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Retrospective: Deus Ex, Part 3

A continuation of my look at the original Deus Ex titles leading up to the release of Human Revolution. Moderately deloused of fan-boy if slightly unhinged in detail.

Ivan Beram, Blogger

August 11, 2011

18 Min Read

The Nature of RPGs…

Putting the various story mechanics of Invisible War and their flaws aside, you had no real sense of being a “player” in its world. A player as opposed to a mere “pawn.” 

Screens from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) was good at creating this illusion. Subterfuge, duplicity, betrayal, intrigue… That’s what comes to mind when I think of KOTOR, but not when I think of Invisible War. That there was indeed some moral choice that the player had to make, that how they finished the quest determined how the rest of the game played out – largely shallow in implementation, but still, it did create a strong enough illusion of this for KOTOR.

With Deus Ex, there was some implication that what moral choices you went with – no civilian casualties to, kill-them-all and let the digital God sort them all out – had some baring on how the game progressed. As far as I recall, it really doesn’t. At all. Still, it helped create the illusion of moral depth to the story, and in specific circumstances – to do with themes and story progression – it also varied what experience points you were awarded with, and/or, what items the player received.

Effective to a degree, if, shallow in implementation. Invisible War on the other hand, made no pretense of any of this at all – I don’t even recall it varying player rewards based on actions. It was morally nerfed of all consequence.

Even quests in Invisible War that had the potential of having more depth of meaning to them, failed to provide it. For instance, wipe out an independent family run greenhouse, and, there is no subtext of big business taking out the little guy, or, how having had let them be, you’d be helping the environment recover in the local region; or, a multitude of other messages you could have embedded but the developers didn’t bother to do so.

In fact you can do the quest or not and it doesn’t matter at all one way or the other.

Screens from open-world RPG Morrowind (2003)

Interestingly, Morrowind (2003) that was released around the same time, also really had little in the way of meaningful choice. There was only one main story thread with only one way the game ended. Sure, you could “choose” how to play the game and it had it’s fair share of moments of machinations, but really, it was all the same in the end – of which there was only one way for it to end.

However, it was truly what’s considered to be an “open-world” with a nonlinear structure of sorts.

Its main-story thread had points that needed to be completed in order to progress, in that like any other game – nonlinear or not – it had a clear: start, middle and end. But the in-between points, were up to the player to finish in whatever order they liked. There were also parts of the game, sets of quests, that the player may very well of never completed. This depended on what “house” the player chose to join, what guilds, etc.

So, there was still (the illusion of) choice regardless and an effect to that choice which limited what other quests the player could also play – even if they could effectively defect by switching house or guild; which also provided a moral greyness to the world.  But, I’d say it’s the scope to the game world and the quality (for it’s time) of the narrative that ultimately drew the players in; that and the fact that they still got a sense of building a powerful character even if through a dated RPG system reliant on stat-tweaking and “enchanted” items. And though there may only be one ending to the game, you are still a “messianic” figure in power and reputation by that end.

Which brings me to an important point: ultimately, RPGs are about empowerment.

You rise in rank, gain new skills and better stats. You gain in reputation, in influence and power. And then, it is up to you to decide how to “morally” wield that power. Regardless of the limitations in the RPG system in order to portray the sense that you are actually growing in said power, and, gaining influence; Morrowind and KOTOR both achieved this.

In Invisible War there is no sense that you are anything but a pawn, a tool for others to use to catalyse their plans. You’re a bit player; perhaps a large bit, but a bit nevertheless.

Getting back to Morrowind, it illustrates another aspect that in one shape or form, is found in traditional RPGs. The attainment of wealth as you grow in status (influence). You eventually obtain an estate to house your numerous rare and very valuable trophies, along with, providing a place to stash some of your gold. Of which you’ll easily have in excess of 100,000 – a small fortune in game terms. This “estate” also comes with servants.

This is an in-game tangible and measurable aspect that helps to make up for the lack of meaningful (or limited) choice found in the game world.

This all added up with the progression in factional ranks, and the completion of quests and the experience and loot that is derived from it. Leads to the player feeling that they have a character of influence in the game world; that they’ve accomplished something.

It’s the same with KOTOR, in that you have an estate in the form of a ship that you can upgrade to an extent with new features, namely, new crew members – companions (servants). Which is a good point to expand upon, as this highlights an important ingredient in an RPG mix. Influence. Making the player feel that their actions have real impact upon the game world. That they are not merely being shaped by it but are in turn shaping it.

This is true power, the ability to influence events and those around you in doing so. And the KOTOR companions are an ideal example to illustrate this, and something that was carried on and expanded upon in KOTOR2: The Sith Lords (2004) where you could influence (manipulate) members of your party so as to achieve various goals.

This is best demonstrated if playing a Sith-based “evil” character, where finding the weak points in each companion’s persona, allows you to build a relationship of trust that you can then corrupt so as to utilize them as devices in your own machinations.

