Deus Ex: Human Revolution is FINE, And Here's Why

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is FINE, And Here's Why

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[crickets chirping] [clicking] [exciting music] ♪ ♪ [HBOMB] In June 2000, Ion Storm released "Deus Ex." "Deus Ex" is one of the best games ever made. It's engaging, free-form game play, and complex storytelling quickly cemented it as one of the true classics of the medium. ♪ ♪ So the developer went bankrupt.

[booming, VHS tape clicks] If that line sounds familiar to you, get used to it. Like, 12 more videos are gonna start this way. Eidos Interactive-- the game's publisher-- was the 51% shareholder in Ion Storm so when the company closed its doors and the creators quit or got let go, the "Deus Ex" intellectual property didn't belong to any of the people who-- you know--made it, but to a bunch of executives at a publishing company. Then Eidos Interactive's parent company, also named Eidos (which made researching this very confusing) got bought and merged with another game publisher, Sales Curve Interactive. Then they hit major financial trouble and realized they need to make games to survive and opened a new development studio in Canada which began development on the next "Deus Ex" game.

While that was happening, things were going great at SCi. Just kidding. It went so bad, the CEO got fired.

To get a fresh start, they renamed the company to Eidos. Hold on a second! Then they got bought again, this time by Square Enix. Square Enix said they were going to leave Eidos to themselves then changed their mind and forceably merged the company with their European branch, and oh, my God, isn't the game industry so normal and fine? While all of that was happening, the team at Eidos Montreal had to somehow make a video game.

The making-of documentary for this new Deus Ex game begins with a bunch of talk about how great it is to work with Eidos from French-Canadian developers wearing T-shirts with the Eidos branding. [STEPHANE] Eidos has a very rich IP portfolio. I mean, their--their projects are just great. Their IPs are very rich. [HBOMB] Partway through, Eidos disappears from the story completely because they stopped existing and they suddenly had completely different bosses. Being owned by Square Enix came with some benefits, though.

They got to reference "Final Fantasy" a few times. One of the bosses--a big guy with a gun for an arm-- got to be named Barrett. They put a poster on some character's walls for a "Final Fantasy XXVII." You know, 'cause it's the future. It's cute. So it wasn't all bad. Just kidding. It was bad.

The executives at Square Enix weren't going to let them do this. They didn't want to risk damaging the "Final Fantasy" brand any more than "Kingdom Hearts" already-- the team at Eidos Montreal had to argue their way up the corporate chain of the business that just bought them all the way up to Yoichi Wada-- the president and director of the entire company-- to get permission to put a funny poster in the background of their game. "Deus Ex" used to be a series that criticized the bizarre machinations of corporations so big no one knows who they're working for, where intellectual property and brand management mattered more than people, a world where one company can own half your childhood.

A system governed more by tax incentives and corporate subsidies than people. It asked important questions about the future of mankind, about who wielded power over others, and what their interests really were-- a story sometimes so accurate in its guesses, it seems less fictitious now than ever. But then many years and corporate acquisitions later comes "Deus Ex: Human Revolution," the game that dares to ask the question, "What if we had robot arms?" [Alexander Brandon's "Main Title"] ♪ ♪ [upbeat music] "Deus Ex: Human Revolution" is pretty good. It's fun. Yeah. I have a tendency to make videos about things I either really love or really hate so just to clear up any potential confusion here, this game is fine. Good job, guys.

I'm about to spend, uh-- oh, my God-- complaining about it, but I need to say, this was the first game by a new studio and it was being made while they were being bought out by Square Enix by a team that had never previously worked on any games even remotely like "Deus Ex." I might not think the game is perfect, but it is a genuine achievement that it's this good. So why am I talking about it, then? That's a good question. Me? Well, here's the thing. The original "Deus Ex" belongs to a special sub-genre of games named the "immersive sim."

In a sentence, immersive sims are games that feel just that little bit more like worlds you're taking part in. They prioritized the player's freedom to choose how to solve problems and then dealing with the consequences of those choices and being able to find creative and unexpected solutions, often ones the developers themselves hadn't thought of by being built in a way that could respond well to player creativity. There's a lot of different ways you can define an immersive sim, but there's only one real one. Can you solve a problem intended to be solved with a gun by stacking a bunch of boxes and going over it? In the late '90s and early 2000s, immersive sims were coming out fairly often and people still look back fondly on many of those games, but then almost overnight, they disappeared. An entire genre of games basically died out for years.

But a couple of years back, we started to get more of them again, and they're amazing and beautiful and a lot like the games that people remember. "Human Revolution" is a fascinating orphan of history. It came out between the two golden ages of the immersive sim, when this type of game wasn't considered popular or profitable enough, so while they were making it, the team made a lot of changes to try and make it a bit like other games people liked at the time, trying to streamline it and make it more accessible for a console audience.

I'll give you three guesses why they decided the game needed third-person cover shooting. And at the time of release, people seemed happy with those compromises, but the thing about immersive sims is, they were already great and didn't need changing. Recent games like the new "Prey" have proven immersive sims barely need to change at all from how they were 20 years ago to be amazing at what they're trying to do.

So when the "Human Revolution" team decided the "Deus Ex" formula was broken, all their fixes actually made it less like what makes these games great. So today in this year's self therapy session masquerading as a video game analysis, I'll be trying to get to the bottom of what happened to "Deus Ex" to see what we can learn about how or how not to modernize a classic. because there's a lot more at stake here than just one beloved franchise. After doing some digging into the lineage of the intellectual property rights of some of my favorite franchises, I discovered Square Enix might not just be rebooting-slash-remaking- slash-beating the dead horses of the "Deus Ex," "Tomb Raider," and "Thief" properties. No, a much more important franchise lives under their jurisdiction.

