Choices and the Consequences That Follow: Celebrating Deus Ex
In the world of role-playing games, adventure games and action-RPGs, choice has become a massive deal. The ability to affect and mold the story around the actions of the character has become a notable factor in review and criticism of how these games play out, yet there was a time when the idea of multiple choice and action-based outcomes were not nearly so widespread. It’s hard to say that the original Deus Ex single-handedly changed the industry in this regard, but as one of the first games to adapt the concept into nearly every fiber of its being, it can certainly be considered as the one that lit the powder keg and got the attention of developers around the world going forward. Today, we celebrate the original release of one of the most interesting and influential games of all time.
Development of Deus Ex was going on well before anyone began any kind of programming and it didn’t nearly make it past conception on several occasions. Creator and director Warren Spector was working at Looking Glass Technologies and, after growing tired of science and fantasy-fiction given the numerous titles he developed, Spector looked to create something entirely new: A big-budget role-playing shooter set in real-world events. Spector began to conceptualize his ideas. However, Looking Glass and Origin were never prepared to give the game the go-ahead and eventually, Spector would be laid off from Looking Glass. Fortunately, Specter’s ideas did not die there. John Romero of DOOM fame recognized Specter’s abilities and hired Spector on with Romero’s studio, Ion Storm. It was here that Specter would be given unfettered access to design his dream game.
Spector had worked on ideas for Deus Ex for a long time – so much so that he had a manifesto on the ideal structure of his new role-playing game. This manifesto contained core elements of what Deus Ex would become known for, such as the idea that NPCs watch the player and respond to with knowledge of the player’s actions throughout the game and areas with multiple entrance and exit methods. Before the game actually entered production, this manifesto had grown to a whopping 500 pages of material both in-line and radically evolved from Spector’s original concepts. With the help of this manifesto, Deus Ex was shaped into its own unique beast: a sci-fi one with ridiculously versatile gameplay options and a memory of player usage of their tools. Furthermore, outside inspiration was taken from the popular X-Files TV series, which informed the conspiracy theory-laden narrative of Deus Ex.
Deus Ex’s story takes players to the year of 2052. In a world that has embraced cybernetic enhancement, a specialized plague is gripping humanity and devastating it. A cure exists, but its rarity restricts its availability to the super elite while the common masses are left to die. Much of the world’s population responds violently to this restriction, prompting riots, resistance, and terrorist uprising. As a result, the United Nations takes action, establishing a new force to police the Earth’s descent into madness. Players take on the role of a cybernetically augmented agent of the UN, known as JC Denton, as he attempts to fight against the chaos amid shadow organizations that attempt to utilize the panic to their benefit.
Deus Ex introduced players to a whole new type of game. Appearing as a first-person shooter, players actually have a slew of options to get through the game. Lethal and non-lethal weapons, hacking, lockpicking, and other versatile methods got their start here for the franchise and were implemented in a way that encouraged the player to play their way. This was even further pushed by the sheer amount of RPG skill tree options and equipable augments that boost abilities based on the style the player favors.
Looking at the original Deus Ex is illuminating to say the least. It’s influence and implementation can be seen throughout the gaming industry, such as in RPGs like Bioware’s Mass Effect and in stealth and action-oriented affairs like Dishonored. The sequels and prequels that followed would evolve the Deus Ex formula pretty thoroughly, but it’s still eye-opening to see the core mechanics of Human Revolution and Mankind Divided in their rudimentary form in the original.. Deus Ex may not have single-handedly changed the way we think about choice in games, but it arguably opened the topic more thoroughly than any other game before it.