What I learned from Deus Ex
Posted on 2nd Mar 2009 at 14:16 by Joe Martin with 37 comments
The things that Warren Spector’s seminal FPS/RPG taught me can be broadly divided into three things; things it taught me about games, the world and myself. The very fact that I can definitely point to Deus Ex as something educational says an awful lot about the depth of the game itself and about how much I love it, by the way. When it comes to Deus Ex I’m fully willing to admit to being a totally biased fanboy.
Deus Ex taught me more about computer games than almost any game I’ve ever played and a huge amount of that is owed to the structured non-linearity of the game. If you’ve not played it (and I’ll accept no excuses) then you should know that although Deus Ex is a very linear game, it’s also very freeform. The storyline is best described as elastic as, although you’ll always go through the same levels in the same order, their content can differ hugely.
My favourite part of the game is the New York hotel your brother stays in, The ‘Ton. It’s an area that you only have to visit once or twice if you stick to the plot, but which has critical side missions based around it. The first time you get a chance to pay it a visit there’s a hostage situation, the next time there’s a problem with one of the guests, followed by a family feud. By the end of the game it can be abandoned, run by a skeleton crew, or the same as always.
Depending on what you say to the characters involved (and who survives) you can alter huge portions of the game. Will Sandra still be at home, ready to introduce you to her friend Vinny, who works at the Navy base? Will she be homeless and destitute at the gas station in Nevada? Or is she dead in a ditch? It’s up to you.
What this actually taught me about games though ties into another one of my passions in life; stories. I love stories. Telling them, hearing them, collecting them; they are great things and I’m constantly passing them on. Did you know I once knew a guy who…?
Before Deus Ex I’d loved games because of the stories they told – something mainly due to Monkey Island, which introduced me to the idea that games don’t always have to be brown, samey shooters. They can be colourful, semi-serious things with jokes and insults. Monkey Island showed me that not all games were about mad scientists and burly soldiers – they could be about scrawny, well-intentioned wannabes; people like me!
In many ways the most important thing that Deus Ex taught me was that games could do more than tell stories, they could actually let me create my own adventures that I could go on to discuss with my friends. I could mould the actions of characters to fit whatever epic plot I wanted and, thanks to the superbly layered writing of the game, I could play around with characters motives too.
Is Paul Denton going to survive the raid on The ‘Ton this time I play the game? Can Anna Navarre justify the slaughter of Lebedev, or is she left as a cold-hearted villain? What about me – am I following my destiny blindly by merging with Helios, or am I an anarchist trying to topple society? Again, it’s up to me, but when I’m done I can chat with my pals and tell them this story.
Deus Ex was why I used to love the bus ride to school, because I could turn to my friends and explain how JC Denton was a stealthy assassin who relied on his super-speed enhancements to get onto The Wallcloud undetected. I could tell them JC didn’t trust the Illuminati, which is why he didn’t grab the vaccine for Stanton Dowd when I had a chance.
When I’d said my piece, they’d share their own experiences. To them JC Denton was a goliath who wiped out swathes with his plasma cannon. He didn’t outrun Walton Simons – he outgunned him! He shot the pimp who was bothering Sandra Renton – he didn’t scare him off! And as for how he got inside Area 51 and tackled Bob Page…
That’s one of the most important lessons I learned from Deus Ex; that games are a more powerful medium than cinema, that they can become a social device even in singleplayer, that they can become a truly beautiful form of expression. I learned what games can be if they want to be – and what a shame it is that only a handful of titles since have been as educational in that regard.
Oh, and this is all disregarding the massively insightful hidden conversations you can have with Morpheus as well.