One of the most important and meaningful stories in gaming history. I'm speaking, of course, about "Gex." The "Gex" trilogy sold millions of copies and arguably saved the world, but there hasn't been a new "Gex" since 1999, and due to Crystal Dynamics' acquisition by Eidos in 1998, Square Enix's 2009 acquisition of the company that bought Eidos and renamed itself to Eidos means it's only a matter of time before Squenix puts someone to work reviving the sleeping god in their possession. So for all our sakes... It's worth seeing if we can learn from other attempts to revive old franchises and come up with some general pointers.

"Gex" and "Deus Ex" form a symbiot circle. What happens to one of them will affect the other. You must understand this. So we have to do this for "Gex."

If we're not careful, he'll be in the next "Kingdom Hearts" and kiss Goofy and society will fucking crumble. [computer beeping] A really good test of role-playing games is how quickly players get to do that. In "Deus Ex" you press new game and then you're making a character. Then there's an opening cutscene and bam, you're at your first mission, the iconic and impressively open-ended Liberty Island level. A huge part of why this game still works so well is how instantaneously it makes you feel like you're playing it your own way. You've only just decided your character's starting abilities and already you're being told to put them to use how you see fit to capture the NSF leader holed up in the Statue of Liberty.

Within literally seconds of starting the game, you're being asked to pick a new weapon by a character whose appearance changes based on what your character looks like because he's your brother. That's a pretty freeing way to start a game, giving players a bunch of choices and already reacting to one they made in the character creation screen. But this type of opening isn't unique to "Deus Ex," though. It's a staple of the genre.

In--I dunno--"Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines," you make a character, cutscene, funny tutorial that you can skip, welcome to Santa Monica. It's just like it is in real life. The high watermark here, of course, is "Fallout: New Vegas," instantly plopping the character you just made in the world with next to no limits where to go and what to do. Putting the player in the driver's seat as quickly as possible creates a sense of agency which is pivotal in games that prioritize making choices and playing a role. Role-playing games. What a conce-- ["Metal Gear Solid" alert sound] [rock music] [character screams] [man] ♪ Gotta get up-- ♪ [HBOMB] In "Deus Ex: Human Revolution," I was a bit worried when I realized there wasn't anything like a character creation screen, but hey, I'm old.

Maybe those are outdated now. I did do a little cringe when I saw the highest difficulty was called "Give Me Deus Ex," though. Sure, tell me to have high expectations. That hasn't ruined my life before. [dramatic music] [BOB] Is everything in place? [VOICE] Almost. [BOB] What do you mean, almost? [HBOMB] The game begins with the weekly Illuminati Zoom conference where they ominously discuss their plans while trying to change the default profile picture.

Apart from one teeny, tiny, massive problem, I really like this opening. I especially like how short it pretends to be. The intro ends, and bam, you are Adam Jensen, head of security at Sarif Industries. Oh, it's really thematic, if you think about it, You see, Adam is a clever reference to "Seinfeld."

[GEORGE] Remember my friend Adam from Detroit? [JERRY] Yeah, the guy with the-- [JC] Augmented. [JC screaming] [Jonathan Wolff's "Seinfeld"] [HBOMB] I do like that it zooms in on his head to start the game. I'm glad someone's repping the classics. Wow, that was pretty quick. It's time to begin the first level and start playing the game-- nope. You see, the problem with the original "Deus Ex" was you didn't spend 20 minutes watching JC Denton waddle around his office making small talk first.

The opening cutscene is far from over. The top scientist at Sarif Industries is Adam's ex-girlfriend, but they're still pretty close. You can tell because they decided to pose her like a teenage anime school girl.

[MEGAN] And I thought women were the ones who kept men waiting. [HBOMB laughing] Gender! The introduction isn't one minute of ominous, interesting dialogue followed by game play. It's followed by many minutes of walking and talking, meaningless techno babble-- [MEGAN] But the increased neuropeptides coming from the pidot cluster-- [HBOMB] That actually happens twice. [MAN] I'm thinking the glial tissue breakdown we noticed after splicing in the repressive protein might be the cause. [HBOMB] Oh, yeah. This is great. [MAN] Cytometer-- [MEGAN] We might get a more accurate reading that confirms-- [HBOMB humming] Then you get to watch a weapons demonstration, argue with your coworkers in the elevator...

[inhales sharply] Watch the planes go by, and listen to your boss tell you how important all that stuff was for the future of the human race before they realized they're losing you, so, uh--uh, a terrorist attack happens! There we go! Oh, boy! A call to action! Now we can finally start the ga-- the unskippable tutorial for how to play the game. We need to make sure you know how to crouch, move boxes around, use vents, and take cover. Click on enemies to shoot them. Okay, now do it a few more times just in case. Okay, well, at least it's over and now we all know how to play, so now we can start the ga-- watch another cutscene. Adam gets knackered by some bastards.

Then the bad man shoots him into a hospital where the game transitions into a really cool opening sequence. Adam has most of his body replaced with mechanical parts and the music swells and, ah, yeah. It's a really cool opening. And now finally after the opening cutscene and the walk and talk and all this setup and a tutorial and another cutscene, the game can start. Here he is!

Here's our boy! Oh, man, they're doing it again! Yeah! Finally you can play the ga-- start a sequence where Adam comes back into work to get his heads-up display fixed by the IT guy on his way to the first mission. Only then can you go to the helipad and after another cutscene you have a conversation in the aircraft with your boss about the mission you're headed into and get to pick a weapon. The first real choice in the game.

As a reminder, you're making the same choice literally five seconds into the original "Deus Ex." [JC] Give me the GEP gun. [PAUL] The GEP gun might be useful. [enemy screaming] [beeping] [ALEX] That might have been over the line, JC. [HBOMB] I kind of wanted to know how fast the intro could go if you were going as fast as possible and skipping everything, but when I tried that, I hit a little snag. How quickly can you give me "Deus Ex?" Come on. Let's do it.

[HARRY] ♪ What if I'm late ♪ ♪ Got a big date ♪ [clicking] [HBOMB stammering] Come on! [WOMAN] Warning Thi-- [HBOMB] Okay, right. Oh, you're kidding me! You can't even skip it? I went for a piss while I was recording the intro of the Director's Cut and there was still, like, two minutes left of this. I should have bothered to wash my hands! Uh, fun fact.

The "Human Revolution" speed running community have a shared save file that starts right after the walk-and-talk because-- holy shit-- can you imagine having to sit through that every time? [clicking] Oh, my God. I can't even close the game to stop the experiment. It just goes to this screen. You can't even open the menu! Alt, F4? Okay, you can at least quit that way. [clicks] [techno music fades] [clicking] [giggles] It crashed. It's fucking crashed.

Now, I get what they're going for. Games with a more linear cinematic intent like "Red Dead Redemption" or "The Last Of Us" or even "Half-Life" bring you into the narrative by slowly building to their game play like this, but for RPGs with a focus on player freedom and choice, this is the opposite of what you should do. The player doesn't feel like they're taking part in the story when they can barely control where Adam aims his head for most of his big introduction. For games like "Deus Ex," which "Human Revolution" says it's trying to give people, you want the player to have a sense of control as soon as possible.

Once it's over, though, everything really picks up, so it's not that big a deal, but if it's not a big deal, then why did I waste so much time complaining about it? Well, first of all, leave me alone. It's my video. I can do what I want. And then secondly I think this choice reflects a pretty serious misunderstanding about what makes these games fun to play. You see, this is an exact mistake the original game almost made, too. See? I'm going somewhere with this. Please subscribe.

They originally planned to begin with meeting all of your coworkers in your base, talking to everyone, a lot of exposition and setup and introductions-- basically a lot of busy work that wouldn't be that fun to do first thing the instant you hit "New Game." Before there was an attack on UNATCO HQ that necessitated going into action. In other words, they had the same idea as the people who made "Human Revolution," but they later realized it would be better if they started with game play and deliberately switched the order.

This introduces a minor weird plot thing. You arrive on an island to deal with a terrorist attack and it's right next to where your new base happens to be. This would have made slightly more sense when you started at the base and went out when they attacked headquarters which is how it seemed to work in original footage from betas of the game, but it was worth it to make this change because the player feels like a part of the story now, which is, you know, the goal of role-playing games. You don't feel like a part of the story by watching the character do things.

You feel that way by getting to do things as the character, and there's a big difference there. I don't like giving direct advice like I know the exact correct way to make a game, but guys, start the game here. Start at the thing or in the plane on the way to the thing. The next game, "Mankind Divided," did exactly that. You start on the plane.

I mean, it had three more opening sequences after it, for some reason. More importantly than any of this, though, we need to circle back to the most fascinating part of this whole thing. "Deus Ex: Human Revolution" recreated an exact problem the original game almost had and then fixed during development. I think we need to explore how something like that can happen, right? [computer beeping] [tense music] So, the development of "Human Revolution" was a bit of a mess. I mean, first off, this was a new studio making their first game. You can't just snap your fingers and open a new 350-person development studio overnight.

You have to build that, you know? And in this case, literally. When the studio opened, the building they planned to make their offices wasn't even finished being built. [STEPHANE] These guys left everything to come to a brand new studio with not even a-- permanent offices yet. [HBOMB] Building a new studio can't be easy.

Now, you're clever, so you're probably wondering why so many game companies open studios in Montreal. I'm sure French Canadians make for excellent game designers, but the answer is money. Here's the annual cost of hiring a video game programmer in various major cities. San Francisco: $119,404.

Austin, where "Deus Ex" was developed: $91,161. Vancouver: $17,500. Toronto's almost at $78,000. They're getting there.

Montreal: $72,335. Montreal with government tax credit: $45,209. Up to 37.5% of the cost of your employees' salaries are effectively given back to you by the province.

Look, all I'm saying is, I can telepathically predict where companies will open their next game studio. [LEADER] Don't believe me? It's all in the numbers. What, were Eidos supposed to open a new studio in Texas again? The biggest game studio headquartered in Texas now is, I think, Gearbox, right? And guess where they're opening their new studio! Come to work at Gearbox Quebec! They don't pay very well, but they promise really good bonuses.

I mean, they promise them. Eidos Montreal also had to deal with the fact that they're the Canadian branch of a company that doesn't exist. They got acquired by another company while they were trying to make their first game. That's got to make the development process a little more complicated. [STEPHANE] It's, uh--it's, uh, two years or more of development. You never know how it's gonna turn out.

[booming] [HBOMB] It's easy to see why some aspects of the process got misplaced. Okay, I don't wanna make any more excuses for the developers. It's starting to feel a bit condescending. Let's talk about some of the choices the developers made about how to design this game.

In a hugely informative Game Developers Conference talk about the development of "Human Revolution," game play director Francois Lapikas-- sorry if I'm pronouncing that wrong. My Kebequa--Kwabeccy? Kebeh-- My Canadian French isn't great-- says during pre-production, the team planned the entire game and all of its features and mechanics in advance and then stuck to that plan throughout development executing all of it with very few changes. [FRANCOIS] Uh, we did not redo systems. Uh, we did not rethink the game. We just went full-speed ahead. We knew exactly what we wanted this game to be, what we wanted the player to feel. [HBOMB] Having a plan makes sense but traditionally in game development, plans change over time as you see your game ideas in action and iterate and make changes.

"Human Revolution's" main design team wrote all their initial ideas on huge sheets of paper and then stuck them to the walls and followed them religiously. [FRANCOIS] Everything I've shown you so far, we put on huge sheets of paper which we papered the walls over with. [HBOMB] Before they'd actually made the game, had a chance to see how it felt to play, or test things out, they'd already decided how almost everything was going to be. [FRANCOIS] So by having it, uh, on walls, every single morning when we came in, we saw exactly what we needed to do. They were so important in fact that when we moved to our, uh, final offices, it's the first thing we put up.

[HBOMB] By the end, the team had made a game that was absolutely brilliant. On paper. When I say "Human Revolution" feels like the first few ideas a bunch of guys had in a brainstorming session right at the start of development, that's because it is the first few ideas a bunch of guys had in a brainstorming session right at the start of devel-- [wildly flapping tongue] Basically the whole ga-- [laughing] [FRANCOIS] Blueprint was a way for us to chart the whole game in advance. Just to show you, this is, uh, half of the blueprint.

[HBOMB] Basically the whole game had been planned out on spreadsheets before they discovered, you know, some of it is boring and time-consuming, and then they realized they'd forgotten to plan half the stuff that needed to be there and had to add major components to the game at the last minute and everybody hated them. Lapikas apologizes directly in his talk for the boss fights. [FRANCOIS] They were a big part of the game and we should have put more efforts in them, so truly sorry about that. [HBOMB[ While I was watching this talk, I was beginning to write a joke in my notebook, like, "I guess no one wrote about the boss fights on the walls."

But it turns out that actually happened. [FRANCOIS] Remember the direction sheets I was talking about at the beginning. We didn't have one for boss fights. We kind of forgot about it. Because we didn't have these direction sheets, we didn't really know what we were doing with boss fights. [HBOMB] Game development is a complicated process where initial ideas you had in a vacuum months ago might turn out not to work in practice.

Just as a comparison, the team behind the original "Deus Ex" threw away half of their design document part way through. [Warren] We ended up with-- are you sitting down? 500 pages of documentation. Yeah. No one read it. Um... [audience laughing] [HBOMB] Warren Spector, the director of the first game, is really open about how much rethinking needed to be done to make the game what it is even though they thought they knew everything they needed at the end of pre-production.

[HBOMB] The year "Deus Ex" came out, he wrote a retrospective for "Gamasutra" which incidentally changed its name to "Game Developer" while I was writing this video, which was confusing, and part of it covers just how much of their ideas got thrown out or replaced. [SHAUN narrating] [Warren] We were open to change. Be open to change. Anybody who tells you that, you know-- that when you get to the end of pre-production, "You've got a script and nothing changes," has never made a game, right? [FRANCOIS] Blueprint was a way for us to chart the whole game in advance. [HBOMB] On the one hand, you have a game that appears to have been designed pretty intensively before they'd even made any of it, and on the other you have a team months from release who realized there's a problem and go, "Wait, hold on a second." [HARVEY] Like, me and Warren and Chris would-- would sit in a room and fight like cats and dogs It's just kinda weird that you introduce some of these characters, you interact with them a little bit, and then they're just gone. He shows up in mission one, he shows up in mission two, he shows up in mission four, and then you never hear from him again.

What happened to that guy? And it was a powerful question because it was one of the basics of storytelling that we as video game designers weren't yet applying, and so we went back. [HBOMB] I'm sure I could wrap this point up here in a neat little bow and say something like, "The real test of a creative work "isn't having a lot of good ideas. "It's understanding when you have to change them to make them work." But then you have to ask, "Why would anyone be so rigid about pre-production and unwilling to rethink things like this? Well, because they have to be. Think about how much game development has changed since the '90s. If someone had a better idea about a mechanic or wanted to rewrite the opening or redo some dialogue or swap the first two levels, it wasn't too much work, and crucially, not that much work was wasted.

It's pretty easy to steer a canoe. Larger ships, however, are notoriously difficult to steer even when you see the problem in time. You know, like in that movie. Uh, "Speed 2?" Games are vastly more expensive to make now, need scores of programmers, artists, animators, directors, producers designers, writers. Companies need organizational-- wait, I have more. Production assistants, general managers, composers, sound designers, mocap artists, the entire second company you farmed out the boss fights to, not to mention voice actors you have to call back in to do more work if you need to change anything big, and incidentally, one of "Human Revolution's" other really big problems exists completely because they didn't want to have to call back a voice actor.

[ELIAS] I never asked for this. [HBOMB] Things do need to be planned that much more in advance and stuck to pretty strictly if all these folks are gonna manage to come together to produce something that works at all. If someone on the team thought the opening kinda sucked and needed some reworking-- and I'm willing to bet several of them did-- what were they gonna do? Cut out millions of dollars of work? Remove all that content you made and have to make even more? Tell the higher ups you blew a ton of time and money and need more of it? They had to fight all the way to the top to get a fucking poster in here. Do you think they're gonna get that far asking them for the time to redo something this big? Now, I'm not strictly saying they wanted to fix the opening and couldn't. There's no way of knowing for certain unless someone who worked at Eidos Montreal wants to go on record. Please E-mail me.

I'm just saying that in the AAA landscape that has sprouted as gaming became one of the biggest industries on the planet, you have so much less room to change and improve once you realize a guy disappears after mission four. And guess what? A guy literally does disappear after mission four. We'll get to that later. "Human Revolution" has many of the exact problems the original "Deus Ex" team have described their game having before they had the chance to go back and fix it.

It just didn't get the polish and rethinking that made "Deus Ex" one quite so special, and this leads to much bigger problems than a boring opening. If you asked me what was the most important thing about these games-- and you're watching this video so implicitly you are asking me-- I'd say it's giving the player agency. Giving them the freedom to make their own choices. Most of "Human Revolution's" biggest issues spring from a misunderstanding of what this actually means.

