Retrospective: Deus Ex, Part 2

A Primordial Sandbox…

Continuing with the previous example from part 1 each method or approach in the mission will suit a different style of play, and, each has it’s advantages and disadvantages; both immediate for that objective and for the other objectives.

Screens from Deus Ex’s Hell’s Kitchen satellite broadcast mission

To illustrate with the example:

“The main entrance is direct and leads to your first objective that really needs to be completed before you can complete any other, but, it’ll be a hard fight to get to it through the well armed troops. The rooftop entrance is tedious to get to, however, it does allows a stealthy way into the facility, allowing you to take care of the security around the final objective below. By taking this route and if you are clever, you can use an exploding crate to take out the bulk of the security on the ground floor by simply picking up one of the crates on the higher levels and throwing it over the railing. It will fall and then detonate four stories down triggering a chain reaction of exploding crates on that level, which in turn, wipes out all the enemy below.”

This illustrates how involving and rewarding missions in Deus Ex can be, even if clunky in premise – who stores TNT like that, anyway?! I can’t say the same for Invisible War.

It also illustrates another aspect of the game that Deus Ex got right, in that the game can have some surprising “sandbox” gaming elements to the game world, if limited. You could manipulate physicalized objects in the game world to a basic degree, by picking up and dropping or throwing them; you could also simply pushing them about by moving into them. The objects mostly being in the form of the venerable crate. Some crates had other attributes other than how much protection they could provide, like being able to detonate if hit hard enough, or, float – or am I think of Half-Life for the last one? But all could be used to solve environmental puzzles found within the game’s levels.

I’ve already pointed out one way to use objects in your environment to solve a problem – throwing an explosive crate over a railing – but something else tied into the above example is the basement tunnel entrance; or what could very well be, your exit out of the facility. This area comprised of a bunch of rooms, locked doors, corridors, laser triggers, and exploding crates. By moving the crates carefully, you could break the beams so that you could then move safely past them without triggering the security system – which I recall as being linked to automated guns.

You could also use these same crates so as to destroy the turrets by throwing them at them. This wasn’t just limited to turrets in that there was a locked door to get past. I lacked the multi-tools to breach it, so, I positioned a number of crates there and then from a distance tossed another crate at the stack.

Result: no more door.

At the end of the day, there’s probably only one “best” way to complete this mission, the best order of objectives and the best strategies to utilize. But not doing it a certain way doesn’t lead to disappointment in that regardless of how you solved it, you’ll feel like you’ve been challenged and have overcome the obstacles in front of you in your own unique way, even if, your choices have been made for you and your choices are far more limited than you imagine them to be. Like how any “emergent” quality from the somewhat sandbox nature of the gameplay was probably thought up and preplanned by one or more of the game’s designers. Does this disqualify the game from being as acclaimed and cherished by gamers? No, it doesn’t. Most games that are similarly successful, also do so by creating the illusion of choice, of freedom.

This goes for “open-world” games as it does also for “sandbox” games.

Invisible War on the other hand fails to do this. As already pointed out (in part 1), the missions though “nonlinear” and providing choices of how to solve the singular objective. Have no sense of accomplishment derived from having bested a challenge. There is no rewarding benefit from choosing one method to solve it over another, and the objectives are so straightforward, that no complexity in planning and execution is largely required from the player.

And though many of it’s gameplay systems are superior to Deus Ex, like the AI that can present a reasonable tactical challenge. Other aspects that help create the illusion of choice and freedom, are not present, or due to the straightforwardness of missions, end up having less impact. In contrast to the “emergent” or sandbox gameplay which played a part in the nonlinear gaming space of Deus Ex.

Screens from Invisible War’s Tarsus Academy mission

An early example from Invisible War to illustrate this, is escaping the Tarsus Academy whilst it is being assaulted by the Order. You get to a room near the end of this section where one of the scientists informs you that they can’t get past due to a lasered doorway. You breach it, the alarms sound and the automated defences kick in. He then proceeds to inform you that you’ll have to find another way around, of which, there are several.

Forgetting how undermining this is in creating the games atmosphere by informing us of this, there most certainly was many ways to get around the door – blowing it to pieces, I don’t recall being one of them:

“Now, I could have used the old, push the boxes into the way of the beams trick so as to slip past, but, this would have been tedious. There was a vent I could crawl into and gain access to a higher level, but, that required more effort than pushing a crate against a wall – honestly, the physics in the game for objects is just absurd – jumping onto said crate and then jumping up and onto a railing to gain access to the higher level.”

