Tag: deus ex

From the Vault: The Limitless Genre

With the smashing success of Guardians of the Galaxy, let’s take another look at what can be done within sci-fi.


Courtesy Eidos Interactive

If you step away from science fiction, you may see a tendency among its writers and creators to divide it up into different sub-genres. Time travel is practically its own sort of story, as is ‘hard’ sci-fi, along with various “_____punk” styles and derivations of the space opera. I mean, Blade Runner is noir, Flash Gordon is camp, and never the twain shall meet. Right?

This doesn’t always have to be the case. Imposing the limits of a particular style of story can make writing said story easier, but you also run the risk of falling into cliches and conventions of said style. At a Barnes & Noble yesterday, I saw that a good portion of the sci-fi & fantasy racks had been set aside specifically for “teen paranormal romance.” Something tells me I have a good idea as to the content of those books, and of their average quality. Some may be spectacular, but I suspect others are sub-par to the point of making Twilight look good.

Let’s get back to science fiction as an overarching genre. I don’t feel you need to pick a particular sub-category into which you must pigeonhole your story. Deux Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t. The game has noir & renaissance overtones throughout but goes from conspiracy intrigue and solid character moments to incredible action and out-there sciences within moments. Yet none of it feels out of place. It is consistent with the themes and timbre of the story. Adam Jensen is a man reborn and remade, both struggling to maintain his identity and utilizing the benefits of his augmentations to do his job and find his answers. In most detective yarns, a scene where the protagonist punches through a wall before turning invisible would be rather out of place. Likewise, few are the space operas that truly tackle the aftermath of a tragedy the way this game does. The elements are balanced in such a way that all of them combine without losing sync and creating a richer, more rewarding storytelling experience.

Why shouldn’t sci-fi go for multiple tones and moods? Obviously this needs to be done with care, lest the emotional moments become too saturnine or the high-action ones come off as overly ridiculous. In a story like this, you only get so many style points in your tale with which you can get away with “cool shit” moments. Too many and you’ve become style over substance. Too few, however, and your story becomes dry and plodding. Again, the watchword is balance.

And I believe it is a balance worth striking. Science fiction can include all sorts of threads from other genres of storytelling, from romance to horror to crime to adventure. Once all is said and done, be able to look over the work and say, “I’ve got a _______punk action-mystery” can be useful for marketing it, but my point is the genre only has the limits we choose to impose. Moon is phenomenal because of how hard its science is, and if your goal in writing is to go for something similar, by all means work within those constraints. There is, however, no obligation to pick a particular pigeonhole from the outset. Science fiction is our contemplation of the heavens, the nature of the universe, the exploration of the impossible, and the examination of the individual within all of it. It is, like those heavens, and like our imaginations, limitless.

What examples of sci-fi that break from traditional molds come to mind for you?

The Limitless Genre

Courtesy Eidos Interactive

If you step away from science fiction, you may see a tendency among its writers and creators to divide it up into different sub-genres. Time travel is practically its own sort of story, as is ‘hard’ sci-fi, along with various “_____punk” styles and derivations of the space opera. I mean, Blade Runner is noir, Flash Gordon is camp, and never the twain shall meet. Right?

This doesn’t always have to be the case. Imposing the limits of a particular style of story can make writing said story easier, but you also run the risk of falling into cliches and conventions of said style. At a Barnes & Noble yesterday, I saw that a good portion of the sci-fi & fantasy racks had been set aside specifically for “teen paranormal romance.” Something tells me I have a good idea as to the content of those books, and of their average quality. Some may be spectacular, but I suspect others are sub-par to the point of making Twilight look good.

Let’s get back to science fiction as an overarching genre. I don’t feel you need to pick a particular sub-category into which you must pigeonhole your story. Deux Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t. The game has noir & renaissance overtones throughout but goes from conspiracy intrigue and solid character moments to incredible action and out-there sciences within moments. Yet none of it feels out of place. It is consistent with the themes and timbre of the story. Adam Jensen is a man reborn and remade, both struggling to maintain his identity and utilizing the benefits of his augmentations to do his job and find his answers. In most detective yarns, a scene where the protagonist punches through a wall before turning invisible would be rather out of place. Likewise, few are the space operas that truly tackle the aftermath of a tragedy the way this game does. The elements are balanced in such a way that all of them combine without losing sync and creating a richer, more rewarding storytelling experience.

