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 an 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 out 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.

Deus Ex: Escape from New York

I just spent pretty much an entire day playing Deus Ex (or, more accurately, an entire night, because it’s a very dimly-lit game, full of shadows suitable for skulking, and thus best played without ambient sunlight). It seems to me that this is a game best played in long sessions like this. It’s easy to get bogged down in tactics otherwise. If you play for only a half an hour, the focus of your session can wind up being something as trivial as making your way to the end of a tunnel, rather than the plot-level activities that such micro-goals make up. This, I think, is why I’ve only made significant progress on the weekends.

And significant progress it is, this time: I’ve finally reached the point in the story where I leave both New York and UNATCO behind, which seems like a good place to stop for the moment. I have a few comments on the way the shift in plot was handled. There will be spoilers, but in a way, it’s hard to spoil the story here, because everything of importance is so heavily foreshadowed.

First of all, turning against UNATCO is not only inevitable, but happens at a very specific point. I was not only surprised at this, I was surprised that I was surprised: I’ve been given plenty of warning, in game and out, about what was going to happen. But when the moment comes, it comes quite suddenly. Before the decisive mission, there’s a sense that you’re juggling loyalties. The player character’s boss, one Joseph Manderley, as much as told me that I’d have to start putting more effort into getting the real powers behind UNATCO to trust me, just before it all became moot.

Understand that this is only notable because the game continues to give the player more influence over the course of events than most games provide. Secondary characters live or die as a result of your actions. The entire New York segment of the game leads up to a confrontation at a hotel in which UNATCO troops, your former colleagues, come for you and your brother Paul, another rogue agent. You can take a stand alongside him, saving his life in the process, or slip out the back while he sacrifices himself to buy you time. Quite a few later conversations have to have versions for both branches, and there’s an entire sub-quest about finding his cadaver in MJ12’s secret medical research laboratories. If you escape, and evade capture, you get an optional boss fight with Anna Navarre, your cyborg mentor who earlier complained about your being too soft if you used nonlethal force against the NSF. It’s possible to ditch this fight even after it starts; again, later scenes accommodate her being alive or dead.

Defeat or escape from Navarre and you wind up in the one encounter that I believe to be completely unwinnable. You can make a pretty good go of it, though. It’s like the last few seconds of the first episode of Doom, where you suddenly find yourself surrounded by baddies and have no way to shoot them all: the episode simply ends when you die. According to legend, some exceptional Doom player actually did manage to win that fight, only to find himself stuck in a small room with no doors and no way to trigger the end. Similarly, on emerging from the subway tunnels in Deus Ex, even if I power up my defensive augmentations and don thermoptic camouflage and try to make a break for freedom, it seems like I’m stuck in a smallish area surrounded by invisible walls. At any rate, the next scripted plot event involves the player character escaping from a holding cell, so you have to get captured somehow. The interesting thing is how much choice you get about when and where. From the moment the troops come for you and Paul at the hotel, being defeated in combat results in capture instead of death. One way to skip the fight with Navarre is to simply get captured before you reach it. Lasting farther into the sequence gives you more experience points, and to a certain extent more story, but this is one case where player actions have consequences that aren’t terribly lasting. You’re going to wake up in that cell no matter what.

I assumed at first that the cell was simply one of the cells I had seen earlier in UNATCO HQ, where certain NFS officers wound up. It seemed a reasonable assumption, given that I had been captured by UNATCO troops and that Navarre, a UNATCO agent, stops by to taunt you if she’s still alive at that point. But no, it’s actually deep in a secret MJ12 compound, complete with more guards in MJ12 uniforms and scientists working on weird biological experiments. (Some cages contain strange bird-like creatures that bear an uncanny resemblance to current concepts of the velociraptor. I just can’t escape the dinosaurs these days, can I?) And there’s a glorious moment, after painstakingly wending your way through the ducts and hallways, when you finally reach the facility’s sole exit, and discover that the entire thing is the previously-inaccessible “Restricted” area in the lower reaches of UNATCO HQ. A connection between MJ12 and UNATCO is pretty much a given by that point, but providing a literal “connection” in the sense of hallway makes it all that much more satisfying somehow. It turns the whole conspiracy from allegations about individuals to something so fundamental it’s built into the very architecture, a fact on the ground (or under the ground, as the case may be). Perhaps this is why the Masons are such a popular subject for conspiracy theories.

The game has been pretty good about reusing environments in different ways, but I think UNATCO HQ is the first area that you initially become familiar with while it’s safe, and only later becomes full of enemies. The enemies are, of course, the people who you earlier befriended — all the more reason to stick to nonlethal force, says I. Except not all of them are enemies: most of the NPCs with names, found in their usual offices, are on your side, at least if you play it like I did. One guy helps you escape but is otherwise loyal to UNATCO (expressing dismay that it’s been corrupted but hope that it can be redeemed), another expresses an intention of joining you in Hong Kong as soon as he gets the chance. Another gives you a choice, asking whether he should come with you or stay behind as your agent, feeding you information about UNATCO’s doings. In other words, conspiring with you. Creating a new conspiracy.

