The rest of the game sees you siding with the “terrorists” UNATCO fights against. That makes you, the player, a terrorist relative to those who you used to work with over at UNATCO.

I think the reason this resonated with me wasn’t the shock; I’d seen plenty of shocking twists and turns by that point, so I had become desensitized to it. It was interesting, no doubt, but I wasn’t floored. No, the reason I keep coming back to this was because of the way the game lulled me into a sense of security.

How can you, as a person who lives on earth, openly say that you’re against an organization whose sole purpose (publicly) is to fight terrorism? Would there be any point in proclaiming it? If you’re wrong, you look like some monster, and possibly sympathetic to the “terrorists” and their rhetoric. If you’re right, well “how were we supposed to know that they weren’t terrorists? They had guns!” This strikes a chord with me because I think that there are possibilities for sympathetic actors on both sides of any given conflict. The binary associations of “terrorist,” “peacekeeper,” or indeed “hero” are man-made and subject to change. Yesterday’s glorious leader can devolve into terrible tyrant on a dime. The same goes for those who’ve gone through redemption arcs over their lifetime. Humans really like to put things into boxes, so these binary associations emerge with the added benefit of being able to forget about the issue later on. There’s no need to discuss whether a certain group is “bad” or “good” when they “blew up a bus.” That makes them a terrorist, and terrorists are bad, so I’m done thinking about this.

And obviously I’m not shining praise onto those who blow up busses or commit atrocities. Rather, I’m trying to illustrate that an organization’s actions are typically branded as absolutely good or absolutely bad. There are some obvious exceptions; groups like ISIS are obviously “bad” for the same reason the Nazi party was obviously “bad.” But, notice how there are few obviously good people we can bring to mind. Sure some contenders, like Ghandi, are remembered fondly, but a quick lookup reveals some underlying disdain for a certain ethnic group. Regardless, he’s seen as “good” and we are then able to move on with our lives.

Fig.2 UNATCO members assembled  

III.I: Narrative Compartmentalization

Deus Ex uses this human phenomena to convince players they’re doing good by starting JC off as an agent in an organization whose primary directive, we’re told, is to combat terrorists like the NSF. Your brain registers that you’re fighting terrorists, objectively “bad” people, and you proceed through the game. It’s only later that you are told that UNATCO is plastered with shades of grey, not the pure-white we assumed in our heads. The game forces you to recontextualize all the play that came before since UNATCO isn’t that great. This recontextualization also comes with a second paradigm shift: the NSF are actually the ones doing “good.” This second gut punch hits you after the UNATCO reveal. As a player, you’re now forced to reframe all of the NSF’s actions, as well as UNATCO’s and your own. All relevant actors at this point in time have been flipped around, and you’re now tasked with collecting yourself and reacting to it.

This switcheroo works much better than some others I’ve seen in games. One that comes to mind is the reveal in BioShock (2007) that your trusty phone companion was actually the big bad man all along. Again, you’re forced to rewind the game in your head and piece together the clues that now obviously litter your memories. But, the splicers are still bad. And, the Big Daddies are still strolling around with their Little Sisters. And, the turrets will still attack you on site. The only change was that the character speaking into your ear was the antagonist all along. The environment the player operates in hasn’t changed much. This contrasts with Deus Ex; the entire play space, from the soldiers on the ground to the man speaking in your ear, has been recontextualized to fit the changes brought forth by the reveal. BioShock’s world mostly remains the same. Where Deus Ex’s characters, environment, and player philosophies were challenged (do you feel bad killing the NSF knowing what you know now? Will you avoid bloodshed going forward?), BioShock’s simply reframes the narrative that the player is consuming.

And, I think that’s why I’ve revisited this moment in my head so many times. BioShock isn’t the only game that does this, and it’s telling that of all the hundreds of games I’ve consumed throughout my life, Deus Ex’s remains pointed and thoughtful. The context of the game, along with the world around you, changed in Deus Ex’s case, forcing me to second-guess my violent actions going forward. What makes the group of bad dudes in this particular tunnel “bad?” Should I avoid them in case they’re valid actors operating for absolute “good?” And, how does this world define “good” anyways? Maybe it’s all grey, and the NSF and UNATCO are just different shades of it, constantly balancing between just and unjust actions in the name of their respective philosophies and ideologies.

