PC Games as “Art” — The Catch-33 of Deus Ex

The only ambiguity here is what exactly I’m shooting at… pixelated vampire Hitler?

I’m not using that term quite right, but you’ll get it in a minute. For those of you lacking the patience to plow through what’s certain to be a long post, feel free to skim and comment: Name some instances in which you appreciated shades of gray in a game’s plot or worldview.

Let’s dive right in. I think the most important distinguishing feature of video games is the immersion of the player into the narrative. You, personally, are participating in the unraveling story, not sitting at a comfortable remove as a passive observer. The First Person Shooter (FPS) genre has an easier time achieving this than others for obvious reasons, and the home of the FPS is undoubtedly the personal computer, emerging with Wolfenstein 3D in 1992 and solidifying with Doom in 1993 (it took a full four more years before a console would produce a truly worthy counterpart with GoldenEye in 1997).

The proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Now, nobody’s trying to avoid the honest truth here — games like Wolf and Doom were conceptual and technical successes only. Their plots can be summarized roughly by a mere handful of words: “Get weapons. Shoot [insert appropriate undesirables here]. Repeat.” (The only ambiguity I see here is what exactly I’m shooting at… pixelated vampire-Hitler?) But with their undeniable popularity, these proto-shooters gave rise to a genre that has blossomed into a powerful vehicle for complex narratives. Much as Rapture’s lighthouse represents but a narrow portal into the depths of its underwater city, gamers have come to expect not only an entertaining variety of gameplay dynamics in their first-person shooters, but also a wealth of story and character that they experience through that gameplay.

An FPS is possibly the easiest way to get a visceral thrill out of your gaming — see Omaha Beach in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault or the darkened, demon-infested Mars-base of Doom 3 — and these are fun and valuable experiences. Lord knows I love to stay up into the wee hours of the night with the lights off and the volume up and scare myself witless with some Doom 3 or Dead Space. But these are still largely reactions you can get from popping in Saving Private Ryan or any (in)decent horror flick. What I want to talk about in this entry are the responses that I think gaming has a unique opportunity to effect.

Enter Deus Ex, which I regard as the magnum opus of the modern cyberpunk-thriller genre. Read my review here, or skim the Wikipedia article for more info. Dark, serious, and solidly based upon real-world politics and theoretical sciences, Deus Ex extrapolates logically upon current social climates and technological development (circa 2000) to a future overrun by parasitic, corporate capitalism (that’s not too far-fetched for you, is it?) and troubled by increasingly questionable uses of bioengineering and genetic modification. The player character represents the synthesis of those two motives, a superhuman created by a “cabal of technophiles” to defend national interests against various “terrorist” groups (noteworthy is the fact that national and corporate interests are essentially equivalent in this context). Your job throughout the game is, in the simplest terms, akin to peeling an onion — an onion whose every layer is another conspiracy of global portent.

Ok. Are you still reading? Then you probably realize that a set of problems this massive and complex simply cannot be satisfactorily solved unless you’ve got a big red “S” stuck to your chest. The key word is “satisfactorily.” There are solutions available to you at the end of the game (three, in fact), but none of them are anything but problematic, much less offer you a sure road to human salvation and the obligatory victory cutscene. The brilliance of Deus Ex is that though you are, more or less, a superhero, you cannot save the world. All your extraordinary abilities win you is the chance to get yourself all good and invested in the outcome of the plot only to arrive at a tie between three equally dubious choices.

One of the three endings quotes Voltaire. Can you name another game that quotes Voltaire?

Many games offer the player options; a (sometimes paralyzing) degree of control over your character serves as a supporting pillar of basically every RPG in existence, and several other franchises have also capitalized on player choice as the impetus of plot development (see the Star Wars Jedi Knight series), but these choices are largely relegated to very black and white, good vs. evil situations (do I wantonly slice that hapless bystander with my lightsaber, or… not?). Deus Ex is one of a relatively small contingent of games to thoughtfully, persistently delve into moral territory so grey as to be virtually impossible to navigate. There are no right choices in Deus Ex, only choices.

Of course, we shouldn’t praise moral ambiguity simply for its own sake; if we did, we might just as easily prefer characters like, say, the Joker to come out on top instead of Batman, at which point… what’s the point? But the complexity of Deus Ex provokes a kind of reasoning that is really only just beginning to be utilized in gaming: ethics. To keep the superhero thread running, who’s really going to boo Superman for saving a bus-load of children from toppling off a bridge? He’s a stand-up guy, no doubt about it, and that kind of simplicity can be satisfying, too. My favorite novel, The Lord of the Rings, features one of the clearest notions of right and wrong ever put on paper. Clarity is definitely a good thing.

