Deus Ex: What Doesn’t Need Fixing

6 09 2011

I’ve been admittedly a bit snarky over the past few posts, because I feel like, well, the HR devs can take it. But I’d hate to leave the impression I didn’t like the thing I’ve just sunk about forty hours into over the past two weeks. I’ve practically got a Deus Ex-shaped hole in my chest right now, from all that time I could have spent bathing or putting on clothes that I spent, instead, shepherding Adam Jensen on his latest mission. The game really grabbed me, to the point where the things I’ve spent the last several posts on started bothering me as much as they did. But why? Read the rest of this entry »

Marathon and Unreal Spaces

5 09 2011

I am just never going to finish Marathon. The fact that there are two whole games after the one I’m currently playing fills me with hopeless resignation, because at the rate I’m going, I could easily do this for the rest of my life.

While I know the broad strokes of the incredibly complicated plot already, what’s really interesting to me about the game is the balancing act it manages between a purely abstract environment and a quasi-realistic story. Obviously, most early first-person shooters weren’t exactly photorealistic. But Marathon is unique in that while the player knows a great deal, textually, about the world and characters, very little can be gleaned from the environments themselves, nor do they seem to exist for any in-world purpose. Read the rest of this entry »

Deus Ex: Fixing the Conspiracy

2 09 2011

If you’re a fan of the literary underpinnings of the Deus Ex series, you’ll be familiar with the Giant Maguffin Plot. Favored in particular by William Gibson, the trick is to create an incredibly convoluted but only tangentially important mystery as a way to propel the plot forward, drawing characters and threads together in fascinating ways. The result is usually a really excellent story that is nonetheless virtually impossible to explain. Like how in Mona Lisa Overdrive there’s an AI…that’s trying to create its own world…by merging with a virtual reality star who had her brain modified by her father several years before the book’s inception…and the AI also shaped her career and has now masterminded a kidnapping plot that involves multiple murders and a teenage prostitute body double. I’ve read this book about five times and it still takes me several minutes to reconstruct.

While Deus Ex took this on to some degree, it was also surprisingly straightforward: You’ve got a war between a couple of different secret societies, which ultimately leads to the creation of something greater than either of them. Your protagonist starts on one side and ends up on the other, and eventually must choose his loyalty to a faction. But Human Revolution has the GiMP in spades.

Like so many things in Human Revolution, this has fantastic potential. The warring societies are still around, but instead of all-out battles it’s quiet double-crosses, utterly subverting the notion of a single, omnipotent syndicate. There are threads that connect to the original game, a subplot about your protagonist’s identity, and surprisingly complicated villains. And yet it never seems to really add up to anything.

Need I say spoilers below? Read the rest of this entry »

Deus Ex: Fixing Adam Jensen

1 09 2011

Previously on Fixing Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

So. There’s a concept on TVTropes known as the Anti Sue.

Unfortunately, simply inverting the Common Mary Sue Traits does not prevent a character from being a Mary Sue. When other characters still worship her and the plot still bends over backwards to facilitate her, she’s still a Mary Sue, despite now being described as an unspeakably ugly and incredibly pathetic loser. This can actually be even more annoying than a vanilla Mary Sue — at least it makes some sort of sense for characters to worship a beautiful, friendly, hypercompetent Mary Sue, but when they’re physically ugly with an unpleasant personality and can barely tie their own shoes (much less solve other people’s problems) and everyone still treats them like the greatest thing since sliced bread, Willing Suspension of Disbelief gets smashed into tiny little pieces.

It would be far too harsh to label Adam Jensen, our intrepid cyborg, an Anti Sue. To do so would be to tar almost every FPS hero, with their penchant for bending the universe around them for no apparent reason, with the same brush. Nonetheless…keep the above in mind as we proceed.

Pretty major spoilers below. Read the rest of this entry »

Fixing Deus Ex: Human Revolution

1 09 2011

Considering how late I got into games, it’s somewhat surprising that one of the first games I played–probably the first non-Valve game–was Deus Ex. It’s not a particularly difficult game, but it is big, messy, and complicated, and the chunky graphics and nonexistent physics make it particularly troublesome to modern eyes.

None of which can be said for its sequel, Human Revolution. It’s a big game, for certain, but it’s got a certain feeling of self-containedness to it, and despite the engine and texture quirks, it’s got an absolute beauty that I think is going to age well. The plot, while it lacks some of the intertextuality of the original DX, looks for a relative sense of realism and achieves it reasonably well for a series that is probably contractually required to throw in everything and the conspiracy kitchen sink. And yet, for a number of reasons, I find HR so very, very frustrating. Sure, there are the gameplay issues–the boss battles, the regenerating health but non-regenerating energy–but for me the important screen-yelling moments came when the game, time after time, presented a bit of worldbuilding and utterly failed to deliver on it. Read the rest of this entry »

If Escapism is the Opposite of Escape, what is Gamification?

