Retro Rewind: Deus Ex
It’s interesting to me that at several points, I’ve noticed people responding to the popularity and general critical claim of Deus Ex: Human Revolution with the comment, “Eh, it’s not Deus Ex.”
Actually, it’s kind of exactly Deus Ex. If Deus Ex were made this decade rather than at the outset of last, it would pretty much be DXHR. The parallels between the games are many, ranging from moments in the plot with direct mirrors between the two games, to the shot-for-shot recasting of tiny moments in Deus Ex that appear in DXHR. Playing the games back-to-back, as I have been, makes these moments stand out in brilliant relief. DXHR is as much reboot as it is prequel, but easily the most striking thing is how much great stuff there is to lift from Deus Ex, even more than a decade after its release.
In many ways, Deus Ex plays like a game that could have been released last week.
Three things continue to lift Deus Ex in comparison to the titles that have come in the decade since its release. First is its writing, with a deep and engaging plot and a world covered in lore the likes of which is seen in few titles that don’t have “Deus Ex” or “The Elder Scrolls” in the title. Second, its scope, which seems ludicrous given the finely honed and somewhat shorter experiences presented by the games of today, which by their nature are putting more emphasis on the technology of their presentation rather than just bulk of content. Finally, its degree of choice and options, which is rivaled only by the game that serves as its prequel. Deus Ex is the kind of video game that presents the kind of experience that you always imagined when you thought about video games in the future — a world where you make the decisions, that’s deep and unfolding and huge around you. Except that game isn’t in the future; it’s in the past.
So rather than talk exclusively about what continues to work about Deus Ex (its story, its scope, its choice) and what doesn’t (its goddamn tranq darts and flailing in panic AI), it’s much more interesting to talk about the game in terms of a decade of further game development. The people who make video games have had 11 years to improve the market since Deus Ex came out: what have they come up with?
Largely, there aren’t many games out there that continue to offer what Deus Ex does. Take a gander over at the Deus Ex Wiki and you’ll see what I mean: there’s an insane degree of content to be found there, running down characters, timelines, events and locations that aren’t just present in the game, but based (at least loosely) in some kind of real-world history. The degree of world-building to be found in the series is usually reserved for something like World of WarCraft, for which there are people on staff with job titles like Lore Master.
Choice, too, reigns supreme in Deus Ex to a degree that’s almost laughable in games today. There’s an infographic that occasionally gets passed around on sites like Reddit, comparing a first-person shooter map from 1993 to one supposedly common today. Of course, it’s satirical, but it makes the point well
Deus Ex looks a lot more 1993 than 2010 in that example, and it’s easy to blow right past several different paths to the same end, and miss out on some rewards and quests altogether. Very few games reward the player for not just moving through an area, but using his or her head in doing so — and even stealth games that have come after and built upon the Deus Ex framework rarely take an approach larger than “use this shallow vent OR that overhead pipe.” In Deus Ex, you can infiltrate a base and not see half of it, and get the job done just as easily. That’s level design, folks.
But while Deus Ex tends to be much more massive than only the most expansive modern RPGs, it also has a lot less technology to contend with. As I mentioned before, the game often kinda looks like puke molded into the semblance of a video game; it’s clear that graphical expansiveness and pushing the boundaries of 2000 technology wasn’t at the forefront of the development team’s priorities. So the trade-off for hugeness often is the fact that games today are beautiful, with great textures and engaging visuals. It’s also the reason that DXHR and other modern games are so much smaller, relatively, than Deus Ex.
And not to pat Deus Ex on the back too hard, because games have seen some serious improvements in the last decade since it was released. Its stealth gameplay is weak to the point of being irritating at points: there’s no indication of whether you’re hidden other than to hope that you are, and enemies will sometimes pull magic tricks of detection on you. There’s the brutally trying aspect of attempting a non-lethal playthrough, because the non-lethal weapons at your disposal are one shade north of completely useless. And the enemy AI is, at times, abysmal. Enemies cycle between dashing around in panic and sniping you in the face from 50 yards.
But the point is that while the game may not be perfect, playing it is an interesting barometer for gaming in general. How things have changed relative to Deus Ex suggests that while there have been many improvements, not all the changes that we’ve seen since 2000 are for the better, and many of them aren’t necessarily improvements at all. Deus Ex also suggests that gamers don’t need to be pandered to, and they can handle a deep, engaging and largely “find it yourself” story.
Is it a testament to Deus Ex that you can download it today and find it incredibly fun even a decade later? Yes, definitely, but it’s also interesting that unlike many games, in many respects it has yet to be surpassed in a meaningful way. It has become a classic, sure, but the game also stands its ground against the modern, despite more than 10 years of time for the industry, and players, to learn from it. If we all love Deus Ex so much, why does it feel like there are so few games like it?