2011 FPS Stealth Action Game, Developed by Eidos Montreal
Before we get on with the essay, a small note about future updates. As you might be able to tell this update is a little late, and that is partly because I have to work to sustain myself, and partly because stuff has been a bit weird over the last couple of weeks. Life is now returning to normal after a flight into the weird over the last couple of weeks, so I can go and get back on doing what I love most, spraffing about games on the internet. I was hoping that I would be able to get back to Sunday updates, but it looks like it will have to be Wednesday updates from here on in. There are only so many hours in the day to play all the games that one writes about. With the boring stuff behind us, let’s talk Deus Ex.I have been replaying Deus Ex: Human Revolution recently, and some things have occurred to me about the series on the third time through.
Let’s not beat around the bush, the Deus Ex games are really stealth games. Yes, sure, they present the player with multiple possible paths of progression through the central narrative, including the possibility to go into every situation guns blazing. One can blast one’s way quite happily through all three of them, making as much noise and as many body bags as is possible.
However I think that we would all be kidding ourselves if we thought that this was the correct and most satisfying way to play these games. Exhibit A is the gunplay, which is universally terrible in all Deus Ex games (yes even the first one, which while brilliant, also features turgid and inelegant combat). Exhibit B is the fact that one can see immeasurably more of every game in the series by taking a stealthy approach—even if bosses occasionally get in the way. Now we have established as unquestionable fact that proposition that the Deus Ex games are stealth games, why does this matter?
It matters because it is only by being a stealth game that Dues Ex can really unfold its world to the player, and it is the world of Deus Ex—along with the people who live in it—which makes it more than a simple cyberpunk romp. Take Human Revolution (henceforth DE:HR) for instance; What DE:HR understands is that the player is only really the character half of the time. That is, it understands that a great deal of what one does in a Deus Ex game is not role-playing, but exploring a complex series of mazes. At the ends of those mazes lie information about the world in which one is playing. While one is in the midst of those mazes, one is not really playing JC Denton or Adam Jensen, one is a ghost filtering through air ducts, trying to make sense of the place in which it finds oneself. DE: HR understands that Deus Ex is an atmosphere of intrigue married to a world which it feels as though one could reach out and touch. What I would like to talk about today is the way in which the Deus Ex series, but DE:HR in particular, establishes character through mechanics and achieves deep and interesting world building by having the player step away from the character. I won’t be giving an in-depth review here (somewhat late for that anyway) or indeed whether the original deserves the moniker “best game ever” these things have been covered in detail elsewhere.
A word first, about that world. DE:HR throws the player into a world on the brink of huge technological change, with cybernetic augmentations —and thereby the fevered dreams of transhumanism— becoming a pressing reality for many in society. This is portrayed as a new Renaissance, with DE:HR’s visual styling marrying the outdoor ugliness of a modern city, skyscrapers neon and glass, with a trend towards beautiful Venetian interior decoration. This is a world where many feel uncomfortable about this new future, the ways in which it opens human beings to manipulation and the ways in which it subverts our basic human autonomy. Brain augmentations, for instance, change the way human beings perceive and interact with the world, they open up a layer of experience that is unavailable to the unaugmented. Not only can Jensen install an augmentation that allows him to monitor the reactions of others in social situations, respond accordingly—and even force people to do things they otherwise would not— but he can also hack into computers with his brain. Of course the price of these things is that his brain can be hacked back (as happens to the player if one is stupid enough to get a systems “upgrade” early in the game). There are obvious implications for human life here. First there is the issue that this augmentation disproportionately benefits the rich (who can afford the augments, and the drugs that stop those augments being rejected), and secondly it opens those with augmentation to a kind of influence that can bypass both rational and emotional responses. As to whether this is a good or bad thing, it seems that DE:HR is fairly happy sitting on the fence. DE:HR is a game that is happy with being uncertain about many questions, and its setting plays into feelings of unease about our own future, without (at least most of the time) handing down heavy handed messages about the importance or otherwise of humanity to itself.
The player is given access to this setting in two ways. First, one is given a character and a place within the world so that one can have some personal, emotional, investment in all that is going on. Second, the player is encouraged to explore that world through a series of puzzles. That said, Adam Jensen starts off without much character at all. In the opening scenes of the game, he and the company he works for (Sarif Industries) are introduced to the player. Adam is gruff ex-SWAT team member, in love with a brilliant, young, soon to be kidnapped scientist called Megan. Both of them work for a bio-modification corporation—Sarif Industries— which certainly has dark dealings with the military and may or may not have done “bad things” in order to get some of its research data. So far so cyberpunk. In fact the opening scene of the game may be the weakest moment in the entire game (bar the very end), it is so dead and empty of character. Everyone speaks in Hollywood “laboratory scientist” jargon and conversations are sprinkled with lines that may as well start “as you know Bob”. Of course, after a brief tour through the laboratory, everything goes to shit as the corporation is raided by a bunch of cybernetically enhanced bastard mercenaries. Jensen ends up at the end of the ordeal suffering from a total body explosion (to save him from which, he is cybernetically augmented), while Megan is kidnapped. So the player character is given the most Hollywood of motivations, get revenge and go save the girl.
The explicit narrative of DE:HR (that is the narrative that the game tells the player through cut-scenes and explanatory dialogue) is often pants in exactly this way; by aspiring to be a Hollywood film with the player as the main character. This also creeps through to some of the incidental storytelling, with the streets of DE:HR’s Detroit cluttered with a variety of Hollywood stereotypes of poor and rich alike. However, it is when DE:HR is trying to tell a story through actions rather than words that is at its strongest (I suppose one might call this something like the ludic-narrative, if one was inclined to name it). DE:HR provides the player with s outside of the explicit narrative, or the simple hidden item hunt, to sneak quietly and non-lethally around its carefully designed environs. Following the trend of more recent games DE:HR parcels out experience points on the basis of all the actions the player can perform. Therefore one gets some experience for killing guards, hacking computers and crawling through vents. The most lucrative path through the game in terms of experience points however, and the one that points the way to the optimum style of play in DE:HR is the path of least violence. The best way to progress through the game is as a non-lethal ghost moving without being seen, knocking guards out one by one. One can play as a full on cyber-death-machine, but the game is neither as fun nor as rewarding doing that. On the one hand the game is far too easy if it is played as a run-and-gun action adventure, and on the other it becomes a strategy which is difficult to maintain later in the game, where there are more and better armed guards. The game is simply a better game when played as a non-lethal stealth game. DE:HR knows this and makes it clear what it wants you to do by benefiting the player when they act stealthily, find alternate routes and find non-violent solutions to problems.
These non-violent solutions make sense when cast in the context of Adam Jensen as a character. The man is an ex-SWAT police officer, capable of directed and specific acts of violence, yes, but also a man who cares deeply about saving lives. He left the police force because he felt that corporate interests were being put in front of human lives. If we are supposed to believe that, as a player, we are being asked to take on the role of this character, we should be incentivized to act as he acts—it is not the player’s own story that is being told, it is the player’s interpretation of the character that they have been given that they unfold. As the security officer for a corporation, we can see that his natural inclination therefore would be to save lives, not take them. Armed with the formidable power of his cybernetics suite, he can do just that—by avoiding confrontation, and if necessary ending that confrontation without needing to resort to brute force. It therefore makes perfect sense that the game would reward the player most, who causes the least death and destruction. In effect, by understanding the character and playing them in a way which is psychologically authentic, the player gets the best experience from the game. Of course, the player can choose to take the character a different way, and the most fun way to do things may indeed be to mix up one’s playstyles. In narrative terms this also makes sense, Jensen is pragmatic, and likely to use every resource at his disposal when shit hits the fan. Still though, the incentives in the game align with the character that the designers want to represent to the player. This makes for an interesting roleplaying experience, as asking what one’s character would do in the situation becomes a matter of working out the most lucrative way through a level.
