Deus Ex: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – or as close as we’ll ever get to it.

Darkness descended upon us almost audibly. It started as a power and communications outage; bewildered by the dead phone line and lack of internet, I had stumbled outside, where my neighbours, too, had gathered in the stubborn sunlight. For the first time, we were forced to speak at length. Not the faux-cheery how ya doing? and nice day, innit? sort of things we typically said in passing, but actual conversation, driven by an urgency to commiserate with others in the same situation. The outage affected the entire street, from what we could tell of the other confused groups of people huddled on curbs and sidewalks, but as the sun began to settle beyond the horizon, we reassured each other that all would be normal again by morning.

Hours dissolved into days, weeks, months. Things never were rectified; travellers seeking distant loved ones brought word that the next suburb had also been plunged into this awful ambiguity, as well as each suburb they had encountered before that… Grudgingly, my neighbours and I formed a knowing bond – we had become something like family, close-knit villagers in a modern block of flats. Whispers were passed onto us from the next village, rumours that the entire country was affected, maybe even the world.

Shops shuttered themselves, anticipating the riots that might occur in this new world that had no exchange rate, where money had no value. We gathered our food from the remnants of a boarded-up Safeway, and when its supplies ran low, we began to grow our own in the pitiful strips of soil that bordered our building. With no medium left for figures of authority to keep us in check, we governed ourselves.

My mother and my little brother, living on the other side of town, were now nearly unreachable; establishing contact with them would be a journey of several months. And my father in South-East Asia, and my friends? I would likely never see them again. The cycle of day and night washed over me repeatedly, numbly, without change. Once well-travelled, I was beginning to resign myself to the nightmare of this earnest, self-sustaining community.

[Spoilers within!]

Deus Ex is a game about saving the world

I finished Deus Ex a couple of months ago. Yeah, so I was a little late on that trend, given that the game was released over a decade ago, but that’s my point: Deus Ex has affected me far more than many games released just this year. No other game has given me multiple, vivid nightmares like the one described above.

Deus Ex is, at its essence, a game about saving the world, that yawnsome staple of so-called epic storytelling. What makes it realistic and compelling in this case is the ambiguity: who exactly is saving the world here? Who’s the real villain? And why is there no happy ending?

As JC Denton, you are a young, rookie agent who’s just begun work for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition, or UNATCO. But if they’re the good guys, devoted to ceasing ‘terrorist’ activity, then why do they support the use of a manmade virus to cripple the world? The reason for your defection early in the game is obvious, or seems to be. But ‘bad’ is a subjective term, and even villains are only doing what they feel is right.

Which brings us to Deus Ex’s three endings, each one a devastating sacrifice. Follow Tracer Tong’s instructions and you’ll plunge the world into a drastic new Dark Age, much like my nightmares: there will no longer be a corrupt, far-reaching government, but there’ll be no way to contact the people you care about, either. Merge with the mysterious, omniscient AI Helios and become an oddly mechanical dictator. Or you could team up with the creepy Morgan Everett to rule the same way as the Majestic-12 members you’ve been fighting this whole time – a sinister, invisible force manipulating the marionette strings of the world’s population.

No matter what you choose, the sacrifice is too great to be considered a good ending, the future too uncertain. Simply put, Deus Ex is a game about saving a world that cannot be saved.

Deus Ex took me 40 hours to finish

Though I somehow managed to miss Deus Ex when it was first released ten years ago, I played many of its contemporaries. Back then, games were of epic length; for months at a time, I would willingly play games late into the night, reducing me to a sleep-starved zombie by morning.

I wasn’t consciously aware that games were gradually becoming shorter until the debate over playtime length began to surface a year or two ago. I don’t necessarily believe that it should be a major factor in determining a game’s ‘worth’ – after all, we don’t judge a movie by its length, or a piece of clothing by the amount of fabric used to create it – but unfortunately, it seems to be fast becoming a method of game evaluation. It’s a strange debate, though, because what epic, super-long game are we judging all these others by? Bioshock 2′s promised length of “at least ten hours” had me unimpressed. Ten hours of well-paced action that never faltered, sure, but I couldn’t help reminiscing about the old games that were just as high-quality, but lasted several times longer.

What if a game was forty hours long AND pure quality the entire way through?

Deus Ex was exactly that. Less of a game for me, and more of an alternate life that played out after dark, I watched JC Denton unfurl a little more of an incredibly complex conspiracy every night in between work and university commitments. Whenever I returned to my more prosaic real life, I longed for the next time I’d get to play Deus Ex and felt incredibly despondent.

