Archive for January, 2023

Deus Ex: Rambling

Usually by this point in blogging about a game, I’d like to do some more analysis of the story and how it affects and is affected by the gameplay. But I still haven’t reached any more story than I got to the last time through, and the main way the gameplay affects it is by slowing it down. Of course, the way I’ve chosen to play it doesn’t help there. I’m currently on my third restart of the Battery Park mission, this time because I realized that I could spend fewer lockpicks by going into Castle Clinton by the front entrance and holding off on picking any locks until I have enough XP from exploration bonuses to upgrade my lockpicking skill. (I’m still doing this stealthy-like, mind you. Instead of charging in guns blazing, I’ve found a way to laboriously climb up to the fort’s roof, there to creep around up above where anyone is looking and snipe them all with tranquilizer darts.) So far, lockpicks are pretty much the game’s most valuable resource, and their electronic counterparts the Multitools a distant second.

Those exploration bonuses I mentioned do a lot to confirm to me that the sort of exploration-maximalism I’ve been engaging in is in fact the right way to play this game. It’s certainly what the mechanics encourage, intentionally or not. It has some peculiar side effects, though. Like, a lot of places have a choice of two ways in, one that’s more sneaky and one that’s more fighty. But both routes can have their own secret areas, with their own exploration bonuses and loot. Obviously the maximalist approach is to claim both! Which is somewhat at odds with the clear intention that it’s a choice. I suppose this is why later games in the same lineage like Bioshock don’t put their major decision points into the environment like this. There’s something to be said for games that force you to make decisions as they come and live with the consequences, no backsies. But there’s also something to be said for games that let you get away with this kind of nonsense.

Deus Ex: Assault on Battery

The second mission sends us to Battery Park, on Manhattan’s southern tip, where the NSF are holed up in Castle Clinton (a 19th century fortification of Doom-brown stone) and in the subway tunnels below, and desperate, starving people, the ones UNATCO is in theory supposed to be defending, are dodging the crossfire.

The whole level starts with a very explicit choice between storming the castle and finding a sneaky way in. I chose the latter, obviously. I’m still trying to continue keeping anyone from dying, even as my allies do their best to make this difficult. Not far from the starting point, there’s a place where UNATCO forces are already in a pitched battle with the NSF over a small shantytown. Just getting close enough to do anything about it before anyone dies is a challenge — maybe throwing a tear gas grenade in would help? (Tear gas in this game is a nonlethal substance that temporarily disables those caught in its cloud. In real life, its use in warfare is banned by the Geneva Conventions, but for some reason it’s considered okay for police to use, so it’s kind of up in the air whether its use here is a war crime or not.)

Regardless, it seems like the fighting doesn’t get started until you’re close enough to see it. So if I want to keep everyone alive, the simplest solution is to just not go over there. But that’s the exact opposite of the thoroughness I was talking about in my last post! There’s some decent loot in those plywood shacks, too — goodness knows how the ragged inhabitants of this future dystopia got their hands on it, but I want it.

That’s my ethic in this game: I must go to extraordinary lengths, not just to never kill of my own volition, but to make sure no one dies on my watch — but robbing them blind? Even those in the most desperate circumstances? That’s fine. The game kind of tricks you into this back in the Statue of Liberty mission: it presents you with an ATM that you can hack for some extra cash, and then shortly afterward you can find a note written by the person whose account you hacked, letting you know just how much it’ll crush his dreams when he sees he’s been wiped out. And you can decide you’ve crossed a line there, I suppose, and go back to an earlier save, but here’s the thing: if you do that, you’ll have less money. (Refraining from killing people doesn’t have this problem; you can loot an unconscious person as easily as a corpse.) My feeling about this is basically that this isn’t Undertale. My code against killing isn’t really motivated by caring about the characters. It’s more motivated by, well, the same thing it was motivated by in the beginning parts of Undertale, before I made any friends: challenge, and novelty, and a desire to see as much of the game’s content as I can. I really think that last point is too often overlooked as a motivator.

Deus Ex: Thoroughness

It took me a while, but I’ve finally gotten through the first mission without anyone dying. This is probably harder in the first mission than in any of the subsequent ones. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, there are the various defenders on your own side, both human and mechanical, who will gladly gun down anyone who runs towards them. Then there’s Gunther. A cyborg like the player character (albeit from an earlier generation of tech), he’s been captured by the enemy, and one of the mission objectives is to spring him. Unlike me, he has no qualms about killing, and indeed relishes it. If he sees anyone he can kill on the way back to base, he will fight them and he will win.

But most of all, there’s the ending. When you complete your mission, your backup will sweep the area and take down anyone still standing. Please understand that these are not simply abstract, story-level deaths. Completing your mission objectives doesn’t simply end things and load the next map: you can freely wander the site afterward and observe the fallen. That means that if you want to get through the scene without bloodshed, you have to knock every single enemy soldier unconscious before finishing the mission off.

