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Alexis Kennedy, the creative director of indie developer Failbetter Games (you might remember them for the narrative-focused browser game Dragon Age: The Last Court), has shared some words of love for Ion Storm's Deus Ex on GamesIndustry. The piece is more of a tribute than a critique, though I feel the reasons Kennedy offers for his love are far from banal:
The DE team could have compromised on the systems and made the game feel more realistic, wallpapering over the cracks that allow you to chat idly to your brother with your legs snapped off at the knee. Instead, they provided a vast and consistent toy world that you're learning from ten minutes in.
OK, systemic gameplay: it's the old new thing. Roguelikes, open world games, procedural RPGs - we have plenty of games that rely on behaviour emerging from the elegant interaction of systems. But Deus Ex doesn't rely on the elegant interaction of systems. It relies on a loving, intelligent but demented patina of systems, layered over years of development.
From the beginning of preproduction to release, Deus Ex took 'only' three years, but the director-producer, Warren Spector, had been trying to get it made for four years before that at two previous developers... so by the time the game was released, it had been in the oven for seven years. It had accumulated five hundred pages of design notes; it had accumulated a legion of characters that the team added to and added to, long before they worried about how they'd fit into the game.
Consequently the balance of DE is gently bonkers. Some weapons are way more powerful than others; some items are junk. Every level, famously, has two or three approaches, but some are much easier than others. There's a skill system (improved with XP) and an augmentation system (improved with upgrade canisters). Why two systems? The sequels did away with the skill system altogether, because common sense says you wouldn't have two entirely separate upgrade systems. But every skill and augmentation feels distinctive and intuitively appealing, and the sheer variety of them trumps the demands of common sense.