Monday, January 16, 2012

Deus Ex - An Introduction of sorts

If all goes as planned I'll be doing a somewhat regular series where I talk about the game Deus Ex in the course of going through it a little at a time. It'll be like a deconstruction in it's glacial pace, but it'll be mostly just me talking about Deus Ex.  So some introduction might be in order.

Deus Ex is a game that came out in the year 2000. I'm told that it was well received at the time and is widely regarded as one of the greatest games of all time. I've never been active enough in the gaming community to really follow that kind of thing.

It is worth noting that in the years since Deus Ex has been given a sequel and, more recently, a prequel. I will not be taking either into account here. Partially this is because I'll be following Ana Mardoll's theory that a work should be taken in itself rather than judged in light of retcons introduced ten years later. Mostly though it's because I know that the story doesn't fit together right.

The sequel follows from an ending that is completely impossible in Deus Ex, the prequel was made by people who saw themselves as essentially creating a new intellectual property and thus didn't even try to make the story fit. (I do want to give them credit for their honesty in admitting that well before the game came out.) In either case the stories don't fit together, things don't match, and thus I don't see a lot of value in trying to bring them in.

It could be interesting for comparing and contrasting, but I don't think it sheds a lot of light on Deus Ex because the other games are made in such a way that, if you look at them closely, you discover that they cannot fit in the same universe as Deus Ex. So I'll be sticking with just the one game, the original Deus Ex.

I saw it in a store and wanted it for reasons that I'm not totally sure I understand. I just wanted it. I looked at the system requirements, either read them wrong or didn't look closely enough, and mistakenly thought my computer could run it. It couldn't and so the game sat unplayed until I got a new computer for unrelated reasons.

I don't honestly remember my first time playing Deus Ex. I've been involved with the game for so long that it's hard to imagine not knowing how it went. I do know that I fell in love with the game.

Different people love the game for different reasons. That is not to say that everything about the game was loved by someone. For example, I don't think anyone loved it for the graphics which weren't all that good for the day and, based on what graphics loving people tell me, have apparently aged like milk. It is fortunate then that projects exist to improve upon the original graphics, but I'm not going to get into that right now.

I personally loved it for the story and the setting. Most of what I talk about will probably be devoted to that but before I do I should probably note that I think most people were more impressed with the gameplay.

Normally when I want to get people to understand the gameplay I send them to this review If I don't think they'll read the whole thing I tell them to start at the first, “You find yourself standing on a rooftop,” and not stop until they hit, “Definitely rewind.” If you're interested gameplay I highly recommend you read it both because it is very good demonstration of what gameplay in Deus Ex is like and because it's not a topic I'm going to dwell on all that much.

Since not everyone will follow that link, I will quote this much of the article:

By now, people will be describing Deus Ex as a hybrid of several genres. A mistake in logic. Deus Ex doesn’t merge the play-mechanics of singular genres. It just includes them as options. The primary character of a hybrid game is the demands you to perform tasks that were previously separate, while Deus Ex is about personal inclination and – this is the important one – freedom.

You can play Deus Ex as someone who never fires a gun. You can play Deus Ex as Rambo. Somewhere in between the two is probably easier, but you have those options. You can sneak through places unseen and unnoticed, you can fire your opening shot with an anti tank weapon. You can be a master hacker, you can be someone who can't hack at all. Basically, any one of the tools you can use to solve problems is also a tool you can do without entirely.

Deus Ex presents you with problems and a box of tools, and lets you do what you will with them.

So, The Setting,

Deus Ex takes place in 2052. The world of 2052 has been described as like today only more so. The rich are richer, the poor poorer. The chasm between the two resembles the grand canyon. Corporations are more powerful, individuals less so. Governments have become disconnected from their peoples, economies have collapsed. Everything is on the brink of disaster.

Obviously I feel like quoting Yeats' Second Coming, but for some strange reason I also have a desire to quote Yvor Winters which is odd because nothing in the poem really fits that well.

It is said that when making the game the developers referred to the setting as ten minutes before the apocalypse and collapse does seem to be coming. Terrorists strike against governments around the world, and a series of plagues has driven the global population to a fraction of its former size. (What that fraction that is depends on how high the population got before the fall, almost certainly less than a third.)