5 04 2011

Like everyone else on the Internet, I’ve been reading Reality is Broken and have found myself deeply ambivalent. It’s such an overwhelmingly friendly book that one feels almost bad criticizing it: Jane McGonigal seems nothing if not genuine, and her games–like SuperBetter, in which she takes on the role of a superhero slaying the effects of her concussion with long walks and podcasts–range from the innocuous to the honestly helpful. But maybe–well, maybe that’s what makes it so dangerous.

Gamification seems, by and large, to have identified a real problem with alienation and modern life. Part of the reason we play games is indeed that they offer us a purpose and a chance to feel great, a chance to see the effects of our actions. I have plenty of aesthetic reasons for playing games, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say they have had, at times, a purely anesthetic value. I’ve played games because they let me feel successful, because they let me feel as though I was tackling problems or gaining skills in a way I could never do in real life.

In a sense, reality is broken in a way that can never be fixed, and probably shouldn’t be–I’m obviously never going to be able to master all the skills I’ve mastered in video games, because games present a simplified version of those skills. But in other ways, I think we’ve really become completely alienated from any kind of meaningful work or skill–our lives are based on finding a “career” that works entirely on an extremely scarce prestige or currency system, and then defining ourselves by it completely. We’ve taken something that sounds good–make your work something you love–and turned it into a game that very few people can win. Likewise, even as all of us benefit in a capitalistic system, inequality rises, giving most of us an ultimate goal that is completely unreachable. So, in this sense, reality is broken: We’re reaching for an unattainable final goal, and, along the way, making nothing of consequence. Read the rest of this entry »

Lessons from Fallout 3: Reality is Banal

23 03 2011

So I’m playing Fallout 3 for the first time. Yes, yes, I know. I’m still just brushing the surface of the game, and will be writing more about it soon, but for I’ve been recently struck by the sheer coolness of it. And then bothered.

Here’s the problem, you see. Combat is done (partially) through a turn-based system called V.A.T.S., in which you click on parts of an enemy, accept your actions, and then attack and wait for a counterattack. This is fine. When you accept the attack, however, you do so in slow motion and the third person. You do so slowly, with a full view of yourself swinging the bat or shooting the gun, and then a view of the enemy staggering back or, in the case of a critical  hit, falling.

It’s a curious sense–one of complete immersion combined with voyeurism, where you are simultaneously yourself and watching yourself. This is something we all do (witness how many people will look in a passing mirror), but seeing it played out in a game makes reality feel somehow…diminished.

Then there are the RPG elements, the quests to be completed or “karma” to be gained or lost. Despite the fact that I find RPG character interactions as stressful as blind dates, they’re not nearly as difficult, and they’re far more rewarding. The me in reality is forced into messy choices with no clear-cut results. Contrary to what I often think about RPGs, the issue is not that my real-life choices have consequences. The problem is that they don’t.

RPGs have been criticized–perhaps rightly–for enabling a sort of operational cause-and-consequence thinking, the entitled nerd fantasy that people are like computers that can be manipulated to give out certain results with the right input. “If I buy her flowers, she’ll go out with me.” I get the feeling there’s some truth in this, but I would phrase it differently: It’s not that RPGs fulfill a fantasy of people as predictable systems, it’s that they fulfill the desire for a person’s actions to convincingly matter at all.

Because it’s very difficult to see that in real life. It’s possible to work for years and see no positive outcome, and not even much of a negative one. We have agency, obviously, and life isn’t purely based on luck, but a good deal of it is, and it takes forever to really see the difference between our own actions and those of uncaring fate, so to speak. This was reinforced for me by listening to Alain de Botton’s On Pessimism, which postulates that two of the cruelest theories of modernity are the twin ideas that one will marry the one they love and that one will enjoy their work.

In narrative terms, people in video games, or first-person shooters and FPSRPGs at least, often don’t enjoy what they do, and rarely do we find one with a significant and meaningful romantic subplot (of course, there are exceptions to this–see Mass Effect or Dragon Age.) But rarely, as well, are the game’s events optional for the character, and it’s uncommon indeed for them not to be enjoyable and fulfilling for us, the players.

All of this is really just a very long way of saying that Fallout 3 is escapist, as is much post-apocalyptic stuff. But it’s escapist in very specific ways, and in a way that is instructive about what it is in life that I’m escaping from.


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