Now that I’m almost 30 and have a full-time job, there is one element of my young adulthood that seems to be absolutely alien, as foreboding and dangerous as any xenomorph: four-month-long vacations, an expanse of wasted time with nothing to do. Nowadays, returning to my one-room apartment after 12 hours of busyness, my memories of summer ennui appear like visions of heaven. That is, until I remember how miserable I felt back then, the guilt and stress of being unproductive in a culture that prizes the opposite. Thankfully, I had video games and empty weeks to abandon myself to their virtual worlds. Of course, growing up with consoles and somehow managing to avoid the entire role-playing genre, I had a poor idea of what a virtual world could be. Then I found two games that shifted my personal paradigm: one was Ocarina of Time, which I’ve written about before; and the other, to seal the deal, was Deus Ex.
Growing up, I had already fantasized about wandering in modern or futuristic cities. I had willfully gotten lost in A Mind Forever Voyaging, a text adventure from the 1980s that has you explore a simulated town. I had hidden in a storm drain in Perfect Dark’s Chicago: Stealth level, listening to the rainfall, wishing the map were bigger than three blocks. I had pretended Goldeneye’s St. Petersburg: Street mission is not a hideous labyrinth of washed-out textures and ridiculous draw-distances. In each case, for one reason or another, my fantasy had remained out of reach.
Until I booted up Deus Ex and made my way to New York, then Shanghai, and eventually Paris. These are not exactly photo-realistic settings, especially by current standards, but they are vast, interconnected, complex urban spaces with secret rooms and labs; vents and locked doors and derelict boats in shadowy canals; philosophical bartenders and midnight squalor and decadence; sudden gang fights in subway entrances and dancers who can’t stop, won’t stop at packed nightclubs.
Deus Ex has other treasures, now clichéd but once fresh and exciting: random notes left behind by city dwellers, detailing the contents and passcodes for nearby safes and lockers; newspaper clippings with exposition and context, strewn in the streets or judiciously placed on office tables; branching dialogue trees with both important or ancillary characters; and, of course, a lysergic storyline that hobbles together every conceivable conspiracy theory, from covered-up alien visitations to viral infections produced by Big Pharma and cadres of powerful men that secretly control world affairs, also known as the Majestic 12, a splinter faction of the Illuminati.
The game’s most enduring feature, however, is its gameplay, which gives players two or ten solutions for every objective. Already in the opening scenario, they can either infiltrate the terrorist-laden Statue of Liberty like a noisy bulldozer or a crafty cockroach. The Dishonored franchise has since turned this innovation into a convention, but it was Deus Ex that made it popular, expanding upon the earlier Thief games. Unlike Dishonored, though, players never feel like super-powered, teleporting gods in Deus Ex. Sneaking around often requires patient and dignity-crushing crawling, waiting for (admittedly stupid) guards to leave their occipital lobes open to sudden and incapacitating baton strikes. There are augmentations, science fiction’s answer to superpowers, but all require some finesse to use. With great physical strength comes greater responsibility to actually land a melee strike, while Usain Bolt-worthy sprints are pointless without a clear evasive plan. Deus Ex’s dodgy controls add an element of challenge to even the most tricked-out character build. And also unlike Dishonored, in Deus Ex the violent route can be terribly boring, thanks to unsatisfying gunplay. This is still a role-playing game, not just a shooter with stats.
Except maybe it’s both, or more, at once. As its director, Warren Spector, wrote for Game Developer magazine, it mixes traits from first-person shooters, role-playing games, and adventure games in an effort to accept players as “collaborators” and “put power back in their hands, ask them to make choices, and let them deal with the consequences of those choices.” Above all else, Deus Ex is about “player expression.” Letting them pick between different genre experiences is an extension of that. So are the Swiss cheese city maps, full of crevices, holes, and caches. In Deus Ex, cities may be hard to rationalize or mentally grasp, but they’re sublime to navigate. There are echoes here, perhaps, of what Michel de Certeau writes in his The Practice of Everyday Life, in which he draws a distinction between “places” and “spaces.” A street, geometrically defined, only becomes a “space” when it’s intervened by pedestrians. His formula is: a space is a place put into practice. How we understand and configure our surroundings is not only based on the rational, mapped layout but also on our lived-in, daily experience.
This tension, between the city map and the personal paths pedestrians draw through it, is unique in a video game because video game cities are not made for living but for traveling. In other words, they’re not realistic and they shouldn’t be. As Spector realized during development: “How interesting is most of the real world as a gaming environment? The answer was a tough-to-swallow ‘not very.’ Hotels and office buildings aren’t great game spaces. And we were a bit naïve in thinking we could create a believable environment that didn’t include many such locations.” Game developers understand that virtual spaces are meant for interaction and appropriation, so they construct their digital worlds accordingly. Signposting and other architectural hints try to guide players down certain paths, but players will still try to circumvent, bend, or at least test the rules. It’s like the field of user experience in web design, which predicts or sketches out probable user journeys, except far more complicated. How do players play virtual cities? Not even the designers know all the answers.
Deus Ex moved away from the corridors of earlier video game environments, which restricted unruly pedestrian activity, and gave players more leeway to be themselves. Even the conspiracy narrative is a continuation of this theme. After all, what are conspiracy theories if not user-generated histories, removed from official academic, governmental, or journalistic accounts? Sure, in our age of post-truth and alternative facts, which can even dictate state policy, conspiracy theories have lost much of their utopian stick-it-to-the-man charm. But Deus Ex was created during the late 1990s, when The X-Files was all the rage and the internet was still a promising anarchic arena and not the shopping mall it’s become.
What this game provided, then, was sheer possibility. That’s what shook my mind one summer, waiting for Fall Quarter to begin in college. And the stretch of time I had available, insufferable as it could sometimes be, did allow me to immerse myself in this sheer possibility: exploring dialogue choices or narrative tangents, becoming entangled in side quests, wasting hours with reading material in virtual bookshelves, practicing augmented skills and character improvements, and piecing together the convoluted cyberpunk lore. Nowadays, my time is more segmented and organized. It’s more difficult to escape from my weekly Excel-sheet logic. When I play a video game, I often rush to the ending, hoping to reach a conclusion so I can move on to the next title, sitting undownloaded in my backlog.
Against all this, Deus Ex remains a call to relax and let sheer possibility have its way. It changed how I thought about games and game objectives, no longer linear paths from starting point to goal but rather hexagonal ice formations, columns and needles of potential movement going in different directions. Its age hasn’t affected its core values. On the contrary, its relative lack of polish is a reminder that our current age – in which AAA titles need an army of programmers and artists, and generous wads of money, just to conceive a room with all assets exhibiting insane levels of fidelity – can be tremendously stifling. It may not be perfect, but Deus Ex is still a blueprint for gaming freedom.