Make Your Own Ending: Reflections on the role of Deus Ex in the gaming world

I consider myself to be an avid PC gamer. Not in the sense of having played some PC games, but in the sense of being a hobbyist – following gaming news, checking in on games in development, reading PC Gamer magazine regularly, and so on. Accordingly, I spend a lot of time thinking about how PC gaming (and video gaming as a whole) has developed over the past 20 years, and where it is heading now.

Right now, on my lap, I’m holding a shrink-wrapped copy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game that I thought I would never see. Before I played it, even a bit, I thought it’d be nice to get my thoughts down, knowing that once I booted it up, I’d be likely to get sucked in for quite awhile.

The original Deus Ex is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, video game that has ever been made as of 2011. It’s a game that profoundly showed what video games, as a medium, were capable of doing and communicating. It remains largely unknown outside of PC gaming circles, despite having been ported to the PS2 and having a decent (though admittedly lackluster) sequel. In fact, I once told my parents that I had been playing a game called Deus Ex, and they thought I said “Day Sex” and were fairly concerned as to what the game was about! For the uninitiated, the game was released in 2000, and has a pretty good Wikipedia entry, so I point you there.

11 years is a long time to wait for a sequel (in this case, a prequel) that is up to the standards of the original. I’ve only read the PC Gamer review of this game, not yet played it myself, but they called it theDeus Ex of our time, which leaves me full of hope. After I finish this note, I’ll be plunging back into that world itself, and hoping it’s as good a ride as the first one – or at least close.

My fiancé has asked me what was so important, or special, about this game, and I’ve had a hard time explaining it. I tried to explain why the first Deus Ex is such an important game, held in such high regard among PC gamers. Ultimately, though, my admiration for the original comes down to a few points.

First, it was a game that lived up to the title of “Mature”. In our current day and age, if a game is advertised as “Mature”, I think we automatically link that to violence, sex, and depravity. For instance, the poster child of “Mature” games – the Grand Theft Auto series – can be, and often is, a wanton murder simulator where you can kill people at random on the street. (Of course, GTA IV is also a terrific narrative about coming to America, an engrossing criminal drama, and a hell of a fun game, but you’d never think that based on some popular media descriptions of it…)

Deus Ex is perhaps the most “Mature” game I’ve ever played, thoughBioShock was also fairly heavy. I certainly wouldn’t want a 9-year old playing the first Deus Ex at that age. And violence has very little with my reasons why. The original Deus Ex asked profound questions and offered profound amounts of freedom. It asked hard questions about how we govern each other, how we should govern each other, and ultimately, gave you a choice about how we would govern each other. It put the future under a lens and asked us to think about how the forces acting now would change the world in 50 years. It asked questions about what it meant to be human, and what it meant to be more than human. It was an epic tale that touched on the corrupting power of wealth, the disruptive power of technology, and the future of the human race. In short, it was mature – because it discussed mature, adult questions that profoundly affected me, then and now.

Those of you who have played the original a few times are probably thinking of a certain AI you find in someone’s apartment, which proceeds to have a debate with you about the nature of surveillance and Man’s construction of a God for themselves. All this in a video game, the genre for kids and teenagers, not for meaningful adult activities! Deus Ex is the first game that I played that showed me that video games were not just for kids – that they could be something mature and interesting and engaging that had a place in any person’s life.

Secondly, Deus Ex offered deep tactical freedom in the way people could approach problems. It was designed with an eye toward “emergent gameplay”, which could be snappily described as the chaos theory of video games. In short, emergent gameplay starts with a set of rules, and then lets the player do whatever they want with those rules – solving the challenges of the game any way that they wanted. You could blow up a door, or pick the lock, or hack a computer to open the door, or talk to a guard and get the door key, or…and the list went on and on. People played Deus Ex every way they wanted. Violent, quiet, noisy, pacifist, take your pick. It was even possible to beat the game without killing anyone at all, though you had to exploit a glitch to do a full, 100% no-kill run.

By letting players be free, but managing to tie a narrative to them,Deus Ex managed to merge two very different things in a functional way. The fundamental paradox of gaming is giving the player the freedom to explore and have fun, while making sure that they follow your story. Some games lean toward freedom over story (Like The Sims, a prime example), while others lean toward story over freedom (Shooters like Medal of HonorCall of Duty, and the other whackamole shooters out there now). Deus Ex blended them together in a revolutionary way, and again changed the way I thought of gaming. It wasn’t a shooter, or an RPG, or an adventure game, or any of that. It was a video game that was an experience.

And now, I’m sitting here with the newest installment on my lap, marveling at how much I’ve changed, and how much gaming has changed, since I first sat down to be J.C. Denton on Liberty Island. Video games, and especially PC gaming, are now more than ever becoming mainstream, and more acceptable in the adult world. Perhaps finally, games like Deus Ex will receive the recognition they deserve for illuminating so many interesting questions about ourselves, our society, and ultimately, our very existence.

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