Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Choice in Deus Ex, is it an Illusion?

             Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game that definitely offers a player more to think about than normal games would. The idea of desecrating our bodies for the advance of human technological advancement, the prospect of choosing whether human populations or a single human is more important, and the constant lingering idea that society is not so free as it can be are only a few of the explicit and subliminal messages that the player can receive. However, while there are a lot of ideas that exist in this game, there’s one that many players will overlook: choice. Choice is a common gameplay mechanic often bragged about in video games such as Skyrim and Mass Effect. Although at first glance those choices seem to be decisions that the player is choosing, they are only illusions. The choices that players make in games such as Skyrim and Mass Effect are dialogue or conversational choices that have no real impact on how people play the game. If players choose to punch someone in Mass Effect, they will just think bad of the character and nothing will really happen. If a player decides to assist someone out in Skyrim, all it does is to make the journey quicker. Despite “choice” being so integral to the player experience it’s really not all that different at the end of the day. Instead of it truly affecting the world in the game or affecting the trials and tribulations that the players come across, it becomes more a chore and gimmicky game mechanic. What, then, does Deus Ex: Human Revolution do that’s so different?

            Deux Ex deploys the idea of choice in two very different ways. One is explicit and the other is implicit. As the player journeys throughout the various areas of the game to finish the main story, they are handed quests with a very broad idea of how to approach it. Take for example the first mission of the game. David Sarif, the player’s employer, gives the choice of using lethal or non-lethal tactics to complete a mission. While it seems like a simple choice that the player has to make, it’s not a simple one. Why? The game explicitly offers the player the choice of how the to tackle the mission, but the possibilities of how lethal or how non-lethal is up to the player. Sarif offers another question to the player: short-range or long-range. Depending on how the player answers this question, he or she will receive one of four different types of weapons. The quest tells the player that he or she must infiltrate a warehouse and make it to the CEO’s office. While the starting point, endpoint, and the method of lethality is clear, the way to get to the end isn’t. I chose non-lethal and short range and as a result received stun gun. I made a choice in the beginning that affects how I proceed in this mission. Knowing that I have a weapon that has an effective range of only a few feet and it is non lethal means my enemies can wake up if an ally finds them. My choices have made an impact as to how the rest of the mission will proceed.

To kill or not to kill? That is the question.

            However, the first mission isn’t the only instance where explicit choice affects the gameplay drastically. Immediately after the first mission, Sarif hands the player another mission: infiltrating the police station. Sarif needs the player to examine a body in the police station but the officers are not letting him in. Due to this perhaps unfortunate precedent, Sarif offers the player a proposition, illegally enter the station using whatever methods necessary or find a more legal way to enter. While this mission doesn’t explicitly state what choices the player need to make and how that affects the gameplay like the previous mission, there are choices that the player needs to make. Take for example if the player chooses to enter the station legally. Upon entering the lobby of the police station, the player is greeted with an old disgruntled friend. Here the player can persuade the friend to be let in but he or she doesn’t necessarily need to do so. Just like Sarif said, there are various ways to approach this mission. Legally doing so is only one of many ways to handle the quest at hand. Perhaps legal isn’t something that the player has in mind and illegal actions suit him or her more. That option is definitely open to the player but how to handle that is something that the player must find out for him or herself.

            As a result, this leads to the idea of implicit choice. While the player has made the choice of entering the police station illegally, the method is entirely up to him or her. I chose to enter the building through a ventilation shaft found on the second floor of the police station after scouting around. The game doesn’t explicitly spell out how to enter the building illegally, it just states that there are illegal manners that await the player’s use. Maybe a more direct route isn’t suited for the player; that’s fine. The player can perhaps use an underground sewage system to enter the police station. The idea of giving choice implicitly to the players so that they can effectively use it to change the gameplay experience is something that’s not used at all by developers of the game industry. Take for example the first mission again. While Sarif hands the player a weapon depending on the choices made, this does not definitely dictate how he or she will proceed with the mission. If I received a pistol due to choosing lethality and short-ranged, it doesn’t mean I have to kill everyone I see. In fact, in one particular playthrough I avoided every single guard inside the warehouse and never once pulled out my pistol. Sure, I chose that I would kill my enemies to proceed with this mission but the game never forced me to. This implicit choice that Deus Ex offered me is something very unique to Deus Ex and perhaps to the game industry as a whole. The game never restricted me in how I approach my mission. I am free to choose how to tackle it. Not only this but the choices I make affect the gameplay. Because I chose to receive a pistol instead of a stun gun, I am now going to have an easier time proceeding through the warehouse if I am in a fight. The enemies will stay down instead of being woken up if other guards come across them. My choices, the player’s choices, affect how the game plays.

You can talk your way out of this. 

            Take another example, where the player infiltrates the police station illegally. The officers in the station are not made aware of the player’s presence and as a result will shoot on sight. This is a very different story if the player chose to persuade the friend to allow entry since the officers will not shoot knowing that the player has clearance. This means that the mission of examining the body inside the station becomes much easier if the player convinces the friend. The choices that the player makes impact the game. Sarif doesn’t make it clear to the player that the legal method of entering the station will be easier. Players will find out for themselves the difficulty with each choice they make. The decisions that players make will have a lasting impact on how the mission proceeds. In this case, the difficulty increases depending on what choices were made. The idea of implicit choice becomes clear because while it’s explicitly stated that there are illegal and legal methods of entering the station, it’s up to the player on how to enter legally or illegally. The player always has the option of choosing how to handle the mission.

            My last example of detailing choice and its effect on the gameplay is a mission from a downloadable content (DLC) called The Missing Link. This DLC starts the player stripped of all equipment whether it be powerups or guns. While it does state that retrieving the equipment is a mission, it never once states that it is necessary. In fact, the game implicitly offers the player a choice: proceed without equipment or with it. It’s this very idea of choice that has a lasting impact on the player and the gameplay. Players will find that the missions are much easier to handle with the equipment than without it. Enemies can be taken down with ease, different routes can be utilized, and sections can be avoided altogether. The choice that the player has made at the very beginning of this DLC has already seeped through the many gameplay aspects in this mini journey.

Go through the DLC. Without Augments this time.

            How is it that choice is such an influential and paramount idea in Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Is it because the choices are so large that the consequences are just as large? Is it because Deus Ex is such a different game compared to other games that offer choice like Skyrim and Mass Effect? The answer is no. Deus Ex is a smart and cleverly crated game and there is none like it in this generation. The developers understood from the very first moment upon creating this game that choice was an essential mechanic and aspect. This is the very reason why choice is so effectively utilized is Deus Ex compared to other games. Choices that the players make, whether it be implicit or explicit, permeates through every experience that the player encounters and builds it up to the climax of personal journey. Sure, there is a definite end result that the player will reach but how he or she gets there and by what methods are definitely up to the player. It wasn’t until I reached the end that I knew there was an achievement for finishing the entire game without killing anyone. What other game offers choice like Deus Ex? Personally, I don’t think there is any. Other developers can learn a lot from what the creators of Deus Ex in that choice is not just a gimmick in video games. It’s a way to craft a personal, engaging, and most importantly, a freeing experience. 

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