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Deus Ex

So a few weeks ago I let Shamus know that I quoted him in my post, and he responded. And I gotta say, I think I actually hyperventilated a bit when I saw that Shamus Young took interest in my own blog post.

I’m quite a fan of Shamus’s blog. I don’t know if I’ve ever given him any praise for this, but he’s played a large part in influencing me and inspiring me to make my own blog. He’s been doing his thing for years now, and he has so many fans that all he had to do was add a donate button to his site to get enough money to pay his bills and fund a trip to PAX. My blog is only four months old, and I’m nowhere near what one might call famous, so I kind of feel like an amateur filmmaker who just got complimented by Christopher Nolan.

</fanboy>

Anyway, so then he said it would be interesting if I wrote a post relating my reactions and impressions to Deus Ex, since I said I just played it last year. I’ve actually been planning on writing a post about Deus Ex for a long time now, but I’ve been putting it off and every once in awhile making failed attempts to write it all this time because I have a lot of good things to say about it and it’s hard to put it all into words.

But I figure that at this point most of you have already heard a lot of great things about the game (and if you haven’t, you could probably just google “Deus Ex review” right now). So I could talk about how the setting and story are amazing, and how the blend of action and RPG is perfect, and how the ending will make you contemplate the nature of humanity, and how it’s so much fun to sneak around in shadows and lightsaber-backstab guards to death like a Jedi ninja, but that’s a lot of effort that would basically go to waste. Instead I’m going to talk about one aspect of Deus Ex that probably affected me more than anyone else, something I found so amazing that it sets Deus Ex apart from any other game I’ve ever played.

There’s something about story-focused games that always bothers the hell out of me, and since I’ve never heard this complaint from anyone else I’m assuming it’s more of a personal problem. In almost all games that have story, the story and the gameplay are always walled off in separate times, and practically in separate worlds. The gameplay is the filler, and the story is the framework. Gameplay is meat, story is bread.

I’ll use two examples to illustrate my point: Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto 4. Both are games that feature good stories, and both of them bothered the hell out of me for the same reason.

Whenever a cutscene starts in GTA 4, you get to learn more about protagonist Niko Bellic and the people he meets. It tells a compelling story and it tells the story well. The dialogue is very well written, and the cinematography and visuals are stylized. You can tell that the cutscene designers of GTA 4 understand the language of cinema. Niko Bellic is a very tragic character and he has some of the strongest character development you’ll ever find in a game.

Then the cutscene ends, and the game changes from “GTA 4: The Tragic Story of a Man Trying to Escape his Past” to “GTA 4: Whiz-Bang Wacky Murdering Fun Times.” It’s hard to empathize with Niko once he’s run over 50 pedestrians on his way to work, and suddenly his character seems a lot less gripping.

Mass Effect and its sequel are both games that bugged me the same way. Both of those games give you a myriad of choices that you can make, but all of those choices are made in dialogue. You’ll enter a cutscene where Shepherd is talking to an NPC, and then a few dialogue options pop up and you pick one or the other. Once you go back into the gameplay, you’re in a consequence-free environment. The enemies and the allies are set in stone and you kill the bad guys to get from point A to point B. Once again, it’s like you’re switching constantly between “Epic Space Adventure with Moral Quandries” and “Epic Shooting Rampage D-Luxe.”

This is a common problem with games; the story and the gameplay should go hand-in-hand, but instead they’re separated like east and west Berlin in the Cold War. It ends up feeling like the gameplay is filler for the story; like I’m watching a movie that has very long and frequent intermissions to let me run around and shoot stuff. Maybe some people like that, but I don’t. I’d like to have the gameplay intertwined with the story.

Which, of course, brings us back to Deus Ex.

I’m going to summarize an early mission in Deus Ex for you. Terrorists have taken several civilians hostage in a subway station. It’s your job to resolve the conflict and then enter the subway train to get to your next mission where your brother (who’s also a secret agent) will brief you on your next mission. There are several ways this can play out, and I’ll summarize the ones I know about:

  • You sneak in through ventilation ducts and kill each of the terrorists without killing the hostages. Then you enter the train and show up on the other side of the city, where your brother will congratulate you on a job well done.
  • You shoot an exploding barrel which causes a chain reaction of explosions that kills the terrorists and the hostages in the station (and you if you’re not standing back). You then enter the train and show up in the next area, where your brother will scold you for being reckless. Then your character counters his argument by saying that the UNATCO regulations clearly state that you can’t let anything stand in the way of your mission, including civilians. Regardless, he’ll tell you to be more careful next time.
  • You sneak past the terrorists and the hostages and get on the train, and arrive in the next area where your brother will ask you why the hell you ignored the situation back there. Your character then says that this mission is more important and that he has his priorities set, and your brother will reluctantly tell you your next mission.

This is just one of the many, many examples of how your actions in-game will affect the story. Yeah, what you do in that sequence won’t change the storyline in the grand scheme of things, but the important part is that it fleshes out your character and makes him more three-dimensional.

But most importantly, it means that the gameplay is no longer filler for the story. The gameplay is the story. The game features no cutscenes (besides the very beginning and the very end) and the only time you lose control of your character is during dialogue, which is pretty much necessary. All of the action occurs in-game, and virtually all of it is avoidable if you play the cards right. And people will treat you very differently depending on what you choose to do during the game. It forces you to think about the ramifications of your in-game actions, instead of just entering no-think mode once the cutscene ends.

This isn’t the only game that’s connected its gameplay and story in such a way. I know there was a point in Call of Duty: World at War in which you had the option to save either your captain or some other person in your team during a firefight, and that made the game feel a bit more fleshed out, I guess. I’m sure there are more examples I could think of if I pondered it more. But I’ve never played a game that’s done it to such a strong degree as Deus Ex.

If it weren’t for the whole gameplay-story integration, I probably would have just considered Deus Ex “good but not great.” Or even “great but not in my top 5.” But because of its innovative approach to storytelling I see it as miles better than any other game I’ve ever played.

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7 responses

  1. Pingback: Ninja Game Den: New Retro Gaming - Twenty Sided

  2. Davro

    You are most definitely not the only one who hates the dichotomy between story and gameplay that so many developers seem to take for granted. I’ve leveled the same complaint against every Final Fantasy past 6, and I totally agree that even if a game tells a great story, it’s not as good as a game that lets the player tell a great story through their actions. If all I wanted to do was watch, I’d hit up the TV or go to the theater.

    May 15, 2011 at 11:33 PM

  3. Gabe Glick

    There’s a term for what you’re describing: ludonarrative dissonance. Do a Google search for that and you’ll see a number of articles discussing it.

    Also: good post :)

    May 16, 2011 at 4:41 AM

  4. I get fed up with this kind of thing in games, too. I realize that it’s more difficult to make various things “reactive”–more things for your engine to track, more ways that bizarre bugs can be introduced, etc. etc. etc., but it really makes for some serious cognitive dissonance when it feels like 99% of the people you meet in Dragon Age 2 CANNOT TELL that you are a mage even though you just cast a bunch of spells right in front of them, even though you’re wearing mage robes and carrying a big ol’ mage staff . . . it’s just WEIRD.

    May 16, 2011 at 8:00 AM

  5. Shamus is The Dude

    May 16, 2011 at 3:30 PM

  6. John

    Yah, all hail Shamus. Now he’s got me reading your stuff too. Just keep writing about what matters to you, and you’ll do fine. Might take a few years to reach his kind following though :)

    May 17, 2011 at 3:46 AM

  7. Pingback: Thanksgiving | Mythgamer

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