Connect with us

Games

Games That Changed Our Lives: ‘Deus Ex’ and the Joy of Freedom

It may not be perfect, but Deus Ex is still a blueprint for gaming freedom.

Published

on

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.

Guido Pellegrini was born in Spain. At the age of three, he decided that Europe would not be the only continent to endure him. He traveled to Argentina and spent his childhood there, confusing his classmates with his strange Spanish accent. Several years later, just when he was getting the hang of Argentinean, he set his sights on California, where he would annoy a host of new classmates with his awkward English. In particular, his classmates were stumped on Argentina's actual location, and estimates ranged from Europe to Asia and even Africa. Almost never, however, South America. As Guido became older, he finally began to master the English language, until he became nostalgic for emigration, of all things, and moved again, now back to Argentina, where Guido has continued to confuse and annoy his classmates and acquaintances, who now struggle with his Spanish-Argentine-American hybrid accent and word usage. At any rate, he's technically a journalist with an English major. You know, the worst.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. The Oohboi

    June 1, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    Great article. In an industry trying to make games wider and wider (Both literally and symbolically), Deus Ex still feels more open than most other “open world games”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Advertisement

Games

Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

Published

on

Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

Continue Reading

Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

Published

on

Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

Continue Reading

Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Published

on

Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending