Posted by: Ben | April 1, 2012

Case Of The Ex: Training

(This is the first of a series of posts in which I take a close look at Deus Ex, Ion Storm’s landmark PC game.)

UNATCO Training Facilities, Continental United States

As you know, Deus Ex was released on June 26, 2000.

You’d have to have considerably more aptitude with Google than I to be able to identify how well it charted or what else was in the charts at the time, although video game charts being the amorphous and widely-disputed plague that they are, there are probably multiple solutions to that particular problem. Still, Wikipedia’s list of Notable Video Games of 2000 indicates that this year dedicated PC gaming sociopaths could have unleashed their inner Josef Fritzl in The Sims, stolen the silver from a church of robot-worshippers in Thief 2, and kneecapped a succession of foreigners in Soldier of Fortune. I’ll eat my hat if Championship Manager wasn’t also doing well.

Meanwhile at Number One in the UK pop charts, a man in a dark suit and sunglasses was turning up in unconvincing low-budget facsimiles of various exotic locations.

Things were even worse in America, where Enrique Iglesias was at Number One. Enrique is one of eight children of Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, a fact which will bear further consideration deeper into Deus Ex’s conspiracy-heavy plotline.

The top-grossing box-office film that weekend in the UK was Gladiator, a film about a high-ranking soldier forced to fight for his life after being betrayed by his superiors. In the US the number one film in cinemas was Me, Myself & Irene, about a character who struggles against authority, chooses between multiple paths and ultimately finds his own identity.

So much for the week of release. One cannot help but feel the ideal release date for Deus Ex would have been December 31st, 1999, traditionally a quiet week for new games. Because Deus Ex is part of a tradition of works revelling in the death of the old century and the birth of the new.

A new century occurs less than once a lifetime; most societies never see the turn of a millennium. So when the first digit on the ISO-8601 date formatted calendar [YYYY-MM-DD] changed for the first time since the reign of Ethelred the Unready, it became a popular pastime in the West to reflect on the shape of the last hundred years of history and to try and imagine the way that emerging trends would play out over the next hundred years. (They weren’t going to make that mistake again.) Such speculation is naturally what writers of science fiction have always done, but there’s a dystopian theme running through much of the more resonant science fiction produced from around 1989 to around 1999 which Deus Ex just nails in that specific way that big-budget video games have of nailing the zeitgeist about two years too late.

Not that there weren’t later and tackier examples, of course. This offender snuck out at the end of 2002. Imagine that.

For such a good actor, Christian Bale spends a depressingly large proportion of his time playing unemotional men with boring voices. Still, it pays the bills. Usually.

One unifying aesthetic principle that Deus Ex shares with future-noir films from Blade Runner (1982) onwards is poor lighting. It really is alarming how much of the action takes place at night. Apart from facilitating the high-contrast noir aesthetic, I’ve heard a theory that all that darkness is intended to represent not the “dark”, oppressive nature of the future society depicted, but rather to confront us with the visual paucity of our own imaginations. For many of us, the turn of the century was a watershed beyond which only the vaguest outlines could be seen. The dank, foggy Los Angeles seen in Blade Runner is almost unrecognisable as the city as seen in contemporary-set films of the 1980’s, and the difference has nothing to do with all the extra buildings.

“Cyberpunk” is a word that we sometimes hear with respect to the world of Deus Ex, but I would argue that while its aesthetic is future-noir, it isn’t necessarily cyberpunk. Unlike the heroes of Neuromancer, The Matrix or Beneath A Steel Sky (and unlike his erstwhile relative Alex D), JC Denton at no point feels the urge to jack his brain into a computer in order to infiltrate his sinister corporate foes, or at least not until such time as this act would have no further bearing on the story. And he isn’t a preternaturally talented but personally dissolute hacker, he’s a “nano-augmented special covert operative for UNATCO, the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition.” More Robocop than cyberpunk, Deus Ex is best understood as a futuristic noir spy thriller. As I remember from my first and only playthrough (around ten years ago now) it’s a reasonable simulacrum of starring in your own Bond film, albeit a Bond film made by Tim Burton in a parallel 1989, where the studio didn’t object to Burton making a 35 hour film in which Bond dies repeatedly, and is played by an actor with a monotonous voice, because they damn well knew it was the future of mass market entertainment.

If we’re not going to be wasting valuable time looking for meaning in the publisher and developer’s logos, the first thing that happens in Deus Ex is the theme tune. And it’s magnificent, a startlingly memorable, bittersweet melody that at times threatens to erupt into a celebratory anthem. Now that games were perfectly capable of reproducing orchestral-quality music, Ion Storm took the decision to include a soundtrack and central theme that evoked the memory of some of it’s 1980s influences, like Vangelis’ Blade Runner or Brad Fiedel’s Terminator – but added super-gay disco stabs and a beat that was admittedly always likely to sound tinny on home computer speakers. It is unfortunate that such an arrangement was always going to sound a bit like chiptune to less attentive ears, to the point where the developers of Human Revolution elected to include it as a retro “joke” – not the only egregious misunderstanding in their interpretation.

Although if the chiptune allusion had been deliberate, it would have the perfect soundtrack to a near future that is in some ways more like the near past. By way of demonstration, here’s what happened when some advertising genius juxtaposed Jonathan Dunn’s harsh, luminous theme for Ocean’s Robocop with washing machines, back in the early 1990s.

To lay my cards out on the table, Deus Ex is a perfect fit for premillenial concerns about the millennium. It’s a game that feels like the most important, relevant thing, one that will shape the development of games for years to come. Instead, we can see that in the short term at least, it’s an evolutionary dead end, an irrelevance. Within eighteen months, the real danger will be out in the open. Nineteen men will kill three thousand, then we’ll be reminded that you don’t need a One World Government to introduce totalitarianism, since individual and supposedly democratic nation-states are perfectly capable of doing so without help. The terrorists win immediately, and for governments and game developers alike, all moral nuance is lost in favour of shooting foreigners, all decision making and moral uncertainty replaced by walking in a straight line, obeying orders.

Back in 2000, one of the ways in which Deus Ex is faithful to what has gone before it is that it has a tutorial mini-game which is separated from the main storyline by virtue of the main menu. As seen in other contemporary titles, this takes the form of a series of training exercises in which more senior UNATCO employees instruct you in laughably simplistic moving-and-handling drills that make you wonder how they can later think you’re a remotely competent secret agent.

It is pitch dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

This sight most likely to greet a first-time Deus Ex player is not a dock, but a lobby. And since we’re in a secret agent thriller, the text in the picture appears one letter at a time, as though it’s being printed by the BBC Sport vidiprinter. UNATCO have gone to some considerable expense in decorating their training facility, while the Brutalist aesthetic appears to have made a comeback in the mid-21st century. Note the reflective floor, probably marble. As a graphical effect, this was probably a big deal in 2000. While it initially seems as though there must be something horribly wrong with the reflections of the plants, on closer inspection this turns out to be a side effect of the peculiar shape of the column bases.

Later on, we’ll find that mirrors work as they should, a feature which would have been conspicuous by its absence from the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution even if Eidos Montreal hadn’t gone out of their way to draw attention to it. We’re told that the one of the first actos of the newly reconstructed Adam Jensen, having had his arms amputated and replaced by cybernetic models that turn into knives, was to smash his bathroom mirror. We’re inclined, or perhaps directed, to assume that this was a kind of visceral response to his new biomechanical nature. But it doesn’t take long to work out that Adam has no reflection in any mirror in the game.

Meanwhile in the future, JC Denton will not see his own reflection during the UNATCO training mission, for the perfectly good reason that the player has not yet decided upon his appearance. A sensible design decision entirely ruined by showing him in third-person, right at the end. I’ll put this down to the tutorial being designed after the rest of the game and the designers having forgotten that the optional alternative faces for JC wouldn’t have been applied at this stage, but it’s sloppy.

