some disorganized thoughts about deus ex and its place in the history of aaa games and the simulation dream, with a smattering of metal gear solid 2, fallout new vegas, and tomb raider. also deus ex revision really sucks.
deus ex is a landmark pc game in many ways. it was the culmination and also in some sense the death of the genre established by many who worked on it in earlier titles at origin systems. ultima underworld, system shock, cybermage: darklight awakening
these were the most concrete implementations of the simulation dream at the time. this term comes from a 2013 essay by tynan sylvester you can read here (external link) which will also inform a good chunk of the conclusions i draw
i will get to what i think of simulationism later on. it's not positive
i recently wrapped a play through of deus ex revision which i hated and was very appreciative of. there is nothing else in games quite the same, where someone has attempted to apply modern western AAA game design aesthetics to exactly the same game as before, rather than remaking the systems from scratch. revision retools all the maps in deus ex to be overly simulationist and remixes the music into elevator mush. maps that were tight and relatively free of cruft in the original game now have entire extra sections that not only add nothing positive to but in fact actively detract from gameplay because they aren't part of the mission objectives, they contain nothing of interest, in several cases such as wan chai market they aren't even accessible and are just THERE taking up space. it's criminal.
but this is also to some extent deus ex eating itself. ultima underworld and system shock adopt a more freeform structure; you are free to move about the world at any time, with greater threats in deeper levels, enemies respawning behind you, and in general are more about inhabiting a specific place. the idea was, as the devs put it at the time, to create a "dungeon simulation". deus ex doesn't do this. deus ex pulls from the tradition that was evolving independently of the linear level-based shooter: doom, quake, unreal. it attempts to synthesize this with the dungeon simulation aesthetic. the result is a charming hodgepodge of mechanics and game structure. the game gestures at "you should be able to backtrack" but only pulls this off with smoke and mirrors as you are locked into the set of maps that comprise each full mission at a time. notably, when the game has to give, it knocks over the pillars of simulation and decides that allowing its narrative and its gaminess to take precedence are important.
this is where that simulation dream essay comes in. clearly dx established this as a precedent. many western rpgs since have martyred themselves on the altar of aping this game. the unfortunate reality though is that deus ex was and is a compromised vision. the skill system is hilariously unbalanced. there are bugs that allow you to get infinite skills and augmentation upgrades. the enemy AI is incredibly exploitable as they can barely see in front of their face and won't notice your breath on their back. everyone loves these things. and then games of this type largely disappeared from the world shortly after. ion storm closed, arkane released arx fatalis, and people started thinking bioshock was actually a successor to this design school. yeah spoiler alert it's not and it sucks. sorry if you like it. dishonored and prey are about all we've had in the 20 years since.
more damningly is the promise of deus ex to offer multiple solutions to every obstacle. that is the overriding takeaway from it, in the design docs, the postmortems, and every gushing fan comment about it. you have Choice. Options. there are Multiple Solutions.
if you actually go read warren spector's and harvey smith's comments it's clear that from the start deus ex was in fact supposed to be much more nonlinear. it was supposed to be the next evolution of the dungeon simulation they'd worked so hard on in underworld and shock. it didn't do this because as it turns out when you're also trying to tell a concrete story about late capitalism and concentration of power you need the player to be willing to accept that they are not a co-author but an actor in a stage play. people like to go on and on about suspension of disbelief. the multiple solution system is also less famously not remotely what it was supposed to be.
a brief tangent to talk about bethesda rpgs, i promise this is relevant. new vegas, skyrim, all these things are built around the dungeon simulation promise extended to the whole world. the world is your dungeon and you can go anywhere and kill anything. also there's a main quest but no one cares about it because the game doesn't care. maybe the writers cared. maybe the designers thought they cared. but the reality is that when the main quest of fallout new vegas is "do these 10 side quests then do one set piece battle" it's not a main quest in any real sense, not like playing through final fantasy 7 and experiencing the story of cloud strife and sephiroth, or the genuinely nonlinear but still distinct main story of any given zelda game. there's no glue between anything in bethsoft rpgs because the games don't actually care about that. i wish they'd stop pretending they do and go harder on just straight up simulating their worlds, because deus ex proved 20 years ago that this doesn't work. if you want to tell a story then just tell the fucking story. if you want diffuse themes that shine through in every settlement, then you make that instead. that's where new vegas shines.