Let’s hope it turns out better than the last one. Presumably this is an ad-hoc conspiracy, to be dropped once its aims are met, much as Cincinnatus voluntarily relinquished the dictatorship of Rome. There’s a brief mention of Cincinnatus in the game, a passage in a book on the Society of Cincinnati, an order founded shortly after the American Revolution. It makes the dubious claim that the Society exists primarily to seize dictatorial control over the United States in the event that it becomes necessary. I can’t vouch for the book’s reliability even within the context of the game — it could well be just another conspiracy theory thrown out in the name of inclusiveness. But if the authors want us to read that passage, it’s probably because they want us to think about its implications for the player’s actions. But we’ll see.

Deus Ex: MJ-12

Deus Ex is impressively thorough about name-checking popular conspiracy theories and secret societies. Area 51, Majestic 12, the Knights Templar, the previously noted Trilateral Commission, and so forth. One bit-part NPC even asked me if I knew the widow’s son. (Do the freemasons even count as a secret society any more? I’ve seen them advertise on television, for crying out loud.) There haven’t been any references to the Kennedy assassination yet, but I’ll be surprised if the game ends without mentioning it at least once.

I assume that not all of these references will be concretized in the actual story. Many NPCs just have their own little paranoid suppositions, usually based on mistrust of privilege. Which is to say, they’re broadly correct, but they have no real basis for the details. Theories of this sort can contradict each other wildly. Nonetheless, some of them are already coming true. deusex-mj12MJ-12 is definitely operating secret laboratories in the sewers, studying the plague. They even have guards with a little “XII” logo on their helmets.

The MJ12 guards are the first enemies I’ve encountered other than the NSF. I suppose I could have used this as an excuse to become more violent: just because I have a rule against murdering the NSF doesn’t mean the same applies to these guys and their clandestine medical experiments on unwilling subjects. But then, the people performing those experiments aren’t the ones shooting at me. The guards are just freelance security personnel who don’t know a thing about what they’re defending; the only scientist present at the site is in fact the guy I went in there to rescue, and as much a prisoner as the experimental subjects.

This is something the game keeps doing: pulling the good-guys-vs-bad-guys rug out from under the player. For example, at another point, a friendly NPC tells me that I’ll need a key currently in the possession of an NSF officer encamped nearby, and that the only way I’ll get it is if I kill said officer. But when I confront him, he immediately surrenders. He’s not even a soldier, it turns out. He’s the company’s accountant.

At any rate, MJ-12 is associated with UFOs, so their interest in the “grey plague”, and in particular their interest in seeing it “fully bond with a human host”, has obvious implications about the plague’s origins. I suppose this is why, immediately after granting me this much understanding of what was going on, the game started throwing Templar references at me. Just to make sure I knew that I didn’t really understand anything yet.

Deus Ex: Still Going

I seem to have gotten stuck in that vicious cycle of slow progress, where low frequency of accomplishment reduces my motivation to play, which makes me play less, which reduces the frequency of accomplishment. I’ve tried to break out of this somewhat this weekend, but it’s clear that I’m only a fraction of the way through the story. I’m still in war-torn New York City when it’s clear that there are chapters to come set in Paris and Hong Kong.

It’s my own fault, of course. I keep going back to old saves to do things differently, to maximize my gain and minimize my loss. I could probably breeze through these chapters more quickly if I simply stopped caring about the cost. But if I did, I’d still miss half the story. When I go back, a large part of what I do is find special encounters that I missed. There are whole areas full of talkative NPCs that you can just pass by if you’re not diligent. Sometimes you’re told about them in advance, but even then, it’s a coin-toss whether you find them before or after your primary mission objective. (If there’s one complaint I can level at this game, it’s that supposedly-hidden secret entrances are usually not significantly harder to find than the main entrances to the public places where you get hints about them.)

When the NPCs are functioning as plot-dispensers instead of hint-dispensers, they give a certain amount of additional context to the situation. I compared the beginning of the game to Final Fantasy IV before, in that it made it clear that the player character is working on the side of evil, but frankly, the enemies aren’t winning any popularity contests on the streets. Some people agree with the NSF’s 1National Secessionist Forces, formerly the Northwest Secessionist Forces. Despite knowing this, I briefly wonder every time they’re mentioned why the National Science Foundation is so angry with us. Did UNATCO not properly cite the relevant papers on nanomachine enhancement technology or something? goals but hate the NSF anyway: apparently when an organization declares war on the United States government, it attracts the sort of recruit who just wants an excuse to shoot at people. The story seems to want you to lose your sympathy with them as you go along, perhaps to give the player better and better outs for using violence as the difficulty increases. Me, I’m still sticking to nonlethal force, if only because it seems like a shame to stop now. I keep finding ammo caches and being disappointed that they’re not lockpicks.

References
1 National Secessionist Forces, formerly the Northwest Secessionist Forces. Despite knowing this, I briefly wonder every time they’re mentioned why the National Science Foundation is so angry with us. Did UNATCO not properly cite the relevant papers on nanomachine enhancement technology or something?

