Gun beats sword – the pragmatic world of Deus Ex

To coincide with the release today of Deus Ex: Mankind divided, Squareblind will be taking a look this week at some of the previous games in the series.  This is the first.

By Neil Merrett

Deus Ex on Playstation 2 – released 2002, Eidos Interactive

So there’s this scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark that you probably know.

Our hero is confronted by a terrifying masked warrior, who begins to stylistically and aggressively brandish a scimitar that he skillfully flails around in an intimidating manner.

He is ready for a grand battle.

Standing before this formidable assailant, and with no time to engage in a grueling battle of steel and skill, a nonplussed Indy simply decides to shoot the swordsman and carry on with barely a second’s thought.

In essence, pragmatism at its most brutal and brilliant.

Aped in what feels like a million different films and shows since, the scene is beloved the world over by boys and girls of all ages as a sign of staggering cool and utter contempt for unnecessary effort.

In many ways videogames, with their casual allowance of similarly unscripted brilliance, are a perfect platform for this kind of brutal pragmatism.

Deus Ex, first released some 16 years ago on PC, still stands out as a beacon of stealthy choices and Indiana Jones-style experimentation with violent absurdity, not least in a semi-optional confrontation with an assassin, media personality and all around bad-un called Maggie Chow.

In what is typical for the game’s twisting narrative and character relationships, the shadowy figure and somewhat racially insensitive ‘dragon lady’ stereotype turns on the player, brandishing a terrifying blue lazer blade with which to cleave you in pieces.

Many games to this day would set up some arena confrontation requiring you to engage, honourably, but somewhat unfairly, in an epic battle to the death brandishing swords and utmost cunning to defeat such a villain.

Yet Deus Ex, in allowing you to largely customise your approach to adventure, allows you to do what any self respecting sub-machine gun carrying coward would when confronted by an enraged sword wielding maniac.

It was a battle that lasted seconds. Indy would be proud.

Although a relatively young medium, videogames hold their traditions in high reverence.

So an end to level boss or huge villain is often still designed to be feared and struggled against over and over as a means to provide heightened challenge and eventual victory narrowly clutched from the jaws of defeat. Games are not supposed to encourage sly deception and free wheeling cowardice by tricking an all powerful supervillain to run into several landmines hidden behind some wheelie bins.

Yet alongside gun battles and burglary, Deus ex, within its huge shadowy world of ridiculously ornate global conspiracies, allowed for talking and reason, as well as gung-ho brutality and sneaking through vents. The idea was to choose the right approach for how you wished to play, whether stylish murder, or back stabbing cowardice, it probably told certain kinds of players a little too much about themselves.

After all, this was a world where it appeared that you can choose which major characters live or die, who to stand and fight with, or flee from when the situation was too tough, testing the bonds of family, love, and questioning who to trust.

The plot was backed with a satisfying upgrade – or augmentation dynamic – that still exists through the remaining series of games, granting optional super powers to match each  individual gamers’ preferences.  These range from from triggering a near invulnerability to bullets, to skills in lock picking or allowing for actual temporary  invisibility.

How about the ability to leap several stories in a single jump instead? Choices made really affected the game, with secret hidden kill words even allowing you to literally talk some of the game’s shadowy villains literally to death.

Looking at it now, Deus Ex looks and plays rather clunkily.  What were once effective, if not stunning recreations of a terrorist ravaged Ellis Island or a future Hong Kong, now appear as blocky environments in which to engage in its cumbersome gun mechanics.

The artificial intelligence meanwhile allowing you to outsmart armies of high powered foes now seems woeful, yet none of this seems to stay with many gamer who played through the original title.

What remains are the memories of those individual choices where players narrowly escaped death or cockily blew up a single boss or group of foes in an over elaborate death trap.  The option to jump over or chat your way through the game world to bring down an entire new world order is likely to remain as vivid for gamers as when they first played more than a decade ago.

But in the intervening years, Deus Ex, and to varying degrees its sequels, remains evocative of a real landmark in videogames, providing a treasure trove of choices that other titles could only dream if.

A wealth of shooter and stealth titles over the last decade made the player perform and abide to in-game rules limiting how you could really play or approach challenges – no matter how nonsensical.

Sam Fisher, the character in Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow for instance, could cram himself into ceiling spaces, then lure enemies into a room and drop down to dispatch them.  Yet, at the same time he could not crawl over a small fence in the same level to escape the game’s pre-set boundaries, requiring the player to enter into a small building full of enemies ready to fill you with bullets.

Red faction 2 would allow you to blow your own path through walls, and use powerful guns to kill any living entity in a single shot through walls or ceilings, except in the case of its end of area boss fights, who you must engage face on, as required by the title’s programming.

In the end, these games were to be played the way they were designed, no pragmatism required.

But in a post-Deus Ex world, none of it felt good enough.

Not a bad legacy for any piece of art or entertainment all-in-all.

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