We’ve finished the VGC playthrough of Deus Ex; what did I learn from the experience?

Well, one thing that I learned is that a lot of people have a lot more to say about the narrative and world of the game than I do. Which made reading through the discussion a lot of fun! And which is something that I’ve learned about myself over the first two VGC games: I like reading books, and for that matter I generally enjoy narrative games, but when I’m playing a game in a context where I’m thinking about them more than normal, my brain seems to turn to gameplay matters more than to narrative matters.

Continuing along solipsistic lines, I learned something else about my psychology: as noted after the first week, this game did a remarkable job of triggering my perfectionist tendencies, meaning that I couldn’t relax at all until most of the way through the second week. Basically, my brain needed to understand the gameplay mechanics at a less-than-completely-superficial level, and to have a good item cushion in my inventory. Now that I’m aware of this, I’m curious if I’ll be able to short-circuit this when playing future games, encouraging myself to relax more at the start. (Probably not…)

And I learned something about the use of violence in narrative games. Deus Ex is one game where you are encouraged to think twice about the consequences of your actions; despite that, I left a trail of blood behind me without a twinge of guilt. Maybe I’m just conditioned to be callous in video games; I think there’s something to what Delany says, though.

And then there’s the level design. Which gives us a lot to think about, from the (to me) complete suprise of the rich UNATCO headquarters, to the delights of Hong Kong, to the shocking change of pace of Paris, to the grind at the end. I’m not going to be as obsessive with the Nature of Order analysis as I was in my last post, but does that framework give me any ideas to hang my hat on here? Let’s see:

In any sort of game like this, the most obvious Alternating Repetition is going to be the repetition between shooting (or other forms of interaction with hostiles, e.g. sneaking around them) and free exploration. That happens at at least two Levels of Scale: the level of the individual encounter (e.g. dealing with a room of hostiles, then exploring until you get to the next room) and at a broader scale (a mission in enemy territory followed by exploring open areas).

In a related vein, this game had some remarkable Boundaries framing some of the larger-scale hostile encounters. The one that struck me the most is the aforementioned UNATCO visit following the Liberty Island attack. But there are others, e.g. the peaceful start to Versalife before you start going places where you really shouldn’t. Also, I think Hong Kong has some strong The Void resonances.

The problem is, the game didn’t keep those last two properties up: once you get past Hong Kong, the larger-scale breaks from action dwindle notably, and are almost completely gone after Everett’s house. I disliked the Paris level, but I can understand why Bus suggested that its design makes sense on narrative terms, in order to give the player more of a direct experience of the repression that’s going on. And it makes sense in terms of my analysis, too: having an extended level full of hostile encounters gives a third Level Of Scale in the hostile / explore rhythm. (On a similar note, my feeling after finishing Half-Life 2 was that they should have cut most of the long levels in half but left one of them (Ravenholm?) intact.)

I can also see why the narrative encouraged the designers to remove the rest spots from the last several levels; here, though, I’m less sympathetic to the results. Ending with a big blow-out level makes sense to me (e.g. as a manifestation of Gradients). But having the last quarter or third of the game be one battle after another was really too much for me.

This can’t be a narrative problem unique to games. (Though relentless combat gives a grind feeling to games that you don’t get, at least to the same extent, when reading a similarly structured book or watching a similarly structured movie.) How do examples in other media solve this problem of giving areas of rest when building up to a climactic ending? Or do they not bother to solve the problem at all, am I just being over-sensitive?

So there were some surprising delights here, but also some surprising drudgery: I wish they’d maintained the various patterns from the first half of the game throughout its whole length. And yay for Boundaries and for The Void. Hmm, what other properties should I be talking about? Are the alternate playthrough techniques an example of Deep Interlock and Ambiguity? I think so, and a delightful one at that.

An excellent choice for our third game: I wasn’t as excited about it at the start as I was about some of the other candidates, but I ended up quite enjoying playing through it, and enjoying thinking about it and discussing it even more. I’m glad that the conversation about what game we should play as our third offering is leading in a more lighthearted vein, however.

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