But consider, in contrast, the conclusion of a film like The Dark Knight, with Batman accused of multiple homicide. It’s certainly not the ideal outcome, but the way the characters deal with it says a lot more about them than a knee-jerk reaction to the tired “rescue X from Y” trope ever could. In Deus Ex, it is the player who must react effectively to an unyielding, unforgiving environment, and I think the process of that reaction unlocks not just an exploratory gaming experience, but a self-exploratory one. Isn’t that exactly what “art,” however we define that almost totally useless term, is supposed to provoke? Explorations like that are vital to our media because they require us to examine and sometimes redefine the beliefs and the values with which we approach the world; they’re especially vital to our video games because they continue to prove that this medium can make worthwhile contributions to modern culture.

I digress. Next time, I’ll dive into Rapture in search of a little thing called “cultural relevance.” Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it? I know. I’ve had Django Reinhardt’s “La Mer” on repeat for days in anticipation. (Just for clarity, that’s repeat in my head. I apparently can’t make it stop.) So, readers — what other games haunt you with their moral complexity? Any I absolutely can’t afford to miss? And yes, I’m already working on Fallout 3.

 

 

 

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My Top Five Most Memorable Video Game Showdowns

Making a game that is entertaining in general is one thing, but creating really memorable confrontations between the player and their foes is quite another. There seem to be a handful of ways that game developers can rely on that will both depict the villain as powerful and difficult to overcome and allow the player to do it without too much frustration. It’s critical that both of these aspects are maintained, the first because you have to feel like you’re doing something important and hard, and the second because you don’t want the flow of the game interrupted.

One of the most common scenarios is the standard FPS approach, in which the player might have less innate power than their foe, but can sure as hell shoot bigger guns at them — seeDoom 3 or Return to Castle Wolfenstein. When that doesn’t work, perhaps because the enemy is invulnerable to normal attacks, you can let the player in on a secret weakness that they can then exploit (see any number of platformer games; check out Portal for a really unique FPS example). This last one seems more common to me, probably occurring more often for the sake of adding variety to a game. There are a few other possibilities for how we gamers can defeat the big bad bosses, but they usually fall into one (or both) of those general categories.

However, that’s not what I’m interested in right now. The confrontations I’m looking to record here are the ones that really stick with you for reasons other than their difficulty or originality. I’m looking for those showdowns that you’ll remember forever not only because of the showdown itself, but also for the build-up to it and the characters involved. My examples will be biased in favor of PC games since that’s what I play most; they’ll also likely not include anything from more strategy-based genres, because I want to focus more on the you-against-the-world/mano-a-mano sorts of battles. So, these are listed basically in the order that they occurred to me.

JC Denton vs. Walton Simons, Deus Ex

The world economy is falling apart around you. A man-made disease is killing off millions needlessly. You’re stuck in the bowels of a defunct deep-sea base, fighting off irritating little poison-spitting lizard-birds, the result of some mad scientist’s genetic experiments (“Green greasy greasels!”), and all the while some slimy-voiced douche-bag pipes his narcissistic plans for world domination straight into your brain. Where in god’s name is the fucking mute button on this InfoLink!? Well, you’re in luck, because said power-hungry creepo Walton Simons is coming to stop you escaping from the base, and his smug ass is definitely not armed well enough to handle JC Denton. At last, you get to reap your sweet revenge for all his angsty, meaningless rantings about you foiling his plans thus far. Generally, I find a good slice or two with the Dragon’s Tooth sword most satisfying.

Why is it memorable? Because Walton Simons is an affront to all that is good and noble in humanity, and you, a genetically-modified, nano-augmented superman, have the power to splash his guts all over the goddamn underwater cavern (or Area 51, depending on your choices), thus putting an end to the military head of one of the most dastardly plots ever devised to take over the world. I kid you not, the first time I killed him, I got up out of my chair, pointed viciously and shouted at my computer screen: “Eat shit and die, you smug. fucking. bastard.”

Death Egg Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Every now and then I bust out the old Sega Genesis and play through the favorites again, and Sonic 2 is always one of them. Some will tell you the original Sonic title is harder and therefore better, but my eight year-old self was probably better suited to the less frustrating sequel. It was still quite challenging, and didn’t feature any of the save-game nonsense of the third one (says the lifelong PC gamer). This meant that getting to Death Egg Zone was a real feat of patience and persistence, and all the more exciting because of it. I still get that tension in my gut when I run down that long hallway in outer space and start the face-off with the robot Sonic. Denying the player any rings at all for this level was a great move in that it means you can’t make a single mistake. Add to that a near-perfect soundtrack, and you’re in for an epic battle that’ll give you a lovely feeling of a job well done.

I particularly appreciate Sonic standing there all hands-on-his-hips glaring at a giant doomsday robot. Surely one of the eternal badasses of video gaming.

The Chaos Sanctuary, Diablo II

It’s a long haul to Hell, that’s for sure, and after chasing Big D across damn near the entire known world, all you want is his blood. But you can’t have it. At least, not right away. He’s still got minions a-plenty, and some of the most irritating kinds in the game. Heavy hitting physical/fire damage combos, mana-sucking casters that run away from you and cast again, and oh yeah — anybody like wielding melee weapons? Try it. I dare you.