And sure, I’m making things unnecessarily difficult for myself. But I could be doing worse. This is a stealth game, and stealth games have a tradition of “ghost” runs: never be seen, leave no evidence of your passage. I remember playing Thief: The Dark Project and feeling like ghost mode was clearly the correct way to play it, the approach intended by the authors. Not that I did it that way myself, mind you. I played Thief more or less the same way I did this mission: rendering anyone I came across unconscious. It just made things so much easier! Places fraught with peril are rendered completely safe for leisurely and thorough exploration. There’s a heightened sense of freedom in that.

Especially here, where my pointless commitment to not letting anyone die has forced me to explore rather thoroughly. But unlike in Thief, this kind of feels like the right way to go. Not picking options that constrain you, but expanding the possibilities as much as possible. Open every door, unlock every chest. You’re not just a cyborg killing machine, and you’re not just a thief. You’re an investigator of secrets.

It took three sessions, but I finally feel like I’ve hit my stride. It’s a slow stride. Last time I tried this game, I had a self-imposed deadline, and I’ve come to believe that was a mistake. The stealth in this game is the sort that requires patience, and I intend to approach the rest of the game in the same spirit.

Deus Ex: Reflecting on Meaning

One thing I’ve been mulling over as I start this game again: how historical and political context has changed the the experience. That’s been the case from almost the beginning, mind you: this is a game released in the year 2000, and the first mission involves a terrorist attack on New York City. A previous attack knocked the head off the Statue of Liberty in a fit of heavy-handed symbolism. This is how we imagined a terrorist attack that destroys a major New York landmark happening a year before it happened. No coincidences, really: the fiction and the reality were both planned out by people from more or less the same culture, and the differences between the scenarios mostly reflect differences in practical constraints.

But that was two decades ago. Today, we have another major world event kind of reflecting a plot point in the game: the plague. In the world of Deus Ex, there’s a deadly contagion that I think was secretly engineered by the secret bad guys — I don’t think I’ve seen definite confirmation of that, but even if they didn’t make the thing, they’re definitely taking advantage of it to extend their control. The intro cutscene shows them talking about using their stranglehold over vaccines to blackmail government officials. Now, that’s pretty definitely not what’s going on with COVID-19. But the disquieting thing is that there are people who seem to genuinely believe conspiracy theories of the sort presented here. Do we really need stories that encourage this line of thought?

And that’s the crux of it, really. Part of the premise of Deus Ex is that all the old conspiracy theories are real. That hits differently in a post-Qanon world. There are people who believe this nonsense and, amazingly, they currently pose a non-ignorable threat to democracy in America. If a game with a similar premise were released today, I’d assume it’s right-wing. What are the actual politics of Deus Ex? Can I tell? I’ll probably be returning to this.

Deus Ex: Starting Up Again

There’s not much to report about my first day back in Deus Ex. When I left off back in 2010, I had just finished the game’s first act and shifted the scene from New York to Hong Kong. I’m starting over from the beginning — even if I still had my old saves (and knew where they were), I’d want to start over to refresh my memory about the story, relearn how to play, and possibly improve on my plot choices. Maybe I can keep Paul alive this time. But on reviewing my old posts, I find that I had something of a case of decision-paralysis back then too.

I had some notion that I’d try to keep everyone alive this time through. I was eschewing murder in my last sally as well, but I remember there were still a number of accidental fatalities: I’d startle a guard and he’d go haring off and fall into a pool of water and drown, say. And I wanted to see if I could prevent that sort of thing this time. It turns out I can’t; even the very beginning of the first mission makes it almost impossibly difficult, with enemies that can spot you before you’re even really gotten out of your fortified base and, on seeing you, run straight into the automated defenses. I suppose I’m meant to regard this as a good thing, crack a half-smile and make an action-movie quip about it. All so the story can puncture that attitude later. Or, given how obvious it is that you’re on the side of the bad guys, so it can make you aware of the possibility of that attitude so you can reject it. I still haven’t decided how much of this game’s surface I think is intended to be ironic; it’s definitely set up to give the manshoot fans the manshooting they crave.

Anyway, all I’ve done so far is play through the tutorial and partway into the first mission, and read my old posts. One thing that’s bothering me a lot this time through is how dark everything is, even with the brightness cranked up to max. I commented on how dimly-lit the game is before, but I really think my current hardware in its current state is making it darker than it’s supposed to be. I’ll try to find a solution to this.

Well that was a nice refreshing break

OK, it’s been a solid two months since my last post. That happens. I’ve been blogging since 2007, but not steadily; there have been entire years when I’ve made barely any posts at all. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood, and one of the nice things about this blog, from my perspective, is that I’m not under any real obligation to do it. But the decline of Twitter has led some to try to create a new golden age of blogging, and I feel like this means I should at least try to get back into it.

We left off Wizardry V just as I was beginning to explore the fifth dungeon level — something I had done just enough to be intimidated by its size and complexity. A two-month hiatus is a pretty clear indication that my desire to make maps, which was the primary motivation I had for pulling out the Wizardry series in the first place, has been sated for the moment. I do intend to get back to it sooner than later, before the state information completely leaves my brain, but first, I have an outstanding request (from several months ago) to finally finish Deus Ex.

(I had some notion that I was going to write about the games I bought in the 2022 holiday sales, but at this point it’s pretty clear that’s not happening. Maybe I’ll drop a post about Loop Hero when I’ve solidified my thoughts about it.)