Into that world you, JC Denton, the latest graduate from the academy of UNATCO, an elite anti-terrorist organization, are sent. Because of a very rare genetic predisposition you are able to undergo an procedure to augment your abilities using nanotechnology that changes your body on a cellular level. Only the second person in UNATCO history to do so (the first being your older brother Paul.) You are the second of the Nano augs.

Previously UNATCO resorted to mechanical augmentation to create enhanced agents. Body parts were removed and replaced with mechanical equivalents. Unsubtle and considered grotesque by the general population those with mechanical augmentations are treated as second class citizens. Segregation in the world of Deus Ex has been reinstated to separate the mech-augs from the rest of the population.

(Given the day on which I'm writing this, I should probably point out that one of the few good things in the future of Deus Ex is that racism is a thing of the past. Unfortunately people still aren't judged by the content of their character, as the treatment of mechs demonstrates.)

Your augmentation barely disfigures you, your eyes look funny and there are some lines on your face and hands that could be mistaken for intricate tattoos. When you wear sunglasses (and you always do) you can easily pass for normal. The same cannot be said of mechs. Their augmentations cannot be hidden under clothing, they cannot pass as normal.

Anyway, the most recent plague is killing people across the globe, and a single company controls the only vaccine. Terrorists operate openly in the streets. The game begins your first day on the job.


Interestingly one of the most controversial things I said above is the date. There is a meme that refuses to die (it is, unfortunately, presented as fact on TV Tropes in multiple places) which states that there was some confusion during the development process about when the date would be set and as a result the in game text indicates two different dates. This is usually accompanied by the belief that there was similar confusion about the main character's origin story.

This is wrong. It is wrong on so many levels. I cannot say for sure that the developers never considered a different date for the game, I cannot say for sure that the developers never considered a different origin story for the main character. I can say that none of the evidence presented for this alleged discrepancy adds up. It requires a fundamental misunderstanding of when in the development process the in game text was written, it requires twisting facts to fit theories instead of theories to fit facts, it requires ignoring what the game is actually telling you.

[Anyone who isn't interested in this might want to skip the rest of the post, here's a link to the next post, or at least skip to the part where I talk about Deus Ex being “full of references.”]

If I let myself go too far on this topic I will go on for pages, I know because I've done it before. [Edit] And done it again. [/Edit] So for now I'll just say that the whole thing is bound up in the six letter word, “incept,” which means, “to take in,” and isn't used in everyday speech all that much.

Most of the evidence pointed to is stuff you wouldn't think was evidence in support unless you had already accepted the story and were interpreting everything in that light. The incept thing is the exception and it is the origin. It's where the theory comes from.

See some people think “INCEPT DATE” means something akin to birth date. Some of them accept that as self evident and move on from there. Others say that it's a Blade Runner reference, they're probably right, and that it must therefore mean the exact same thing in Deus Ex as it meant in Blade Runner, they're way off on that.

Part of the reason that they're wrong is that it's literally impossible. I can say this because there isn't one incept date given, there are four. The people arguing for the date being inconsistent say that there were two different threads running through the game that point to different dates, but if that were true the four incept dates would still be part of the same thread. They're in the same place, at the same time, in the same format. They're part of the same thing. If you accept that incept date might not mean birthdate but might instead have a meaning more closer to the word incept,... well, they don't present a problem at all.

If you accept the birthdate-Blade Runner theory then you do have a problem, because then you've got evidence saying that the game takes place after March 17th 2054, which the people who say 2052 isn't the date of the game will tell you right away, but before May 13th, 2052, which they always leave out. It has a very skip verse 10 feeling. One part is taken out of context and used as an argument while the part right next to it is completely ignored. (Actually it's two parts that are ignored.)

It can't mean what they say it means because if it did then that would mean that the very thing they use as the foundation of their argument, the part of the game with the incept dates, is wrong to the point of incoherence. And if it is so wrong, why would we base our entire interpretation of the game on it? Because if we don't, if we come to the game from the point of view of there not being a massive screw up in the date, everything falls into place, it all makes sense, and no screw up of that nature presents itself. There are other screw ups, to be sure, but not that one.

