Deus Ex Is Only Human

So they finally managed to make another Deus Ex game. And to everyone’s surprise, it’s not terrible! Considering that’s something even those who made the first game couldn’t pull off, it’s no small feat.

The secret? They remade the first game. Not in game industry terms, in which we expect a remake to be the Turner Colorized version of a game, but in film terms, in which a remake is expected to keep similar themes and structure but otherwise is free to ditch characters, plot arcs, and techniques to make it contemporary. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is Deus Ex, again. And given how rare this game niche has been pulled off, that makes it worthwhile on its own.

But it doesn’t attempt to justify itself beyond “More Deus Ex!” Given the fragility and tension of the fanbase, it was likely the only realistic route. People flipped out on hints of rumors about what this Canadian team might do to their beloved game – anything actually new was just too risky. Such is life.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, then, is meticulously crafted, expertly made by a team that deeply understood Deus Ex. They grokked specifically what was important – the subtle details, like the pace of snooping around, the measured characterizations (the flat emotions of the voice acting mimics the first game), the half-buried narrative. It’s pitched at the same intelligence level as the first game – which must have been a tough sell to the publisher (bigger budget = bigger audience target). They have emails (juicy, valuable content) entirely in French, with no translation – it accommodates the world, not the player. Another great detail: white-collar workers in Detroit have degrees on their walls from Ferris College or Grand Valley Community College – fictionalized versions of real Michigan schools. People appreciate this! Concrete, specific detail shows care and love.

And there are improvements on the original. Stealth mechanics that work are certainly appreciated. It sure looks nice! It’s said much of Eidos Montreal consists of former Splinter Cell members, and that series’ legacy of modern-tastic office architecture has a successor. Environments look fantastic, and interesting, and the close relationship a player has to their environment in a stealth game makes it absolutely necessary for the play space to be this engaging. This isn’t Ikea architecture, it’s the upscale European modern design Ikea is ripping off of.

The story works better, too. It’s more effective because it’s so much closer to the real world: fifteen years away instead of fifty, with smaller branches off the current arc of history. The game’s major conflict is the deteriorating balance between the elites who can afford augmentation and the unwashed masses left behind. It’s a plausible extrapolation of the specter of a declining middle class in the developed world. These are problems that we don’t know how to solve – and if the stakes are raised by technology, what hope do we have? It’s not as thorough a treatment as a novel can bring, and it’s not exploiting all the strengths of games (there’s a lot of talking and not enough experiencing these issues of poverty and inequality) but it’s real science fiction. Some of the parallels are too flat and obvious (augmentation protests as anti-abortion protests? It mushes over the cultural identity that creates these groups), but these are counteracted by smart and specific details. My favorite is the evil media corporation – rolling in the modern frustration over Very Serious People and the limited scope of narratives allowed by traditional media into a global Illuminati conspiracy. It’s a lie that produces a true response – the very purpose of fiction. This closeness weakens the conspiracy-minded elements of the story, though. The last decade saw a steep decline in the trust placed in nearly all forms of institutional authority. Ten years later, it’s much less plausible for a group of elites to be so…competent that they could plausibly control the levers of power. It reads just as true, or more than ever, that the world is rigged in favor of the powerful, but tight organizational control is a farther fantasy than it was. The traditional Deus Ex ending, the four choices that might change the world, feel naïve in the power it places on any one group to change the world. We’re near enough in this fiction that plausibility matters.

As you live with this game, have to see it in the morning, the other minor flaws, the very human flaws, look like bigger problems.

The first Deus Ex distinguished between experience points, which bought skills that incrementally improved aim with a weapon category, swim speed, and the like, and augmentations, rare rewards which granted a one-time choice between one of several very powerful abilities. Human Revolution drops the distinction between the two, which is probably wise (making gun skills highly upgradeable places too much math behind the action, and having parallel upgrade paths is likely more trouble than it’s worth), but it doesn’t require exclusive choices. The first Deus Ex offered all of its augmentations as a choice between two very tempting abilities: do you want to jump higher, or run silently? Do you want to pick up heavier objects, or be able to smash through doors? Human Revolution, however, has no exclusive skills; a player buys whatever they have the experience to buy. This means that a player can buy all of the path-enabling abilities from the start: jump higher, lift heavy objects, hack computers. Then the entire game opens up. It destroys the essential want: it’s very engaging for a player to see something that they can’t have but know how to get. They set goals, implanting the hooks in their brain that keep them playing.