As well as learning how to crouch, hide and fire a gun, JC will meet a number of characters who will play a bigger part in his adventures later on. And he’s going to have to get used to hearing mysterious voices in his head. It’s difficult to tell what any character who has a direct radio connection to JC’s brain really knows about where he is and what he’s doing, something that’s going to become fraught when he starts plotting against them later.

First up, here modelling the “dark and gritty” look, is Jaime Reyes. When he’s not vastly overestimating the excitement factor of his training exercises, he’s responsible for carrying out surgery on the modified agents. Looking at the state of his charges, Anna Navarre and Gunther Hermann, you’d want a second opinion. Any particular reason you didn’t bother putting Anna’s skin back on properly, Jaime?

Here in the tutorial, it doesn’t take long for him to break the fourth wall by saying “Open the door by clicking the right mouse button.” As far as I can remember, neither he nor anyone else is going to pull a stunt like this in the main game, which can a compelling justification for keeping the tutorial separate over the more modern fashion of hand-holding in the early parts of the game proper.

JC performs menial tasks beneath the gaze of a number of mysterious and unsettling characters. Having blue veins on your head is a predictable marker of evil in the Deus Ex universe, as is dressing smartly.

Being a 1970s lab technician, on the other hand, is a clear sign of naivety and moral weakness.

Soon JC’s eccentric colleagues Gunther and Anna are introduced. The primary purpose of these two is to deflect any allegations of “realism.” Gunther’s biggest ambition in life is to have a gun welded to his skull, while Anna is exactly the sort of one-eyed baby-killing psychopath you’d expect the United Nations to employ as a covert operative if you were a nutjob conspiracy theorist. (She’s still alarmingly attractive, though. Hi there, Anna, if you’re reading.)

There are two rewards for successful completion of the tutorial. The first is access to a small display of characters you’re likely to meet in the first couple of stages of the game proper – Anna, JC’s brother Paul, an alleged terrorist and a couple of robots. You may note that during the tutorial you have been trained to fight the robots you’re most likely to find on your own side, and you might wonder what this tells you about the nature of the missions you’re likely to face.

The second reward is a brief holographic chat with one Mr Bob Page. There’s nothing too controversial there – he merely congratulates you for completing basic training (describing it as “an early success for the whole organisation”, even if you literally had one of your legs shot off by a robot during the final challenge) and reminds you that you still have the experience of active duty to look forward too. JC calls him “sir” and is appropriately deferential.

Page Industries, of course, is the corporation that builds terrifying robots for UNATCO, among other customers. While you would naturally expect a defence organisation (and UNATCO is undoubtedly a defence organisation, sending soldiers as well as secret agents to trouble spots worldwide) to have a close relationship with its clients, it seems excessive to allow (presumably) that organisation’s most senior executive access to the training of its agents.

The implications are obvious. First, JC is not your typical agent. He’s one of only two “nano-augmented” (whatever that might mean) agents in existence. Clearly there’s been vast investment expended on him long before the player picked up a mouse, and it looks like Page Industries is the contractor that carried that out. But that isn’t an adequate explanation for what’s happening here. Page evidently has a close personal relationship with UNATCO’s top brass, close enough to let him sit in on training and, one might expect, to influence their operational goals and tactics.

Given that the United Nations of the future has its own army dedicated to fighting “terrorism”, the player is invited to consider it inappropriate for a wealthy industrialist to be giving orders to their operatives, and potentially influencing what it defines as “terrorism” in the first place. The only terrorist group identified in the tutorial is the NSF, a group explicitly descended from the modern American militia movement. “The biggest terrorist threat in the US. This national militia group thinks it is fighting the Second American Revolution,” as Jaime describes it. This thread deserves extensive consideration, and we’ll pick up on it later, but suffice it to say that this movement is placed in direct opposition to the political and corporate elite represented by Page and UNATCO.

He must be a nice man. Look at his warm, loving eyes.

But about the game itself, the tutorial tells us little. From what we’ve seen so far it could easily turn out to be a simple corridor shooter with the odd stealth sequence. There’s certainly nothing to prepare us for what’s coming in the game’s real opening level. But first, a short film.

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