Instead of giving players meaningful choices to make as Adam Jensen, lots of the game is about watching Adam Jensen make his own choices without the player's control. [computer beeping] [upbeat piano music] During the first level of the manufacturing plant, while you're making your way through or past the gang that has occupied it, there are hostages you can try to save and there's also a climactic stand-off with Zeke Sanders-- the ring leader-- who has a hostage at gunpoint. You can trigger a shootout where he kills the hostage and then attacks you, but if you're quick enough, you can take him out first and the hostage survives. You can also just let him go.

This will cause the hostage to be killed in the crossfire during his escape, but you can actually talk him into letting her go and just walking out. One of the hostages you can save earlier is this woman's husband. If you saved both of them, they feel indebted to you and tell you to catch up with them later at their place. [MAN] You're a true hero, man. I'll find some way to repay this.

- I swear. - [HBOMB] If you do, they give you the address of an arms dealer and get him to give you a discount. This is a really neat little side story that ties into the player's actions. The discount isn't even that useful, for reasons we'll explore later, and these characters don't do anything else afterwards, but you don't need any wider effects than that for this to work. [WOMAN] I can never thank you enough for what you did. [HBOMB] The fun here comes from feeling briefly that you're tangibly involved in two tiny little digital lives-- that the things you're doing and how you do them can make a difference.

This side quest is genuinely really nice. [VHS tape pauses] However, it's also the best you're getting. When it comes to the main story-- the thing you're focusing on for most of the game-- the player has little to no freedom or control. You get to choose the in-flight meal, but the plane's on auto pilot and oh, no, a metaphor for the direction the story's taking.

The actual story of the manufacturing plant level is about Adam walking in on a hacker going after the company's sensitive data, and I say Adam here, not the player, because once you reach the door, you're forced to watch him immediately get seen by the hacker and watch him get hacked by a double hacker and then fail to stop the hacker shooting himself. [MAN] Help me! [gunshot] [tense music] [HBOMB] This is an important story moment they thought would be really cool, you see? So the player's ability to interact with it needed to take a backseat. You don't get to decide what to do about the hacker. You get to watch a movie. [ADAM] Patch me to Sarif. Now.

[computer beeping] [machine whirring] [HBOMB] Oh, yeah! This is great! This could have been an engaging game play sequence. The player could have been able to knock them out using stealth or grab them before they manage to shoot themselves and only get this outcome if they were too slow and failed to stop them. You know, like that thing they do a few minutes later. Just do this but for the part of the story that actually matters.

This would give the player a sense of direct interaction with the major events of the plot. The story wouldn't even need to change too much. Sure, this character dying here probably seems too important at first glance since the next quest involves breaking into the morgue of a police station to recover his brain computer from his body, but what if even if you knocked him out-- [blow lands] He mysteriously turned up dead in police custody? This would actually enhance the sense of a conspiracy while also making the player feel like they were involved in it. Instead of being, "How dare the police not give "my tech start-up complete access to a corpse they just recovered five minutes ago," it would be, "Holy shit, they're in on it. "They killed him! "We can't let them get away with this! Ooh!" Hang on.

Can we just talk about the design of this room for a second? It's built so you can see the hacker when you come in through the frosted glass, but you can't, like, distract him or come in through another route or shoot him through the glass or get his attention in any way. You just have to watch him playing this animation until you trigger the cutscene by going through the door. You can even see there's another way in but you can't get over this stuff to get behind him.

What's kind of insulting is they put an invisible wall here so you can't climb over it when you can climb over the stuff that's the same height right next to it. It's like they went out of their way to make it as obvious as possible that you have no choice except to come in through this room this one way and trigger the cutscene. Instead of giving you a reasonable amount of control, the game makes increasingly awkward attempts to make you feel like you're making more choices than you actually are. After the stand-off, the cops have alternate lines of dialogue for almost every specific big thing that happened at the factory. If Sanders got away, if you killed him, if you saved the hostages or not, they all instantly know and have thoughts about every major thing you just did.

[MAN] Diffusing that bomb was some quick work. You should get a commendation. [HBOMB] You have no idea how quickly I diffused the bomb. You weren't there! [MAN] God damn! [thudding] [bangs] [MAN] Nice job securing the plant. I wouldn't have thought a security guard could handle this. [HBOMB] Doesn't even stop trying to kick the door down to tell me what he thinks about how I handled things.

What a pro. When you get back to Sarif headquarters, everyone else reacts to your choices, too, in a way that starts to feel stilted and artificial, like they're breathing down your neck trying to make you feel noticed. [MAN] Talk's all over the office, Mr. J. You really took care of those Purity First assholes. [MAN] How'd you take 'em down without killing 'em? [HBOMB] Almost everyone at your job already has something to say. [WOMAN] How did that monster get away from you? [WOMAN] You saved the hostages, didn't you, Jensen? [MAN] Apparently there wasn't much bloodshed, thanks to you.

[HBOMB] Pritchard has one of two dialogue lines based on how many guys you killed at the plant. [PRITCHARD] Well, well. If it isn't Attila the Hun fresh from the killing fields. [HBOMB] But if you killed very few people, he says this.

[PRITCHARD] Well, if it isn't Mahatma Ghandi himself come to honor us all with his life-preserving presence. [HBOMB] Now, this is cute, accounting for the player's choices like this, but this one line is all that changes. In fact, even if you haven't killed anyone in the game yet, his next line is still this. [PRITCHARD] Stick to kicking down doors and shooting people, Jensen, and stop trying to do my job. [HBOMB] Someone wrote Pritchard to treat Jensen like a serial killer, then realized they should probably account for the possibility the player hasn't killed anyone and add in precisely one alternative line and moved on. I get the desire to make your home base feel like it's reacting to the player's choices.

It's a really good idea on paper, and you know those guys loved paper. [laughs] Good one. But if you execute it poorly, it doesn't feel like characters reacting to things another character did. It feels like writers scrambling to find ways to make you feel involved in a story. [MAN] Jensen, is it true Sanders acted surprised when he heard about the hacker? [HBOMB] Uh, buddy, that just happened.

