Saturday, January 21, 2012

Deus Ex Training, Part 1: No Exits

[This is part of a series of posts about the game Deus Ex.]
[The series began with this post.  The is the first post in this section.]

When one starts Deus Ex they meet the start menu, at the top of which is the “New Game” button. The first time you try to start a new game on a given install Deus Ex will suggest that, if this is your first time playing, you might want to try training first.

There are a few things to note here, the first is that if you do training before starting a new game that means you're doing it before you set up your character. Which means that you'll be playing with the default JC. This doesn't bother me because I always play with the default JC, but if you don't and you want your character in training to look like your character in the rest of the game what you'd have to do is start the game, go through character selection, watch or skip the intro, and then start training from there. Then training JC will be whatever JC you picked at character selection.

The second is that training is, well, training. The entire level exists to tell you things along the lines of, “Don't forget to left click.” There is no way you can consider it canonical. That said there are elements of it that I think can be reasonably said to reflect the game world in important ways and I think it is definitely worthy of consideration.

There's a section of Herodotus where it's believed that someone else's notes somehow got accidentally shoved into Herodotus' text. It might be best to think of training as something like that, there's some original story here, but between the original and ourselves all this gameplay stuff snuck in. (In reality it's there for gameplay and the story stuff snuck in, but work with me.)

Or perhaps it might be better to think of it as if a lost part of a work of literature was only attested to by being adapted into a beginning grammar textbook. You can sort of see where it was coming from, but you have to sift through, “This is a verb,” and some highly contrived situation that exists only to illustrate the passive form of the future perfect.

The third thing is timing. If we accept that we can consider parts of the training mission to be pieces of the Deus Ex story even if they do come to us darkly through a hall of mirrors some of which are warped, dirty, or otherwise distorted, then we have a question of where it fits into the rest of the story. My best guess is that it's in the six months between the intro and the first mission of the game. This is based partly on a single line of dialog at the end of the training mission, and partly on trying to use the question “What did he know and when did he know it?” to try to date training in spite of the fact that the information we have to determine that is itself somewhat suspect. Still, I'm going to go with some time between the intro and the first mission, probably closer to the first mission than the intro.

Training Starts

My first impulse is to be very snarky towards training something like:

It's a key? I didn't know that. They're only completely ubiquitous being used from the poorest neighborhoods to the most secure facilities but in my 23 years of life I've never seen one before.

So that's how you use a ladder, I had no idea. I wish I'd known that before I tried to use a ladder in seventh grade. I'll never forget the unfortunate ladder incident.

I know I shouldn't be because while JC Denton would definitely be familiar with the keys in question, a player wouldn't be and don't forget to left click is the kind of advice you probably need if you're going to play the game without going through a process of trial and death. It's just hard to stay serious when it opens with:

I figured you'd be sick of drills by now. Hopefully our training exercises will be more interesting than what they've had you doing at the Academy.

Oh yay! Interesting stuff coming my way.

Open the door by clicking the right mouse button. The right button uses items in the world.

A door, Jamie? A door? Yeah, I never had to open any of those at the academy. This is really interesting so far.

It's obviously important information, if players can't open doors they're going to have a hard time playing, but it's difficult to take seriously. The next room is entirely devoted to teaching you how to use keys.

That said, it does deliver important information:

The key on the desk opens encryption-based nanotech locks. When you pick it up, it will automatically be added to your key ring. Use the key ring to unlock the door and proceed to the next area.

The most basic thing it tells you is that the little blue thing on the desk is a key, but it also tells you that in the future locks will be different. Keys and locks as we know them will be a thing of the past and nanotechnology will be everywhere. It's telling us an important part of the setting and setting up for when we learn in the next room that lock picking is different in the future.

Before we get to that I'd like to take a moment to note the ways in which Deus Ex's 2052 is different from 2012. When discussing the backstory I brought up plague and population depletion and insurgencies and economies and governments and that sort of thing. I didn't really touch on what the future looks like.

It looks largely the same. Whatever you're wearing in 2012 you could probably wear in Deus Ex's 2052 without standing out too much. Architecture looks pretty much the same, so too does transportation. You don't see much in the way of vehicles, but what you do looks pretty standard for the here and now. There are newspapers and books. Most stuff looks the same and if you do come across something big that looks futuristic it's probably going to be in a hidden base somewhere.

For me this has always felt realistic. If one looks at something like Sneakers, a movie I highly recommend from 1992, most of it doesn't feel that dated to me. The computers do, references to the recent fall of the Soviet Union do, but apart from that it seems to me like it could take place now. Visuals haven't changed that much in the last 20 years, and I don't expect them to change that much in the next 40.

Where Deus Ex does visually change things they tend to be little things, like the keys, or things that change rapidly in the real world, like the computers. Instead of massive changes to the way things look we get smaller things around the edges.

No Exit

The room with the key is also your introduction to observation rooms, set above the room you're in and connected by a window is a room from which people can watch you. In this one you see Jamie Reyes*, your friend and doctor who is the one sending you messages for this portion of training, and Walton Simons, whom you don't know, watching you. A male scientist goes back and forth between two monitors, and a man in black paces back and forth across the room.

The room they're all in doesn't have an exit. This wouldn't be worthy of note except that you can see enough of it to know that it doesn't have an exit. So either they popped in there via teleportation or the glass was added after they climbed into the room via the window. It would have been very easy to add a closed door to the room, so I'm not really seeing a good excuse for the impossible level.

I did not realize I'd have opportunity to talk about this in training, but this is actually a problem throughout Deus Ex. How other people get places doesn't appear to have been thought out nearly as much as it should have been. At one point you are tasked to go to a place but the road to get there is closed. There are two major problems with how it is handled. The first is that later on the road in question is opened and it's a very short dead end that doesn't go anywhere near there. The second is that the way you get there is the only way to get there save by helicopter, which is the way you get out.

It would not have been difficult to have added some more closed roads to give the impression that these places existed in a real world that extended beyond the bounds of your participation in it. But that didn't happen.

At another point you're told you've gone from the the part of the sewer that is on the map to a part that isn't, but the part that is on the map doesn't go anywhere. So what could the map possibly look like that it, in itself, wouldn't raise concerns that something fishy is going on? Then you go through the not on the map tunnels and arrive at an old water treatment facility that apparently is on the map. Except there's no way to get to it except the tunnels. Not a locked door, not a different tunnel that had caved in, nothing. So what does this map even show? An underground facility with no entrances or exits? How does that make sense?

Deus Ex does a good job of making you believe that there's a world beyond the parts of the game you see. It's just that sometimes it does a very bad job of showing that there's a way to get to that world from the levels you're in. So advice to people interested in game design: Everyone and everything that appears in your game had to get to where it is somehow. Think about how it did that. You don't need to actually include the path they took in your level, you just need to include some indication that that path exists, say a locked door or two. Just make sure to think about it when you're doing your work.

* About a week or so ago I heard someone mention that Jamie Reyes was the Blue Beetle and I thought that Deus Ex Jamie must be a reference to him, we know that they made other comic book references so why not that character?

As it turns out the comic book character was created years later so if there is referencing going on it would have to be the other way. The possibility that Jamie's name was a reference prompted me to try to look up the name on internet and nothing jumped out at me as being something that could reasonably be assumed to be a reference. It is a real name which real people really have so it certainly could be named after one of them, but even if it is there's no way to know which one it would be.

Could it be a Texan drummer? Yes, it could be. He was in Austin when Deus Ex was being made. But there's no reason to assume that it was. Austin is a big place, the design team probably never met the guy.

It could just be a random name.


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