Decades of conspiracies — Deus Ex is 20 years old today

(NOTE: It’s unclear what is the exact date of Deus Ex’s original launch, as different sources provide different dates. It’s safe to say, however, that this and next week are the 20th anniversary weeks.)

Deus Ex became a part of my life almost immediately after Thief. The Dark Project was released in December of 1998, then The Metal Age came out in March of 2000, and right when I was in the middle of playing it, Deus Ex appeared. By that time, I was a fully converted, die-hard stealth player, but all the videos from Deus Ex I’d seen, and stories I’d heard, revolved around shooting people or destroying big robots, so initially I was not too impressed. However, a friend convinced me I should try it, and so I did.

We all remember the opening mission on the Liberty Island. The docks, Paul Denton briefing you, the ocean, the New York City landscape against the dark night sky. Of course I chose the silent crossbow instead of the GEP gun or the sniper rifle. I snuck up the ledge from the docks and was immediately spotted and shot by a patrolling guard. “A dumb shooter”, I thought, but reloaded and tried again nevertheless. The shadows won’t work, I thought, trying to conceal myself in the pitch dark corner. To my surprise, the guard did not see me crouched in the darkness. Interesting, I thought and tried to sneak behind the guy. Used to being almost completely silent while walking on grass in Thief, I ran up to the guy, and he heard me. And shot me dead again.

The opening level of Deus Ex is one of the most iconic game levels in history.

It took many attempts to tune myself to Deus Ex’s stealth system. But when I found out how it worked, the game clicked. It was as immersive and (maybe more) challenging stealth game as Thief was to me. Hiding and ambushing guards was everything I could hope for.

And there was so much on top of just being a stealth game. It could be a shooter game if you wanted to. Or a hacking game. Or a talking game. It had stats and upgrades. And it had a mind-boggling, twisting story and the setting of the dystopian world. No wonder Deus Ex is regarded as one of the greatest games of all time hands down. Deus Ex had it all. You could do anything, it seemed, and your actions mattered, and the context within which you performed those actions seemed so real and so serious and mature.

There are more connections between Thief and Deus Ex than just my personal discovery story. They say that Warren Spector, the director of Deus Ex, had this idea of a game when he was playtesting Thief: The Dark Project at Looking Glass. He was a bit frustrated, probably. He thought — Why can’t I just kill all these guards with my sword or bow, why is it so difficult? Why am I forced to sneak? Thankfully, Warren did not convince Looking Glass team to dilute Thief’s pure stealth experience, but he decided that he would make a game where stealth would be just one of the options. This is how — after many prototypes and cancelled concepts in various companies — Deus Ex came to be.

There was one moment in Deus Ex which made a huge impression on me. Many people cite the scene where you try to save your brother Paul from the attack of the men in black in the New York hotel room as a defining moment of the game. Or the game’s finale. But for me, it was the moment when I was sneaking down the streets of New York, trying to hide from enemy agents, and suddenly the message came through the Infolink. It was Daedalus, my old friend, the mysterious AI that was giving me helpful hints throughout the game. Just minutes ago, he warned that the streets were swarming with enemies searching for me. But now, his tone suddenly changed. In a very strange voice, he said: “Incorrect inform — ps — al attach. Streets clear. No danger.”

I was literally surrounded by enemies who were closing on me, it was just a matter of time before they would find me — and yet my trusted ally, the AI that saved my life many times, was clearly lying to me this time. It seemed as he was being hacked at that very moment (By whom? Why? What do they want?). My enemies took over him to lure me into a trap. This was the moment when I realized that I couldn’t trust anyone in this world, not even a robot. And it was scary. It was profound. I remember I had goosebumps. I had to stop playing for a minute to reflect on what I just discovered.

It’s one of so many examples of the incredibly powerful writing and world building Deus Ex has. Immersive sims had fantastic world building before, but it was either set in a fantasy (Ultima Underworld), the space with no living humans left (System Shock), or the environment where you could barely talk to anybody (Thief). In Deus Ex, you were in the middle of the near-future dystopia, so well grounded in the real world of 2000, and it had so many living, breathing characters, with their own agendas, truths and lies, each of them talking to you, challenging you, confronting you, and leaving behind emails, notes and dirty secrets.

You shouldn't trust anyone — even AI — in Deus Ex.