I just got back right now. Who told you this? D--Did you read the script? Luckily, this problem solves itself. After the early levels, the player has so little control over what happens that NPCs run out of things to react to you doing. Either that or even the writers realized how weird it would be if the people at your Detroit headquarters were like, "Hey Adam, way to steal that key card from that brothel in China!" The game has another way of creating the illusion of choice, though. Many sequences have dialogue choices. These feel like choices because, well, they are, technically.

But what the game doesn't tell you is these choices do nothing. [FARIDAH] So, how's it feel? - Being augmented? - [ADAM] Excuse me? [HBOMB] The main character Jensen interacts with in the game is Faridah Malik, Sarif Industries' pilot. When you leave for the first level, she asks how you feel about coming back into work. When you get back to her afterwards, she asks for your take on the events of the mission, and as soon as you land, she asks you how you feel about being augmented. You get a lot of opportunities to choose what to say to Malik. Getting to make the choices is nice, but none of this does anything.

Malik maybe gets annoyed in reply to the thing you just said, but it doesn't have any wider effect. These choices aren't here to give you control over a relationship with a character. There' here to make you feel like you have that kind of control. The game just briefly pretends to be "Mass Effect" sometimes but with hexagons instead of a wheel.

[ADAM] I think people should stop asking me so many questions. [HBOMB] Then about two minutes later, the player is asked by someone else how he feels about being augmented. [WOMAN] How do you handle all of this? [HBOMB] It's the "pretend players are making choices" trick so nice they used it twice. This time is special, though, because he says the line. [tense music] [beeps] [ADAM] I never asked for this. [ALL] Yay! [HBOMB] People were waiting with bated breath to see if Adam says the line from the trailer.

I'm so glad they put it in there. A bunch of other stuff in the trailers didn't. [HBOMB] That's the most political thing Adam Jensen says.

I want to play the game this was a trailer for. Oh, sweet. It's the cursed trailer version of this scene. This face haunts my nightmares. In many RPGs, how you talk to other characters affects how they feel about you, impacts the story, or comes back up in some way, you know? What if I told you that at no point do any dialogue choices you ever make affect anything other than the character's immediate reaction? There's a part where you can optionally help her unravel the death of one of her best friends and catch the real killer. What affect does this have on your relationship? She goes, "Thanks," and you never hear about it again.

What if-- for example-- Adam could be a real piece of shit to his pilot and she stopped being friendly with him, or didn't ask for his help later, or straight up refused to work with him and he got assigned a worse pilot who didn't make small talk for the rest of the game? Instead you get to pick angry, happy, or ambivalent, and she goes, "Okay." And the game continues like nothing happened. Your pilot will still be your friend and still ask for your help in a later side quest no matter how you treat her.

Even when you technically have a choice, it only accentuates how little control you're being given. [ADAM] So what do you want me to do, boss? [HBOMB] Take the mission to break into a police station morgue and find the hacker's delicious brain chips. You get this mission via your boss literally ordering you to do it. [DAVID] Get over to the station and find a way inside.

Contact me when you've gotten a hold of it. [HBOMB] But this is a modern RPG with dialogue options, so you're given the option of saying, "Hey, you're ordering me to do a really big crime here, right?" [ADAM] What you're asking me to do, it's not exactly legal. [DAVID] No, it isn't. You got a problem with that? [HBOMB] You can make Adam say he's not happy about-- you know-- robbing a police station, but the response is, "Too bad! That's the game! Idiot!" - [ADAM] Yes, but-- - [DAVID] But nothing. So get goin'.

[HBOMB] The creators wanted to do a mission where you have to get into a police station. That's fine and you have a lot of options for how to do that, but games which use dialogue like this usually offer different outcomes for making different choices. If this was "Mass Effect" or "Fallout," you could talk your boss into trying a different approach for getting the information he needs. Or alternatively you could just not offer the illusion of a choice. If Adam had just said of his own accord, "I don't like it but I see how it's the only option," and moved on, it wouldn't have been a problem. JC spoke for himself all the time.

You're making the limits of the player's role in the story really obvious when their big choice in dialogue amounts to how willingly their character agrees to commit a crime. Adam Jensen is an ex-cop who doesn't play by the rules. Whether he likes it or not. Instead of you getting to make the choices, there's another character in the story making them for you: Cutscene Jensen. At numerous points, Adam either does something very stupid without you having a choice because the plot demands it, or worse-- he does something really cool.

It would have been to actually play. There's one sequence later where the player plants a bomb on a desk. Luckily, they built the desk with a large glowing spot for in case someone needs to plant a bomb. They do those at Ikea now. Now, this is a setup to a potentially thrilling game play sequence where the player has to escape the explosion in time or find cover and capitalize on the distraction caused by the explosion, but instead, it cuts to a video of Jensen doing it. [beeping] [ADAM] Shit! [beeping] [HBOMB] I'm not gonna lie, though.

This does look really fun and tense. [groaning] It would have been really fun to play it. [booming] [ADAM groans] [glass clinking] [HBOMB] The cutscene continues for another, like, minute and a half as Jensen hides from the guards and then he decides to hide in a shipping container, finds a cryogenic pod in the shipping container, and then decides to just climb into it for some reason. This is how you find out this pod exists, by the way. He just finds it and gets in it, and then he wakes up on a secret base a few days later.

Oh. Well... That's cool. Couldn't the objective for the player have been to trigger that explosion and then get into the pod themselves? Like, that could have been a really fun mission. We just get to watch our guy have fun.

