16. Deus Ex
Developer: Ion Storm
Format: PlayStation 2, Mac, PC
If, a hundred years from now, scholarly scholars wrote a scholarly essay about The Most Significant Video Games or whatever, Deus Ex would almost certainly be on there. It was an astonishing leap forward in game complexity and sophistication, to the point where it impressed me when I first played it eight years after it came out.
The basic idea of a complex RPG presented in the style of an FPS wasn’t a new one, but this particular combination of acronyms really pushed all the boundaries at once. Level of detail, complexity of plot, freedom of choice on the part of the player, sophistication of AI characters – all ratcheted up to new levels like a mad scientist flipping all the levers at once while cackling “MORE POWER! AHAHAHAHA!”
The basic scenario saw you plopped into the boots of nanotechnologically-augmented UN special agent JC Denton in the near-ish future, a cyberpunk world going down the shitter in general and more specifically rocked by a lethal plague, the “Grey Death”. Initially sent after a shipment of hijacked antidote, you start to hear rumours that the plague is human-made and your bosses are deliberately withholding the cure, so go rogue to learn the truth. And so begins a twisting tale that’s a conspiracy nut’s dream, with just about every classic theory crammed in – the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, men in black, and a climax, somewhat inevitably, inside Area 51. (The game’s creator, Warren Spector, has noted that the mood of the times the game was made affected him, and he “got obsessed with this sort of millennial weirdness” that resulted in the Conspiracy Kitchen Sink plot.)
The various tasks you carry out in this setting generally fall under the classic stealth game aims: assassinate this guy, steal that document, etcetera. What’s important about Deus Ex is that it was one of the first games to really let players make their own way. While stealthy-stealthy was obviously the primary method, you could blast your way through with an intelligently chosen layout. People could be killed or avoided – picking doors and hacking computers usually paid dividends. This choice was highlighted by choosing which of JC’s nanotech doodads to upgrade. Give him a super jump, or better lungs so he could hold his breath underwater longer? Improve his nightvision, or strengthen his arms so he can carry more stuff and beat up people more effectively? It was all in service of exploring the beautifully designed gameworld, the sort you can really get lost in – and Ion Storm wanted you to get lost. There were all sorts of things to distract you, from the little descriptions of items (the chocolate bars appear to be made partly out of dead people), to bits of conspiracy classic The Man Who Was Thursday to read, to, well...at the home base, you can go into the women’s bathroom. Your boss’s secretary is in there, and she’ll yell at you. And if you did that, later on your boss will tell you off. And it serves no purpose, other than to entertain and help flesh out the world. Amazing.
It’s an astonishing game, intelligent and exciting, absorbing and thought-provoking. And the best bit? The only version I’ve played is the PS2 port, which is apparently the runt of the litter. Heaven knows how good the PC original was.MAGIC MOMENT: at the beginning of the game, you enter your real name, the idea being that “JC Denton” is just a pseudonym. I tend to play big games at a very relaxed pace, going months between periods of playing them. (I think it took me about four years to get round to finishing this one.) After you defect from the UN, there’s a scene in your brother’s apartment where you can read a newspaper article about your going rogue. Because it was a while since I’d initially started playing the game, I’d forgotten that I’d put in my real name at the beginning, and freaked the fuck out when the paper read “...rogue agent Sam Bridgett, a.k.a. JC Denton”. I genuinely spent about twenty seconds trying to work out how the hell the game knew my real name.