the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Architecture of Deus Ex

The Architecture of Deus Ex

There is an aphorism on the internet about Deus Ex: “When you mention it, someone will reinstall it.” In fact someone is probably reinstalling it right now. Before the recent release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, there was a fairly small percentage of gamers that had even heard of it, but those that have played it generally rank it in the top tier of all video game releases. While the graphics and voice-acting were subpar even when the game was released in 2000, this first-person shooter/role-playing game hybrid remains a masterpiece of design. Deus Ex is notable for the extreme amount of freedom that it grants the player, which is complemented by a deep, complex story and a cyberpunk aesthetic that would make William Gibson proud.

In the actual game, there’s really only one reason why he would be looking up like that: he’s probably climbing a ladder.

Before we get started, I’d like to introduce the game’s lead designer, Warren Spector, and discuss some of the studios he has been associated with. Spector got his start with Origin Systems, Inc. (founded by Richard “Lord British” Garriott and best known for the Ultima and Wing Comander series) before moving to Looking Glass Studios. There, he worked on the 1994 game System Shock, which was a key title in popularizing emergent gameplay and likely one of Deus Ex’s biggest influences. During production of Thief: The Dark Project (a game that Ken Levine also worked on), Looking Glass suffered a severe financial crisis, and the Austin, Texas branch was closed. Levine would go on to form Irrational Games and release System Shock 2 and BioShock, both of which received massive amounts of critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Spector was asked to join Ion Storm Inc. and form an Austin branch to supplement the pre-existing Dallas branch. It should be noted that, despite being two parts of the same studio, the Austin and Dallas branches could not have been more different. Ion Storm Dallas, headed by id Software veteran John Romero, partied like rock stars, relaxed in their multi-million dollar penthouse office, released overhyped garbage like Daikatana, and generally pissed away all of the good will he earned from working on Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. On the other hand, Spector’s Ion Storm Dallas humbly released critically-lauded games like Deus Ex and Thief: Dark Shadows.

But enough of the history lesson. Ion Storm worked under the mantra “Design is Law”, so let’s analyze the design of Deus Ex. As I said in the previous paragraph, System Shock probably had the greatest influence on Spector’s brainchild. Ken Levine has said that the “spirit of System Shock is player-powered gameplay: the spirit of letting the player drive the game, not the game designer.” Deus Ex takes the groundwork laid by System Shock and perfects it. In other words, the focus of the game design is player choice. That doesn’t mean that it’s like The Sims or Minecraft, where the story is whatever you decide it is. There is a very definite storyline with a beginning and an end, but it’s up to you to determine how you get there.

As a western RPG, Deus Ex gives you a number of different abilities, but only enough skill points to upgrade some of them. Will you focus on combat? Or will you turn your attention to hacking and lockpicking? However, many WRPGs have several “correct” and several “wrong” character builds. For example, DX’s prequel, Human Revolution, forces you into several boss encounters that revolve entirely around combat. If you haven’t been upgrading your combat-related augmentations, these boss fights can be… problematic. The original Deus Ex does not have this problem. No matter what you decide to focus on, there will always be a way to continue through the game. For example, here is a list of all the different ways I found to open locked doors:

  • Find the key and unlock it.
  • Pick the lock with lockpicks.
  • Unlock it by entering the appropriate keycode into the nearby keypad.
  • Unlock it by bypassing the nearby keypad with multitools.
  • Find the nearby switch that opens the door.
  • Find the computer that controls the door and login with the appropriate username/password.
  • Find the computer that controls the door and hack it with your ICE Breaker.
  • Break it down, usually with explosives.
  • Don’t bother. Just find a way around it.

Note that not all of those methods will work for every door. Some doors have no key; others have unpickable locks; many don’t have keypads, switches, or computers associated with them; and some doors are indestructible. For a more concrete example of how Deus Ex promotes player choice, take a look at this scenario from the game:

Every video game is dusty enough to make lasers visible.

See the lasers? Good. See the sentry guns? I added some arrows pointing at them. If you step through the lasers, those sentry guns will activate and turn you into a human colander. Let’s walk through the different ways we could get through this hallway.