Fig.3 Tracer Tong in Hong Kong

IV: Absolute Victories

You take another step forward and here I am again, like your own reflection in a hall of mirrors. — Walton Simons to JC Denton

Narrative themes also shine through, presenting an ambiguous world where nothing can be deemed “good” or “bad.” Everyone is both a good guy and a bad guy, relative to the right people. That, partnered with the flexible context of it all provides the player with a game world that is really good at forcing the player to keep their eyes out for ambiguity. This is fitting, since the core gameplay loop of Deus Ex involves a lot of player expression and attentiveness. You need to notice alternate entry methods into a compound before you choose to sneak inside. The player is therefore already looking for environmental cues; making the player look for narrative and contextual story cues isn’t outlandish. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016) does this less successfully. It maintains the nonlinearity of the original’s level design, but opts to classify certain factions as absolutely bad. The police are “bad” because they persecute the augmented. The augmented are (pretty much) “good” because they are being persecuted. You are on the “good” side because you are an augmented who is being persecuted, defending other augmented who are also being persecuted.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this. The difference lies in the context of the world Adam traverses through. Unlike the original, Mankind Divided wants you to know that you are working with the good guys. The result, I found, was that I was just agreeing with anything the main quest-givers were saying to me. The effect is compounded by the less-than-stellar narrative in that game, but the negatives provide the foundation. Unlike the first game, Mankind Divided tries to prioritize player expression via gameplay mechanics instead of player interaction with its subject matter. And again, nothing wrong with that. It’s just important to acknowledge when a game does something right, and to critique games that took strides in unfavourable directions.

This is most apparent when Adam Jensen is tasked with confronting Viktor at the end of Mankind Divided. Viktor is a member of ARC, a coalition of people who fight for the rights of augmented people. Like the original Deus Ex, your “enemy” is actually fighting for a just cause. But where the original eventually had you switching sides, leaving UNATCO, Mankind Divided asserts that you’re on the right team. You’re going to eliminate Viktor. That’s the end of it, which is unfortunate. The game even hints throughout that ARC should be given more sympathies and that the cause they fight for directly benefits you, an augmented person. But, instead of recontextualizing the game world after speaking to one of the ARC higher-ups (e.g. Talos Rucker), the game opts instead to prioritize telling stories about individuals. And, a focus on individual conflicts like those shown in Mankind Divided inevitably overshadow the greater context of the organizations they associate with. Despite its efforts, Mankind Divided tells the story of divided individuals, not the collective mankind.

Fig.4 The canals of Hong Kong

V: Final Thoughts

I forgot to give Manderly my resignation. — JC Denton addressing Jaime Reyes

It pleasantly surprised me when Eidos Montreal put out Human Revolution back in 2011. I cynically expected the game to fall short; Invisible War (2003) was a fine game in its own right, but it differed strongly from the original, boasting one single ammo type, stripping RPG mechanics, etc. So, when they announced that this different company was putting out a new Deus Ex game that was a prequel, and that it was releasing on consoles as well as PC, I kind of shrugged it off. Of course, I now know that Human Revolution was a breath of fresh air In fact, I hold Human Revolution just as highly as I hold the original Deus Ex. And, I guess that doesn’t surprise me. Much of what made Human Revolution great was pulled from the original, including inventory management that was more Tetris than Invisible War.

So, I’d recommend Deus Ex to anybody who hasn’t played it. After passing the graphical cringe curve (about an hour, I think), you’ll find yourself playing a technical and narrative milestone. It’s a long, twenty-four hour campaign full of large levels, engaging narratives, and high degrees of player agency. I can’t say what I’ll be doing twenty-odd years from now, but it’s safe to assume that I’ll probably be thinking of Deus Ex.


Appendix I: A Way To Play

There are a few ways to play Deus Ex today. My prefered method depends on the operating system you’re using. I’m on Linux, so Steam + Proton/SteamPlay + GMDX is what I like. But, if you’re on Windows, you can always pick up a copy on GOG and install GMDX against that. Here are some links:

The game works perfectly well on modern systems. Even when used with SteamPlay! The GMDX mod only serves to enhance many aspects of the original game, aligning it with modern game design sensibilities. There’s also the Revision mod which I do not recommend at all. It opts to change layouts of levels for the sake of “realism,” but I found that it the game benefitted little from their additions.

Appendix II: Sequels, Prequels

Invisible War is not a bad sequel, but I wouldn’t call it a good one either. It makes major concessions to get the thing to run on the 6th generation of consoles resulting in disjointed level design and omitted mechanics. Human Revolution, on the other hand, is a masterpiece. I’ll probably need to cover it in the future. If the gameplay and narrative of Deus Ex are what you’re looking for, but you can’t pass that cringe curve, pick up Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011). It’s a faithful modern Deus Ex game that surprised me with its mechanics, narrative, level design, and overall game feel. Just, wow. It’s also a prequel to the original, so you won’t need to consume the original’s plot in order to appreciate it.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016) is also very good, but it suffers from a story that was rushed to completion. What you end up with is an amazing game which abruptly ends after (what should’ve been) the logical halfway point of the plot. Regardless, I stand by it as an amazing game. The game feel alone serves to both empower you while also carefully restricting your powers; you’re a superhero, but the game makes sure to keep the combat tense and the conflicts important.

Mankind Divided also has this ridiculous micro-transaction system that can completely break the progression of the game if utilized. I’d honestly recommend “finding” a copy that’s DRM-free “somewhere” online. I won’t say where… And, finally, there’s the mobile game Deus Ex: The Fall (2013). Please do not buy this game…

3132 Words
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Posted on 17/08/2019

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