Like, what? A pretty standard rule of games is that if something cool happens in the story, the player should get to do it. Warren Spector-- the director of "Deus Ex--" did a post-mortem on the game at GDC a few years back, and somewhat jokingly listed the Ten Commandments he had when he was developing the game, and one of them was to let players do the cool stuff. [WARREN] If something is cool, don't even think about letting an NPC do it. Players do the cool stuff. NPCs watch the player do the cool stuff. [HBOMB] I like to describe the first "Deus Ex" as surprisingly linear.

Since the player is always the one doing the important things with no cutscenes doing it for them, you always feel like the driving force of the story even though technically you're just completing an objective someone gave you. So when all the most pivotal moments in the game consist of Adam doing the cool stuff while you watch-- which occasionally pauses to ask you if you'd like to do something else before forcing you anyway-- you start to feel like a non-player character in the game that you're playing. Some of "Human Revolution's" potentially best playable moments take the form of heavily-compressed 720p video files.

After making his way to the CEO of the corporation that might have murdered his coworkers and loved ones, a cutscene plays where she tries to shoot him and he disarms her. Then there's some back and forth and a few seconds later he turns his back on her and give her the opportunity to trick him and lock him out of the room and send, like, 12 guys after him. [ZHAO] Men never fail to underestimate women. [HBOMB laughing] Gender! You spend hours getting to the executive suite of this corporation. You put in all this work, and then Cutscene Jensen just-- oops! [WARREN] Situations where the player has no chance to react, uh, in the "Deus Ex" world are bad. [ADAM] Shit! [booming] [HBOMB] You can't have contrived developments like this without seriously affecting the player's sense they have any say in the story.

This segment is especially easy to recognize as a problem because it has a beat-for-beat equivalent in "Deus Ex" one, meaning we can directly compare the two. When JC Denton goes after his game's female CEO of a large Chinese biotech corporation which seems to be part of the conspiracy-- wow, they just copied that, didn't they? The character welcomes you in and tells you a fairly compelling story about being friends with your brother and which faction is responsible for the current problems. You have to figure out what to do next with that information.

If you believe her and follow her objective, she goes into hiding and the job she gives you turns out to be basically a trap to kill you. Yeah, breaking into a Hong Kong police station looking for evidence they supposedly covered up-- that's not a recipe for getting exploded. The player gets to actively decide whether to trust her. If they did, they have to have a lightsaber fight with her when they run into her again because this game is so cool. [whirring] [MAGGIE] Time to die, J-- [blow lands] [screaming] [HBOMB] Or they can snoop around some more in her apartment and find the entire secret base in her home, or they can just, like, shoot her.

Like, right away. Or snipe her from another building without ever talking to her. Throw a bomb through her window. [MAGGIE screams] [HBOMB] I just want to observe for a second that in the original "Deus Ex" breaking into a police station is a trap to try to kill you that was meant to sound so ridiculous you realize you're being tricked and choose to do something else, but in "Human Revolution," it's the only option you have to progress the story and you cannot say no.

Players being able to make choices and express themselves would get in the way of the amazing movie the creators wished they were making. Spoilers: they want this character to be the final boss so you have no choice but to sit and watch Adam delay the plot by ten more hours. This problem bleeds into the game play. While there's often a degree of choice in how you solve problems, the consequences of your choices are meaningless because the story wasn't designed to account for them.

You can recover the neural hub from the police station by, well, annihilating it. You don't have to bother with talking your way in by absolving a cop of the guilt of the child he killed, or sneaking in via the side entrance or the roof or the sewers. You can also go in guns blazing.

Make a real hog roast of a building full of human beings and the cops interrogating them, too. This is a refreshing, "New Vegas-esque" level of freedom to be given in how to dea with a situation. 100% coolest level in the game in terms of player freedom. I mean, look how many cops you can kill.

How could it possibly be a bad level? [MAN shouts] [MAN groans] [HBOMB laughing] This fucking clown car office. What the fuck is this? What, were they guarding this vent? The problem with this level is the effect these choices have. Or rather, should have. Like, this would be a big deal, right? We were just caught on camera killing a lot of people. This is one of the top ten mass shootings in America. This week. Our face should be on the news.

We'd be a wanted man. Sarif Industries would have to fire us and issue a public apology for giving us both the arms and the arms to do it with. The debate on if augmentations should be legal would shift a bit. I'm not an expert on video game story telling, but something should happen as a result of this, right? [ADAM] Boss, I got the neuro hub. [HBOMB] What happens is nothing. Everything's fine. This never comes up.

You come back to Detroit later in the game and there's no wanted posters. The cops are friendly. Nothing has happened. But then what if you learned to like the taste of bacon and keep going? What if you continue to fight cops in the street, blow up their mechs, snipe them, explode them, just fucking go to town on an entire police force? You wanna know what happens then? When you get done with a quest in a convention center, on your way out, a cop approaches you with a side quest to help the police.

[MAN] Adam, I need you to trust me on this. You gotta help me find Jacob. [HBOMB] They need help stopping a terrorist who hates cops. No, they're talking about someone else.

You get offered this quest when you leave the convention center even if you have killed every cop you've ever seen so far in the game. They're really short staffed because of the riots which is why they need outside help from an ex-cop. The fact Adam is a big reason why they're short staffed doesn't cost him the job, apparently.

Just think about that! You can do an actual mass murder and get deputized by the survivors to catch a psychopath with a fraction of your body count. The game feels almost embarrassed about it, too. Since accounting for how each player dealt with the police station would have required a lot of work, on your second visit to Detroit, the police station is completely closed and you can't even go in. There's no two ways around it. This is cheating. They're dodging the responsibility of doing anything with the choices they gave the player. The best you get is if you do tenderize the gammon warehouse, a newspaper in the next level says, "Massacre at police station," or something.

This newspaper is so easy to miss, I didn't get any footage of it during this play through. So if you blink, you miss the consequences of going to war with the Detroit PD. The effects of your choices fade away once you make them.

