The abundance of conspiracy theories in our culture is often attributed to some kind of latent desire in human beings for a more interesting, more colorful world. Our existence isn’t already complex enough for some, it seems, so we’re treated to a host of disturbing tales and urban myths about flying saucers, government cover-ups and surveillance, or hostile takeovers of our infrastructure, etc. While they’re almost always far-fetched for one reason or another, I’ll give them one thing — they’re certainly creative, and frequently fascinating. But what if they were all true? Such is the premise of Deus Ex, a 2000 Eidos release developed by Ion Storm.
The year is 2052, and as usual in the fictional mid-21st century, shit ain’t too good. Governments are more or less entirely corrupt, and a virus with a 100% fatality rate (minus a few special individuals) decimates the less fortunate strata of society. There’s a widespread suspicion that the government has a vaccine, but is failing to distribute it. The Internet is centralized at Area 51, meaning that every bit of electronically-transmitted information passes through a single location on Earth. You simply can’t swing a stick in Deus Ex without hitting somebody who’s got their own convoluted agenda for a new world order. Scary stuff indeed, but nothing new to sci-fi nerds so far. Read on.
In the midst of all this global hullabaloo comes the advent of human nano-augmentation. Exhibit A? The player character, JC Denton (technically, though, you’re Exhibit B, following your brother Paul). You are a state-of-the-art computer/biochemistry project, your physiology augmented by nanites that alter the molecular functionality of your body, from the efficiency of your eyeballs to how high you can jump and how fast you can run. In other words, you’re a BAMF who answers only to UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition), the organization that ostensibly funded your creation. You are also immune to the mysterious virus, for reasons I’ll not divulge here.
Discussing even minuscule plot points would almost certainly spoil the entire game for you, but be sure that pretty much every commonly-uttered conspiracy theory in popular culture is somehow woven into the story of Deus Ex. Area 51, the Illuminati, pandemic government surveillance, and even the sci-fi staple Greys all make an appearance — and that’s not even half of what’s going down in this eternal night full of backstabbing, money-grubbing, and shameless power-grabbing of planet-wide proportions (what, couldn’t you tell from the screenshot?). Suffice it to say that Deus Ex features a level of complexity and detail in its story that I have not seen in any other game.
But what about the actual gameplay? Deus Ex is essentially a first-person shooter, but significant RPG elements abide as the most memorable aspects of the experience. Though the story is linear in that it will always lead you to the same locations in the same order, it is completely open-ended when it comes to how exactly you want to go about solving the problems you face. I vaguely recall from an interview with one of the developers (possibly Warren Spector?) that one of the specific goals during development was to provide the player with at least a handful of ways to approach every event in the game. Add to this the dynamic of upgrading various skill categories and installing augmentations that give you specific abilities (such as health regeneration or complete invisibility; see pic), and you have a game that is virtually endless in the different ways you can play.
Beyond all these great qualities, though, there’s something that video games in general really lack — moral and philosophical complexity. Deus Ex is at no turn in the road afraid to ask, and force you to answer, extremely difficult questions about topics such as distribution of power in political structures, the effects of extremely advanced technology on human society, and my personal favorite: a moral dilemma involving the game’s title, which comes from the Latin phrase deus ex machina, literally translated as “god from the machine.” Even better, the game features three unique conclusions based on who you decide to ally yourself with in the end — and rest assured, this is possibly the hardest decision you’ll ever face in the virtual world. Each choice is extremely ethically problematic, and yet each seems to hold a glimmer of hope for the ultimate fate of humanity. And once you’ve decided, you’ll play the game all over again so you can make a different choice. It is unavoidable. It is your destiny. (Nerd-cred to whomever places that quote.)
Those who have even just started into this labyrinthine game will understand when I say there isn’t any way to summarize it effectively. Concerning overall atmostphere, think of it perhaps as a skillful, engrossing, and incredibly detailed amalgam of Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Terminator, and The X-Files, with no shortage of ideas and innovations of its own. Other great aspects worth mentioning are the killer techno-punk soundtrack and the staggering amount of research the developers must have done to present their story so realistically — you can learn almost as much about the sciences in question from the game than you can from their respective Wikipedia articles. If you enjoy story-driven gaming that hurls itself into theoretical science and philosophical dilemmas, you cannot afford to miss the greatest conspiracy-shooter of all time.
5 stars of 5.