The experience system could also use some exclusive payouts; it’s easily exploitable. The guiding philosophy seems to have been to reward the player for playing the game in any way – players are rewarded for engaging enemies but also for successfully avoiding detection. Players are rewarded for finding side routes and also for getting headshots. But a player can do it all. The ‘Ghost’ reward, a large dollop of XP awarded for completing an objective without being seen, can still be acquired by a player that engages every enemy, as long as they do it well enough to avoid being spotted. Given that the knockout bonus can be as large as ten percent of the Ghost reward, it’s substantial enough to encourage this type of play. A player can enter every tiny air vent, pretend to be a pathfinding explorer (and get the experience bonus), then retreat and plow through the straight path. The hacking game rewards enough experience that even when a player has the code they are better off forcing their way into the system. How does this make sense? RPGs have long been bedeviled by how experience rewards shape play style; for a long time, talking one’s way out of a situation represented a net experience loss because the player would lose the experience from engaging each enemy. Some games, particularly Jason and the Argonauts, started granting experience only after sections were complete, along with bonuses considered from the entire chapter. This allows easy control for the designer, who can design ‘play categories’ and grade the player along them, giving bonuses based on how well they executed that style. Ok at killing? +50XP! Really, really good at it? +100XP! Talked your way out of all your problems? +100XP! But the block grant, though elegant, doesn’t match the psychological power of drip-feeding minor rewards. Many reviewers noted how pleased they were to get rewarded very often. It’s the framework Facebook games are built off of. And do more players enjoy it? Does the number of players who will exploit the game not matter next to the larger majority who won’t see it and just enjoy being rewarded? The designer cries out, but maybe the ‘right’ solution is the greatest happiness for the greatest number of players.

Human Revolution’s similarity to the first game is useful for exposing flaws. For example: why aren’t the opening levels as great as the first few in Deus Ex, despite the mechanics being so similar (at this point, the limitations of the upgrade system aren’t yet exploitable by the player)? The answer: the openness of the levels are key to this type of game. Classic levels in Deus Ex and System Shock are non-linear, highly-connected or open, and have their goals approachable from several directions. The gameplay it encourages can be labeled Investigate and Execute: the player circles their goal, learning what they can about the area, decides upon a plan of attack, and follows it through to achieve their goal. They are rewarded for finding as many options as possible before committing, and selecting the best one. By contrast, Human Revolution is set up in a room-to-room fashion, essentially the same as the Splinter Cell games. Each room is a staged encounter, with its own enemies, paths through it, but essentially they branch back after the room before the next one. Some rooms are quite large and have multiple options, but they always get pruned back. And you can see this in the less-satisfying back halves of System Shock 2 and Deus Ex: as the game gets harder the levels get more linear. And the game gets less fun. The more contiguous the maps are, the longer paths branch, the more engaging they are in this type of game.

It is probably best to ease players into it. There’s no shortage of complaints about the first Deus Ex’s opening level, which drops the player into a situation with complexity far beyond what they’re equipped to handle. But opening up the levels as the game goes forward would fit very well with the natural pacing the game should support, broadening the environmental scope as the conspiracy reaches deeper and broader.

I’m not going to touch on the bosses, other than reiterating that every complaint that has already been voiced is accurate. If I were to design them, I would implement them like Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis – a foe hunting the player through the level, adding pressure to the stealth gameplay Time pressure can greatly up the stakes of stealth while retaining the core gameplay. Time pressure in general is an under-used mechanic which tends to be enjoyed more by designers than players.

But Human Revolution still works because it’s working hard. Given the burden of a modern gigantic budget, an extremely vocal and critical fan base, and the changes in design in the past ten years, Human Revolution is better than it had any right to be. It does a far better job at satisfying the old and new fans than Fallout 3, whose mainstream success was bought largely at the cost of the old veterans. It’s good to see Deus Ex again, cybernetic warts and all.

Cross-posted at the Game Design Guild.

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