Stories are subjective. Sure, a lot of the internet will tell you otherwise. Spend enough time online, it seems you start thinking that an opinion can only be valid when you get everyone else in the world to hold it. By force. I cannot tell you the amount of people I have seen flamed into oblivion because they praised/criticized the story of Final Fantasy VII in the wrong place. But these people miss out on a whole lot of the good in stories. They’re subjective. They speak to different people in different ways. And that’s awesome.
That does mean that somebody, somewhere, is going to enjoy some bad writing. Something that may have been slapped together on a napkin that some writer accidentally spilled his eighth drink on could end up truly resonating with a reader. It gets the fanboys up in arms, that OMG someone enjoys something they don’t, but aside from them, it’s a really beautiful thing.
I had that happen to me recently. Deus Ex is a game with a lot of strengths. The plot is not one of them. Which might be a little unfair; I didn’t get the chance to play this game until the medium had gone through over a decade of advancement since, but still, from my perspective, it was a great game, but the story was pants. It might be too far to call it bad, but it was lacking. And, at first, it seemed the part that the writing was sloppiest was in the ending. Specifically, the way the game handled the choice of three endings.
You see that? I said ‘endings’. That means spoilers ahead.
So there I was, hunting down the last of the evil spinoff of the group that would be the evil villains in many other stories, tracking them down because the main baddie kept taunting me even though I already dropped a nuke on them because apparently ruling the world requires a significant lack of judgement. When all of a sudden, I became Mr. Popular. Everyone started talking to me, using the communication hubs that had absolutely no reason to be there otherwise, wanting to switch me to their side because all of a sudden this whole peacekeeping mission now had me deciding the fate of the world with absolutely no buildup. And all the options presented to me? They came with some pretty serious downsides, and there was no way of blazing your own path through it. The people who had secretly been running the world in spite of the fact that every single member we saw was completely ineffective and I knew them to be a bunch of clowns because I played Human Revolution first wanted me to create a power vacuum then join them in filling it once more, ruling the earth from the shadows for our own benefit. The only people I really owed a favor to wanted me to destroy all the earths capabilities for long distance communications and plunge the economy back into the middle ages because obviously people can’t just lay cable for the internet again. The AI spying on everyone and hacking everything wanted me to merge with it, to create a benevolent ruler with absolute power, because apparently my penchant for cattle prodding people in the genitals until they passed out, trapping people in enclosed spaces and smoking around them until they died, and breaking into every locked door I came across in an attempt to build up the world’s largest candy bar collection makes me the world’s best moral compass.
Anyways, the problem I had here was that the choices seemed unreasonable, the people giving them weren’t exactly nuanced, they didn’t take into account my past actions after a game that had been doing that really beautifully throughout, and the way they were delivered, mostly out of the clear blue, left me a bit bitter about the option. But then, something miraculous happened. Turns out, I am really, really bad at health. Who knew! A lifetime of being tall and beautiful had trained me to seek out people’s attention, making me really bad at actually avoiding it when I had to. Is this what it’s like to be normal-looking? Man, I feel sorry for the rest of the world. Anyways, this turned out to be a bit of a blessing, as the constant save-scumming I had to go through gave me time to think. And that time to think ended up making me appreciate the endings a lot more. By the time I got to the guy who laid all the consequences out for me, I had already started looking at the endings on a whole different level.
What really changes the way I viewed the ending was the time I was given to reflect on the state of the world as it was. The three options you were given were all ruinous, but set against the backdrop of a world where Soylent Green would be panned for being too realistic, where the government pays people to commit suicide, where the United States walls off its slums and high crime areas, leaving them to devour themselves with no Batman to save them, where corruption exists at literally every level of government we see except for China, of all places, every single one of those options, horrid though they were, were far better than the status quo. The options themselves, digging past the surface level, asked you to weigh values against each other. Is it worth it to sacrifice individual freedom the world over if you can keep people safe? Does it matter that people are being controlled from the shadows, that they are locked into invisible gridlines, if it allows many to prosper? Is individual freedom valuable enough to set society back decades and replace it with chaos world-wide?
I still don’t appreciate the way they were presented, and the framing around them. The options did not come about it a well-written manner. They do really speak to me, though, and caused me to think about the values I held. In the end, I went for the chaos route, setting my people free at the cost of large government, business, and economy as a whole. Personal freedom is very important to me, and that feels by far the most right choice. Others will think differently, and that’s an awesome thing. In any case, the game, for all the creativity and fun it offers, was not very well-written, but the endings triggered that same part of me that attempts to thematically analyze the Saints Row series, as wild and slapstick as they are. I don’t believe they’d do the same to everybody. But the ending choices, and the nuance behind them, rose above the rest and truly spoke to me, transforming them in my eyes into something far greater than anyone else may believe.
