Note: as before, this post was featured on GamaSutra. Also, my tendency to let incidental thoughts between parentheses meander into entire paragraphs has now been remedied through the use of footnotes.
Throughout Deus Ex: Human Revolution's development, Eidos Montréal has joked that "we all played Deus Ex, and some of us were even forced to play Deus Ex: Invisible War". It is a fairly flawed game, even when considering its near-impossible task of following and rivaling an iconic predecessor. My thoughts have already been mentioned in this post, and they were only affirmed by a recent playthrough. It occurred to me that there is a very specific way in which Deus Ex: IW fails to engage the player, beyond some of the more obvious shortcomings that the Short Script picks up on ((To anyone thinking about (re)playing Deus Ex: IW, I highly recommend downloading John P's Unified Texture Pack here. It dramatically enhances and improves the quality and resolution of the game's textures, and I can't imagine playing without it.)).
It first struck me when watching this post-mortem on Deus Ex: IW by its creative director, Harvey Smith. He specifically mentions the consolidation (console-idation? I kill me!) of the swimming skill and aqualung augmention in the first game into a single biomod in the second. While his example is technically a theoretical exercise (there is no swimming in Deus Ex: IW), it applies to many of the design decisions made for Deus Ex: IW and provides an interesting vantage point on what I believe to be one of its largest flaws. As Smith puts it, even though this consolidation process makes no difference on a mechanical level, it does curb a player's fantasy that he is exercising his own authority in choosing how to develop his character and how those choices are reflected in the game world. In my opinion, Deus Ex: IW breaks this fantasy in a myriad of seemingly innocent ways.
The key is Smith's use of the word "fantasy" and how it relates to player agency, a concept I previously broached in this post (which ironically includes a link to Smith discussing player freedom in Deus Ex). The relation can in fact be as simple as calling player agency a fantasy ((This is not the case when a game is specifically designed around multiple choices that aren't readily apparent (in story and/or gameplay). An example in Deus Ex is the fate of Paul Denton. JC's actions decide whether he lives or dies, but this is never made explicit. Many players attested that they didn't realise they could save Paul until it was pointed out to them. Only playing the game both ways provides the full story. Outright gimmickry in other media (such as Run Lola Run's structure) would be needed to compete with the elegant multiple narratives that separate playthroughs in games can provide (a point gleaned verbatim from this article).)). Without knowledge of multiple avenues inside a game, agency only becomes an impediment once that fantasy is broken. As long as the player has the impression that his actions and choices matter, he will lend them credence and meaning (regardless of how many avenues there actually are). The same principle applies to level design, which can make a world seem more alive and expansive than it really is. Crafting agency then goes beyond offering visible dialogue choices or gameplay approaches. The former influences the story while the latter influences gameplay (any crossovers notwithstanding), and Deus Ex: IW focuses on the wrong end of the equation.
The game attempts to offer the player full agency in its storyline by allowing him to align himself with every faction in the game. This is most significant when considering the Knights Templar, who are consistently portrayed as irredeemably evil and easy to hate. They are the only faction which the player has to fight until its leader, Saman, attempts to sway him to his cause close to the end of the game. This is sorely inconsistent with everything that preceded, even (and especially) if the player actually decides to join them. Contrarywise, Deus Ex offered no option to stay with UNATCO, but in light of its overarching narrative, it couldn't, nor did it have to ((Ironically, unused audio files suggest it was initially planned by the developers. This conversation has JC disbelieving Paul's evidence of UNATCO's corruption, but it's likely that a subsequent event would have made it untenable for JC to keep refuting Paul (perhaps the raid by UNATCO troopers that follows that scene anyway).)). Of the "flaws" that Deus Ex had, this was one its sequel did not need to fix.
Gameplay-wise, Deus Ex and Deus Ex: IW are by and large similar beasts in their approach. Whenever the player meets an obstacle, he consumes a certain number of his resources to get past it, be they lockpicks or explosives for doors, multitools or nearby computer terminals for cameras, and lethal or non-lethal weapons for guards. Deus Ex: IW drastically reduces the number of available resources to streamline the interface and ease up the learning curve (for instance, doors are now indestructable and multitools also function as lockpicks), but it's less about this reduction and more about how all the different approaches are implemented in gameplay so as to maintain (the illusion of) agency. The best illustration is how Deus Ex: IW handles keycodes.
In both games, keycodes are numerical and either handed out by characters or gleaned from datacubes. The difference is that Deus Ex makes the player physically type the code into a keypad, while Deus Ex: IW automates this process (using a keypad opens the corresponding door as if it were a simple toggle). The outcome is the same from a mechanical standpoint, because only one keycode is correct. But the agency effected by the player is diminished because he wasn't allowed to enter that keycode himself. This also eliminates all possiblity of guesswork from Deus Ex: IW, since the successful operation of a keypad depends on having completed the interaction which yields the correct keycode, rather than the keycode itself.
Ostensibly trivial design decisions such as this, when added up, contribute to the player losing his feeling of agency, even if it is just that: a feeling. At the time of writing, player agency's most devoted advocate Clint Hocking has posted another piece on its (d)evolution, which neatly dovetails with the above assertions.
Welcome to Playthroughline, a personal blog focused on the implementation of stories in games. In addition to general musings about narrative design, you’ll also find a collection of Scripts that basically do for videogames what The Editing Room does for movies.