After all, a player could opt to do the dirty work for themselves, or flex their influence, and have someone else do it for them. Isn’t that how it is in the underbelly of the real world?

Does a crime boss perform the hit themselves, or, do they get an underling to do it for them? Does a politician dig up the dirt and leak it to the media themselves, or, do they get a staffer to do it for them? Sure, in both cases they could do it themselves and do it well. But, real power is the kind where you can influence others to do it for you – actually, real power comes from knowledge, but, that just gets off the point ;) .

That’s something that the KOTOR series have done extremely well, even if not perfectly. Though for an action RPG you could argue that it doesn’t have to, however, it does have to provide some compelling substitute in creating a similar illusion.

An illusion that Deus Ex crafted for the player but Invisible War did not. That they are a player, not, a pawn in the game world. Maybe factions in the game think this or will attempt to use you as such, but, the player always comes out as the one who uses them as pawns in their own game; this is not the case in Invisible War.

DX’s 3 endings: Merge with Helios (left) Dark Age (middle) Illuminati (right)

And ultimately unlike in Deus Ex, where (in the Helios ending) you can join with the AI to become a powerful demigod – a potent symbol of power manifest. In Invisible War, you merely allow JC “Jesus fucking Christ” Denton to continue on in becoming one. You have a sense that once you’ve played your part, your part is over with.

History will not remember you.

This could have been fixed to a degree, by allowing the player put in play their own ending – the best I found in this regard, was an alternate renegade ending, where you side with the Omar; 1 of 4 possible endings not counting the “secret” rap-party ending. An ending that in some ways empowers you with the glory of being the one who ushers in a new era, even if NO one will remember you, and, it is not an immediate “positive” outcome.

IW’s 3 catalyst endings: ApostleCorp (left) Illuminati (middle) Templar (right)

However, you need to lay the foundation for this early on, at least if you want the player to feel like they are involved in the story rather than merely an observer. Otherwise this and other “options” will feel like they were tacked on, that they have no basis, no credibility; and in Invisible War, you can pretty much decide up until the last moment which one of these endings you’ll go with – no matter what you’ve done or decided in the past.

Regardless, the example renegade ending hardly lets the player put into play their own ending, they’re still merely a catalyst. It merely lets you set the stage for the rise of an evolved “Omar” humanity, hardened by 200 years of war, ready to expand into the bleakest corners of the universe – OK, I admit it, that’s kinda cool.

An effective ending is one where the player feels responsible for this great event, this great change. However, they aren’t merely just it’s catalyst. One insignificant bit in many insignificant bits. Not a means to an end, but they are, the end. Narcissistic but effective.

That’s how you create compelling RPG: suspension of disbelief… Well, for the “story” part.

The Nature of Action RPGs…

Now, you might misconstrue from previous comments that I think that not being able to earn experience in an RPG, is a bad thing. You’d be wrong.

Leveling-up can be tedious, and the skill system, can be awfully counter-intuitive and frustrating. What I mean by this is best illustrated by the Deus Ex weapon system. In order to use a weapon, you need to have attained a level in it. The more levels you attain the more accurate your shots with that weapon and more effective in way of damage they are – and a bunch of other things.

But to make it clear, if you don’t have a level in that weapon, you don’t get to use it.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have a weapon skills system, but, I can think of better ways to implement it – passive for the player, rather than active. Plus, as a player gains actual experience with the weapons controls and mechanics, their shots are going to get better and more effective anyway – so, you can argue that such a system, even with it’s benefits, is on the redundant-side.

Skill system screens in: Deus Ex (left), System Shock 2 (middle), Invisible War (right)

The shortcomings of such a system, are probably better illustrated via System Shock 2 (1999). Which for the life of me, I have no idea why they bothered to implement any form of archaic RPG system – considering that the System Shock (1994) lacked one.

In order to use a weapon, you literally had to have a skill level in it – though, some also had a minimum strength, or some other attribute requirement as well. You couldn’t use a weapon until you had. Think about that. You may have never of fired a gun in your life, but, you’ve seen and read enough media in order to understand the fundamentals. Without much effort, you could figure out how to load a gun, how to chamber a round, how to take the safety off, how to aim it at your target and how to fire a round off at your target.

That doesn’t mean that you’ll hit your target or that you’ll be able to maintain it and fix it if broken – these take experience, take skill and technical knowledge.

That’s logical, yet System Shock 2 is adamant that you can do none of these things until you learn the basics and reach level one of that weapon type – eg pistol. Until you do, it’s whacking things with a crowbar until you can. Though I’ll quickly state that this isn’t the worst of it, the worst, is the ridiculous rate at which guns deteriorate until useless – and even later titles seem to want to make this mistake – Fallout 3 (2008).