If it’s one thing I did not like about how Deus Ex concluded, it’s that the ending depends entirely on how you complete the final mission. All it does it make it so that once you’ve gotten one ending, you can just reload and get the other two. I think a story-focused game that has multiple endings should reflect how you played through the rest of the game – not just hinge on your last action. It doesn’t help that, like many classics, Deus Ex does have this weird drop in quality when you approach the endgame.
That said, for some reason, none of this was a deal breaker to me. I don’t know – maybe it’s because I’ve played games that had such abhorrent endings, that it just doesn’t seem like a big deal in hindsight. I think it’s mostly because I found myself not disliking the endings. If it’s one thing I think the game does a excellent job doing, it’s hammering home the fact that your morality is not valid in the world of Deus Ex. The NSF would be stereotypical, right-wing terrorists you’d kill off with impunity in any other game; in Deus Ex, they’re the closest thing this world has to heroes. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some players who restarted the game and went for a pacifist challenge after it was revealed that Paul was working with them (I suspected something was up, so I actually did that on my first playthrough). To me, the endings continue to drive this theme home; all of them provide a violent disruption of the status quo that would spell doomsday if the world of Deus Ex mimicked ours. So dire is the world of Deus Ex that crashing the global economy while ushering in a dark age could be considered an improvement.
As for the plot itself, it is certainly hit-or-miss, yet it’s also thought-provoking (in the good sense). It’s almost like the writing is the way that it is so that you can form your own interpretations, and I think that should count for something. I’ve experienced a few works that I felt were the polar opposite in that they were technically better written and had more competence in the acting department, but were too afraid to voice a philosophy other than ones the real-life status quo dictates that intellectuals or the truly deep would profess.
I felt similarly. After a game that went so far to react to everything you did, it was a really big step down to have the ending be just “Choose A, B, or C”. I was kind of expecting to have another option in there waiting to just be figured out, but nope. I think I might have appreciated it more if the game didn’t present the ending options it did have in the ‘Pick me, pick me’ kind of way, but just gave you the three options as means of handling Bob Page, with a few hints as to what they led to, and based the ending as a consequence of your actions. Same material, but presented in a different way, and the armchair game-writer in me would be a lot more excited for it.
Yeah, that’s actually something it took me some time to pick up on. I didn’t really put the pieces together on just how horrible the game world was until I took the time in the ending to think about it. Once that hit, it really did change my perspective on those ending options, because, just like you said, they’re all improvements, as dire as the downsides may be. In fact, the downsides just drive home how screwed up the Deus Ex world is. That may be something I was a little ruined with, after playing Human Revolution first. That game takes place a while earlier, has a much shinier and friendlier world, and things aren’t quite as bleak as they became in Deus Ex. In hindsight, that may have changed my perspective on the game world, and may be why I didn’t really appreciate how much hell things had gotten.
Deus Ex’s story had a lot of good ideas. There was definitely a lot of thought that went into the game. I loved the revelation that Paul was not so much a peacenik as he just wanted his friends to come home safe, I loved the depth in the game’s resident big dumb brute, I loved that so many characters had a deeper philosophy guiding their actions. The authors did write things through on a few different levels. My problem was that it just didn’t lead to anything. You’d get these good ideas showing up in the plot, but then they wouldn’t go anywhere. The NSF actually turning out to have altruistic motives for the whole terrorism and hostage-taking deal was great, but when you figured that all out, they pretty much disappeared from the plot. I think. Paul died on my playthrough, so I don’t know if he added anything to the experience. Their replacements aren’t anywhere near as interesting or understandable as they were. Likewise, Gunther turned out to be a lot deeper of a character than he first appeared, but by the time that shows up, you only have a few encounters with him left. Deus Ex’s writers are the kind of developers I’d really love to see grow. They’ve definitely got some very strong points, they just need to capitalize on them a bit more.
Ion Storm fell by the wayside not too long after this game was released. They just couldn’t successfully follow up on Deus Ex. I find it strange how the same company that made Daikatana made this game (they were developed in different branches, but still).
The lead designer of this game was Warren Spector who also developed Ultima Underworld, the original System Shock, and the first Thief. Unfortunately, he also created the lackluster sequel to Deus Ex, Invisible War and since then, he sort of lost his footing. The most recognizable games he made in recent times would be the two Epic Mickey installments, which doesn’t bode well. And that’s too bad because of his games, Deus Ex was the only one I was able to enjoy. His older games are brimming with originality, yet were also products of their time, and consequently haven’t held up so well. I got bored searching the levels in Thief for valuables and the interface in System Shock may have been great for its time, but it’s pretty intimidating from a modern standpoint.
I think you would make a great ruler. Hopefully praising you will spare my genitals from electric prodding.
Compliments do help. But no, the compulsion for a good genital-prodding is much too strong. Just…. find someone to hide behind. That’s all I can say. Maybe the urge will go away after I’ve shocked through a few.