Why shouldn’t sci-fi go for multiple tones and moods? Obviously this needs to be done with care, lest the emotional moments become too saturnine or the high-action ones come off as overly ridiculous. In a story like this, you only get so many style points in your tale with which you can get away with “cool shit” moments. Too many and you’ve become style over substance. Too few, however, and your story becomes dry and plodding. Again, the watchword is balance.

And I believe it is a balance worth striking. Science fiction can include all sorts of threads from other genres of storytelling, from romance to horror to crime to adventure. Once all is said and done, be able to look over the work and say, “I’ve got a _______punk action-mystery” can be useful for marketing it, but my point is the genre only has the limits we choose to impose. Moon is phenomenal because of how hard its science is, and if your goal in writing is to go for something similar, by all means work within those constraints. There is, however, no obligation to pick a particular pigeonhole from the outset. Science fiction is our contemplation of the heavens, the nature of the universe, the exploration of the impossible, and the examination of the individual within all of it. It is, like those heavens, and like our imaginations, limitless.

What examples of sci-fi that break from traditional molds come to mind for you?

Beyond Skin Deep

Courtesy Eidos Interactive

The characters we create are, ideally, more than their looks. Sure, we spend time putting together a certain look for a character. I know when Guild Wars 2 is booted up on my machine, I’ll be spending quite a bit of time in its character creator, customizing eye colors and cheekbone height and whatnot. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Good writers know that a character that draws in the audience has to do more than just look good or sound good. There has to be something beyond skin deep.

Take, for example, Adam Jensen. I know there has been some response to this character, including some to this very review, saying that Adam subscribes to too many ‘badass’ tropes to be taken seriously as a character. The long black coat, the gravelly voice, the shades implanted directly in his skull, and so on. Considering his look is based on a real person, a member of Eidos’ own team, one could even argue that it verges on author insertion, if not the dreaded Mary Sue stereotype.

However, scratch Adam’s surface and you find depth underneath. He doesn’t just spill out of the title screen like Neo expunged from the Matrix. Even before he’s augmented, Adam has conflicts both internal and external. He wrestles with his feelings, voices opinions and demonstrates a sense of professionalism about his work. After his brush with death, under all the shiny augmentations and badass powers and abilities, he still has all of that baggage and plenty more besides. Thus the gameplay becomes more than just “go here and shoot these guys” as you would get in a Halo or a Call of Duty. Even outside of dialog, you as Adam are making choices. Do you succumb to the expedient means of dispatch to clear out the opposition, or do you approach your objective quietly with a minimum loss of human life?

I bring this up because I think it’s important a character be faced with choices. Do they confront the bullies or try to leave quietly to avoid getting involved? Do they destroy the evil life-form in an act of genocide to save other lives, or simply seal the facility to slow the monstrosities down? There are some stories out there that present the paths of their protagonists as strictly linear, while others allow their character to make wrong choices and struggle to overcome obstacles they have themselves created.

Regardless of how our characters look or sound, they are defined by the choices they make. Therefore, a character who makes no choices or allows decisions to be made for them lacks definition, and the whole story suffers when that happens. To strengthen your story, empower your characters in the decisions they make. That way, when the audience sees them, they’ll see something that goes beyond skin deep.

Game Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

A few months ago I finally got around to reviewing Deus Ex, a RPG-shooter that empowered a player to make choices while being unfortunately hindered by its technology. After a sequel that didn’t go over as well for many reasons, it would be a while before a third installment would come along. With a decade’s worth of improvements under its belt, Deus Ex: Human Revolution arrived last year with promises to deliver an authentic experience for fans of the old game while introducing new players to something with a bit more depth than your usual modern military shooter. These promises, along with the knowledge that this is actually a prequel to the original game, made me a little trepidatious when I first booted it up.

Courtesy Eidos Interactive
I like how the shades are the projection surface for your HUD.

The year is 2026, and prostheses once limited to medical applications have expanded into the realm of human augmentation, allowing those with the means and a tolerance for constant maintenance and drug intake to do things normal humans could only dream of. At the forefront of this new push in technologies is Sarif Industries, and its security is the responsibility of Adam Jensen. On the eve of a landmark hearing before Congress, Sarif is attacked by augmented mercenaries and Adam is mortally wounded. Saved from the brink of death by the very technology he tried desperately to protect, Adam must undertake the task of tracking down the metallic murderers and uncover their employers.

