Posted by: Ben | December 3, 2009

Silver Age: Deus Ex

(Videogame. PC. Ion Storm/Eidos, 2000. No.2 in AML’s Chronologically Ordered Games Of The Decade)

This is your partner, Anna Navarre. Spoiler: She doesn’t look so cute with her head off. Double spoiler: And it wasn’t the bad guys who did it. Triple spoiler: Actually, there's no such thing as a spoiler in Deus Ex. Anything can happen. It depends entirely on your actions. Hope that's cleared that up.

Videogame developers, by which I mean most videogame developers, are idiots who know nothing except how to count polygons.  They invented the first-person shooter back in the early Nineties and have been running it into the ground ever since, so excited that they can represent the mass-murder of man and monster in increasingly graphic detail that they don’t stop to wonder whether they should.  The result is a multimillion pound industry built on an emotionally stunted teenager’s idea of a satisfactory product.

This trend has reached its acme (or should that be its acne?) in the fucking Xbox 360 (aside: I see Microsoft Word autocorrects the capitalisation of what I typed, which was XBox, to the brand-approved version, but redlines disapprovingly when I type adidas.)  This infernal machine is the worst thing to happen to game design since the Fallout developers’ meeting where somebody said “This is going to be a role-playing game, so the very first thing the player should have to do is kill twenty rats.  No more, no less.”  Neither for its unfeasibly brittle hardware nor its belated and half-hearted casual content do I damn the fucking 360.  According to Wikipedia there are thirty million of these things in the world (up to twenty million of which are or soon will be broken.)  Compared to a billion PCs that doesn’t sound like a lot, but the Commodore 64 only sold 17 million units in its lifetime.  And although the Xbox is still sold as a loss-leader, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of its success bankrupting Microsoft any time soon.

The secret of its success?  It gives the public what they want, which by and large is games crudely carved out of blocks of solid idiocy, depicting shaven-headed cocks in full body armour engaged in the conflicting act of propping up the military-industrial complex by shooting foreigners in the head.

No matter how many copies they sell at forty quid a pop, no matter how many movie-style premieres the industry organises for the latest snazzy videogame release starring Tarquin Feenix and his stupid, stupid ilk, it is unlikely that vidogames will achieve the cultural status of cinema, at least in this lifetime.  I know some big-budget movies are hackneyed in plot and acting, confusing in cinematography and generally moronic, but come on, the only films this bad go directly to DVD and are not watched by anyone.

Don't try this at home, kids. On second thoughts, do.

Don't try this at home, kids. On second thoughts, do. It'll be cool.

As an ironic counterpoint to all this repellent dukenukery, here is a short film I found on the internet. I believe it is part of some sort of government campaign against domestic violence or something.  Every day dozens of men murder their wives because they just don’t fancy them any more.

Now close your eyes.  Take a deep breath.. oh, you’ve stopped reading.  Open your eyes again.  Shit, how can I get the reader to open their eyes?  Obviously, you can’t keep your eyes closed forever. I’ll get your attention back soon.  I can wait.  Right, that’s better.  Ok, in a moment I’m going to ask you to close your eyes again, but for no longer than about ten seconds.  While you’re doing that, take deep breaths through your nose and allow the torrid history of the last decade of shite to be cleansed from your body.

Imagine a time when some big publishers were still prepared to take risks.  Imagine a big budget first person shooter based around infiltrating buildings in sprawling open settings.

A shooter that you can complete without killing anyone, and a game where you can approach each objective in the way that feels most comfortable to you, not the way the game tells you to.

A game with a gigantic, sprawling and half-serious plot about industrialists, terrorists, man-made viruses, Area 51, cryptozoology and every single conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard, including the one about the government blowing up one of New York’s most famous landmarks in order to demonise the alleged perpetrators and justify a domestic security crackdown.

A game where the bad guys don’t always feel compelled to battle to the death just because you’re shooting at them, and appreciate the tactical significance of running away.

Where the capacity to think is more important than the ability to shoot straight.

A globe-trotting adventure through New York. Paris. Hong Kong and virtually every other city known to the fashion industry, where you can hack into your boss’s email account, insult your thickie colleague Gunther, break both your legs falling off a roof, shoot the terrorist you’re supposed to be interrogating, get set on fire by a redneck with a flamethrower, battle a team of kung-fu assassains with a lightsabre, and still find time to flirt shamelessly with the femme fatale.

Where there are integral role-playing elements but nobody will be rolling dice for you and you never quite become tough enough to lose that essential feeling of vulnerability.

Where your brother is bleeding to death on his apartment floor and the bad guys are coming up the hall and he tells you to leave him and save yourself, and you’re halfway down the fire escape when you change your mind and say No! You’re my only family in the world! I can’t leave you, and you go back up – you don’t have to, but you choose to – and you fight like a bastard and you save him! You save him!

When you have finished imagining all that, open your eyes.  Congratulations. You have just imagined Deus Ex. The only game that deserves the title “cinematic”, but call it that and it’ll make an unimpressed “pppht” noise like that French exchange student the time your mum took him to the supermarket to help her choose the bottle of wine that would go best with an oven-ready pizza.

It’s been called the Citizen Kane of videogames.  Now in narrative terms it’s no Citizen Kane, but there is a more applicable (and populist) comparison.  With the globetrotting, the secret underground labs, the battles against impossible odds, it’s the closest thing games, even technologically advanced games with no greater ambition than to entertain adolescents, have come to the universal wish-fulfilment fantasy of a Bond film, except that unlike 007, you’ll have to work hard for your victories, and except that it contains more visual imagination than any Bond film since The Spy Who Loved Me.  And I don’t recall any Bond movie referencing Thomas Pynchon or GK Chesterton.

Whatever.  I don’t have all day.  This is not merely a cinematic game.  It is not merely an immersive game.  It is indisputably, unarguably, inescapably the best game ever.  Play it and ruin every other game for yourself.

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