Monday, December 12, 2011

Thoughts on Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I've been playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I had a few game design thoughts to share. This post contains minor spoilers. You have been warned.

A lot of people have commented on the incongruous "boss fights" in Human Revolution, and rightly so. They are quite embarrassing, really. They force the player out of the story, thrusting you through the fourth wall to realize that yes, this is a game, you just finished a level, and so there's a boss fight.

Not that I've scoured the Internet for reviews, but I have yet to see anyone else address the issue of the game's beginning sequences. In a game that prides itself on cleverness of storytelling, how am I supposed to believe that Adam Jensen is actually the head of security in a multinational biotech company? In the first level after the prelude, my boss—the man who runs the company—gives me a choice of exactly one weapon to take with me into an unknown situation. I take it for granted when I have dozens of inventory slots that I can probably carry more than just a short-range stun gun. We can let this one slide because it's a tutorial level, but notice that this is a foreshadowing of the narrative-jarring boss fights: this is a game that knows it's a game and won't let you forget it.

The next scene has Adam Jensen, Head of Security, back in his office building. Once I realized I had an office, I checked my email and found out that someone has been stealing office supplies. So, what's a Head of Security to do? Obviously, the answer is break into some offices and search for clues. Break into offices?! I'M THE HEAD OF SECURITY. I should be able to get into anyone's office, and I sure as hell shouldn't have to CRAWL THROUGH DUCTWORK to do so!

Aha, so the game wants me to learn about breaking and entering in a safe place, where there are no armed enemies. It felt wrong to crawl through ductwork in my own building, especially when every office has windows, through which you can see people chatting in the hallway. So in the spirit of "it's just a tutorial," we could let it go. However, there was one part of this scene that completely snapped me out of the game.

There was money everywhere.

It seems that in the future, people only use gift cards, and they leave them all over the place. It made me wonder, if I were to walk through my building (or crawl through its ample ductwork) and look at my coworker's desks, how many would have hundreds of dollars on their bookcases or in their desk drawers? But it wasn't just the presence of the money that bothered me: it was the gameness of it. I found myself staring at a credit chit, wondering if I should take it or not. More specifically, I wondered, Does this game have a karma system, and am I going to lose morale or reputation for taking this? See, this stuff wasn't credits or money at all—it's just a mcguffin that I can collect. And because it's there, I need to take it, because I know how the economics of these games is balanced: if you want to get the best goods, you need to be an explorer and take everything you can find. I'm not taking cash from my coworkers. I'm just collecting arbitrary units that I can use to get the bigger gun I know I'm going to need, because the only other thing I know about the game at this point is that there's going to be rough boss fights. (Thanks, Internet!)

I finish exploring every nook and cranny of the building that I can access without leveling up my hack skill. After all, I don't want to actually hack my own building's security system, I just want to explore its ductwork. The next mission has me leaving the building and getting out into the streets of Detroit. (The Assassin's Creed developers know how to make a city feel crowded; Human Revolution pays homage to the empty streets of the original Deus Ex.) One of the first places I visit is a weapons dealer in an abandoned gas station. I am Adam Jensen, Head of Security, and I'm buying a tranquilizer rifle with stolen money from a guy in an abandoned gas station. I cried a little and almost stopped playing, but at this point, I haven't seen one of those famous boss battles yet, so I felt obligated to carry on.

They did do a nice job allowing for multiple solutions to problems, and I did have fun playing the game. I'm going to jump ahead to the ending. The spoilers get more serious here, so be warned.

Ninety percent of the story involves Adam looking for Dr. Reed. Whether it's love or curiosity doesn't matter: it's Reed that he's after. You see her for a brief moment, right before going into the endgame. If you've read this far in my post, then you probably already know that the ending is determined solely by one decision at the very end of the game. This was the worst part of the original Deus Ex, that everything you did amounted to nothing except for your very last decision. Again, Human Revolution pays homage to the wrong part of the original. This one was even worse, though, since what screamed out to me as an obvious option was completely missing. All I wanted to do was stop the transmission. That's it. Stop the transmission, then go get picked up by Malik, go find Reed, and talk to her. I don't want to send Crazy Cripple Guy's message, or lie about terrorists, or something else I don't care about, and I certainly don't to kill myself and everyone else that I just painstakingly avoided killing.

The original Deus Ex ended with you having to chose one of three options, none of which were appealing, but all of which were inevitable. This one felt completely contrived, as though the designer just couldn't wait to show me B-roll of starving kids in Africa. I guess I am the sap. I actually empathized with Adam, and I actually wanted to know why he cared so much for Reed, and how she really felt for him. I thought they would come to some understanding about where Adam came from. The character development in this game was awfully shallow, but I fell for it, because I play these games for the RP part of RPG.

In conclusion, my recommendation is, after finishing Human Revolution, go play The Missing Link DLC. At first, I was upset to hear that some really good content was left of the game and released as DLC; I think this is a bad direction for games, especially for elements that happen chronologically in the middle of the main story. However, in this case, it was a blessing. The Missing Link was quite fun, with interesting levels and much more believable and interesting characters. When Missing Link ends, you can pretend that you don't actually know what happens next, and your imagination can then give you a satisfying conclusion.

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