(As to what incept date does mean, I don't know for sure. But I note that the word means to take in and the first use of it on google that isn't a definition or a company name is using incept to mean when new students are taken into a university. My best guess is that it's like that, the incept date is when they planned to take the person in question into the organization. But it's just that: A guess. I don't know. All that I do know is that the overwhelming evidence is that it refers to something that hasn't happened yet. It could refer to killing the person and harvesting their body for organs for all I know.)

There is another reason why it's wrong to assume that the Blade Runner meaning must apply to Deus Ex, it's less strong as an argument but it's more important because it is more generally applicable. Deus Ex is full of references. It is almost universally a mistake to assume that they have the same meaning in Deus Ex as they do in the thing they are a reference to.

When you see an email from someone called Harleen Quinzell that's a reference to a DC character who originally appeared in Batman: The Animated Series but you should not assume that the Joker's sidekick is a character in Deus Ex.

When you see that Gully Foyle, Gabriel Syme, Oberst Enzian, Smilla Jasperson, and Hippolyta Hall are all staying in the same hotel as your brother you should not assume that this means that you're living in a universe where all fictional characters are real and those ones decided to stay in this hotel.

And that's just two documents. All sorts of things in Deus Ex are references to other things, but it's generally not a good idea to assume that they mean the same thing. When someone calls a datacube a NAVI that is not a sign that Tachibana Industries is operating in the Deus Ex universe and the asymmetrical child-god of technology will soon be upon us. (It has been a long time since I last thought about Lain, by the way.)

Deus Ex is overflowing with references, and it pretty much never a good idea to assume that something means the same thing as Deus Ex as it does in the work being referenced. The only place I can think of where it might not lead you terribly astray is that there is a hacking program called “ICE Breaker,” but even then the only thing that it has in common with its source is that it is hacking program. If you expect anything else about it to be like Burning Chrome or Neuromancer you'll be way off.

And that's it. Other than the fact that ICE Breaker is used for hacking, assuming a reference means the same thing in Deus Ex as the thing it is a reference to is a mistake. (Though I could be forgetting something.) It will lead you astray. I'm all for reading too much into things (required link to Ana Mardoll's Ramblings), but there are limits. Sometimes you can read too much into the wrong things. Sometimes you end up with a theory that has no basis in the text itself.

I'm definitely not immune to this. I once watched a movie and was convinced a character was a spy. Not as an alternate character interpretation, I thought it was right there in the movie. There were various spies and I thought she was one of them. Until I said it out loud. At which point I was asked why I thought that. I hadn't put that much thought into why I might think that, I thought it was obvious. Then I was asked and that's when I realized I was wrong. There was absolutely nothing to suggest it.

Somehow, I don't know how, I got the impression that she was a spy and as a result I interpreted every conversation she was in and every action she preformed within the context of her being a spy. It all made perfect sense to me. It made perfect sense because you interpret what you see in light of what you know. I “knew” she was a spy so I interpreted everything in ways that would make sense if she were a spy. It was only when I was asked to provide evidence that I realized none of those things were actually reasons to think she was a spy.

I think the same things are happening with the date thing in Deus Ex. The first instance of the theory that there's some massive ongoing inscrutable date related discrepancy in Deus Ex seems to have been a web page that has an archive of all of the in game text. It also includes usually helpful commentary on the text. I wouldn't have known the giant list of references above was a list of references if not for that commentary. (Now I know to Google every name, of course.)

It's also sprinkled with various statements that there is very definitively a problem when it comes to when Deus Ex takes place. Most of these statements are simply asserted with no reason given. When something that comes up pointing to a date of 2052 it's claimed to be not definitive and thus not good evidence and the commentary reminds you that there's the big discrepancy. This was a resource everybody used back in the day. The text wasn't exactly in order and it wasn't the easiest thing to navigate, but it was there. I used it all the time.

And I believed it. I believed it until someone new with no exposure to it asked a question and I had to tell the person what we all already knew and I discovered that what we knew made no sense and had no real basis in the text. But until I examined that I had accepted that there was a problem with the date without question, and interpreted every reference to the date as more evidence that there was something wrong.

It should be pointed out that the version there, which is quite probably the original version, is not quite like the versions seen elsewhere. It's not completely clear on what it is saying, but it seems to either be saying that Deus Ex has to take place after the last date mentioned in Deus Ex. (Just like if someone were to make a movie including this blog post you'd know that the movie has to take place after March 17th 2054 since I've mentioned that date.) Or it is saying that incept means “birth” for one character and “insertion/conception/something-like-that” for all the other characters. Either way, it's somewhat different.