All the game weapons need to be maintained, and in a survival horror, I can see how that could be an interesting mechanic. But a “good” gun, within a few shots, can degrade to being nothing more effective other than a paperweight to throw at the deranged technological mutants as you squeal like a little girl in fright.

Yes, the game is good, but, the original System Shock was a great action (sci-fi horror) RPG that actually had no RPG system. It had something far, far better, and what to a degree, is implemented in Deus Ex and carried on through to Invisible War. Unfortunately, it was taken a little too far in other respects, specifically, to do with weapons.

Now, you might say that that is just a bad weapons system, not a bad RPG skills and rank system. You’d be right. However, let me provide another example, one to do with “balance” for lack of a better word. This example is from Morrowind as it’s from roughly the same time as Invisible War.

Early on in the game whilst exploring the wilderness around the first town you come to in the game, I came across a giant rat – actually, I came across all manner of numerous creatures who’s only course of action was to relentlessly attack me, even if, I had no intention of doing the same to them. Here I am, I’d managed to score some clothes and a few bits of basic armour; more importantly, I’d gotten my hands onto a sword. I’d gained enough experience from basic quests in order to level up a few times.

Yet, a giant rat without any armour or weapons, was handing me my arse. Of all things, I was killed by a giant rat!

Yes, in time I’d leveled-up to a point and gained enough skill in various weapons, where all I had to do was stare at a giant rat and it would die from shock, but, that’s not the point. My point, is that I don’t care how big the rat is. If you have armour and a sword, well… any yokel will know how to stab and slash with a sword so as to either drive it off, or, to slay the “mighty” furry beast.

The traditional RPG system, has a rather warped sense of balance, one that later RPGs, like Oblivion (2006), do address but potentially at a price to other aspects of the game.

However, games like Morrowind and Oblivion, are open-world RPGs, not, action RPG. They can get away with utilizing some – quite a lot actually – dated game systems, limitations and all, as long as, the (moral) story and (character) narrative mechanics are strong enough, sophisticated enough, to overcome them.

Jade Empire (2006) an interesting premise with poor storytelling = lackluster gaming

When they’re not, like in Jade Empire (2006), it becomes all too evident how clunky it can be, even if as at the heart of it, the gameplay was essentially the same turn-based system utilizing RPG dice-rolls and character stats, as found in KOTOR 1 & 2. Unfortunately, what Jade Empire was striving to be, was an action RPG, not an open-world RPG driven by a strong narrative, but a world driven by strong action combat.

The dated systems they utilized, failed at the task of creating the action gameplay that the subject material demanded, resulting in the narrative, being far too weak to bare the burdensome legacy of such systems – if the story were stronger, or, the action gameplay systems more progressive, this wouldn’t have been the case.

Granted, it’s not as bad in Deus Ex. Traditional RPG systems with their strong roots to their “pen and paper” pasts, even if relics, can be good at covering up other shortcomings within a game, like really terrible AI which due to it’s simplicity, actually limits gameplay options available to the player.

Regardless, when a dated RPG system does work – due to strong “interactive” storytelling – it does so by imposing limitations upon other systems and mechanics of the game.

For instance, though Invisible War has improved AI – though coming across as very linear and heavily scripted – its stealth is still largely based on stats and random numbers rather than on a more sophisticated AI vision and hearing system; among other genre contextual aspects required for effective stealth-gameplay modeling.

Stealth, sneaking past a guard even though you’re in plain sight, that kind of thing still occurring in “modern” action titles of that time, just broke my “suspension of disbelief.”Still, I’d prefer this than to Deus Ex’s AI that on seeing the player, charged right at them constantly attacking – I’ve read that it’s common practice for modern armies to provide their soldiers with amphetamines, but, this is just ridiculous

However, in Deus Ex’s case, the interactive storytelling was strong enough to “overcome” these limitations – poorly modeled action gameplay. In Invisible War’s case, it was not.

Still you also need to factor in timing, in that Deus Ex could get away with clunky (dated) gameplay, but a more “modern” title like Invisible War, couldn’t. Which may have been one of the reasonings for ditching it altogether, however, you can’t simply just remove something and not have an adequate progressive replacement for it when it comes to modeling action gameplay.

In that if the story isn’t compelling enough, then the gameplay sure as hell better be; and this is still the case for action RPGs, that often, lack the other compelling motivators of their open-world counterparts: companions (servants) to manage and manipulate, a growing estate that “physically” demonstrates their level of influence in the game world, and, a growing wealth of in-game money and stash of items.

These are measurable aspects of the player’s progression in rank and power.

Something that action RPGs provide via stronger tangible world-interaction, almost if not, to a sandbox degree – real-time and dynamic (kinda). As they grow in abilities, in skills, they can apply that power by directly influencing the game world to a greater degree. To a greater degree of freedom. Which brings us back to choice, and how this is a carefully created illusion, that you need to effectively create in order to have a successful title.

Especially for the savvy and frugal gamer of today.


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