In 2000, video-game storytelling was still largely in its infancy. The plots in most titles, if there were any plots at all, tended to be thin threads connecting each action sequence, offering the barest context necessary to push your character from level to level. There were exceptions – the likes of Final Fantasy VII and Planescape: Torment, released in 1997 and 1998 respectively, were light-years ahead of anything else released at the time. But if Deus Ex wasn’t the first title to offer a complex, thought-provoking storyline with well-developed characters, the way it told that story was revolutionary.
Set in 2052, Deus Ex posits a near future world where mechanical and genetic body modification have become the norm and where social breakdown, unrest, terrorism, and a deadly plague are sweeping the United States. You play as JC Denton, a newly recruited and heavily augmented agent in an anti-terrorist agency called UNATCO.
The opening few hours of the game, in which you fight a series of running battles across New York with a violently militant rebel group known as the NSF, are a masterclass in organic world building. The small but open environs – Liberty Island, Battery Park, Hell’s Kitchen – positively crackle with violence and poverty. Ramshackle homeless camps sprawl in disused parks, children beg for food, ill-looking prostitutes sullenly hawk their wares, and armed men – police, soldiers, rebels, gangsters – roam the streets. The game world is packed with newspapers, books and emails that fill in the holes in the backstory. It all adds up to give the feel of a nation falling apart.
Equally fascinating is the game’s nuanced view of its various factions. At a time when most video games offered up little more than straight battles of good vs evil, Deus Ex painted in shades of grey. The NSF see themselves as freedom fighters against a government they justifiably see as corrupt and tyrannical, but they also kill innocent people, take civilian hostages, make deals with criminals, and generally terrorise the local population. The government’s social Darwinian response to extreme poverty and the plague essentially abandons America’s poorest to their fate, and they deal with the resulting violence through repression and outright brutality. Within each organisation there are good people and bad. Few other games at that time incorporated such subtleties.
The later stages of Deus Ex admittedly produce a more obviously straightforward antagonist, but the twists and turns the story-line takes to get there are still surprising. The game offers up a killer premise: what if every conspiracy theory you’ve heard was real? From the Illuminati, to men in black, to false flag operations, Deus Ex heads deep into a sci-fi-ish conspiratorial rabbit hole that’s hugely fun while, crucially, staying rooted in real-world trends and politics. After all, in a post-Snowden world is it really so hard to believe that we’re subject to massive government surveillance programmes?
Indeed, in many ways Deus Ex feels like a very prescient game. It took terrorism on US soil as a main theme a year before 9/11. It even, eerily, mentions that the World Trade Centre has been destroyed in a terrorist attack, although admittedly this was developers Ion Storm making a virtue of the game’s memory limitations, which precluded the inclusion of the Twin Towers on the Manhattan skyline. It’s certainly easy to see shades of the worst excesses of the War on Terror in the in-game response of the government, with its illegal renditions and ‘enhanced interrogation’ of captured combatants. Likewise Deus Ex‘s depiction of social inequality, one-percenter oligarchies, and globalised corporations run amok feels more relevant than ever in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
Gameplay wise, Deus Ex was one of the first games to put a heavy emphasis on player choice. While, on the surface, it looks like a straight-forward first-person shooter, Deus Ex incorporates stealth and RPG-elements as well, influenced by the likes of the Thief and System Shock series. Most objectives will have multiple ways of going about them, and the game allows you to build your character in a way that best suits you. Perhaps you prefer frontal assaults, in which case maybe you want to pour skill points into the use of heavy weapons. Or perhaps you favour the quieter approach, in which case it’s worth picking upgrades that allow you to temporarily turn invisible and creep inside via the air ducts. It is entirely possible, if admittedly tricky, to get through the entirety of Deus Ex‘s 25 or so hours of gameplay without killing anyone. The game doesn’t favour one approach over the other – it leaves that up to the whims of the player. But it encourages players to explore their surroundings and think about their options, making for a more rewarding experience and adding some serious replayability value.
Inevitably, some elements have aged poorly. For one, the main characters all sport the long black trench coats and quasi-fetish gear that were the required garments for all turn-of-the-millennium cyber-thriller protagonists (The Matrix has a lot to answer for). Graphically, it doesn’t look great either. The grainy resolution adds an inadvertently effective dystopian sheen to proceedings, but the boxy character models weren’t exactly cutting edge even at the time, and now look downright hideous.
Meanwhile the shooting mechanics, competent enough back in 2000, inevitably suffer by comparison to today’s slick shooters, and the RPG system was always a little unbalanced (the swimming skill, for example, was virtually useless, while your military-trained main character can apparently barely fire a handgun in the game’s early stages). But the most comical issues of all are the regular reminders that Deus Ex was released in an era where professional voice actors for video games had yet to become the norm. With a few exceptions the voice acting really is hilariously terrible, reaching its nadir in a section set in Hong Kong that has to heard to be believed.
But if the gameplay and graphics have dated (and these are relatively minor quibbles), after all these years the storyline still holds up as one of gaming’s strongest. Ion Storm created a rich, intricate world that is easy to lose yourself in even now. Deus Ex was followed by a sequel (Invisible War) and two prequels (Human Revolution and Mankind Divided) but as enjoyable as those games are none of them possess the same depth or revolutionary innovation as their predecessor. It’s a dark, twisty masterpiece whose influence on modern gaming is incalculable.