1. Simply run through the lasers and tank the damage. Augmentations such as Speed Enhancement, Ballistic Protection and Regeneration can help reduce the amount of damage you take. Ballistic Armor can also mitigate some of the damage.

2. Destroy the sentry guns. While I am only equipped with standard firearms in the screenshot, grenades and rocket launchers are available at this point in the game. Also, it’s hard to see in the above screenshot, but there is an explosive barrel conveniently sitting next to each turret.

The other end of the same hallway.

3. Disable either the sentry guns or the lasers with an EMP grenade.

4. Use the Cloak/Radar Transparency augmentation or the Thermoptic Camo to become invisible and casually stroll through the hallway without activating the turrets. While those augmentations are not available at this specific point in the game, they can be used to pass through similar obstacles later.

5. Activate your Speed Enhancement augmentation. With a sufficiently leveled Speed Enhancement aug and some dexterity, you can simply jump over the lasers. (Again, this augmentation is not available at this point in the game.)

However, those options may not satisfy all playstyles. The first two are rather brutish, and the other three rely either on augmentations that haven’t been acquired or items that the player may have chosen not to carry in their limited inventory space. Let’s have a look around and see if we can spot any other options.

Many of my screenshots say “Light activated” at the top because Steam’s “take screenshot” key and Deus Ex’s “activate flashlight eyes” key are both F12.

6. Well, what do we have here? Using a multitool to bypass that fuse box will deactivate the lasers.

There is at least one more way through this hallway, and it involves one of the things I absolutely love about Deus Ex. Take another look at those three screenshots and see if you can spot it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Did you find it? You may have noticed that there is a pipe running along the wall on the right side of the hallway in the first screenshot. You can take the small metal box in the third screenshot, place it next to the large cardboard box, and use those to climb onto the pipe to circumvent the lasers.

(Note that this hallway is actually one of two paths through the level. If you so choose, you can make your way through a series of alleyways that are being patrolled by human enemies and guard dogs. Viable strategies for the other path include combat and stealth.)

Deus Ex’s physics engine may be primitive, but it is still utilized more creatively than the advanced engines in many current-gen games. There are a number of locations in the game where you can stack objects and use them to climb over obstacles. The Microfibral Muscle augmentation (represented by the muscle-y arm in the upper right corner of the above screenshots) will allow you to move heavier objects, and the Speed Enhancement aug will let you jump higher and mitigate some fall damage, opening even more possibilities. There were some sections of the game where I would reach a rooftop by stacking dumpsters on top of each other.

Well, I guess that’s one way to get to the other side of a fence.

The physics engine can also be abused to reach greater heights. Bouncing grenades in particular can be “surfed” to gain altitude or reduce fall damage. If you have played the game and would like to see this in action, the technique is utilized several times in the speed run. Even if you are familiar with grenade surfing, I highly recommend watching it, as it is easily one of the greatest speed runs I’ve ever seen.

Of course, from a logical standpoint, I can’t make the claim that Deus Ex can be beaten with any character build you could possibly choose unless it was possible to complete the game without choosing any of them. Believe it or not, this is, in fact, possible. One intrepid member of the Planet Deus Ex board named Alginon beat the game with no items (if an item was given by an NPC, it was immediately discarded), no augmentations, no skill upgrades, and no money, all while playing on the hardest difficulty. If a password or keycode was used, Alginon would find it in the level first, instead of typing it in from memory (with the exception of easy-to-guess keycodes like 12345). You can watch Alginon’s runthrough here and read through the thread detailing the planning stage and explaining certain tricks here.

One of the most interesting parts of Alginon’s “Ultimate Run” involves a character that must be killed or incapacitated before the helicopter will spawn to take you out of the level. Without any items, the character couldn’t be shot, and Deus Ex does not give you the ability to punch or kick. Alginon’s solution: jump on top of said character’s head and crush him to death.

It is actually one of the leading causes of death in the video game world.

While this extreme flexibility is definitely Deus Ex’s greatest strength, it is not the only thing the level design has going for it. Ion Storm Austin created a believable dystopian world to explore. Hacking into someone’s email account often reveals casual messages between friends in addition to sensitive information. Sneaking up on enemy mooks sometimes allows you to eavesdrop on their conversations, including one in which a paranoid fellow asks his coworker if he ever feels like someone is sneaking up on him. The fact that NPCs often interact with each other outside of the player’s influence has even given birth to one of the biggest in-jokes among the Deus Ex community: Gunther Hermann’s affinity for orange soda.

