Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Warren Spector – Master of Deus Ex

Why I routinely replay a 10-year-old PC game

Following yesterday’s post about Deus Ex Machina as a cheat in writing fiction, I got to thinking about a game I recently replayed and plan to replay again in the future, despite having been released nearly a decade ago. The name of the game is Deus Ex and in my opinion it’s a masterpiece. It may be the closest thing to the “perfect” PC game produced to date. Its graphics are now sub-par and there are no surprises left in the game’s story for me, but I replay it about once a year anyway, because it’s just that good.

I love the game’s high degree of player freedom. I love its detailed storyline. I love that the plot of the story can change depending on what choices you make. But first, a quick summary of the game. You play an agent for a UN-mandated anti-terrorism force. You’re a savvy young go-getter with a big edge – you’re pumped full of micro-electronic devices to augment your abilities. You can see in the dark, talk to HQ without a radio and can recharge your electric reserves using energy packs. Technically, the game’s like a lot of other first-person shooters. You run around picking up equipment and fighting bad guys, but the game generally doesn’t try to dictate how you have to accomplish your goals. For instance, it’s possible to play much of the game without killing anybody – either sneaking past your enemies or disabling them with tasers and gas grenades. If you’d prefer to go high-tech, you can often accomplish your goals by hacking computers and security terminals, turning cameras and machine-gun turrets against their owners. Or you can go the route of the action-hero, murdering your way through the game with sniper rifles, rocket launchers or a special sword that’s treated with nanites for a molecular-sharp edge.

This sort of latitude is hard to appreciate if you’re not a gamer, but, trust me, it’s all too rare. In a lot of games, the game’s creators railroad you through mission after mission, through elaborate mazes where your only choice isn’t where to go, but simply whether to kill each enemy with a gun or a grenade. And often, anything that moves is an enemy to be killed. But Deus Ex is rife with characters who have no stake in your mission – they’re just browsing the local market in Hong Kong or walking through Battery Park in New York City. What’s more, you can interact with many of these characters and they share their unique thoughts about the area, the troubled times you live in, or their personal problems. Overlaying all of this is a superb soundtrack that sometimes you’ll just want to stop and listen to.

So you’ve got missions to do, and it’s entirely up to you how to accomplish them. That’s technically great for gameplay, but all of that freedom’s not worth much if the game’s not entertaining. That’s where the superb storyline comes in. Deus Ex pulls in many (perhaps all) of the major conspiracy theories floating around the web and molds them into a cohesive tale of secret societies, shadow governments, and struggles for control at the highest echelons of government and society. The writers use everything from black helicopters to Area-51, Men in Black to the Illuminati and Majestic 12 and they weave a complex story of betrayal, power struggles and global crimes against humanity. Most games cobble together a flimsy rationale for the player to want to do what the game requires of them, but Deus Ex blows that paradigm out of the sky. The Deus Ex story would have made a decent read as a novel and serves to really draw the player into the game’s world. (Actually, it was a novel – Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is in some respects a very similar story to Deus Ex. I wonder if Warren Spector ever wishes he’d just written a novel instead of making a PC game?) Plus, the interactive nature of the game means that information can be revealed to the player through a wide array of methods. If you sneak up on some guards, you might hear them talking about their recent missions or one of the main bad guys. If you hack into a computer, there will likely be emails outlining the goals and objectives of the different factions in the game. You may find books or electronic notepads lying around that describe the game’s plot and its major players. Or the various characters in the game, friends and foes alike, may flat out tell you what’s going on, at least from their perspective. Sometimes they even lie to you. And it’s not enough that there aren’t just the good guys and the bad guys, there are actually good guys disguised as bad guys and vice versa. There are also multiple organizations and factions, some of which aren’t at all what they first seem and several of which turn out to be “grey,” with their own goals and methods that aren’t necessarily good or bad. And you get to interact with all of them, deciding who to join and who to fight.

Which brings me to the branching storylines. It would be an exaggeration to imply that your character is totally free-willed, able to become a saint or a serial-killer on a whim. There are some sides you can’t really join and some deeds that simply can’t succeed, but by the end of the game, you’ll have encountered all of the major factions in the game and you’ll have no fewer than four final outcomes to choose between, each of them being a choice to join a different warring faction. To accomplish this, the developers had to write and create each of these multiple outcomes, with graphics, recorded voice acting, programming and logic in the game to accommodate all of them – even the three that the player might never see. Plus, there are multiple branching storylines long before you reach the end, each of which means extra content that the player might miss entirely unless they’re willing to replay the game multiple times to see them all. Most game studious are wary of putting a lot of time and effort into creating content that each individual player might never even see, but Eidos took the chance and made a game that’s so immersive you really start to wonder if the Masons and the Knights Templar might not be pulling the strings behind the scenes to manipulate world governments.

Ironically, there’s not really any Deus Ex Machina in the story – it all pretty much makes sense. Instead, YOU, the main character, are “the machine” and, ultimately, you get to play god and decide through your actions and choices how the world will look after the events in the game play themselves out. It’s one of the longest, most detailed games I’ve ever played, with dozens of hours of gameplay and scads of hidden notes scattered through the game that you really have to hunt for if you want to know every detail of what’s going on with the story. Yet, it’s also a technically playable game where you’re not bogged down in minutia if you decide you don’t care about the little details and just want to stick a commando knife in somebody’s skull.

So there you have it – the perfect PC game. Ok, it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good and certainly a step above many of my other favorite games. By letting me, the player, decide how to win the game while immersing me in a detailed and very believable storyline, Spector and his team set the bar far above the usual level expected and required of game developers. Kudos to the studio and to Warren Spector. Now if only somebody else would make a game this good.

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