Monday, December 28, 2009

Deus Sextrospective Part 2


Deus Ex is a linear game.

Anyone who's played it is calling me an idiot right about now. Linear? DX is the antithesis of linear. It's always up there with Fallout or Arcanum as the pinnacle of player choice. But in reality, that's all a complex illusion. The game only really offers a choice a handful of times, and other than the ending (there are three options there), the effects are always minor. A character may show up again, you might get a different reward later on. When it comes to big decisions, you don't have a choice. The order of levels is predetermined—except in Hong Kong—and you can't choose sides.

The fact that Deus Ex is linear but absolutely no one who plays it thinks of it that way is the master stroke of the game. It is a brilliant piece of design work that many games have since tried to replicate (Bioshock is a good recent example), but not one of them has succeeded.

The trick is that, while the game progresses from level 1 to level 2 to level 3, no matter what, within each of those levels you have many choices. In any given situation Deus Ex will give you at least two ways to proceed, and usually more than that—if you even end up in the situation. On a single playthrough, it's unlikely you'll see more than half the game. I still find new things every time I play, and I've been at it for ten years now.

For example, there's a level where you have to get to a ship. You're dropped at the gates to the Brooklyn Naval Yards and you have to get through it. During the course of this level you can hack computers, pick locks, sneak, or just shoot everything. You can fight the guard mechs or turn them against each other. You can go through a tunnel network beneath and avoid the whole battle. If you can't hack, you can get security codes from the workers. There are three different factions at work—the enemy, the friendly soldiers, and the neutral dockworkers. Once you're inside (which you can do by going through ducts or through the security office, which either has a friendly soldier or you have to fight), you can sneak aboard the ship, go up the ramp killing everything in your path, or use a crane to hop over to the superstructure. And that's not to mention all the different methods of going about this, depending on how you've customized your skills, augmentations, equipment...

And the entire game is like this.

There are so many things designers can take from Deus Ex, but if they only take one, it should be this. Don't railroad your players. Not every game needs to be nonlinear; not every linear game has to be on rails.


Beginning to think like us now, are you? Be careful. Paranoia is a drug; you can get addicted.

Deus Ex' storyline is an amalgamation of every conspiracy theory you've ever heard, plus a few more. It quickly becomes apparent that everything you've been told is wrong, the world doesn't function the way you were led to believe, and you can't trust anybody.

And it works. To this day there are a few characters I can't figure out. The writing is just subtle enough, their dialogue just ambiguous enough that it's impossible to tell whose side they're really on. The game never talks down to you, and it doesn't explain anything unless it's reasonable that you'd get an explanation. When you get a funny feeling from your ally, unsure of whether he's benevolent or just as bad as your enemy, that feeling isn't resolved. You don't get to see into his head, nor do you have some clumsily-inserted diary or monologue later. You have to take your incomplete information and decide whether or not you trust him.

The game manages to maintain this throughout. There are a few characters who are clearly on one side or the other (though the game carefully maintains sympathy for the villains, and you're never quite sure if the villains are wrong), but for the most part even your most stalwart allies are questionable. Games often fail when they try to maintain a feeling throughout—horror games are notorious for this. System Shock 2 manages to stay terrifying the entire time; few others do. It's difficult to keep evoking the same emotion in the audience again and again without losing effectiveness, but Deus Ex manages it with paranoia.

As a history and politics person, the depth of thought behind game is one of my favorite parts. Next post will go into how Deus Ex used literature and political philosophy to elevate itself above the competition.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Deus Ex Retrospective

Ask any gamer of a certain stripe about Deus Ex and you'll get an earful of praise, possible tears, and laments about its deeply inferior sequel. Deus Ex is a great example of capturing lightning in a bottle, one of those games that had never been done before and has never been done again. That era had several others—Planescape: Torment, System Shock 2, Anachronox—but Deus Ex stands out to me as the greatest of them, the one that did almost everything right. But why?

It'll take a while to explain. And hell, it's almost the tenth anniversary; let's give the best game of all time some well-deserved attention.

Relevance and Worldbuilding

The game starts in New York City. What's missing from this skyline?

Deus Ex was released in 2000, yet the World Trade Center isn't in its depiction of New York. Part of the skyline had to be removed because of memory limitations, so the WTC was chosen to go. Their explanation: it was destroyed by a terrorist attack.

The game's storyline revolves around terrorism. It's the year 2052, and after a major terrorist attack in New York City, the United States is descending into fascism, largely as a response to terrorism. The country is falling apart—much of the west coast has been destroyed in a massive earthquake, there has been a low-level civil war for several years, the economy is collapsing, plague is rampant, and there is a war with invading Russian forces in Texas. People are encouraged to report their neighbors, electronic communication is all monitored, anti-terrorism forces have free reign, and the gap between rich and poor is so great that each side is hardly aware of the other. In this nightmare future, gasoline prices can be as high as $4 a gallon.

The developers themselves have since commented on the real-world parallels in the game, often mentioning that it creeps them out a bit. You can access public terminal and read terrorism alerts that would be right at home coming out of the DHS.

Some of these are just tropes of the genre. Deus Ex is one of the few cyberpunk games, and a world in chaos, transitioning to something new, with governments in decline and corporations taking over is a standard setting. But playing it in 2000 and again a few years later were very different experiences, all because of the real-world relevance the game had since gained.

All of that may seem irrelevant to why the game is good, but it's not. It shows the depth of thought that Warren Spector and his team put into the worldbuilding that the game is based on. The game goes into conspiracy theories and future technology, but they still wanted it to feel real. It had to—it's set in the near future of the real world. Without introducing magic or an apocalypse, they had to ground their setting in something that would be futuristic enough to be 2052, but recognizable enough that the player could accept it. 52 years isn't all that long; things wouldn't change so much that they could make the setting completely alien.

So they took the real world (for the most part—the conspiracy storyline changes some of the motivations behind actual events), added a bunch of fictional events, and extrapolated the consequences while staying true to how things really work. Then when some of those fictional events became real ones, the real consequences eerily mirrored the fictional ones from the game.

Many other games, maybe most, don't take this sort of care with their content. They don't have to—there's plenty of room in the world for completely ridiculous games like Team Fortress 2, but even in those situations the good games pay attention to what they do. They don't just throw shit against the wall and haphazardly cram all of it into the game, unless you're Derek Smart.

Most importantly for Deus Ex, the game's authenticity makes you accept what's going on early. Later the conspiracies come out and the game starts throwing Art Bell's acid trips at you, but you accept it because it's all so well thought-out and grounded. You begin to think that maybe they have a point, maybe the Illuminati is manipulating global financial markets to bring about one world government...

Deus Ex always keeps you guessing. Even now, almost ten years later and more replays than I care to admit to, I can't pin it all down. I can't decide for sure who is right or wrong or if certain characters are trustworthy. And all of that is due to having one of the most strongly-constructed settings of any game.

But there's more... and more posts to come.

No Rushin'

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" mission has really gotten people talking about how a game can be sensational, thought-provoking, reactionary, and engaging. And while I'm happy for what the mission has done in terms of people thinking about what games can be, or do, I think the "No Russian" mission ultimately did not succeed on as powerful and player-affecting level as it could have. This is a little puzzling to me, as the same game, in the South American missions, did all of the above.

For those that don't know, the "No Russian" mission involved playing the role of a spy infiltrated into a Russian terrorist organization. This infiltrator was to progress with the terrorists as they kill civilians in an airport, making sure to not blow his cover in order to find up what the head terrorist, Makarov, was really planning for later.

It was too scripted. Cinematically, I think it was effective...until I respawned.The second I realized that shooting a terrorist caused the slow moving task through the airport to start all over again, the emotional power the game had over me disappeared. I could walk, I could walk backwards, I could shoot the civilians, I could not shoot, and the level would continue. I really had no agency as a player that actually mattered. And games, to truly take advantage of what a game can do, must provide impactful and consequential choice. The only choices I really had were to skip the level before it started (no impact) or to shoot or not shoot the civilians (no consequence).

"No Russian" could have done a lot better. If one of the major points of the level was to get the player to understand that sometimes bad things must be done for the greater them. Let's say that I could kill all the terrorists in that airport without it being automatic Game Over. Then I could hose Makarov and all his buddies, and I'm the savior of the civilians. I cheer with the Russian people, get a nice medal for my actions...and watch Makarov's plan B -- a bio weapon -- go off without a hitch, killing thousands.


Now how impactful was my decision? Suddenly I'm thrown into turmoil -- I thought I was doing the right thing, but I didn't listen to my superiors (who instruct you not to blow your cover), and now thousands more are dead. This is the place to throw in the scripted section that gives me no agency. Perhaps a cutscene, showing a hospital trying to save the wounded? Or later I have to pick through the bodies, or walk past piles of them in an evacuation zone? The scripted event now comes off as a consequence to my choice, not as just a strong scene put in the game to affect me. My choice was impactful (I just caused thousands to die) and consequential (I had to sit through a cutscene...I had to spend game-time picking through the dead).

This is why player choice is so key for me, and why it always kills me that designers come so close only to drop the ball right at the end. This especially bothers me with MW2, because it actually had scenes where civilian killings did affected me.

There were a series of missions in a South American country where you fight from one shackled hut to another as you move through gang territory. In these levels, people were virtually shooting you from all over: rooftops, basements, and coming from behind you. These were the most harrowing, tense encounters (for me) in this game. As this hut-to-hut fighting occurred, civilians would run out of their huts for safety. And because I'm so tense and trigger-happy to take out another AK wielding gangsta, I would hose the civilian before I knew what he/she was. It impacted me in its simplicity. My God, I thought, that was too easy. The game kept continued. Life went on. No Game Over.

This was much more emotionally impactful for me. It still could have been better: As with "No Russian" killing or not killing civilians doesn't affect the completion of the level in any way. There were no game consequences for my actions. But it was much more impactful.

In this case, killing the civilians was something I didn't want to do but did anyway because of the way I played the game. In "No Russian" I could kill civilians if I chose, or if I chose not to kill, I simply didn't and watched the scene unfold. This is not impactful because either way, I'm doing what I want. Granted it is impactful in a cinematic sense, if I don't like seeing that happening, but that is not what games should limit themselves to. My only consequential choice in this mission is to kill the terrorists or not, and the game tells me I must not kill them.

There is no clash between my gameplay decisions and my internal, moral compass. It is in this clash between gameplay decisions and moral ones that I think games can really affect the people who play them. More on all that later.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

No excuses pt. 2

The beauty of console gaming, and what it has to offer over a PC, is the experience to sit around and play a game together with your friends. Co-op, as a “mode” takes advantage of this experience and really provides for some great experiences together.

A lot of games are shirking the ability to include co-op on the same console, and I’m noticing a trend here. Games that typically used to offer a co-op experience, like Call of Duty, no longer do (for the purposes of this article, and in keeping with the true spirit of co-op, it must be splitscreen). You think this is scary, start looking at how many games may include 2 player co-op, but now strip away more than 2 players together, anywhere? The list of offenders grows immensely: Gears of War, Borderlands, Call of Duty…and that’s just multiplayer. God forbid anyone let more than 2 players play a campaign together, on the same screen.

Other consoles are switching to almost pure cooperative experiences, like the Wii. This entire console is built around bringing people together in the same room, so why are other consoles suddenly pulling away?

My first guess is that this is a marketing thing. If I, as a developer, remove a co-op option from my game, it forces others to go out and get the game in order to play together. This may not cause a huge boost in sales, but it’s doubtful people will boycott games without co-op either, so why not?

My next guess of why this is starting to happen is because it’s starting to seem like cooperative play just isn’t cool anymore. The Wii is fun, sure, but it’s something you could have fun with your grandma. That’s not serious gaming, it’s a friggin’ Wii. Are consoles like the PS3 and Xbox360 trying to move toward a more “hardcore” experience, where players are more isolated and involved with their games? Is that what the target audiences of the PS3/Xbox really want?

Maybe it’s a technical thing, perhaps it’s just too difficult for the framerate on a screen to split it, or divide it into quadrants. Maybe if the game will just get too small to see or play effectively with four people, or even two people. If this is the case, and technology is evolving to push these machines to their absolute maximum so that it’s impossible to split up the screen, then I rescind my above commentary.

Developers claim that you cannot ensure a truly immersive gameplay experience when co-op was involved. This was the basis for Infinity Ward’s decision to remove a splitscreen co-op option and include a bunch of “special ops” missions that allowed co-op. This is really the tradeoff for cooperative play on the same screen. The players lose out on aspects of narrative and immersion in order to enhance their experience of playing with someone else. The game becomes (and I’m really generalizing here for a lot of people) more of how my friend and I will beat it than how we are participants in the story.

If designers are really worried about wanting to craft a careful experience for a single player, why not just include an unlockable co-op on the completion of the campaign? This in itself doesn’t make me too happy, but at least I could understand it.