another thing is the skill system. in new vegas or skyrim you slowly level a bunch of stats one point at a time for marginal benefit. this is the diablo 2 system and i fucking hate it. in deus ex you get trickles of skill points and then you get huge upgrades all at once. in fallout one level of guns means you do some balanced percentage more damage. one level of lockpicking means literally nothing unless you hit a breakpoint that lets you pick new locks using the exact same minigame.
in deus ex one level of rifles vastly increases the damage, reload speed, accuracy, and lowers the recoil of four vastly different guns. one level of lockpicking cuts the number of picks you need for a given lock in half (minimum 1). this is impactful immediately. it's capable of rewarding hybrid and single-trait builds. it's not "balanced" but nobody actually gives a shit because this is a single player game. players are able to experiment and rapidly figure out what they want to do. on subsequent playthroughs they can restrict themselves arbitrarily if they're into that. you can pick augmentations to complement or fill gaps in your skills. even with all that it's still an iffy system because the realities of content budget and dev time mean that ion storm was barely able to ship the 12-level relatively restrictive system they ended up with.
western rpgs since deus ex look at this compromised approach to interacting with the world and think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, completely ignoring the ambition behind it that fell on its face. aaa budgets ballooned so we could render the sunshine on fucking horse testicles in real time rather than to simulate additional interesting modes of interaction. even without a speech skill, deus ex lets you hack your way out of the only mandatory fight in the game (by getting a password to use in dialogue). but when all you have is a gun and a lock pick, everything looks like a target and a joint to be cased. it's incredibly damning that we keep making the same mistakes in dev. sylvester's article goes a little more into this and how just making a simulation for its own sake is bad.
but the thing is that deus ex also had *ambition*. now i don't want to turn this into a commentary on the ethics of video game production. that's been explored elsewhere. we know that AAA games largely don't actually have creative control and that marketing over influences the final product including systemically. i'm only talking about the final effects right now. western rpgs since dx have all decided that the level of choice it provided was the be-all end-all and just needed to be Balanced. what happened next is that without the freedom to experiment with adding new verbs, everything has collapsed into a very similar "use guns, use skills, or use stealth to bypass each obstacle!" as deus ex had 20 years ago. in fact there's another stealth game that came out about this same time that's about a conspiracy to control all information on earth that is much more willing to engage with unique verbs.
the big contrast for me between mgs2 and deus ex is that the former is a really good game and the latter is a really good story. metal gear solid 2 is an incredibly maximalist, all over the place experience. its narrative suffers for this because kojima and his cowriters are essentially tossing out a bunch of unrelated thoughts about closely related but unfocused topics (much like this document ha ha ha sob) but as a game it's incredibly memorable and each mechanic is taken to the exact level it needs to be. the soliton radar gives you necessary information on stealth. the weird camera controls back this up as you are able to change camera angles easily and swiftly. the sniping sections are a huge mechanical break but thematically in line with the patient, lethal ninja aesthetic. the boss fights are as cinematic as the story hopes to be and manage to play off existing mechanics, especially fatman and solidus.
deus ex by contrast is extremely focused. you have a limited toolkit and all problems must somehow be solvable with it. you can't solve every optional problem (if you never train computer hacking several optional rooms will be locked) but your path through the game always hits the same main points. any sequence breaks save minutes of time at most, like killing maggie chow or anna navarre early. mgs2 isn't any less linear to be clear. but it spends all its Good Points on its gameplay. deus ex has iffy gunplay and a limited set of verbs and a really distressingly coherent viewpoint about the relation of capital to the world and if you are able to pick through its conspiracy fiction framing, about what can and has to be done about these things. honestly its main failing is that because it's sci fi it's able to posit a perfect god-king as a third option. the helios ending is the platonic ideal and the good ending because humanity ends up governed by the perfect human-understanding avatar that tends to all its needs and never over-punishes. it should really be deleted though i guess then you wouldn't have that title resonance. god from (nothing). from blank. created wholesale from impossibility. anyway.
notably the western rpg tradition leans much harder on deus ex. i mean sure some of this is the racism of ignoring japanese games, happens all the time, i think some of it though is also the addiction to number go up, which deus ex's limited toolkit sandbox approach handles more gracefully. you can just make the tools do more of the same thing by making numbers bigger as the player gains power. see diablo 2 for a classic example of this done horribly right. the numbers don't really make sense as an iteration of metal gear because there are no numbers in the first place. the game is so much about its stealth play that if you are spotted on high difficulties the game simply ends without letting you get into combat.