Once you make it past the Iron Maiden-casting Oblivion Knights (or perhaps if; I’ve heard of people quitting the game because of those guys), you still have to deal with Diablo’s super uniques — the Grand Vizier of Chaos, Lord De Seis, and the Infector of Souls, plus their minions. Each is tuned slightly differently so as to offer challenges to various character types (the Infector generally proves hardest for me because he’s so obnoxiously fast). Then, at last, when the countless hordes lie dead about the Sanctuary, the ground shakes and Diablo at last shows himself, uttering possibly the most badass taunt ever thrown at PC gamers: Not even death can save you from me. After which, he proceeds to roast you alive with the dreaded Lightning Hose — the near-instantly lethal attack that has provoked an indignant “AWW, SHIT!!” from me more times than I can possibly count. Regarding town portals: cast early, cast often.

All in all, this battle with the Lord of Terror is one of the most memorable not only because of the skill, patience, and versatility required to get through it, but also because of the sheer build-up to this moment. A deliciously dark fantasy world complemented by great cutscenes and tense, addictive gameplay makes this showdown a satisfying (semi-)conclusion to one of the most popular RPGs of all time.

Batman vs. every last incarcerated criminal in Gotham City, Batman: Arkham Asylum

I have been waiting for a good Batman game since I was three years old, when I saw Tim Burton’s film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson for the first time. And at last, we have a great Batman game. I can’t recall the last title I’ve played (if there is one) in which I had so much fun kicking the tar out of so many enemies all at once.

It’s on my Showdown list for a couple reasons. For one, the game does a fantastic job in making you feel utterly alone in the looniest loony bin on Earth, and that you are really, truly the only thing standing between Gotham and total chaos. And secondly, because every single encounter with the Joker’s thugs was so thrillingly, perfectly Batman, whether I swept through the shadows and hung them upside-down from gargoyles or just strolled right up and smashed all their faces into the pavement. No other game has made me feel so incredibly powerful, so (literally) able to take on dozens of foes at once and emerge the absolute, undisputed victor. Sometimes I sit up on a ledge someplace, look down at the oblivious goons wandering around below, and just enjoy the perfect satisfaction in knowing that every one of them will soon be beaten, broken, and unconscious, all because I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Beyond repeatedly exhibiting the Caped Crusader’s superior physical prowess, though, you can effectively plan out exactly how you want to engage your enemies — just like Batman would. Many of the combat sequences in Arkham reminded me of the finale of The Dark Knight in that they force you to flawlessly manage multiple enemies and situations at once. While the entire game is phenomenal, Arkham Asylum‘s combat is so finely, so impressively crafted that it turns me into a giggling mess every single time I snap some creep’s arm out of its socket. At long last, I am the goddamn BATMAN.

Sabotage at Soulforge, Thief II: The Metal Age

This one struck me as a strange addition to a list of memorable confrontations — I mean, unless you’re playing Normal difficulty (who does that, anyway?), deliberately fighting anybody in this game is usually a pretty convenient recipe for suicide. However, this level is such a great climax to a such a great game that I had to make the case.

So Karras, a thoroughly loony religious fanatic with a serious speech impediment, has decided all organic life in the City must die. You, as the master thief Garrett, are the only one sneaky enough to successfully navigate his massive, high-security cathedral/fortress, Soulforge, and turn his own maniacal plan against him. He’s got cameras, alarms and cartoon-bomb tossing robots a-plenty, and he knows you’re in there, too, so he’s put them all on high alert. And, like Walton Simons, he has an ego that seems to insist that he pester you constantly over his loudspeakers all throughout the cathedral. If I ever exhibit an unfair bias against persons with speech impediments, I blame Thief II.

Aside from being a very difficult, very long mission, full of not only Karras’s robots, but also plenty of tile and metal floors to be certain you make as much noise as possible, I chose this one because of all the weirdly ironic story elements that lead you up to this point. Garrett is the perfect anti-hero, yet here he is again saving the City from a maniac alongside an old enemy from the previous game. Though I despise Karras with every ounce of my nerdy being, he’s a fantastically written character — bizarre, exasperating and amusing all at once. His squeaking wail during the final cutscene is absolutely priceless, especially since it was you who forced it from him.

Well, there you have it. I have to give an honorable mention, though, to the sequence in No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way that has you battling ninjas in a trailer park near Akron, Ohio while a tornado rips the place apart. Eventually you end up battling the ninja leader inside a trailer that’s been picked up by the twister. Not something gamers are generally subjected to, and it was side-splittingly funny to boot.

Classic PC Game Reviews, Vol. II — Deus Ex

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.

This is called symbolism.

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.

Each slot features two different augmentations; selections are permanent, so choose wisely.

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.