It’s one of the most influential games of all time, but where does its legacy sit now? Sam Brooks on what many call the best game ever, Deus Ex.
The opening level of Ion Storm’s Deus Ex doesn’t look especially appealing to the modern-day gamer. The colours are so muted it’s like you turned the brightness slider way down, the spaces are so cavernously open that you could be playing Minecraft and the New York skyline is quite clearly copy-and-pasted over and over again. A level of Candy Crush looks more appealing.
But to gamers in 2000? It was like playing through a revolution. While the level could be played like your average first-person shooter – running, gunning or stealthing your way through armed terrorists – the true beauty of it came through finding out that you could do pretty much anything. Your mission is to find out if a terrorist group has stolen a shipment from Liberty Island. But your pathway? It’s whatever you want it to be. You’d be hard pressed to find a games developer working in the past 20 years who hadn’t, in some way, been influenced by Deus Ex.
Set in a dystopic 2050 (is any fictional 2050 utopic?), Deus Ex depicts a post-pandemic world where vaccines have been distributed only to government officials, the military and other influential people in society. To combat this, terrorist organisations have formed to bring down the upper classes and to combat that, the United Nations have formed an anti-terrorist coalition in a bunker beneath the Statue of Liberty (which I think is a bit on the nose, personally).
The player is JC Denton, as blank a slate as you can get, a UNATCO agent, one of the first in a brand-spanking new line of government agents physically altered with advanced nanotechnology to gain superhuman abilities. Throughout the game, which, as you may have guessed, languishes comfortably in the cyberpunk genre, you slowly form JC Denton’s philosophy as he wades into a global conspiracy.
Deus Ex was immediately acclaimed upon its release, with the kind of nines-and-10s consensus that any developer now would kill for, but its stature only grew in the years following. Deus Ex was a hit – likely thanks to Matrix-influencer cyberpunk enthusiasm – but it was also hugely acclaimed, even at the time, with a spread of nine-and-10 review consensus that developers would crunch for in today’s landscape. Its legacy has only improved over time, regularly appearing on clickbaity “greatest games of all time” lists, and often topping those. It’s not hard to see why. Put simply: it was the first game to combine meaningful player choice, on both a macro and micro level, with triple-A (for the time) graphics and gameplay. It might not have introduced the idea of player agency (you can thank dating sims for that, probably), but it popularised it as something that mainstream gamers not only wanted, but craved.
Movies age like a fine wine, music ages like whisky, games age like fizzy drinks left open. If you’re into the initial taste, you might enjoy something, but what was once appealing wears off quite quickly. A lot of this is down to technology moving on – graphics get better, gameplay gets smoother – but equally significant are shifting design philosophies and player expectations.
In a piece for Rock Paper Shotgun for the game’s 10th anniversary in 2010, games designer Rob Hale wrote, “It makes me sad to think that with most games needing over two million sales to break even these days that games as intelligent as Deus Ex just won’t happen any more.” He’s wrong in one sense. In the five years since then, the indie games landscape has only grown to rival the mainstream one, as a collective or not individually. Disco Elysium, a top-down isometric point-and-click, is one of the most intelligent games I’ve played in year, and can trace its ancestry right back to Deus Ex. (In fairness, there’s also a lot of dumb games that can trace that same lineage too. Apples can fall far from the philosophical tree.)
Where Hale is 100% correct is when it comes to triple-A games. Let’s be frank, the likes of a game like Deus Ex happening in the triple-A landscape is rare now. While Deus Ex was all about giving players as much choice as possible – basically, if you could imagine doing it and it was within the game’s mechanics, you could do it. Want to stealth your way through a section and not kill anybody? Great. Get ambushed by soldiers in an apartment? Shoot the window and jump out of it. Neither option is mandated by the game, but neither is forbidden. The game was so much more about the player finding their way through a world, through a narrative, rather than handing it to them. Remember this was a hair before video game guides and solutions were a YouTube search away – if you wanted to find out how to do something, you had to boot up your modem or dial up an insanely expensive video game tip hotline. Players really were finding their way through.
Today, if a player isn’t experiencing everything there is to see in a game, developers are wasting money. There’s a reason why cinematic narratives like The Last of Us Part II started to take precedence over the last generation – because developers knew that every dollar they poured into the game would be seen and experienced by each and every player. Even massive open world games like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey are designed so that players are incentivised to explore each and every moment of it, and games with multiple story choices are incentivised in the same way. You only get the full story if you play it as much as possible.
On the other hand, Deus Ex seemed like a game that valued a player finding their own story, whether by accident or exploration, over a single, unifying experience. I’m not sure if most Deus Ex players even knew they could kill Anna Navarre. Even more crucially, Deus Ex didn’t just allow the player to forge their own way through the story, it allowed them to craft and interrogate the philosophies of their own character. Did they agree with the terrorist organisation, and try to plunge the world back into a Dark Age (which is, frankly, an option that seems more appealing now than back in 2000)? Did they want to usher in a new world order to rule without dissent? Or did they want to merge with an AI and rule the world with infinite knowledge and reason? These sound kind of simplistic now, but at the time, they were heady and complex, especially for games.
But… the game is 20 years old. It has a lot of the hallmarks of a 20-year-old game. The graphics weren’t amazing even then, but now they look downright unpleasant – blocky and spliced together like a kid’s science experiment. The voice acting sounds like it was carried out by the nearest available humans. Even a bit of the philosophy is less robust and more drunk first-year uni student. It’s great for what it did, but not necessarily for what it is any more.
Like a lot of legacies, it’s not been wiped out, but it’s been brushed away a bit by what follows. You know that moment in The Lion King where Rafiki wipes away the markings of Simba on the wall? Like that. Nobody speaks fondly of the rushed, hurriedly developed sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War, and despite the triple-A, big-budget revival of the series in 2013, the last two games haven’t taken root in the same way the first one did. Warm reception does not a legacy continue.
But today, 20 years on, you can’t hit go on a triple-A game and not feel Deus Ex somewhere in it. That sense of player agency in both a narrative sense and a gameplay sense? Deus Ex. That cinematic scale, the idea of a fully fledged world and guiding philosophy behind the scenes? Deus Ex. The chocolate-and-peanut-butter-esque mixture of first-person shooter and RPG? Deus Ex. Twenty years on, if you’re paying a game you paid a cool $100 for, chances are you owe it to Deus Ex, in all its blocky polygoned glory.
You can play Deus Ex on Steam right now.