It is when a mission ends that the roleplaying element of DE:HR moves into the background, and the player is allowed to really explore the setting. The open world section of DE:HR encourages the same kind of exploration and stealth as the story missions. However, outside the context of a mission these action cannot be justified in terms of the character that one is playing; our moral hero turns into a bin-raking, house-breaking asshole. He will gleefully steal credit chits from an old lady’s house or hack into random people’s emails just to read about their days. Open world Jensen is a total dick. Open world JC was, of course, no better. For all his pop-philosophising, he was not averse to stealing from the innocent and rummaging through any house which happened to have a weakish lock. If viewed from the prism of roleplaying, the open world sections are some of the most confusing aspects of the Deus Ex series. That is why, I think, we cannot regard these sections through the same lens as the story missions.
How should one regard them then, as a player? I think we should see of all this breaking and entering as a form of digitised sightseeing, or like reading a setting book for a pen and paper RPG—but interactive. Moving stealthily through Hell’s Kitchen or Detroit is a great way of coming to understand the setting, its factions and its intrigues. It shows us how the ordinary people of this world live. One reads how they live through “datacubes” and journal entries, sees how they live through the way the digital sets are dressed and overhear conversations about how they live from their own mouths. One can come to understand the ethical and political issues at stake by poking around where one’s character has no place to be. By poking around one picks up the kind of snippets that one would never otherwise be exposed to, but we might expect the character to be more than familiar with. The various bits of reading material one finds scattered around in DE:HR contain interviews with some of the main characters, as well as political tracts from the main factions, and in-universe comment on the issues of the setting. One will probably encounter a large number of these books, simply because one is incentivized to read them by the promise of some more exp. There are a few books that give exp dotted about the game, and in the first mission one is introduced to the concept that some books will give one experience points by reading a book lying out in the open. With this concept in mind the player will come to see the little blue squares that are the game’s books as a source of possible currency, a reward. This encourages the player to go out and find books to read in the game world, they are a reward.
As a reward they can be placed at the end of a maze to encourage exploration through that maze, with other non-experience granting books placed along the way, and thereby hopefully encouraging exposure to all the other lovingly crafted literature in the game. Even if one only skims all these books, one will get a sense of the setting of DE:HR, the pre-occupations of its people and the issues with which its inhabitants are faced every day. The same is true of the hackable PCs, hacking is a simple challenge that provides rewards in the form of experience and items, but which also offers the promise of access to other locked areas via access codes. So the player is incentivized to hack every PC that they come across. These PCs often contain a whole number of totally irrelevant emails, but these emails are near the core of the world building. They are an insight into the day to day and working lives of the people who are supposed to inhabit it, and there is something fascinating about piecing together the relationships of everyone in an office building, just by reading their emails to each other.
The majority of the experiences by which the player comes to hone their skills, understand the mechanics that make up the world and learn the narrative of that world, come from breaking into various places around various cities—or at least this has always been the case for me. None of this activity is, however, ever really remarked upon by anyone who interacts with Jensen. People will comment upon the player’s character, being a man, going into the women’s restroom, but they will not comment upon the fact that you just spent half an hour breaking into some downtown apartments. The game simply treats of all this perfidy as though it simply has not happened. This leads me to the conclusion that there is a sense that, in the game, it has not happened. That is, neither Jensen nor JC go rummaging around in people’s apartments—not really. These happenings are extra-narrative affairs, not mixed up with either the primary or secondary quests. The downtime one spends rifling through the world is not a part of the world, but exists in a space of pure exploration.
