With the recent release of Dishonored, I think it is appropriate to do a retrospection of one of the games that inspired it- the original Deus Ex. All the aspects that make Dishonored great- the stealth mechanics, the role-playing elements, and most importantly the open-endedness in the way the player can approach a problem- all that resonates from a game that was released more than a decade ago. Although Deus Ex is a game many have heard about, not so many have played it. No doubt this is probably due to its age, released in a time when HD graphics were not the norm and when video gaming was a more niche hobby than it is today.
Modern gamers have probably played its prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution instead, which reflects and improves upon many of the same qualities present in the original game. The prequel is critically acclaimed and can absolutely be seen as an excellent successor to the original.
With the acclaim that Dishonored and Human Revolution has received, it is worth looking into the games of yesterday that inspired the great games of today. Despite its age, Deus Ex still stands among the greatest games ever created, both by rankings, scores, and opinion.
What made Deus Ex so great, and how is that reflected in the modern games of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored?
It’s the freedom of choice.
Very few modern games have exemplified the freedom of choice as much as Deus Ex had. For every given objective there are multiple ways of tackling them, each way revealed to you only through your own discovery. You might have the objective “Get past x”, but you’ll never have an additional side objective “(Optional) Use the sewers to get past x” get spelled out for you. The game respects the player enough to rend waypoints and markers ludicrous in Deus Ex. Instead, the player must rely on their own resources, wits, and curiosity to find and execute a solution. While a sense of direction is appreciated in gaming, open-endedness is much more rewarding to players because it allows them to solve a problem through their own discovery and decision making, as opposed to a path the designer laid out.
Let me try to give you a very abridged walkthrough of the very first level of Deus Ex. Dropped off on Liberty Island, the player is tasked with apprehending a terrorist leader hiding inside the Statue of Liberty. Important decisions are available from the beginning: you can obtain a password from a datapad lying around which will give the player access to a security computer that can unlock the guarded front gates; alternatively, you can take the advice a hobo woman gives you (should you choose to talk to her) and take the long way, sneaking around the statue to the unguarded backdoor entrance which takes you directly to the main objective. While inside, you can pursue your secondary objective of rescuing your comrade by hacking the security system or by traversing a ventilation shaft. Even though these are not the full range of options available in that level, already you can see how one can acquire options by carefully scanning the environment, and acting upon them as they choose.
The choices available accommodates instead of discriminates against any players’ preferred style of play. Whether you prefer to avoid all contact and sneak into the building through the upper floor window, kill the guards quietly from afar with a silenced sniper rifle, or knock on the front door guns blazing, there is no one option the game forces or encourages you to do. It is also important to note that most of these decisions have consequences- for example, it can take a lot of ammunition to take down opposition, but it protects you from the risk of a stealthy approach and escape. One solution is not significantly better than the other, which means the player can play as they choose without feeling they are pursuing a below optimal path. In other words, decisions and various ways of thinking are balanced. That’s why you can’t call Deus Ex a “stealth game” or a “FPS game”, even though you can play the game like one.
The freedom in Deus Ex goes hand in hand with the wide range of capabilities the player has, provided by the copious amounts of augmentations and tools at their disposal. The variety of tools from lockpicks to unlock doors, multitools to disable security systems, and explosives to set up a trap or blow up things indicate the options available when the player wants to get things done. Augmentations can give the player abilities from stealth to speed, and even the ability to summon drones to scout and destroy hostile bots (if you haven’t hacked them to attack the enemy already). Information is also a powerful weapon: a datapad or email you discover, while mainly providing tidbits of lore, can also give you a clue or code that opens up a whole new option.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be familiar to those who have played Deus Ex, and vice versa. It was also a stellar game, with many of the same features that existed in the original. Options, items, lore, and information is also gathered through a meticulous exploration of the environment. It improves on the original in the areas of dialogue and stealth since conversations provide more vital information (as well as being more interesting), and stealth was made more responsive with the radar and cover system. However, it has one flaw involving the most important thing that made Deus Ex great. Nonlethal takedowns were objectively better than non-engagement or massacre, since they gave more experience. A player playing a nonlethal playthrough would end up stronger than a player that guns down every guard they see, which warps the nondiscriminatory element of choice that was so prevalent in the original.
Dishonored is also great in the open-endedness of its levels. The player very capable of executing their task however they want. Letters and notes provide valuable information, tools provide options for engagement, magical powers provide even more. Is there any other game where you can possess a rat and crawl through otherwise inaccessible ventilation as a stealthy approach? The Blink power in Dishonored is also an excellent mechanic that could provide enough satisfaction in combat or stealth in itself, allowing Corvo the freedom of movement to cross rooftops undetected or teleport behind the enemy for an easy kill.
However, Dishonored suffers from a similar flaw to Human Revolution: the most optimal way to play is not kill people. The Chaos feature throws more obstacles and enemies in the game if the player gets too many kills. Although the Chaos system provides interesting differences in the story and dialogue between a low-Chaos and high-chaos playthrough, the mistake lies in the fact that the gameplay is influenced. Since the Chaos system opens up an optimal way to play, it twists the freedom of choice a little.
Unfortunately, killing is always a temptation in Dishonored because the combat is so damned fun. Crossbow bolts sink into enemies in a satisfying way I cannot explain. Sword combat has an enjoyable rhythm of parry and riposte. Stealth kill animations are quick, brutal, and great to watch. Don’t get me started about using a power to summon rats to devour a nearby guard, or stopping time so you can shoot multiple guards at once, to watch them fall down in unison seconds later.
With Deus Ex being the game that does it the best, the open-endedness of these games not only provides a more enjoyable approach to problem solving, but also gives the game potential for tons of replayability. Not only can every objective be solved in a way you haven’t discovered before, you can set your own rules for gameplay (i.e. a nonlethal playthrough).
Deus Ex, while not having the modern features of Dishonored and Human Revolution, does choice perfectly. This is just a recommendation for PC gamers out there, especially those who like Dishonored and Human Revolution, to experience the roots of player choice by playing one of the greatest PC games of all time.