I think one of the reasons that this bugs me so much is that I once made a year by year timeline for Deus Ex which required going through the game files looking at every single number. You can't just run a search for, “Dates” so you look at every instance of the numeral 1, then every instance of the numeral 2, and so on. Only a few of them are actual dates. Then you look for every time the word "year" is used, and every time the word "month" or "day" is used. Repeat for "decade" and "century".

It's a lot of fracking work and by the time you've finished you're intimately familiar with every damn date in the game. So when someone comes along with the whole, “You can't explain X so therefore all theories are equally valid and you ought to teach the controversy,” and you try to explain, “Actually, I can explain X, if you'll let me show you I-” and get cut off with a, “No, you're wrong,” before you even say anything about X, it gets frustrating.

Did they put as much effort into this? Apparently not, otherwise they'd know that what they're saying didn't pan out.

And then some of the stuff that's been said doesn't even make sense. I once met someone who was willing to put some effort into gathering evidence for his theory, he went through the game and found every image that looked like it might have a date on it that wasn't 2052. This work yielded two results.

One was a satellite photo dated 2051, which would make it one year old. I've interacted with a satellite photo significantly older than that since I was little. It doesn't make me think I have to reevaluate what year I'm living in. The other was what appeared to be a poster with a picture of two people playing football/soccer with “FOOT '47” written on it. I don't know what it's supposed to mean. For all I know it was advertising a play about the 2047 world cup. But what I really don't know is how it's supposed to prove that the game couldn't take place in 2052.

How do you respond to that? Yes. Those are dates that aren't 2052. The game also makes mention of the year 1118 and yet that doesn't convince me I should stop thinking it was set in 2052. I don't even see how pointing out those dates is meant to support the argument.

I also get accusations of insisting that the game developers were never wrong and I'm just defending them religiously. That's not true, they were wrong about various things. Just not this particular thing. Yet for saying that in this one case they didn't screw up I've been accused of venerating them as gods.

Even the central claim that the in game text was written over a period during which the plans for the game changed drastically is false. Chris Todd, writer of the in game text for Deus Ex and person I want to be when I grow up, was hired very late in the development cycle. The game did change in massive ways during development, but Chris Todd was hired after those changes took place.

If you ask him he'll explain that he doesn't know much of anything about the plans that didn't make it into the final game because he was hired after they were abandoned. I know this because I asked him. I asked him if he knew about anything that was planned but then abandoned. He knew two tidbits, both of which had nothing to do with alternate origin stories, and he wasn't sure about those because they were from before his time. It's definitely not that he's unwilling to answer, when I asked him about stuff he did know he gave great answers.

The people who think that there are these two threads of different plot versions interwoven through the game will write things along the lines of, “This bit must have been written early on when the game was still supposed to be set in 2052,” when the person who wrote it wasn't there early on and wasn't told about any alternate origin stories or dates after getting there. As a result for the theory to be true there would need to be time travel in the real world. (Chris Todd: Video game writer, Time traveler would probably be an interesting story, but I don't think it should be filed in non-fiction.)

And yet the theory persists. It bugs me.


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  1. Chris, this is one of many posts on your blog where I read the post, enjoy it thoroughly, and then realize I have nothing witty to say and that any post I could make would be the equivalent of scrawling "ANA WAS HERE" on your pretty blog walls.

  2. Oh, My God! Ana was here!

    Hi Ana, glad you enjoyed it.

  3. LOL, I'm here more often than I let on, just because I feel bad scrawling ANA WAS HERE on blog walls.

    But I love this post. And I love the... idea of this game. It's very very very hard to make an open player-guided game, but I think it's definitely worth it when they succeed. The idea of playing without ever using a gun is so intriguing, and a heckofa lot more realistic than most of the games in our house.

    I used to really enjoy the Sierra "Quest for Glory" games and they had claims of Every Problem Has Multiple Solutions! but that usually just boiled down to Thieves picking the locks, Mages casting 'open' on the locks, and Fighters forcing the locks. It was super fun, and I love the games, but still not as open and player-guided as I sometimes crave...