Aside from giving a tour of the world, there are stories that can be told in this pure exploratory space that simply cannot be told in the core narrative. In a linear action or stealth game, the core of storytelling comes from the actions of the player character, the world that is presented to the player through a succession of missions, and the way that the player gets to interact with the world thereby presented. A narrative can be strung along these pillars, but what it is extra-ordinarily difficult to do with only these tools at one’s disposal is to convey what it is like to live in the world. Take Bioshock for example. The original Bioshock has a wonderful and deep storyline, with a number of different characters and a setting that is unfolded via the sights of a crumbling world and audio-logs. The player first goes to Rapture, performs a series of tasks within that setting and comes to deal with all its various and deadly inhabitants. However, there is a sense in which Rapture never really feels like a place in which people live or have lived. It is a series of interconnected arenas, all of which are themed to look like living spaces. Imagine however that one had been able to sneak through rapture quietly, un-tethered from the needs of progressing through objectives. Imagine that not every inhabitant of the underwater city was going to enter into a fire-fight with the player, and that one could poke around a splicer’s things, perhaps read some of the local books. What one would get would be a texture that Bioshock lacks, not simply a sense of place, but an understanding of how that place works that runs deeper than being told how it works through audio logs.
An essential part of this feeling of understanding, and something that separates the Deus Ex series from a series like the Elder Scrolls (which also feature a lot of stealing from innocent people—well, again, if you play the games like I do) is that, generally speaking, when one is sneaking around the open world, one is sneaking around a constructed puzzle.
There are hidden codes, keys and passwords everywhere in every Deus Ex game, and each one might lead somewhere interesting. Occasionally these codes are daisy chained together in such a way that one can explore almost the whole area by following the threads that the game leaves out for you. A good example of this is in the Sarif building in DE:HR. One can pretty much move from locked office to locked office by getting the right codes in the right order, merrily stealing as one goes. The environments therefore, while dressed to look naturalistic, are designed to be navigation puzzles. Contrast this with the naturalism of Skyrim’s environment, where a shack is just a shack and a keep is just a keep. In Deus Ex even a humble apartment block is a warren of interconnected air vents, locked doors with codes accessed from some or other computer and sports multiple routes in and out. This is not a real place, it is a play space, one designed to allow the player the maximum amount of exploration if they can hack the challenge (which is generally not too tough). These environments are perfect for fostering the sense that the world is full of hidden doors, that there are codes in every computer terminal and that there are secrets all around you. For a set of games that are all about conspiracies and shadowy government agencies, there is little better way to set up the world. Also, because the player is always problem solving while they are exploring, they are always engaged. If they are playing this exploration game well, they will be reading every scrap of paper, every computer, trying to actively decipher whether or not any of the contents have an impact on the puzzle that they are currently engaged in solving. This means that understanding the world becomes instrumental to the player’s progression through that world.
Thus, in the DE:HR, there is a separation between the player when they are exploring, and the player while they are engaged in the story. In the former situation they are not really partaking in a roleplaying experience, they are snooping, more like a mobile camera than anything else (similar to the role the player takes in many of the much, unfairly, derided “walking simulator” genre of games). In the latter situation the player uses what they know about the world that they have learned about through their puzzle gilded voyeurism , in order to make decisions about how their character would interact with that world. This is true to some extent of the original Deus Ex as well, although the freedom the player is allowed about who it is that their character actually is, is much greater—the incentives do still point towards a stealthy and non-lethal approach, but the rewards are less proportionally large for playing the game that way. I believe that it is in no small part due to this dual nature that the Deus Ex games (bar the middle one, which we don’t talk about, because it was—in case I have not yet mentioned it—bad) have such an appeal. It is partly the same appeal which seems to me to drive other open world RPGs like the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. However Deus Ex’s take on the concept is somewhat unique, being more content to guide the player through content, and less concerned with making its world seem open and unlimited. The Deus Ex games are not open, they are intensely controlled and directed, and it is that attention to detail which allows their dual aspect gameplay to be quite such a deep and satisfying experience.