There’s an old saying in the world of gaming. It’s said that whenever anyone mentions the year 2000 video game Deus Ex, someone who hears it will reinstall the game and play it again. Deus Ex has won enough “best game of all time” awards that if you stacked them on top of each other they’d be as high as the Eiffel Tower. OK, that’s almost definitely not true, but Deus Ex often and repeatedly tops the list of best games to this very day.
Still, it’s been sixteen years since the game first came out. Surely it’s been outdone in every way with new technology and new game designs? To complicate things further, a new Deus Ex game is just around the corner. Every game following the original has had an uphill battle in the face of such a legacy and the newest game, Mankind Divided, has a lot of expectation riding on it. Just why was Deus Ex such an important and acclaimed game? Does it still hold up today? Does Mankind Divided have any hope of tapping into the magic of the original?
That Special Sauce
What exactly made the original Deus Ex so special? At the core of its success you’ll probably find one man: Warren Spector. Spector is a master of role playing game design and branching narratives. Spector had worked with such luminaries as Steve Jackson, where he was associate editor of all Jackson products and worked on the famed GURPS role playing system. Deus Ex Is the game he is best known for, but the magic that would make Deus Ex into the phenomenon it was already existed in his earlier works.
In 1994, six years before the release of Deus Ex, Spector released his game System Shock. Another title largely regarded as groundbreaking and legendary. In fact, the modern Bioshock games are spiritual successors to the System Shock series.
System Shock carried many design genes that would eventually find their way into Deus Ex. You can still buy the original System Shock on various digital storefronts and every person with an interest in the history of gaming or game design should definitely play it at least once. It’s an incredibly educational experience, but as a game System Shock has not held up well. It’s incredibly clumsy and complicated to work with. Luckily a remastered version with a new engine and interface is in the works, so a new generation of gamers should have the privilege of experiencing the game soon.
Deus Ex’s genre, on the other hand, isn’t hard to describe. It’s a first-person shooter with strong role-playing elements. It’s not the first game to fall in that genre and as we just saw not even the first from its principle creator to do so. If we look at all the elements of Deus Ex, there’s nothing here that’s really new. It’s not about the ingredients themselves, but in how they are woven together to create something greater than the sum of their parts.
The key ingredients of Deus Ex are narrative and world-building. Spector and his team built an interesting world and then wrote stories within it that could draw you in. Even by today’s video game standards the writing in Deus Ex is strong. It uses bold themes of conspiracy and technological dystopia to great effect. The same narrative elements that made The X-Files and Blade Runner so popular. It also helped that the game released shortly after the global phenomenon that was The Matrix. That film fueled a global hunger for techno-thriller, mind-bending and twist-infused sci-fi. The main character, JC Denton, even evoked the image of Neo from the Matrix. Aesthetically the game’s art style and design language was perfectly timed for the tastes of the times.
The setting aside, the other compelling thing about Deus Ex was its nonlinear structure. The degree of choice the player has when it comes to tackling their mission objectives was unprecedented at the time. It’s entirely possible to play the game as a pacifist who only uses non-lethal weapons. You can decide to play it as a straight stealth experience, where no enemy will ever catch sight of you. If you want to be Rambo or you’re JG, well you can play like Rambo. Focusing on big guns and maximum destruction is always an option. The player can also be adaptable and change their tactics as the game demands and as they think is best.
Really, the word “choice” probably describes the entire package of Deus Ex the best. Every choice you made had some sort of impact on the game. The words “choice” and “consequence” where to guiding lights during the development of the game and it shows when you play it. It’s especially the moral choices that can come back and haunt you later. From beginning to end, Deus Ex forces you to think. Doom certainly never did that and even linear, story driven masterpieces such as Half Life don’t do it. That actually brings up another good point. The original Half-Life came out two years before Deus Ex. That game basically ushered in the modern idea of a first-person shooter that actually had story as a core component. It basically hailed the end of shooters like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D and the first Quakes. When we talk about 90s first-person shooters we may as well be talking about games that precede the first Half Life. Remember that the System Shock games may well have been first-person, but they were not shooters first and RPGs second. Games like System Shock could exist alongside games like Doom. Half Life rendered them effectively obsolete. That is why now, modern takes on 90s shooters are invariably referred to as having “retro” gameplay.