As it bears the Deus Ex title, you can expect Human Revolution to contain similar conspiracy theories, locations envisioned for a near future and interesting character turns. To its credit, the game does hit all three points, but it doesn’t quite reach the depths of the original. The plans of the opposing forces in Adam’s life can often be discerned relatively quickly. There are not as many locations to visit, and in fact you revisit the two main hubs once apiece rather than going to new places, an unfortunate result of a budget or deadline getting cut during production. I’ll deal with different character points as we go along, as this is likely the place where Human Revolution both shines the brightest and needs the most polish, if that makes any sense.

Courtesy Eidos Interactive

The good news for fans of Deus Ex, or in fact any stealth-based game, is that you will be rewarded for tactical thinking and moving unseen. With multiple routes to reach an objective and a system that rewards experimentation and improvisation, the core gameplay is incredibly solid, even the cover system and the finishing moves – which can be very satisfying to pull off on an unsuspecting guard that just walked past you reporting everything’s clear. The non-lethal weapons work just as well as their lead-slinging counterparts, making the challenge of completing the game without taking a human life actually seem appealing (at least to me). And the best boss fights happen in the form of conversation trees, where discerning the other person’s emotions and choosing the right response becomes just as arduous and fulfilling as shooting them.

One of the unfortunate concessions that had to be made to new players was a limitation on the number of role-playing game options available. While the augmentation system does allow a measure of customization early on, allowing players to purchase upgrade points as well as giving them as XP rewards yields more than enough elbow room to round Adam out in every area, especially considering some of the upgrades are completely useless. Speaking of Adam, his conversation animation and those of other characters occasionally felt a little jilted or unfocused, a problem that thankfully never occurred during one of the aforementioned talk bosses. The rest of the gameplay is so good, however, that these flaws can be overlooked without too much trouble.

Courtesy Eidos Interactive

The non-talk boss fights are perhaps the biggest problem I (and many others) have with Deus Ex: Human Revolution. With a game system that offers a plethora of ways to approach an obstacle, limiting one’s choices in a boss fight to “shoot the bastard” feels like a major dumbing-down of the source material. There are a few ways with proper planning beforehand to make these fights less of a chore, but at first blush they really throw the game off of its otherwise excellent pace. The ending of the game, as well, feels watered down. Rather than building up to a climax that empowers the player to make an informed choice through conversation, we are presented with a series of big red buttons. Getting railroaded in this way really undercuts the freedom of choice espoused in the original, to this game’s detriment.

While many of the decisions made in bringing this game to players disappoint or even infuriate, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is enjoyable to play for 90% of the time and does offer real replay value, outside of any DLC. On its own, it’s competent and executed well despite some glaring flaws; when compared to some of the other modern shooters out there, it shines like brushed chrome. It’s a much more worthy addition to the Deus Ex library than Invisible War, and I’m looking forward to playing it again, on the hardest difficulty level, without killing a single human being save for the boss fights.

Hoo boy.

Stuff I Liked: Adam’s a much more sympathetic protagonist than your run-of-the-mill soldier or space marine. He has support characters that are interesting without being irritants. Stealth gameplay is executed well and I liked getting little XP bonuses for taking the time to explore and taking down enemies quietly. And it’s always fun to move things like vending machines and copiers around in an office building or housing complex just for the heck of it.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The boss fights and ending made me feel railroaded and didn’t quite jive with the Deus Ex vibe. Some of the animations aren’t as smooth as they could have been. A couple stereotypical accents eek through here and there.
Stuff I Loved: A well-balanced main game engine underscored by an excellent soundtrack and beautifully rendered aesthetic. The talking bosses were a great departure for normal shooter gameplay, lending even more concreteness and immersion to the experience. Writing high above average for modern shooters and a definite respect for the original Deus Ex without being pandering or an act of fan service.

Bottom Line: It isn’t perfect, and some of the aforementioned flaws may seem like deal-breakers. But if you go into it with the right mindset, Deus Ex: Human Revolution will definitely scratch the itch that hasn’t really been scratched since 2000. It’s definitely worth your time to check out if you’re a fan of the original or of good RPG-shooters in general, especially if you can pick it up on sale.

Game Review: Deus Ex

Shooters can be curious beasts. Any game that pours you directly into the perspective of someone holding a gun empowers you to make choices, even if it’s just the choice of which weapon to pick up to fill one of your two precious slots in Halo. The more choices the player is called upon to make, the more a game from the first person perspective resembles a game centered around character and story instead of bullets and bloodshed. Balancing shooting action with role-playing can be difficult, and the urtext for it comes to us from an older game entitled Deus Ex.