Deus Ex feels (and is) immense. Throughout the course of the game you would travel around New York, Hong Kong, Paris; you would visit hospitals, catacombs, a chateau, an Air Force base, an underwater research facility and even Area 51. While taking place in relatively small locations (Deus Ex’s city levels are of course nowhere near as big as Grand Theft Auto’s) and not being an open world game, Deus Ex nevertheless creates an illusion of a game where you can go anywhere. You always sense the urgency — you need to hurry up, hop on a plane and travel to another city before it’s too late and all skeletons are hidden in the closets.

An outspoken proponent of an “inch wide and a mile deep” game design philosophy, Warren Spector once said that he wished to make a game that would take place in just one city district, but the simulation of the world would be so real that you could do absolutely anything there. Deus Ex is the first step towards that vision. Deus Ex takes the immersive sim formula from the space stations of System Shock and mansions and crypts of Thief, upgrades the Ultima Underworld world simulation system, and applies it to the dark streets of the world’s cities. As JC Denton, you can enter restaurants, shops and hotel rooms, overhear conversations, talk to random people on the streets, and complete side missions. Can’t open the gate to the nearby yard? Perhaps the data log with the passcode can be found in the trash around the corner. Looking for a way into a secret stash? Try the sewers access. Or maybe buy a chocolate bar and give it to a homeless kid who would tell you the code. Or hack the security system and break in.

In addition to the groundbreaking open-ended gameplay, the story and themes are instrumental to Deus Ex’s glory. It is a game that enables all kinds of wildest conspiracy theories, but few of them feel cheesy, as they are rooted in the real world problems and are well written. In the year 2052, the world is broken — the USA are torn apart by revolts, humanity is dying from a mysterious plague-like disease, and the corporations are milking the desperate population by selling the cure at a premium. Nothing is as it seems. The terrorists attacked the Liberty Island and took hostages — are they cruel criminals, or perhaps there is some hidden agenda behind their actions? The Grey Death virus — how does it spread so fast, and perhaps someone could be capitalizing on the tragedies of the humanity? Even the main protagonist himself, JC Denton — who is he, where does he come from, who are his parents, where have they gone? The game throws at you so many questions and so many theories — while some of them are clearly inspired by the cyberpunk dystopian books and films, a few might even feel relevant in the world we are living in today.

You can certainly call a game thought-provoking when it quotes John Milton and Voltaire, and when one of its characters casually throws a line: “The need to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we can implement the same functionality with data-mining algorithms.”

Deus Ex is defined by its theories and secrets both inside and outside the game. While creating the texture of the Manhattan cityscape, Ion Storm designers omitted the two towers of the World Trade Center for technical reasons and later explained that in the world of the game, the towers are gone because of the terrorist attack. We all know what happened a year since the game’s release… Originally, the game should have had the mission in the White House — however the legend has it that while researching the blueprints of the building, the design team attracted attention of the US secret service. (The less interesting version is that The White House level was cut from the game simply because it was not fun. Suuuure. Remember — trust no one, question everything.)

Deus Ex’s visuals aged a lot. It doesn’t make the game any less impressive.

Deus Ex has aged a lot. It’s built on an early version of Unreal Engine and was never a very beautiful looking game, but today in 2020, the game environments look way too simple and empty (arguably, even older immersive sims such as classic Thief games and System Shock 2 aged better visually). The character movement is a bit awkward, shooting mechanics are clunky, and the interface is not too obvious. But you forget about this as soon as you are immersed in its world — and immersion through the story, writing, sound design and gameplay is something Deus Ex still excels at. If you have never played Deus Ex before, try it, and give it a chance — don’t judge it by the immediate initial impressions. Narratively, it’s a way less minimalistic, way more complex game than Thief or System Shock, and it touches upon so many more topics — some storytelling techniques and themes might seem too naive today, but this shouldn’t stop anyone from admiring the game’s ambition, especially for the time when it was made.

Deus Ex was rereleased a couple of times on PC, an edited version of the game, called Deus Ex: The Conspiracy, was made for PlayStation 2, and it was followed by a controversial (and yet great — I will die on this hill) sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War. After some time in limbo, the franchise was resurrected by Eidos Montreal through fantastic prequels, Human Revolution and Mankind Divided — which should be a story for another article. But the story of this original Deus Ex game is that its design principles and its influence lives on through decades, and traces of Deus Ex are seen in vastly different games across genres today, from Dishonored and Prey to Mass Effect and The Outer Worlds. Deus Ex is one of the defining games of the PC game design — a landmark, a masterpiece, a legend, and a testament to the talent of every single person who worked on it. These people rule the world in secret.