Two years after all of this genre-shifting bombshell, Deus Ex comes along and makes Valve’s title look positively primitive in comparison. For all it’s charm and polish, Half Life was still a tightly-scripted, linear hallway shooter. It’s hard to do justice to how thoroughly Deus Ex set the bar for several genres all at once.
It’s Got Character
One of the strongest elements of Deus Ex has to be the characterization. Deus Ex is packed with interesting and memorable characters. They have histories. They have motivations. They feel as if they have lives beyond the confines that this particular story requires. Most importantly, it’s easy to care about many of these characters or at least cares what happens to them. Your choices feel all the more important because they have consequences for these characters. It’s also through these characters that the game taps into strong emotions such as trust and paranoia. Many of the people you meet are not who they seem to be. They don’t always tell the truth and your conclusions can always be subverted in unexpected ways.
Now Everyone has their weaknesses and Deus Ex was no different. The voice acting was of the “so bad it’s good” variety for the main cast and just bad for many of the minor characters. It’s understandable given that the game released at an awkward time between most games not being voiced and most games being fully voiced. I could do a whole piece just on the state of voice acting in games at the start of the 2000s, so it’s not specifically a criticism of Deus Ex. Actually, the stilted monotone of the main character was sort of pitch-perfect for the character and was a Deus Ex signature of sorts. The last game, Human Revolutions, definitely channeled some of the JC Denton “charm” for the main character’s voice acting.
The other big sore point for the game is that it was ugly. I don’t just mean ugly seen through my 2016 eyes. It was ugly by the standards of the year 2000. Blurry textures, mouths that are janky, fused-finger club hands. It’s all there. It definitely was not the graphical standard-bearer of its time.
If graphics are a deal-breaker for you there are several graphical overhaul mods out there that make the visuals a bit more appealing, but the original graphics certainly have their charm if not technical impressiveness.
The only direct sequel to Deus Ex was, shall we say, not a great success. Deus Ex: Invisible war messed with the wrong elements of this recipe and ends up not really feeling like a Deus Ex game. It sold about as well as the original and wasn’t considered a bad game in itself, but it didn’t have nearly the same cultural impact or memorability as the original.
The first game to get close to what makes Deus Ex a unique franchise was the 2011 Human Revolution. Chronologically this game is the first in the series and predates Deus Ex by 25 years in the storyline. Human Revolution brought back most of what made Deus Ex special, but crucially fell down when it came to ultimate choice on the player’s part. Boss battles in Human Revolutions forced you to take the lethal action path in order to defeat them. This made player builds that invested in skills such as stealth and computer hacking about as useful as a snowball machine in a flamethrower fight. The Director’s Cut added in stealth options for defeating the bosses, but it was too little, too late. Human Revolution was a big hit and a fantastic game, but ironically it wasn’t a revolution or even an equaling of the gameplay from the original Deus Ex.
The upcoming game, Mankind Divided, is another chance for the current developers to put the Deus Ex franchise back where it belongs at the top of innovative, immersive game design. It’s not just the original Deus Ex that Mankind Divided has to contend with, but the modern standards that have been set by games like the Witcher 3. We are now used to complex, branching stories and serious, far reaching consequences to our decisions. To be what every Deus Ex fan hopes for to be, Mankind divided will have to pull us into the conspiratorial world of Deus Ex more than ever before. It will have to adhere to Warren Spector’s original design values that are as relevant today as they were back in the year 2000. It’s a tall order, but after five years of development and some of the most formidable talent in game development behind it maybe, just maybe, Mankind Divided could be the one that brings it all together.