How Deus Ex gets it right
Darby Costello
Head of Games & Online Services Developer
Last Update: 23.08.16
How Deus Ex gets it right
SSR Manchester - Darby Costello, Head of Games & Online Services Developer

POSTED ON – 23.08.16

How Deus Ex gets it right

It’s 2000 and the world is celebrating a new millennium. You’re barely out of your teens and they’re all telling you how this new century will bring with it a whole host of wonders, the likes of which our grandparents could barely conceive. An end to world hunger; technologies that will revolutionise medicine; computer-mediated communications courtesy of this burgeoning Internet, that will transform the way we learn, the way we do business and the way we consume. It’s a promise of a brave new world to some but an Orwellian threat to others.

This ticking over from one age of mankind to another was not without its share of hysteria; not without its lineup of crazies in tin-foil hats, yelling “Y2K” to anyone who’d listen and warning us against the endless procession of technological advancement that we’d all begun to embrace. Sure, the millennium “bug” (which anticipated an issue with computers’ system clocks that meant we’d all be transported to the year 1900 on new years day) was a real thing and cost about $308 billion to fix worldwide. But the panic that followed it was something else entirely. You were told that satellites would fall from the sky. Credit card companies would literally collapse in a Fight Club shower of rubble and debt. Governments would descend into chaos, presumably as politicians missed those key brunches.

Video games seemed dominated by consoles back then. PCs were for homework. The market was already pretty saturated with action titles like Need for Speed, Dead or Alive and Mortal Kombat. Gamers looking for more cinematic and open titles were enjoying the likes of Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil and Perfect Dark. Narrative content was really starting to come into its own, yet each of these games offered their own uniquely, but ultimately linear take on their respective genres. Missions were always completed in specific ways, like crossword puzzles interspersed with gun violence. Characters were simply devices to drive players inexorably toward the win conditions as laid out by the game designers.

But beneath the noise and the frantic, sledgehammer mechanics of these titles, gamers were beginning to develop a real desire for something more. Role-playing games had long been one of the only genres that supported open-ended gameplay, character development and multi-faceted quest pathways. Notable examples included Planescape Torment, Fallout (which you may have heard of) and at that point Bethesda had already kick started their genre-bending crossover between FPS and RPG in the Elder Scrolls games. But these titles were still too outsider and couldn’t quite reach the same level of gravitas as that found in linear games at the time; the crossover to the mainstream was lacking something. It needed a concept that could drive that much-needed complexity and cinematic nuance into the foreground. Enter Deus Ex.

Ion Storm had already produced a handful of titles by the time Deus Ex was released. As the game starts up, you’re not aware of anything more than an obvious Matrix-esque cyberpunk noir story where every character speaks with a husky droll. The graphics weren’t the best you’d see that year, though we were a little more forgiving before the Xbox / PlayStation wars kicked into gear. The sound often felt eerily detached, but I defy anyone to not love the amazing soundtrack.

What does becomes abundantly clear though, is that Deus Ex is a game with something to say. As in the real world we were all poised for this uncertain millennium to unravel, Deus Ex took practically every dark little secret of the 20th Century, every conspiracy theory, every secret organisation and put it in the game. All of them.

The world is falling into chaos as a pandemic known as Gray Death sweeps the US. As a UNATCO agent tracking down stolen shipments of a vaccine for the virus, the game propels you across permanent night-swept, rain-dashed continents where you clash with the NSF, FEMA, the Majestic 12, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission… The list goes on and the plot doesn’t so much thicken as become a conspiracy theorist’s worst nightmare. And it all makes a kind of sense.

The guys behind the game completely nailed the undercurrent of the public consciousness. The distrust of authority and of the mega corporations that had already emerged at the turn of this century was now so ingrained that the game’s premise could be accepted very easily. The game’s savagely portrayed gulf between the haves and the have-nots reflects the very world we live in now. The visual language of Terminator, the Matrix and Blade Runner were already embedded in our culture, so that you felt like you already knew the world in which you were immersed. And this is the key word. Deus Ex may not have invented immersion, but there’s a reason it’s been listed in countless surveys as one of the greatest games of all time.

The premise was not the only timely and groundbreaking aspect of course. The game married the first person shooter actioner with a true inventory system and character development through use of cybernetic body augmentations. And these are not simply upgrades to make you tank-like, as in so many action games before it. Questions are raised throughout the game making you evaluate the true cost of your enhancements. Questions about what it means to be human plague your character at every step of the way. You take the upgrades wherever you can, knowing that with each and every one you step further away from the people you’re fighting to represent.

Every quest in Deus Ex offers you a convincing illusion of freedom to complete it in a number of ways. Do you storm the front gates, taking out the robot sentries and guards with a rocket launcher? Or do you find a manhole cover, then hack your way through laser-fenced sewage ducts and toxic gas traps? Or perhaps you stealthily creep across the rooftops, obtaining key-cards performing the morally defensible non-lethal takedowns of the guards you encounter?

Deus Ex introduced us to some new concepts in its handling of morality and also in allowing for emergent gameplay. That is, when the game lets you do things the developers hadn’t thought of. Some clever players would use wall-mounted mines to act as pitons that would allow them to scale otherwise impossible walls, or use crates to block enemy paths avoiding even pre-scripted shootouts.
The game makes you feel like your choices and your actions really affect the outcomes.

This of course extends to the endgame. A few other games had already begun dabbling with alternative endings by this point. But Deus Ex eschewed the obvious good guy / bad guy mould in favour of morally ambiguous choices, with far-reaching consequences for all of humanity. In my teens I’d read Nietzche, Sartre and Trotsky. I’m not ashamed to admit that none of them made me truly consider my own political philosophy like this game did. The weight of what you have learned throughout the game places you slap-bang in the middle of a god complex and you’re made to choose between one of several outcomes, each equally daunting and — you really feel — utterly irreversible.

Fast-forward 16 years and Deus Ex has spread by word-of-mouth to become a huge franchise that has shipped over 5million units, spawning several sequels and even its own meme (“Every time you mention it, SOMEONE will reinstall it”). While it’s true that none of the sequels have upheld quite the same narrative depth and philosophical quandary of the original, each has built upon what makes the Deus Ex universe such a brilliant example of what video games can be. The superb writing and pure cinematic pathos, blended with intricately designed quests and a backdrop that feels scarily close to home. Deus Ex doesn’t just give you choices. It makes you worry about them.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is released today (23/08/16) on all platforms.

Darby Costello

POSTED ON – 23.08.16

How Deus Ex gets it right

Darby has worked across many digital industries and over the years has built up skills in games design, 3D, animation and VFX, music production, film, graphic design, web and computer software.

Darby's been in the indie games community since its beginnings and has worked on projects large and small, including physics engines, tools, shaders and has also been a producer at a Sony Entertainment first-party studio.

He has built and consulted on branding, eLearning platforms, courseware and real time communications technologies for a large number of educational establishments and training providers.

As well as teaching and training in his spare time, Darby plays a variety of instruments, is an avid filmmaker and creates interactive installation art.