Deus Ex Retrospective

Gamasutra guest blogger Xander Markham celebrates the 11-year anniversary of Ion Storm's Deus Ex by bringing us a thorough retrospective that points several of the role-playing shooter's strengths, as well as its apparent weaknesses.
As Spider-man prosaically mused, with great power comes great responsibility and one of the most lasting sensations throughout Spector's game is not only the thrill of finding out what consequences your actions will yield, but also the lingering fear that you've taken a wrong turn or bad choice. Having a number of established story beats gives just enough impetus to continue through any doubts you may have about your choices, as well as preventing the continuity of the world from being broken by the presence of one exceedingly influential central character and serving one of the game's central themes about how much control the average person actually has over the outcome of their lives.

While a useful proponent to keep players moving forward, the story of Deus Ex is in truth a rather hackneyed affair, whose William Gibson influences are worn rather too blatantly on its sleeve. But what Spector and his team seemed to realise is that much as genuine player choice makes for more exciting and personal play than a linear set of arrivals and outcomes, an overdeveloped story in a game can deride from the player's experience by taking away the thrill of discovery and exploration that only an interactive medium can offer. Instead Deus Ex demotes the story to the role of background guide, ensuring the player never feels lost or lacking important goals, while deepening the world around them so you'll want to turn every corner just to see what's on the other side, to read every scrap of newspaper or communiqué to gain further insight into what keeps every cog of the dystopian machine turning.


Despite its faults (the pulverisingly unforgiving difficulty for new players, clunky graphics even for turn of the millennium gaming and repetition throughout the middle act), the most depressing thing about Deus Ex is how little influence it has had over subsequent gaming culture. As the games industry grew and became more mainstream, much of the reckless experimentation that produced many of the greatest games of the late '90s (and a few of the worst: take a bow, Jurassic Park: Trespasser) was left behind in favour of a formula mentality. Derived in thought and execution from the sensibilities of the Hollywood blockbuster, for all its financial success the gaming landscape was made a less exciting place to play. Even Deus Ex's maligned sequel Invisible War dumbed down the RPG elements to make them more palatable, while the trailer for the series' third entry ignores real gameplay in favour of pre-rendered spectacle.