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How Deus Ex Creates a Believable World

All of these factors culminate in creating a very well-made and believable world worth looking into, which has fascinated many people who have experienced it.

November 27, 2023

8 Min Read

Deus Ex might just be one of my favorite games of all time. Even though there are many reasons for that, I believe one of the main factors is the world that Deus Ex creates, and today we will be talking about how Deus Ex managed to create this believable world.

To avoid major spoilers, I mostly took examples from the first few hours of the game in case there are still people who haven’t fully played it, but there are still spoilers here. You have been warned.

-Environmental Storytelling

Whether it is the distinct designs ranging from advanced places like UNATCO to messy places like the streets of New York, the attention to detail put into these places, or the many secrets that are hidden within, Deus Ex creates a detailed world that intrigues the players.

Even in the tutorial, the game starts giving players clues about the game world by showing them characters like Walton Simons and even a short conversation with Bob Page.

Walton Simons (on the left) is seen watching JC during the tutorial.

A brief dialogue with Bob Page.

The famous intro of the game further improves on this by sending more clues, even foreshadowing certain things, and giving them a glimpse of the ideals and motivations of certain characters.

Also, during the tutorial, players can see characters walking to change test rooms just like they are, which makes them feel like the characters are also living in this world and have to go around like the player does instead of just teleporting.

This might seem like a really small and inconsequential detail; however, small things like these can make a big difference in a game as they make the world much more believable in the player’s minds.

-Solid Characters and Character Development

This part is really easy to explain. Deus Ex gives its characters a personality and shows it to players every chance it gets. Whether it is small comments other characters make about JC and Paul or JC being a top-class comedian with his dialogues and remarks, they feel like real people who have traits, personalities, lives, etc. Throughout the game, players can easily see how JC’s perception of the world around him changes as he starts uncovering more secrets.

-Fake Open-World Feeling

Instead of sending players from one mission to another every time, Deus Ex does something very clever by having a base of operations that players come back to after completing some missions, which simulates the feeling of an open-world game, as that’s usually what happens in them: get a quest, go there, do it and come back.

By making players repeat this routine, the game makes them feel like they are venturing out into the world and coming back to claim their rewards, which is a great way to simulate the feeling of an open world while having a linear progression in terms of levels.

-Side Characters Have Interesting Plots

One way to get players involved in side activities is to have compelling narratives given to them. They don’t have to be super complex or unique stories, but I believe that they should be relatable in order to convince players to invest time in them. A good example the game has for this is Sandra and her dad. It is a really simple and basic story that intrigues players enough that they want to experience what it has to offer.

These activities might not have any significant impact on the world but seeing that ordinary people in this world also have their lives affected by the player and the events of the game is very meaningful.

-Your Actions Define You

When all the personality a player character has is dependent on their dialogue choices, players may find that immersion becomes a bit harder since they can just do a 180 and change their playstyle without any consequences. Deus Ex makes it so that the player’s playstyle also matters in building personality for their character, as the approaches they take in the game determine the interactions they are going to have with the characters in the game world. This means that if players want to have a truly pacifist experience, they can’t just kill everyone they see until they come to a big choice and just select the peaceful option; they actually have to play like that. I think this brings a very important aspect to Deus Ex; it makes players feel like they are being watched, which in turn further encourages the idea that this is a real world and the actions they take here MATTER. This puts a big importance on their gameplay, as they now have to play the way they think their character would act, giving them an improved roleplaying experience.

Paul’s reaction when you knock terrorists unconscious instead of killing them.

To add on top of that, originally these choices were planned to lead players into a branching story, so the choices players make would truly have been their actions, but sadly, this was scrapped.

-Having No Right Answer

Warren Spector (the director of the game) himself stated in one of his blogs that one meaning Deus Ex has for him was to answer the question of “What happens when you take a guy who believes the world is black and white and throw him into a world that – like our own – is all shades of gray?”. I believe they did an incredible job at portraying this. After completing the game a couple of times and having read many things about it, I am still not sure what the right thing to do was, and I think nobody knows for sure. I believe that’s the case because there is no right answer to be found. The world they created really is gray, different characters have different beliefs, different motivations, and different ideals, but who knows what would be the best outcome for this world?

-Small Actions Count

Even something as simple as giving a candy bar to a kid can lead to players getting the code for a secret passage, or a liquor given to Jock can be used for foreshadowing and furthering the plot. When a game rewards players for the very little things like these, it makes for a great experience. (A similar example to this could be getting a blessing for giving a gold coin to a beggar in Skyrim.)

However, we should also note that this is a double-edged sword since the player was given no indication by the game from the start that a candy bar was ever going to be useful, and they might have thrown in out for more inventory space, but that’s a subject for another day if I ever decide to do a different analysis on this game.

-Talking to People More than Once

I think the developers did an incredible job with this one right here, the game gives players the essential information, and the dialogue ends. However, players can actually talk to the characters again and learn much more than the tip of the iceberg. The reason I think this is a genius design choice is that it allows different experiences. Players who want to get through everything fast and not question too much can just talk to everyone once and continue, but players who want to get to the bottom of everything can talk with everyone they see and try to understand what is going on. This also rewards curiosity and exploration for those who are seeking to engage more with the lore.

-In Game Lore Items

Deus Ex has a lot of items in-game that can provide players with information. Newspapers, data logs, magazines, and public access points come to mind at first. But we have things like those in most games; what really makes a difference here are the emails.

For players who want to dig even deeper into the lore, they can hack into computers and read emails belonging to other characters. Sometimes this acts as a foreshadowing for many moments that will happen later on. An example would be the email “Watch your back.” Sent by your brother Paul, telling players to look into things.

 Paul Denton’s email to JC.

-The Realism

The events of Deus Ex and its world resonate with players because they take many of their topics and lore points from real-world events and conspiracies. For example, government-made plagues, the Illuminati, surveillance technologies, and so on. This creates a deeper bond between the player and the story, as years later we can still say that we relate to the events happening in the game.


These are just the reasons that are at the top of my head, and there might be many more that I missed. I also didn’t want to go into the later parts of the game for spoiler reasons. But if we are to summarize everything we just talked about, Deus Ex has:

-Rich environmental storytelling with lots of details

-Memorable characters and interactions

-Good enough side plots

-Meaningful choices through gameplay.

-Having a gray world instead of black and white

-A deep story

-Rewarding exploration in terms of lore

All of these factors culminate in creating a very well-made and believable world worth looking into, which has fascinated many people who have experienced it.

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