Friday, February 15, 2008

Deus Ex

I've been an unabashed fan of Warren Spector's work ever since I brought home Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss in all its 3D glory, and System Shock after that. I'll buy any epic game he produces.

So I expected Deus Ex to be good... but even I was surprised that it was that good. I still play it every year or so as well, just to remind myself of how high the bar is set for all other games.

The thing that still amazes me the most, however, is how remarkably even-handed and thoughtful it was (and still is) on a subject that could very easily have been turned into a political soapbox. I've played games where the developers (who as a group tend to be left of center) obviously thought it would be funny to drop some gratuitous political cheap shot into the text. (I remember one bit of canned commentary from Sierra On-Line's Outpost as being obnoxious in this way.) When everyone on the development team thinks the same way politically, who's going to object to mocking the other guys?

But Deus Ex never goes for the cheap shot from any political direction. There are three or four places in the game where J.C. can have an extended conversation on liberty -- and the lengths to which one should be prepared to go to defend it -- with NPCs. It would have been easy (and must have been tempting) to write these as Socratic dialogues where one side is obviously "wrong." Instead, each position in these conversations is treated fairly and without any rhetorical stacking of the deck. The player is left free to think and decide for himself.

What's particularly astonishing about this is that Deus Ex was developed in Austin, Texas, which prides itself on being more politically liberal (in the U.S. sense of the word) than most of the rest of Texas. For game designers in Austin to have produced dialogues that the thinking person of any political stripe can appreciate... I still regard that as one of the most jaw-droppingly satisfying accomplishments in the history of computer gaming.

Deus Ex proved that it is indeed possible to feature smart, sharp writing on a touchy subject in a game that also offers plenty of problem-solving and conventional shoot-'em-up action. It's hard to imagine that we will see its like again any time soon. (And I'm including the upcoming Deus Ex 3, being made in Toronto, Canada, in that pessimistic guess.)

Any "Best Computer Game Ever" list that doesn't feature the original Deus Ex in at least the top ten is clearly broken beyond repair.

Dang. Now I want to go play it again Right Now....

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