Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Illusion of Choice in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex was a shooter ahead of its time.  Way back in 2000, it allowed players to accomplish objectives via other means aside from simply putting a bullet in the head of whoever was in your way.  You could cut a bloody swath through the level, sneak around heavily-guarded areas, or even convince a guy to simply let you pass.  It took about 4-5 years for the industry to catch up with this choice-based gameplay and innovation, and someone currently playing Deus Ex for the first time might not appreciate the unique novelty that it provided back then.

Eleven years later, the sleeping giant of Deus Ex: Human Revolution exploded onto the gaming scene to rave reviews. It got 94/100 from IGN and PC Gamer, and it has an average score of 90 on Metacritic, just enough to earn the coveted description "universal acclaim."  It deserves it, too, for it truly is an incredible game.  So incredible, in fact, that after I saw the credits roll I immediately created a new save file and started playing it again.  However, after playing it twice, I don't think it offers the kind of choice that American gamers have grown accustomed to during our current console generation.

Cake or death?
Deus Ex: HR might let you choose how you're going to tackle an obstacle, but it certainly doesn't reward you equally for its completion.  For example, let's say you need to get through a hallway and there's a guard in your way.  You have three options:  shoot him, wait until he patrols another hallway and sneak past him, or use the air vent and bypass the hallway altogether. You get past the obstacle either way, so you deserve an equal reward no matter which tactic you used, right?  Wrong.  The game rewards you with experience points for accomplishing certain tasks, but it provides experience bonuses depending on your tactic:  10 points for a headshot, 20 points for a melee take-down, and so forth.  Unfortunately, while you might get 20 points for taking out the guard Rambo style, you would get 50 points for doing a non-lethal take-down, 100 points for sneaking through the grate, and absolutely zero points for simply sneaking past the guard when his back is turned.  What choice do gamers really have when the game itself strongly motivates them through unique and otherwise unobtainable rewards to play one particular way?  The fact is, those who play Adam Jensen as a stealthy, hacking philanthropist will acquire far more experience points than those who play him as a murderous pragmatist... and worse still, it doesn't even allow you to make a consistent choice.

"I could easily sneak past them, but they're worth 50 experience points each..."

The fickle morality of Adam Jensen
Deus Ex is either a shooter with RPG elements or an RPG with shooter elements.  While these have become increasingly prevalent over the years, in the case of Deus Ex: HR it creates a dichotomy between who your Adam Jensen is and who the game developers want your Adam Jensen to be.  Many developers struggle with the balance between choice and narrative, and the usual solution seems to be to give you meaningless choices that don't affect the plot, but in Deus Ex: HR Eidos gives you a choice for 95% of the game, takes it away from you for the other 5%, then gives it back as if nothing ever happened.  They give you this choice, but the gameplay once again strongly motivates you to play a certain way.

For example, within the first few minutes of gaining control over the character, the game automatically forces you to take out an assault rifle as you prepare to deal with the initial conflict.  What if you had decided before the game started that you weren't going to kill anyone?  Why would your Adam Jensen even have an assault rifle at all?  Couldn't they have instead left an assault rifle on the ground, thus giving Adam the choice to pick up the gun or not?  Furthermore, if you're going to be given non-lethal methods of conflict resolution throughout the rest of the game, shouldn't they give it to you immediately?  I tried in vain to do a take-down on a guard only to realize that for some reason it wasn't allowed in the prologue.  They could have at least given you a stun gun or tranquilizer darts or something, but no, they give you an assault rifle and put enemies in your way and tell you to deal with it.  Given no other option, I was forced to kill them, thus ending my no-kill run before it even really began.  I later learned that the developers expected you to stealth past them, but given the fact that the situation was an emergency and I wasn't familiar with the game mechanics yet, I didn't consider waiting for minutes for a guard to walk away a viable option.

I had also decided before the game started that I was going to go for the "Foxiest of the Hounds" achievement, which meant I could not trigger any alarms throughout my entire playthrough.  However, during a cutscene later in the game, an NPC character discovered me, retreated and triggered an alarm, which forced me to deal with nearly a dozen guards who converged on the area. I figured my hopes of getting that achievement were over since the guards were searching for me and the alarm was blaring as I made my escape, but upon completion of the game I saw that glorious achievement notification pop up.  I was happy to get the achievement and all, but by this point I really was wondering what the development team was thinking.    What the hell, Eidos? You get an achievement for no-kill runs, except for bosses?  You get one for not triggering alarms, except for cutscenes?  Is the cutscene not an integral part of the game's narrative?  To me, it's MY Adam Jensen in that cutscene, and watching him set off alarms and kill people when I had avoided such actions throughout the rest of my playthrough frustrated me to no end.  Why bother giving people the illusion of choice if you're just going to take it away later for the sake of the story?

Role-playing and its relation to choice
We are defined by our choices, and games that offer the most choice offer the player the greatest capability to role-play and make the character their own.  Bethesda games such as Oblivion offer you the choice to basically do whatever you want, which means you can play as whoever you want.  You can be a magic-wielding Dark Elf who hates Argonians, or a Nord warrior who refuses to use magic items, or even a Khajiit thief who steals and collects every shiny piece of silver dinnerware in the game.  It didn't matter because you had the choice.  In Deus Ex: HR, Eidos  gives you that choice to a lesser extent, but then they take it away to tell their story.  It's a beautifully crafted story, and I was honestly intrigued and entertained throughout the entire game, but I couldn't help but feel cheated when they took control away from me and forced my Adam Jensen to do things that defied his character and personality.  When you sever the connection between a player and their character, it breaks the fourth wall and reminds you that you are not that character, you're simply borrowing that character for a while to experience the story that the development team wanted to tell, and when they give the freedom of choice back to you as if that never happened, it makes those choices seem much less important, which damages the gameplay experience as a whole.  It's a black mark on an otherwise exceptional game.

Take This

Here it is.  I've been talking about starting a blog for ages, and today I finally got up off my butt and got it done (thanks Toniolo).  The say write what you know, and what I know is games.  I play most of the big titles that come out and have my opinions about them like everyone else, but I never really had a place to write them down.  Now I do.  Prepare yourselves.