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Hong Kong side street, screenshot.

Gamer Education: Deus Ex

By Taylor Howarth on December 22, 2021

Before jumping into this next game, I took some time to lick my wounds after having my heart broken by John Romero. I was fragile, weary, and slow to trust.

I was told that this next game would be a wildly different experience. One that would be rewarding in ways that Daikatana never could be. So, I cautiously installed Ion Storm’s Deus Ex (2000).

Perhaps it was a poor choice to jump straight into another cyberpunk adventure, but this one immediately felt different. Much like Daikatana (2000), which came out a month before this game, it is not the first of its kind. Gameztera owner, Pierre Tessier, said “it was part of the evolution” and “built on what had come before.” It is another game that follows in the footsteps of its successors, but made its own genre by blending so many different types of games.

JC Denton (right) and his brother Paul in New York, screenshot.

This is a first-person shooter, adventure, role-playing game, and the coolest aspect would have to be its immersive simulation aspects, which means that it’s kind of like a “choose your own adventure” game. The choices you make influence the game’s outcome.

There is no backstory, you are simply thrown into the game world, and it is a complicated story. I did my best to pay attention to what was happening. Here is what I think I know about the plot:

  • The game is set in the 2050s.
  • JC Denton, the protagonist, is a cybernetic anti-terrorist operative who is forced to make decisions based on the power dynamics that are playing out around him.
  • There are so many different organizations that could be good or bad and you don’t really know their motivations or how they impact you until the end of the game.
    • The organizations are the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO), 11 Majestic 12, National Secessionist Forces (NSF), Illuminati, Red Arrow, Luminous Path, Knights Templar, and Silhouette.
  • There is a virus called the Gray Death that can be cured by this stuff called Ambrosia but that seems like a secondary plot point about population control.
  • There is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) that speaks to JC Denton called Daedalus that then gets hacked by Icarus and together they become Helios, not sure how.
  • Bob Page is one of the baddies I can name. He is the owner of Versalife, which produces Ambrosia and is intentionally scarce, and he owns Icarus, which is an AI that controls all communications on the planet. Oh, he also wants to merge with Helios to take over the world and become a god.
  • There is so much more going on between the groups and I simply could not keep up.

Versalife co-working space, screenshot.

All of these elements are working together to create a very dynamic world that, despite being complicated, is still rather compelling. You are kind of like a detective that starts out working for UNATCO, and then soon realizes that they are baddies. But you also aren’t sure who the goodies are. You are the agent of chaos that keeps the world in motion, whether you realize it or not.

The coolest part is that you get to shoot a lot of guys while listening to a fantastic soundtrack. There is also a lot of world travel starting in New York, then on to Hong Kong, then Paris, off to an abandoned gas station in Central California, and of course, a game that includes a slew of groups linked to conspiracy theories would not be complete without a trip to Area 51.

Hong Kong side street, screenshot.

The dialogue is also incredibly on point. JC Denton is a sassy, no-bullshit kinda guy that can be quite playful at times. When asking a bar patron how the drinks are, JC gets the response “Great, if you like rat piss,” to which he dryly responds “Never tried it.”

Deus Ex is heralded as an absolute classic and I see why. This was a great follow-up after playing a wretched game like Daikatana because it was such a stark contrast between good and bad level design, plot (albeit Deus Ex is rather complicated), characters, and dialogue. It is a game that marries a philosophically challenging plot with a shooting game that also sounds and looks cool.

Versalife world domination headquarters, screenshot.

However, this game falls short in several ways. The portrayal of homeless and poor people is straight-up offensive. Each level shows the “bad side of town” and often labels the characters in those areas as “Bum,” “Hooker,” “Thug,” or “Junkie.”

Out of the various rival organizations fighting for world domination, two of the leaders are POC. These characters drive the story through their own ambitions, whether moral or not, which gives them a degree of agency I haven’t yet seen in other games. But that does not make up for the fact that the gangs that roam around the “bad neighbourhoods” are predominantly people of colour.

My other complaints about this game are the movement and the ending. The developers chose to prioritize the story over the movement and shooting mechanics of the game, and it shows. Sometimes the game just doesn’t feel good as you move through the world. It could be a lot smoother, and the shooting could be more accurate and responsive.

Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, screenshot.

As for the ending, well, my complaint is probably just due to not really following the complicated story and then messing up at the end as a result. This game has a diamond shape design: it starts at a particular point, branches out in the middle, and becomes narrower at the end, culminating in the final act. There are, however, three possible endings to the game, all of which have their moral implications.

The first is to merge with Helios and (hopefully) become a benevolent AI dictator of the entire planet. The second is to wipe out all technological advancements and bring the world back to a new dark age. And finally, the last is to help the Illuminati rise to power and join forces with them to rule the world.

These are all interesting endings, each connected with particular characters that influence you along the way, but how you choose the ending you want was not clear to me. There are operations associated with each outcome, such as blowing something up or cutting the flow of a coolant to overheat something, but I got them mixed up and was very mad when I became a cyber dictator instead of wiping the slate of history clean and bringing us back to the dark ages.

Regardless, this game was fun and silly, yet serious and dark all at the same time. It loses some points with me regarding its overt classism and racism, but it is still worth a revisit if you haven’t played it in 20 years or if you have never given it a go.