Look. Nature is healing. The cops are right back patrolling the streets I killed their buddies in. You see those guns on the ground? Those are the guns the guys I killed on my way in dropped when I murdered them. The game treats the player's choices about violence extremely weirdly, forgiving you for even the most extreme acts of terror-- [booming] [all groaning] But also making sure you can't play the game truly peacefully, either. I mean, let me just read you one of the game's achievements. [clears throat] [Alexander Brandon's "Main Title"] ♪ ♪ [WOMAN screaming] ♪ ♪ [men groaning] [WOMAN shouting] ♪ ♪ [men shouting] ♪ ♪ [WOMAN gasping] [unsettling music] ♪ ♪ [MAN exhales] ♪ ♪ [HBOMB] Now, it might just be me, but the standards for pacifism have really slip-- wait, that guy's still alive! Get him! [both shouting] It's important to stress here that "Deus Ex" never did anything like this.

Technically speaking, it only had cutscenes when you got into a plane and were traveling to the next level, and I guess the endings, too. Everything else was either game play or dialogue. At no point does JC Denton do something of his own accord. He's the player's avatar.

He's meant to be an expression of your choices. Meanwhile, no matter how peaceful you make Adam Jensen behave, there's still going to be a cutscene where he tries to shoot a woman in the chest. [ZHAO screaming] [HBOMB] Pacifist! There's a bit of a disconnect here in terms of how much control the player has, is what I'm saying. It's always insulting to not have a choice in something or be congratulated for not doing something that you literally have to do, but what's even worse is when a game tells you you're going to be given a choice and then just forgets.

There's one incredibly strange part where the second boss character, Rihanna, is heavily injured from the fight and Jensen is asked if he will help her. [WOMAN] Her life signs are fading. Will you save her? [ADAM] I'll think about it. [HBOMB] But then she just quietly dies and is a corpse once the cutscene is over.

[dog barking] There was a dog barking. Apparently in an early draft of the game, the player got to decide if they killed bosses after defeating them and then they decided not to or weren't able to add this mechanic for whatever reason. [MARY] Initially we had wanted to have the final blow for the bosses was up to the player to decide whether he was gonna do it or not.

And we never did change the lines. [HBOMB] After the next boss fight, the guy's like, "Ugh, finish it," because he's a badass. That's his character, right? And Jensen's like, "Not until you tell me what I need to know." And then he dies anyway, like, a second later. You can smell the point in the cutscene where a moral choice would have gone and then, well, they kind of lost that in the process of their production. I think that's a diplomatic way of saying they didn't finish the game.

This lack of control over the story to the extent players are being told they're going to get some choices which they are then not given makes the story start to feel flat and like you're not really taking part in it. Now, to be clear, the game isn't completely devoid of branching story choices. At one point near the end, you get shot down, and if you don't kill a couple guys, the pilot is killed.

It's intended as a reference to the original where your pilot can also die, but in "Deus Ex," it's an excuse for investigation and subterfuge. You have to find the corpse of a mechanic and wonder what's up with that. Notice the weird guy also dressed as a mechanic? [ODD MECHANIC] I fixed her right up for you. [HBOMB] And kill him or report him to his boss. [JC] That mechanic was an impostor. [JACK] Oh, my God! JC, a bomb! [JC] A bomb! [HBOMB] You can completely miss all of this if you're not paying attention and if you do miss it, hours and hours later on the last level, your pilot's copter explodes and you don't really know why.

This is part of the subtle beauty of the original. The game doesn't make it clear how much control you have sometimes. So when this happens, you get to wonder if you could have saved him. There's tons of minor ways the story can change that some players don't even know about and only find out about on forums years later.

This isn't quite as special when it's shoot all of these guys or your pilot dies now. Also the way the game accounts for her death just sucks. If you save her she later heroically flies in to knock out some guys and save the scientists you rescued, but if she dies, obviously this means she doesn't turn up so there's some serious story implications for the survival of these scientis--just kidding. An aircraft is on the landing pad now for no reason, and they fly it out. What? They could have made Faridah Malik's death have interesting consequences and they just don't! They just don't! There is one really good story choice in the game, though. [WOMAN] See you soon, Mr. Jensen.

[ADAM grunts] [HBOMB] Partway through you start having minor glitches and it becomes clear it's affecting other augmented people, too. You all have them at once, even. - [MAN shouts] - [MAN grunts] [HBOMB] I like how it's done, too, these minor mutual freak outs where everyone gets injured and confused.

This is some pretty neat storytelling, actually. [beeping] Uh, well, it's still pretty good. Anyway, you get a side objective to replace the defective chip causing this. If you go to a clinic, the game goes, "Are you sure you wanna do this?" As if to say, "Hey, you're making a big choice here," and for once, you are. If you get the replacement then in a later level before a boss fight, the lady from before flips a switch and you have to fight the boss with your screen all fuzzy. Wow, my choices affected the story.

If you think this is the smartest thing in the game, I'm very sorry to tell you that you are correct. It is. There's another little way the plot can kind of branch, actually. If you wait around at your HQ before going to the first mission, your boss yells at you to get to the helipad.

- [DAVID] The helipad! - [HBOMB] And eventually, the hostages you could have saved in that mission are dead before you get there. [DAVID] Christ, Adam, while you were strolling around the offices, the situation got worse. [HBOMB] Wait a second, though.

The game just dropped me in a new level full of people to talk to and then yelled at me to ignore all of it to get to the mission as fast as I can? Yeah, I really have the sense that time is of the essence in "Human Revolution." [door hisses] [ADAM] Oh, my God. Did you ever think about how, like, the myth of Icarus is about trans humanism? Like, with the wings? [MEGAN] No, I didn't. A--Adam, that's--

that's really stupid. [ADAM] You see? This is why we broke up. I still can't believe you don't like "Ghost in the Shell." [MAN] Oh, my G

2022-03-06 20:40

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