Deus Ex: Locked Doors

I’ve said before that the thing a game is really about is the thing you spend your time doing. Doom is a game about shooting at monsters, The Ancient Art of War is a game about maintaining supply lines, and Riven, despite its best intentions, is largely a game about looking for animal shapes. Deus Ex — the way I’m playing it, at least — is a game about gaining access to things.

You can go about this in various ways. Often there’s more than one route to your immediate destination, with different obstacles, which use different character skills. For example, one route might have guards patrolling it, a test of your various weapon use skills, and, indirectly, your medicine skill, which affects how many hit points you can squeeze out of a health pack. Another route might have a locked door.

Sometimes you can find a key for a locked door. Sometimes there’s a keypad you can enter a combination into. Sometimes there isn’t. Mechanical locks can be picked, provided you have a lockpick, but these are single-use videogame lockpicks. I suppose this makes more sense in a dystopian cyberpunk environment than in most other milieus — after all, if the presumably-corrupt corporation that manufactures those lockpicks can make them self-destruct on use, they certainly have the financial motivation to make them that way. Similarly, electronic locks can be overcome with a disposable “multitool”, which, however, also has other uses (such as disabling security cameras). Doors and keypads all report strength ratings when selected. Supposedly the strength affects how many picks or tools you need to defeat them, but I haven’t yet seen a door that needs more than one, presumably because I’ve been sinking most of my skill points into Lockpicking and Electronics, which make the use of these tools more efficient. I do this because the supply of lockpicks and multitools is limited, and I’m afraid of running out when I really need one. I have yet to find a reliable source of either item; mostly I find them at random places throughout the levels, raising the question of who left them there and why they didn’t jealously hoard them like I do. Any mission that I finish with more lockpicks than I started is a good mission. When I chance upon a combination to a door that I already spent a multitool on, it’s time to reload an old save.

There’s one other way to open doors: explosives. This is also an effective way to deal with certain other obstacles, such as the aforementioned armed guards, but I haven’t been indulging much in explosions of any sort, because they tend to attract attention. Not all doors are vulnerable to explosives, just as not all doors can be picked or hacked: there’s a strength rating for how much physical damage they can withstand just like the one for resistance to being picked, and either rating can be “infinite”. I’m guessing that I’ll eventually start encountering doors that are infinitely strong in all respects, and can only be got past legitimately (with a key) or indirectly (through an air duct). There were doors like that in the tutorial, which was themed as a UNATCO training mission, and if UNATCO has access to infinite door technology, you can bet they’ll use it to guard their innermost secrets.

Deus Ex: Politics and Morality

I have to correct myself now. The ending of the first mission isn’t quite as I remembered. It’s subtler. You’re never told not to talk to the alleged terrorist militia guy — in fact, you’re reminded to do it just before reaching him, and then, when you do reach him, it happens automatically. It isn’t even as coercive as the term “interrogation” suggests: he immediately surrenders and gladly talks, seemingly relieved that you’re willing to listen. When you have the information you came for, some grunts show up and say “We’ll take it from here”. It’s at this point, when it’s implied that you’re finished, that you have the opportunity to keep on talking instead.

And it’s a little odd how that goes. First he talks about how UNATCO (the global anti-terrorist organization you work for) is a tool of oppression, a catspaw of the wealthy and powerful. And it’s easy to agree. But then he starts talking about the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds and the Trilateral Commission. Now, conspiracy theories are far from implausible in the universe of this game, given what we saw in the opening cutscene, but these really seem like the wrong ones. They’re yesteryear’s conspiracies, and this is a sci-fi world, with cyborgs and nanomachines all over the place. To still be worried about the machinations of international Jewish bankers seems almost pitiable.

I didn’t mention the cyborgs and nanomachines before, did I? It’s all part of the premise. The player character, codenamed J. C. Denton, is a nanomachine-enhanced cyborg himself. And yes, that means he and the entire organization he represents is a symbol of technology supplanting humanity. Your fellow cyborgs in the organization are blatantly brutal and unsympathetic, as well as pale and dressed in gothy black outfits and speaking in foreign accents. Books scattered around HQ explain UNATCO’s high-minded principles and precepts just to underscore how far the organization is from them in practice. Me, I’ve tried to live up to those ideals, despite the other cyborgs making fun of me for it — and the game indulges me in this iconoclasm, giving me non-lethal weapons like tranquilizer darts and knock-out gas grenades to deal with the few guards I can’t sneak past. All of which is rendered somewhat pointless at the end of the first mission, when your colleagues sweep in and slaughter anyone still standing while you’re chatting with Mr. Militia. Not to mention that the second major goal is to recover a barrel of plague vaccine that the so-called terrorists stole to give to the poor. No matter how non-violently you complete that mission, there’s blood on your hands because of it.

It all reminds me a bit of the beginning of Final Fantasy IV, where the first player character is Cecil, a Dark Knight in the service of a tyrannical overlord. Cecil overcomes his beginnings, and doubtless the player character here can do so as well. Mind you, it eventually turns out that Cecil’s employer was as ruthless as he was because he was desperately trying to contain an even greater evil. Will something like that happen here? Quite likely, if you ask me. It’s all too black-and-white at the moment for a game about secrecy and deception.

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