Using the crates to overcome an obstacle in Deus Ex was a challenge in that your other choices were limited – in fact, you could very well of had no choice but to proceed in this manner. Solving the puzzle presented was rewarding because of its difficulty and the illusion it created that this was a creative solution on my part. Like perhaps I had maybe come up with something no one else had thought of previously – except for one or more designers who had worked on the game, of course ;).

Solving the rather straightforward puzzle in a more involving manner, in Invisible War, would not achieved anything other than having wasted my time.

There is no motivation to do so, so, the proposed choice is actually a pointless offering to provide to the player as they can see that there is NO real choice to be made as what is being presented to them is the easy straightforward way, and, the convoluted fool’s way. I dunno, but, I think most people dislike being thought of as dumb

Each choice needs to have substantial advantages and disadvantages attached to it. Each needs their own risks and rewards. These the player will utilize in determining how to approach an obstacle in a manner that will suit their play, and thus reward them, with what they want: action RPG gameplay.

Even if that “choice” is very limited and linear at times – as long as it fits the gameplay, and it’s a challenge, they ultimately wont care.

System Shock (left), System Shock 2 (middle), Half-Life (right)

System Shock (1994), System Shock 2 (1999), Half-Life (1998) along with Deus Ex and numerous others, all did this – hell, I even think the original Doom did this; it’s simply sound level and mission design to do so.

Feeling Part of a Greater World…

Where Invisible War is less antiquated in systems, is in creating a sense of being in a rich, living, dynamic open-world. Even if it is largely a false one, merely creating the illusion of these attributes to the world.

Still, this wouldn’t be enough if the nonlinear story the player found themselves within, wasn’t as highly crafted. And to be honest again, it’s not the greatest when compared to the works generated in other mediums, especially literary; but for the time, it was most definitely good enough to make people suspend their disbelief, ignore it’s faults, and go along for the ride.

This is much the same case for Deus Ex. However in both cases, it’s not a “pure” open-world the player finds themselves within.

If you think you’ve made the choice of joining a particular faction, you’re wrong. The story is very linear in that regard. Sure, you can wander around large nonlinear spaces, however, you’re not free to go to the other nonlinear spaces that comprise the rest of the game-world until the game decides to let you. Yes, you can talk to whomever you like, but, only if the game ultimately allows it.

Having a façade of an open-world helps create the atmosphere of being part of a greater world, part of an unfolding global conspiracy, but, it’s ALL an illusion.

To be honest, this is always the case, even in “open” worlds that let you play as one faction or another – in the end, it makes little difference how the game will play out, as all major decisions (and possible endings) have been pre- designed and planned out for you. When it works, players don’t notice. When it doesn’t, players do notice. And in this respect, Deus Ex did it far better than Invisible War.

In Deus Ex cut-scene conversations don’t always involve or are about the player

In Deus Ex, you were often privy to conversations that you weren’t actually apart of. You take a sneaky route to get into someone’s apartment, only to watch through the window as she has a conversation with someone she’s supposedly not in league with, and the conversation, is about you.

Often in the early parts of the game, such “conversations” – in-game cut-scenes – may have nothing to directly do with you, but instead make some kind of reference to something else, like the “program.” An element that been put in play in order to flesh-out part of the backstory so as to add depth to the atmosphere created for the title along with foreshadowing future events and themes to be explored – it usually has little or no bearing on the game’s progression.

Then there are similar scenes that play out where you aren’t even present; you’ve completed a mission and a cut-scene plays of an event, a meeting, where you’re not even present. Sure it’s not “first-person” and some would love to debate how artificial a storytelling mechanic it is, but nevertheless, it to also helps flesh-out the story and draw the player into a seemingly rich world. Immerse them. Make them buy into the promise of being part of this open-world “experience,” as it helps add legitimacy to such claims.

Invisible War, had none of this. Deus Ex did and also gave the impression of being in a greater world to a more profound degree.

An example of this is having to make your way through an area of the game-world whilst a riot was taking place whilst security forces cracked down on civilians and the terrorist group opposing their authority. Sure, it was horrendously animated and scripted, but, it still achieved that sense of belonging to a world going through great change, going through social upheaval. That you were playing part in this great event and moment in world history.

On some level this feeds into our wish-fulfillment. Feeds some suppressed emotional need we have deep down inside to experience great change, a radical shift in one’s life. To be a part of something important. To not live in someone else’s past or vision of the future, but, create our own stamp upon the future; freely create our own identity rather than have others impose their “conforming” limitations upon us and hinder own own psychological growth. The need to go against the established social norms of the current order and to instead create our own.

That is one of the great strengths of the medium and appeals of the RPG genre, in that it provides us with the freedom (power) to commit actions without the permanent consequences of doing so. Even if such “freedom” is an illusion – much like in real life ;).

It’s also one of the appeals and strengths of Deus Ex… Read: part 3!

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