Going over the top!
I’ve been playing Deus Ex for the first time as part of the Vintage Game Club, although I haven’t really been keeping up with the conversation (I’m always a level or two behind everyone else). I’m about halfway through the game, and while I can appreciate the many things that DX does right, I’m still getting kinda bored.
What is it with stories in games that they have to be so over the top? Deus Ex is hailed as an important milestone in game writing, but still it is so unsubtle. The bad guys are so stereotypically bad, complete with awful eastern european accents. There are conspiracies within conspiracies, Majestic, the Illuminati, some rogue AI, genetic experiments, aliens…. I can’t keep track of who is who anymore, and I’ve stopped caring.
The IF scene is the one place where interesting story-telling seems to go on in games. I guess this is because IF writing is still simple enough that a writer can make a game on their own, and thus exercise some creative control.
To make up for this negativity, some things DX does right:
The Level design. Most of the maps feel like real places not just like arbitrary ‘levels’ with ‘cover’ here and ‘sniper hole’ there. At the same time, they are effective playgrounds for stealth or combat. In this way, they provide what I like to call ‘the Die Hard effect’ — that is they give us the opportunity to re-imagine our everyday spaces as tactical opportunities which charges my imagination.
The Level design again. The levels are big enough that exploration is fun and rewarding without falling into the trap of open-world design with its associated feeling of aimlessness. There are always a number of different ways to complete a level and (to me) they manage to avoid feeling scripted. This balance between heavy-handedness and aimlessness is hard to strike.
The Level design again. Revisiting familiar places – the UNATCO base, Battery Park, Hell’s kitchen – and seeing them evolve as the plot progresses adds something special. For example, returning to the Med Clinic after the riots and finding it broken and abandoned gives more impact to the plot than just being told about the riots. This is not done as well as it might be — there is perhaps not enough change for me to really feel a different atmosphere — but even the attempt is worth praise. Strategically, this also breathes new life into the level-solving skills the player gained on their first pass through, using them against a different enemy.
The little things There are small cosmetic elements that still have the potential for interesting emergent game effects: flocks of birds that take off when you’re near (possibly alerting guards), real working mirrors (why did these never catch on?), civilians having meaningful interactions with the space (and who panic appropriately when there is gunfire).