Game * Ion Storm * Conspiracy Dystopia * 2000
This game made an impression on me back in the day. Aside from the ridiculous flexibility of the gameplay and the depth of the systems, Deus Ex had atmosphere for days. That, of course, was sixteen years ago and technology has advanced a touch since then. Games of this vintage are tough to play, considering the rapid advancements of the medium (both in control and visual/audio quality) which have steadily improved player experience. It’s hard to go back, man. To this end I will here admit that while I tried to replay this thing, it just wasn’t happening for me. The ideas presented by Deus Ex are still absolutely examples of both gameplay and narrative growth in the medium, but unless you have a heavy amount of nostalgia working for you, it’s a chore to play now. That’s okay, though, because the Internet exists and there’s plenty of information out there to refresh my memory about not only the story, but to invoke that atmosphere that I so vividly remember from my first play-through eons ago. On the one hand, the game looks and sounds bad (excepting the music, which is freaking great). Even for the time it was a little rough. Despite the limitations, however, the world is constructed in such a way that it allowed the imagination to fill in the rest. Some of that manages to survive, which was a nice surprise.
The game begins with a brief cutscene of two shady lookin’ characters having a sinister conversation in an opulent environment. This scene sets the baseline for the story, which is to say that the future sucks. This is absolutely a story about income inequality run amok, to the point where the rich and powerful have begun to not only passively oppress the population, but have created a plague, The ‘Grey Death,’ to rampage throughout the lower orders. Of course there is a vaccine, but it is only available to the 1%. This, of course, does not sit well with the rest of humanity. After all, people are dying and those in control only seem to care about themselves. Riots pop off and “terrorist” organizations form with the primary objective of securing doses of Ambrosia (the aforementioned cure) to distribute to the masses. One of these outfits, the NSF, blows up the Statue of Liberty and eventually manages to secure a bunch of the Ambrosia. This, obviously, alarms the power elite who are suddenly in the same boat as the filthy masses.
Enter JC Denton, our protagonist, who is an “augmented” agent of UNATCO – an anti-terrorism outfit. His whole deal is that he’s basically a human with various cyborg abilities that he can install in himself to make him able to do various cool things. Most of the actual gameplay revolves around these abilities and improving Denton’s skills (lockpicking, computer hacking, gun shootin’, that kind of thing), and the player essentially has to decide how they want to play and build Denton’s character accordingly. The game is built to be exceedingly flexible, which is what makes so influential. It’s one of the first games that allowed the player to craft their own experience: be sneaky, shoot everyone, poke around and hack computers and turrets, jam through as quickly as possible while blowing up maximum shit, it’s a very open game. Anyway, JC rolls into the situation as a boring do-gooder out to stop the terrorists from stealing Ambrosia. The plot of this game goes some places, which is to say the story is convoluted as shit and may or may not be of interest to you depending on your tolerance for conspiratorial nonsense.
Let’s talk about conspiracies for a moment, because that’s the concept at the heart of Dues Ex’s narrative. I think they’re dumb. Let’s just acknowledge that bias and move along. Now, the idea behind the vast majority of conspiracy theories is that a small group of very powerful people use their unimaginable wealth and power to do villainous things to maintain their grasp on said wealth and power. That’s not the aspect I find dumb. That people will act in their own self-interest, even if those actions are morally dubious, seems obvious. History is filled with powerful people (or groups of people) who have done sinister, evil things in order to maintain their own status in the world. Where the conspiracy theory loses me is in the fantastical and grandiose ways people imagine the powerful to operate.
This game is full of the usual suspects. You’ve got the Knights Templar, and the Illuminati, and at some point you end up at Area 51 and there are aliens. Oh, and secret artificial intelligences. What all of these things have in common is the ability of human beings to keep astounding things secret from the rest of the world, which I find to be a flawed premise. Of course, try arguing with someone who truly believes the moon landing was faked, or that [insert secret organization] did 9/11. You can’t, because any data or argument you present will be shot down as corrupted by the conspiracy in question. It’s frustrating because most of these things are silly on their face. Almost every conspiracy theory is just downright unnecessary, even if they are somehow plausible. It’s weird that these things persist, as it seems to me that there is more than enough actual evil in the world to worry about without making things up.
Yet that’s what people do, both in real life and in fiction. Deus Ex’s world is lousy with conspiracies. Why are they so attractive? A popular theory is that the post-modern world is one of chaos, which is terrifying, and that a theory which gives that chaos structure is somehow comforting to people. The idea that a handful of wackadoos could somehow blow up a couple of buildings and change the world is legitimately unnerving, especially if you grew up learning to fear powerful nation-states. Of course, 9/11 is only the latest example of this. Before we had arguments over whether or not jet fuel could melt steel beams (hint: it doesn’t need to), there were arguments over whether or not a single gunman could kill a president. Again, though, this was one nutjob changing the world – chaos. Better to imagine a villainous cabal working in unison to shift world history to their advantage. They may be evil but at least they’re stable.
As for Deus Ex, world politics are greatly simplified by the existence of these conspiratorial cabals. I mean, simple by comparison to how the world actually works, the plot is still a bit of a mess. The ending of the game presents the player with a choice of how the future is going to work out. Essentially, JC Denton, the cyborg assassin, infiltrates Area 51 where he is confronted with three choices. He can merge with the (nearly) omnipotent AI Helios, and rule the world as a benevolent dictator. Alternatively, he can basically pull the plug on technology and plunge the world into a new dark age. Helios is invested with that kind of power, apparently. Finally, JC can go full Illuminati and essentially maintain the status quo. I think back when I first played this game, I opted for the new dark age ending. It seemed to be the most high-mindedly moral thing to do, and I’m always an insufferable do-gooder in video games when given the choice (chaotic good for life!). The game handles chaos by offering order, the status quo, or absolute pandemonium. Considering how much time Dues Ex spends in demonizing the existing power structure of absolute power held by a small elite, plunging the world into fractured communities without technology seemed like a good way to hit the reset button on society. I don’t suggest we do this in real life, however.