There are even entire sections of the game where no combat or stealth is needed, making Deus Ex feel more like a true interactive story, instead of just a bunch of shootouts strung together in an arbitrary manner. There is still plenty of action in the game; the developers just never shoehorned a bunch of enemies into an area when it wouldn’t make sense for them to be there. Of course, just because an area is initially a safe haven, that doesn’t mean there won’t be some sort of ambush or invasion. This all adds up to one of the best marriages of story and gameplay in video game history.

Now, when I said that you are given a world to explore, I meant it literally. It’s not the same kind of exploration that you do in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker or Fallout 3 (i.e. travelling around a massive open world and finding hidden corners and optional quests), but the sense of accomplishment is just as strong. Warren Spector made a conscious decision to not include any sort of waypoints in the game, so there are no floating arrows that only you can see pointing out which way to go. If someone tells you to find the ‘Ton Hotel, you simply have to find the building with a sign that reads “ton” (it was previously a Hilton hotel until half of the neon sign failed). If you are told that your next objective is east of the Underworld Tavern, just find the correct bar and walk to the east. (The levels are small enough that this doesn’t become a chore.)

Deus Ex also eschews a magical video game map screen that continuously updates itself as you move around. When you pull up the map screen, you are provided with the exact same image that your character is given. If an NPC hastily scribbles a diagram on some notebook paper and hands it to you, that’s what you see. This could easily get confusing with poor level design, but DX’s level design is excellent enough that the 3D space you see while playing can be associated with a 2D diagram without much trouble.

I bet you thought I was kidding.

The game will also not selectively remember passwords and keycodes for you. In Human Revolution, if you stumbled across an important piece of information, a message would flash on the screen letting you know that you “found” it, and the relevant info would be displayed whenever you tried to access the appropriate computer or keypad. The original Deus Ex does not grant you that luxury, and I think it is a better game for it. To avoid extreme frustration, the game will indiscriminately log everything you read (you can also add your own notes), but it’s up to you to determine what pieces of information are useful and where they can be used. Here is a screenshot of the game’s log, with important information highlighted by me:

Fun fact: The first door codes in System Shock, Deus Ex, DX: Human Revolution and BioShock are all 0451. The first door code in System Shock 2 is 45100, the first locked door in DX: Invisible War leads to room 451, and the first door code in BioShock 2 (seen written on the other side of a window) is 1540. The original code in System Shock was a reference to a real door at Looking Glass Studios that was locked with the code 451, which in turn was influenced by the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451.

For those that choose to put in the effort, this results in a huge sense of accomplishment whenever you crack a computer’s security. You feel almost like a cyberpunk Sherlock Holmes. I was particularly proud of myself when I managed to decipher a username/password combination from what appeared to be a crash log. I can understand that some people might not have the patience for this, but they will probably end up choosing to run and gun through the game anyway.

The last thing I’d like to discuss is something I touched upon in a previous article: the ending. Deus Ex has three different endings, but the dénouement you get is not determined by selecting an option from a menu or having a certain value on a karma meter or collecting a certain percentage of items. Instead, three different NPCs each give you a different objective, and your conclusion is decided by which one you choose to do. The final level has a unique section for all three objectives, each with its own challenges and hazards. This is just another instance of Deus Ex brilliantly blending story and gameplay. As a bonus, the game avoids the “bad/good/best” cliché; each ending has its own advantages and drawbacks, and there is no “perfect” ending.

I feel that Deus Ex makes an excellent counterpoint to Half-Life 2. The latter is a perfect example of linear level design, while the former is a perfect example of a game that lets the player take hold of the reins. However, there are still a number of great games with exemplary level design, as well as a bunch of genres I haven’t analyzed yet. Next week, we go old school…

One Comment

  1. I’m reisntalling it, dammit!

    But I have to say, great analysis! And the titles of your pictures are hilarious! (Titles, in addition to captions).

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