They really don’t make games like that anymore.

Deus Ex’s choices are not a gimmick

How will you go about achieving your objective? How will you spend your nano-augmentation canisters? Who will you save and who will perish? Deus Ex offers multiple pathways through which the plot can be altered, often significantly.

For one thing, there’s the choice you can make in your gameplay style. Are you a sniper, deadly accurate at great range? Or maybe you’re into in-your-face combat with assault rifles and explosives? If you’re like me, you play it stealthily. Unlike many games that feature two or three (usually very defined) paths of character development, Deus Ex offers infinite choices and unbelievably excels at all. In this game, stealth is not a poorly-conceived challenge, an unwritten achievement for bragging rights – it is an alternate and equally rewarding method of play.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that an important character can die very early on in the game. Sure, the game continues without him, but I’d argue that it’s a very different game from that point on; all actions carried out afterwards are very driven to avenge his death. I’d never quite felt so much at the death of a computer game character. That Aeris shit was nothing in comparison.

Perhaps most fascinating about this was that you often didn’t feel like you were making a choice. This wasn’t Mass Effect with its pseudo-profound “kill either Person A or Person B” mission. Many of Deus Ex’s plot-centred choices didn’t present themselves as choices at all, making your response almost instinctive. You were only likely to find out about these disguised choices after your first playthrough, when you shared your experience with a friend and thought, “Huh, I didn’t realise I could do that.”

Deus Ex is one of the few games that, for me, lives up to its boasts of immersion, even in this modern, highly-polished world of gaming. Nothing about the game’s story feels like a deliberate plot tree, branching into rigid, pre-determined endings. Your playing style influences the way you perceive JC, and the instinctive choice-making unfolds as if you, personally, had been dropped into this sinister world.

Deus Ex made me fear for the future

There’s no other way to say it. The countless conspiracy theories that played out around my actions felt entirely plausible, their relevance to the real world perhaps even obvious. The game dared to venture into the awful truth of how ruthless a man can truly be. The game gave me nightmares. I wonder what may happen tomorrow, and I feel helpless.

Deus Ex is all the horrors of speculative fiction brought to life.

5 thoughts on “Deus Ex: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – or as close as we’ll ever get to it.

  1. I’d like to start my comment off by complimenting you on the quality of this piece. It encompasses a lot of the thoughts and emotions that I’ve felt about Deus Ex when I played the game a decade ago, shortly after its release. I liked that you raised a very interesting point about the game’s almost transparent presentation of choices. To simply reiterate what you wrote, most games would present the choices to you in an oblique fashion, but Deus Ex did it in such a way that the choices you made were based entirely upon your actions in-game. It really is one of a kind.

    • Hi Ian! I must say, my playthrough took on quite a tragic tone once the aforementioned important character died – so much so that I didn’t even consider that I might’ve been able to save him. I fully intend to do another playthrough in which he survives – I wonder if it’d feel like a completely different game the next time, having him by my side throughout.

  2. I remember how long it took me to complete Baldur’s Gate 2. Fantastic game, start to finish, but it took me several weeks.

    I’m always interested in games with real, sticky choices…I might look Deus Ex up!

  3. What you wrote about that certain character who dies early in the game especially resonated with me. Having played it both ways, not a ton changes in terms of plot or game mechanics, but my entire motivation shifted from night to day.

    Like you, in my first playthrough wherein that character died, I was motivated purely by revenge. In the second, wherein he lived, I was motivated by idealism, ideology and (in my mind) a genuine pursuit for justice.

    What makes Deus Ex stand out and why we’ll probably, sadly, never see anything like it again outside of the indie world, can be boiled down to one, discussed-to-death-but-no-less-true concept: emergent gameplay.

    The beauty of Deus Ex’s world, plot and mechanics is that it was reactive. Instead of stopping the game to present players with an A, B, C multiple-choice scenario, the game actively reacted to your actions. There was no “moral choice” for the consequence of that character’s life or death; there was merely the consequence of your actions, in that moment. Run or fight. And the game reacted accordingly.

  4. For me, it really hit home the second playthrough. In the early going, first game, I was very non-violent. Tried to kill almost no one. Second game, I was violent, and how I was treated by different people really turned my stomach. The people I admired didn’t like me, the people I didn’t admire thought I was great. I disliked it so much that I replayed two entire missions.

    It’s not often I care what computer characters think of me, but Deus Ex made me care.

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