Courtesy Ion Storm
Yeah, I sang the theme song with Yahtzee’s lyrics, who hasn’t?

Welcome to the future, where New York’s been attacked by terrorists and cybernetic enhancement is quickly becoming normal, even fashionable. Our hero is JC Denton, a man employed by the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition and blessed with a variety of nanotech augmentations that aren’t just for show but let him punch bad guys in incredibly efficient ways. While taking the battle to streets it quickly becomes obvious that JC’s being manipulated, and we slowly realize that there’s a vast global conspiracy going on and it’s up to us to put a stop to it. Or, perhaps, decide how to take it in a better direction than these bozos are.

Deus Ex joined the pantheon of PC gaming back in 2000, and was quickly elevated to one of the highest seats there thanks to a game engine that actually supports balanced character building instead of just gluing new bits onto your guns. Modern games may spoon out achievements when you reach milestones but Deus Ex provides in-game rewards known as ‘skill points’ which are used to raise skills such as rifles, electronics and swimming. Which is a good thing, because without these point JC wouldn’t be able to hit the broad side of an oil tanker with an assault rifle, acts perplexed when looking at an electronic keypad and only holds his breath underwater for about 90 seconds. The last one isn’t quite so bad and considering how much swimming you’re likely to do, you’re much better off teaching yourself to pick locks more efficiently and keeping your rifle scope steady.

Courtesy Ion Storm
It was a dark and stormy night in New York…

The way the game supports your character-building is by presenting you with options for dealing with obstacles, from locked doors to boss fights. There’s almost always a way past a sealed entryway, be it a vent or a different door with a different locking mechanism, and most of the time if you’re not up for fighting a boss character you can just run your ass away. It’s also the sort of game where there really aren’t any invisible walls, and your health only regenerates if you choose to make it at the expense of your bio-electric energy reserves. It’s entirely possible to lose one or all of your limbs and to need to wiggle your way to a nearby health kit without being spotted by the cops.

Player choice also becomes a factor in conversations you choose to have. JC can be generous and make attempts to be personable, or he can be the sort of withdrawn, terse individual that just guns down the bad guys like many modern shooters show their heroes to be. I say “make attempts” because the voice acting and dialog in Deus Ex isn’t out to win any awards. JC sounds like he’s been gargling gravel for the last year or two and most of the other characters have hysterically stereotypical accents. The way the characters speak to one another is the first in a pair of pretty major flaws.

Courtesy Ion Storm
He’s a ladies’ man.

The other is the graphics. It’s an older game, so of course it’s not going to have the glitz and polish of something created last year, but Deus Ex looks bad even for a game from 2000. The designs of the levels and characters alike are blocky and rigid. There are a limited number of character skins and mouth animations are incredibly stilted. While I’d like to think there’s more to games (and people) than their looks, processing the visuals in the game can sometimes be a real chore.

However, under the horrendous appearance and occasionally terrible dialog is a plot that not only tries to influence the player but allows them to make an empowered decision. While quoting philosophy and whatnot is part of the dialog, when it works it shows a world where invisible powers are struggling to control mankind, and all of them want JC to operate as their scion in the conflict. But JC, and the player, are their own creature and will only obey the tenets of their own will. When we arrive in the endgame, JC does make the occasional quip intended to be clever, but also debates the pros and cons of his decisions with intelligence. How the game ends is entirely up to us.

Thus, from start to finish, Deus Ex puts the onus upon the player instead of taking them by the hand and pulling them through the plot. Instead of relying upon the fiction trope for which the game is partially named, we are given a set of options that allow us to become, for the would-be rulers of the world, a deus ex machina ourselves, appearing from the machine to give one of the powers exactly what they want. And that notion is more empowering than just about any firearm you’d care to name.

Stuff I Liked: Decent soundtrack, actual RPG structure, multiple approaches to obstacles and a near-future setting only slightly far-fetched.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Even with modern texture updates the game’s a bit of an eyesore in places. A good portion of the dialog’s hard to swallow and I saw a couple plot twists coming a mile away.
Stuff I Loved: A decent amount of non-linearity calling upon the player to decide how to proceed, from the very first level on Liberty Island to the final decision to determine the ending of the game and, by extension, the fate of the world.

Bottom Line: For those nostalgic for the likes of System Shock 2 and for shooter fans looking for a game with a bit more depth than Halo or Modern Warfare, Deus Ex delivers. If you go in prepared for some of the dated material in the game, you won’t be disappointed.

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