Deus Ex

The premise of the game is that all conspiracy theories are true, and the idea is treated with more seriousness than it probably deserves. Conspiracies are the product of a need to believe the world is less chaotic than it appears, where evil isn't random but has some shadowy force directing it. They are a mirror image of theodicies – instead of justifying the ways of a benevolent God to man, they explain how suffering and injustice are all the work of a great Satan.

Deus Ex is also a cyberpunk game, and it's at its most interesting when that sensibility interacts with the quasi-religious nature of conspiracist thinking. Towards the end of the game, the player comes across an AI called Morpheus, who plants the idea that the omniscient machines mankind has created are strivings towards godhood. The all-seeing AIs being assembled by these secret societies will appease people's desire for judgement, which in the past was provided by gods and governments. The villain of the story wants to merge with one of these AIs, become a god and rule the world. However the player decides to deal with him, it remains the case that as long as this technology exists, the temptation will be there to place it at the top of the pyramid and complete the conspiracy. Chance will be eliminated but so will human agency. Everything will be decided and directed for us by an authority we have made and must (perhaps willingly) submit to. Technology will finally allow Hobbes's Leviathan to be built. 

The player has a choice at the end of the game – to replace the villain and lend greater benevolence to the AI's decisions, or to blow it up and cause a collapse in global information networks, which will return humanity to a dark age but will guarantee freedom from the machines. Both are extreme scenarios – opposing poles in the D&D lawful-chaotic alignment spectrum. The middle path is probably the least favoured by the game – kill the villain but not allow the AI to rule the world either. Instead power will revert back to a more benign secret society, but the hierarchies that structure the world will endure. Instead of revolution or destruction, there is incremental improvement tempered by the dangers associated with the fallibility of human government. But at least this outcome shores up the benefits of civilisation while protecting a modicum of human freedom.

These grand questions of political philosophy are sidebars for most of the game – occurring in stilted dialogue exchanges which are optional and entirely skippable. What's more impressive is the way Deus Ex integrates moral questions into the gameplay. This is confined to the first third of the game before the big reveal that the peacekeeping organisation you are working for is just a front for the bad guys. But that dawning "are we the baddies?" realisation leads to the sort of conflicted feelings that are difficult to find in other games. Your boss and your fellow agents want you to kill the terrorists, but your idealist brother pressures you to be a policeman rather than a soldier and use your riot prod, pepper spray and baton, which merely knock enemies unconscious. In the very first level, you start overhearing conversations between the terrorists that humanise their struggle and make you feel bad about murdering their brethren.

There is no mechanical difference between a dead or an unconscious enemy. But how you approach the first missions in the game will draw contrasting reactions from NPCs – some praising you for wiping out terrorist scum and others disappointed by your bloodthirsty nature. An intriguing detail in RPS's recent oral history of the game's development is that human enemies were designed to run after taking a certain amount of damage, with the player getting to decide whether to finish them off for good or let them flee (there is no mechanical difference between the two that I could see). Deus Ex forces a conflict between the demands of the shooter genre to clear the map and the moral status of the player if they follow through with those prompts. It's a game that urges you to question everything, including yourself.

At least at the beginning. Once the conspiracy is revealed the incentive to play non-lethally is massively watered down, and I ended up mowing down hordes of MJ12 goons pretty much as soon as they became the default enemy. A little bit of nuance is applied very late in the game, where you meet a father who disowns his son for enlisting with the group, and you get the sense that for some people joining the bad guys is just materially easier than resisting them. But these moments of doubt and discomfort are few and far between.

Instead the game devolves into a supremely accomplished stealth shooter where you work your way across a series of secret bases to fulfil different objectives radioed to you by a variety of handlers. It all starts to bleed together and would get tedious if the level design wasn't so uniformly excellent. The role-playing element in the game is muted – JC Denton's dialogue won't change much depending on the choices you make. However, the player has a spectrum of options and choices in approaching a situation. Every level may have the same start and end-point, but there is never only one way to get from one to the other, and there's a great deal of care put into ensuring that sneaking is always as much of an option as fighting.

Moreover, the game rewards you for exploring it – you get experience not from killing more enemies but uncovering hidden areas of the map, and valuable augmentations that improve your build are only found by being on the lookout for them. Rigorous devotion to mission objectives won't reveal the full richness of the game. This was uppermost in the priorities of the designers, who aimed for about 30% of the content to be unique to each playthrough. There are emotional as well as mechanical rewards – fewer of your friends die if you are meticulous about following up every lead. Your trusty pilot only survives if you take the time to investigate a plot to blow up his helicopter. A merchant who provides you with some decent weapons upgrades won't be killed if you take a detour to warn him of an incoming raid.

The game is 20 years old and there's some wear and tear. The AI can be a little silly, with troopers blithely ignoring fallen comrades while doing their rounds. Alarms don't count for as much as you would think. It's very easy to die, particularly when you start having to go against bots and cyborgs. That said, the difficulty curve is pretty satisfying once you understand the basics, and I never had to attempt an encounter more than three or four times before working out a way through. The graphics (if you care about such things) are ugly, and I had to do a little bit of fiddling to make the game bright enough to play properly. But these wrinkles don't detract from the overall experience of playing the game. And at its best – in the first third and in the final stretch – the moral and political dilemmas you face are like nothing else in gaming.

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