I’m just starting to really get worried when game after game starts hacking away all the possible players that could play on the same screen. I’d love to have a co-op option in every FPS game out there, and a lot of others (but that’s another story). If that can’t be done, why can’t four of my friends play multiplayer against each other on the same screen? It’s no co-op, but it’s something.

No excuses pt. 1

I believe that without fail, a game should have three things. These are all centered around enjoying the game, and not particularly making the narrative experience stronger or more effective.
1)Skippable Cutscenes
3)Maximum controller multiplayer

There is no excuse for the exclusion on any of these items. Let's break them down.

1) Skippable Cutscenes

Cutscenes can serve a really valuable purpose. In terms of narration, it allows for the game designer to communicate their story without letting the players run around and screw it up. It allows for maximum impact because the player has no choice to become a viewer, and sit back and get hit with any cinematic technique the designer chooses. I get this.

What I can't understand is why designers choose to leave out the ability to advance through these cutscenes if the player so chooses. Is it that your story is so critical that it would be unimaginable for the player to move past it? Quite simply, it shouldn't be the designer’s decision to force something like this on the players. I argue that it absolutely in no way hinders the narrative of the game when you give players the option to skip ahead. In every game that has cutscenes, I should be able to press pause, and click on option Skip Ahead.

This doesn't take away from the narration or the story, and if it does, that's because the player so chooses to do so. Designers seem to continually forget that their players may have reason to play the game multiple times, in which case the first time you showed that 30 minute introduction movie was great, but the second time around I just want to get the gameplay. And how many times do we see games where we encounter a cutscene, play, die, reload, and need to sit through the scene again? And again? And again? Sometimes, and I know it's a shock, the player doesn't care about the story. They just want to play the game.

Let them.

Give them the opportunity. Give them the option. It's small, it doesn't cost you anything as a designer, and it doesn't make people so pissed off at your game.

Cue Explosion

This is the first year I've tuned in to Spike TV's Video Game Awards show. It's hard not to be struck by a what a joke this is, as Jack Black destroys the pedestal and Kimbo Slice walks up to bellow the introduction to the new UFC game. Designers walk up, a little nervous, to be handed the most ridiculous looking monkey trophy and make their speeches.

The Spike TV certainly knows what audience it's shooting for. Its website critically highlights (in order) Kimbo Slice, Tony Hawk's award presentation, Mike Tyson and Snoop Dogg.

I guess it's no surprise to anyone that this is what ended up happening, seeing it's Spike TV's show in the first place, but I have to wonder what could have been when it comes to a real legitimate gaming awards show. When is something like the Game Developer's Choice Awards going to hit the big screen? Would this open the door for something like the Oscars of gaming? Picture Will Wright in a nice tux, walking up before an orchestra.

Instead we have explosions rocking the tricked out stage to screaming guitars. The crowd oohs and aahs on cue. This is how the populace sees gaming. It's for men and scantily clad women, and not much else. For teenagers.

Can we say this is better than nothing? At least we are getting some recognition, and some big celebrity names out there are endorsing these games. They say any news is good news, but perhaps not when Spike gets ahold of it. It just doesn't sit well with me.

The whole place serves as a big platform to advertise new games. This directs sales to the same target audience that would have already bought, and known about the product, and takes zero advantage of anyone else that might have happened by. Now they know better than to tune in again.

I'm embarrassed for the developers that went up there. A rocksteady developer walked up and stuttered out how he didn't want to have to follow Jack Black. Yeah, I wouldn't either. Why not send a costumed Batman as representative of rocksteady's game to accept the award and have him sling batarangs left and right before a Kanye Joker jumps up and interrupts him?

Well, I'd actually watch that.

But these are developers that have worked so hard to come out with a quality product, and it's presented in such a way that makes the recognition they get difficult to be something that's worth admiration. It's like having your 6 month old giggle as it puts your painting in its mouth. The giggle is nice, but it's not really worth anything.

When game award shows reach the point where they have Most Creative Level Design, most Immersive Experience, Most Innovative Gameplay and other awards that recognize innovation and pure game design skill, I think we will have reached a point where these games are really seen as respectable.

There's also another industry struggling to get recognition and legitimized, The Adult Video Awards. How do they hold their awards ceremony?

They've got a red carpet and wear suits. We have...(granted this was the 2008 show) this:

I just think it paints a nice contrast.