Deus Ex: Taking a balanced approach between emotion and gameplay
In the mid-beginning of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a newly restored Spock is asked a series of questions by a computer. Of all the intricate questions, he fails to answer a very simple one, ‘how do you feel?’ Perplexed by this, he explains to his mother Amanda that he doesn’t understand the question because it is irrelevant.
Now what does this scenario have to do with Deus Ex? It is not the entirety of the scene that is important, but what Spock said about feelings is. Feelings are illogical; what I feel is personal and therefore subjective. I could feel intensely afraid and conclude the world is dangerous, so I refuse to leave my house. Rationality is going down the aisle, past the altar, and out the door.
This isn’t any different when it comes to gaming. When I talk about some of my favourite games, it is usually a qualitative statement. ‘I felt this way when I did this;’ or ‘I can’t believe they let me play through that!’ I’m not really thinking about the specific mechanics that lead to these conclusions. I am projecting myself into this world and living those moments. It is all about emotion, and I’m not surprised that I think an unearthly amount about it in games.
At last year’s GDC, Richard Rouse III; now of Ubisoft Montreal analyzed five ingredients to make people cry while playing a video game.
I’m going out on a limb here; I think he’s right and wrong. While I care about how story content is presented and the emotions that good games can provoke; at the same time, I won’t take it sitting down if the game developer fails to create good gameplay and tweak poor game mechanics. By developing a game entirely around content presentation, the ‘game’ part becomes obsolete. For example, Xenosaga Episode 1 is a JRPG with a heavy emphasis on story. The thing is riveting, a thrill to watch; spaceships firing off their massive space cannons, frantic yelling and running; people dying. It was epic. But are you ‘playing’ Xenosaga Episode 1? To put it bluntly, this ‘game’ is one long cut scene with 20 to 50 minutes of gameplay segments scattered throughout. It doesn’t mean Xenosaga was a bad product, just unbalanced in its approach.
On the flipside, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has a thin veneer of a ‘story;’ but you can explore the world for maybe 100 hours and still not be able to finish spelunking all those 200+ caves. Who is this Martin Septim and why should I care; is what I thought at the end of the day. What is in Oblivion’s favour, is the player interacts with the world all the time. Is the overall writing better? No, but story is not the reason I enjoy this game.
If given a choice between the two, I would choose Oblivion because I value player agency over passive narrative. However, I am still losing out. Call it choice between two lesser evils.
Then I found Deus Ex.
Deus Ex is not a perfect game; AI is not fantastic. I spent a lot of time hiding in man-sized vents and taking potshots at the enemy; while they ran around unsuccessfully trying to find me. Characters would yell at you for hacking their computers in front of them, but nothing of real consequence would happen. It was charming to interact with characters with all the dimensions of a piece of paper, even the ones that I liked. But through it all, it was about the most balanced game I’ve played; both in gameplay and narrative. This is not an achievement to be scoffed at.
As the above examples show, Xenosaga and Oblivion sit at the extremes of a genre currently divided by its ‘need’ to tell a story and provide compelling gameplay.
Deus Ex proved you can have both. You can evoke the kinds of emotions that taut storytelling can provide, as well as gameplay that an open world gamer like me prefers.
One feature of Deus Ex is that the game allows you to tackle all gameplay problems in whatever style you wish. You may choose to stealth your way through; hack every camera and lock; take the path of least resistance; or combine all three major approaches. By giving the player that freedom, it ensures that player agency is front and centre. But within this freestyle game, the player must also walk a set narrative path. There is no way you can decide to stay with UNATCO for example.
One small wrinkle in the narrative is where you need to decide the fate of a game character. One-third through, the main character’s brother Paul needs to be bailed out. Due to events that happened previously, you know that he won’t last the night. You can do one of two things; a) take his advice and leave immediately or b) see if you can’t defend him from his attackers. Taking his advice, I left through the window; not really thinking about the situation too much.
It really is a minor event in the game. If Paul lives, he appears two more brief times in the game. If he dies, he’s written off in a way that he is not missed. Nothing is gained or lost mechanically. The story remains the same.
So he died in my game.
Something strange happened, I started killing. Up until that point, I took a non-lethal approach. There was a level of gamism in my approach to playing Deus Ex initially. I realized that non-lethal gameplay is overall more awarded. This isn’t any different than learning that sparing the Little Sisters in Bioshock is preferable—it is patting the player on the back for taking the alternative path and not succumbing to the common method of combat and conflict resolution presented in games.
There was an element of catharsis. I held myself back up this point and it was a torrent of emotion when I popped my first victim. But I was trying to figure out if my new behaviour was also because I had earned a significant amount of empathy for Paul, which was admirable since the times when he is directly in the game are limited.
I didn’t like the fact that he was ‘dead.’ I was ‘robbed’ of something I couldn’t pin down. It made me feel empty and sad.
When I replayed Deus Ex after I completed it the first time, I decided to save Paul and it wasn’t the same feeling. I connected a qualitative emotion to his death, which I couldn’t when he was still alive.
I felt that Paul’s death in my first play through was ‘right.’ It had to happen in order for me to be committed to see JC’s mission through. The freeform gameplay meant I could express all those emotions that came with his death. Through the bursts of gunfire, I blasted home how I felt. With every hacked turret; I announced myself.
The result was the most satisfying game experience I ever had. The question is why can’t more games be like this?