notably people seem to mainly remember deus ex for its gameplay and mgs2 for its story. go fucking figure. we'll touch on that again if/when i talk about how mediocrity gets you more fans than being genuinely good (i'm looking at you homestuck) but that's another essay.
okay so back to revision. wow this should actually be the first section really. so something that's happened since deus ex and partly because of it is that western games try to have 'realistic' level designs. deus ex was a pioneer in this by not only having bathrooms, but gendered bathrooms that you get in trouble for going into the wrong one (ha ha maybe jc denton is trans. as i write this quip, a massive mod has come out, Lay D Denton, which adds the originally intended feature to the game of being able to play as a woman. frankly it's fantastic, the voice acting is great, i don't have anything to say about it in THIS essay because it actually hews to the game's dream and is competently executed.) revision comes back to this 15-year-old game and tries to fix all the realism it still doesn't have. unatco hq now has a gun range. hell's kitchen has a bunch of balconies that enemies spawn on but you can't get to even with augmented legs. wan chai has more police stations. it's terrible. in the same way that metal gear solid has always wanted to ape hollywood, and so have many games. including deus ex! it's no secret that the original design doc for troubleshooter was very specifically drawing from steven seagal action movies of the 80s. but amazingly even with that strongly defined aesthetic in mind, "modernizing" the level design of deus ex makes them so much worse. they are now cluttered with garbage geometry that serves to confuse, delay, and interfere with the player actually getting where they need to. the worst example is definitely wan chai, which has been split into TWO maps, one devoted ENTIRELY to the aboveground area of the luminous path compound. tracer tong's base is still separate! there's no benefit to this! if anything the gameplay effect is to undercut the game's own challenges. for instance, one achievement is to complete the game without ever using a medbot or repair bot. these new areas are either completely inaccessible or littered with soda and soy food, making healing much more trivial.
outright inexcusably, the maps have been redone without any respect for existing dialogue. at several points in the game you are referred to areas, in voice acting or in the objectives log, in organic directions i.e. relative to landmarks on the map. tracer tong tells you to go to "the temple next to the market". well, in revision, there are now two temples. the one that is actually on the map called "Hong Kong - Wan Chai Market" is closed, with a datacube on it indicating there is another temple to the northwest. this is an outright lie; the replacement temple in question, needed to advance the plot, is tucked away in a corner of the adjacent "Hong Kong - Compound Area" map, and even with the maps hooked together it is to the NORTHEAST.
this is NEW content and it could not even be proofread to work with itself. it's only worse when the fancy rerendered map images are sent with no compass directions printed, or the maps straight up don't match when a character tells you to go east and the place they mentioned is actually to the west. it makes me want to grab whoever is responsible by the collar and shake them vigorously.
in summary deus ex revision feels like it was made by aliens who heard that deus ex was good but had no understanding of how or why and certainly didn't feel a need to reference the thing they were editing.
in one of my other favorite 90s video games, tomb raider, the architecture is unrelentingly and almost oppressively alien. the environments are patently ridiculous and could never exist in the real-world locales they flimsily pretend to (peru, greece, egypt). but they're gorgeous and memorable and this is because they allow the alien requirements of "being a good game level" to drive their design. this is of course something spector and smith have mentioned when they're interviewed about the game; i can't speak to other designers since, uh, games media has a terrible relationship with celebrity. but the point is that a driving ethos is that the game had to be *fun*, not *realistic*. the white house level, which would have probably been chapter 7 in the released game, was cut entirely because "a bunch of identical rooms isn't fun".
now i do think an interesting mod would be for someone to assemble the cut white house, texas internment camp, and moon base missions that we know at least made it to design, and make them Interesting Levels. after all the game is a sci-fi thriller, it doesn't need to hew to what the white house really looks like, or even be about the actual building when you could make up presidential bunkers underneath it too. THAT'S a "revision" i can get behind.
but revision seems to think that having everything just so, like you're going to simulate the whole world, is an acceptable goal, without even changing the engine of the game they're modifying to be geared towards that. it's the simulation dream applied in a purposeless and aimless fashion. i want to scream to the heavens that this is the wrong way to make a narrative video game. deus ex is about jc denton's relationship with being bred to be a cop and then systematically destroying the role they were assigned. it's about criticizing a version of late capitalism so near to our actual present that it feels disingenuous to call it allegorical. it *isn't* about deploying the clomping foot of nerdism to jack off over every single detail that differs between the fiction and real life.
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