Saturday, January 21, 2012

Deus Ex Training, Part 2: Infolinks, Lockpicks, and a lack of Female Characters

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

When we left off we had learned how to unlock doors with keys now we'll learn how to break things and pick locks.

You're going to get a lot of equipment during these exercises. Press F1 at any time to access the Inventory Screen, which will let you add and remove items from the Toolbelt. Press F2 to view your current goals and any notes you may decide to take. On a typical mission, a UNATCO agent's objectives are logged electronically so that he can stay on-task at all times.

In the game files the above transmission is actually referred to as “F1F2”. This seems as good a time as any to talk about the infolink through which you're getting this message and all the others. It allows you to receive and store messages, it does not allow you to send them. The messages can be audio, as experienced in training, or they can be pictures.

Everything you hear or read is transcribed in into your data-vault and, as indicated above, you can take notes there as well. The point of all of this is so that you won't have to stop the game to look through your physical notes, you won't even have to take physical notes, instead your notes are right there in the game. Likewise if you happened to miss something when a conversation was going on, you don't have to reload to listen to the conversation again, there's a transcript you can read.

Also, since it's not actually using noise to get you these messages you don't have to worry about an inopportune message from base giving away your position when you're trying to hide quietly. Which is not to say it's without any problems. You cannot save when an infolink message is playing and you cannot skip an infolink message. Each will be played in full in the order it's received.

For those who like random trivia, the infolink was originally called the datalink and in internal game files infolink messages are all labeled with the abbreviation “DL”.

Back to training, in this room Jamie actually has to walk up to the window which gives the impression of some kind of movement and the observation room he is in looks out on two separate rooms so when you move to the next room you'll see him walk over from viewing you in one room to viewing you in the next.  It does at least give the impression that he doesn't move by teleportation.  Unfortunately you can still clearly see that the room he's in has no way out of it.

In this room you're told to pick up a weapon, you have a choice of a knife or a crowbar, and try it out on some crates. One is unbreakable and metal, two are wooden and can be broken open to reveal lockpicks:

Now pick up the lockpick and use it to open the door. Lock-picking takes time and expends the self-assembling resources of modern lockpicks. Just be patient and remember your training. At higher skill levels, you won't need as much time or lockpick resources to pick a lock.

In the last room you learned that in the future keys will be different, now you learn that in the future lockpicks will be different. The key thing that this is getting across is that this isn't Resident Evil 2 or 3 where you pick locks with what appears to be a modified paperclip (or is it a safety pin?) that can be used as often as you like. These are nano-locks and they require a different kind of pick. If one looks in the inventory they've just been told exists they'll find that while the part used for tension is ordinary steel, the second part is anything but: “... the appropriate needles are formed from fast congealing polymers.”

This is, obviously, entirely for gameplay related reasons. Whether the lockpick in this room or the mutitools two rooms later or skill points or the augmentations, a good portion of Deus Ex gameplay is about dealing with limited resources. You can't become a master in every skill, you don't have an infinite inventory, you can't pick infinite locks. You've got figure out how you're going to do things knowing that you can't do everything.

The flip side being that there are multiple ways to do anything. You can complete the entire game, though obviously not training, without ever picking up a lockpick. On that subject, this room is also where you learn about door strength and lock strength. Door strength is what you want to look at if your plan is to break down the door, lock strength is for if you want to pick the lock.  (Sometimes one or both will be infinite.)

In the next room you meet the interesting and exciting datacube which is not a cube but does contain data. This is another example of little things being different in the world of Deus Ex, apparently electronics have become so cheap that people leave notes using a small squarish device. It's usually used to store text, but it can be used to store images as well, the datacube has the combination* to the keypad on the next door which means you've met your first keypad, wow we're moving so fast.

On to the next room.

Women In Deus Ex

This is the multitool room and we'll get to them in a moment, but first I want to talk about who is watching you here. Two scientists are standing in the observation room, one male, one female. The male is the fifth man we've seen, sixth if we count the two appearances of Jamie separately. The woman is the first woman we see.

As such, perhaps we should talk about gender representation in Deus Ex.

Does Deus Ex pass the Bechdel test? Of course. Deus Ex has over 900 characters in it. (I'd like to be able to say "about a thousand" since it's such a nice round number but right now I'm stuck at about 922, maybe if I add everyone who wrote emails? Even then I think it would probably be closer to 900) How could a game with that many people in it not pass the Bechdel test?

Don't answer that. I don't actually want to know.

Does Deus Ex have an equitable distribution of male and female characters? No.

This is something that a member of the design team was asked about in an interview and he said that he regretted it. The team wasn't formed with any thought to gender, it was instead formed via preexisting connections and the result was an all male team. The team never really thought about gender and didn't notice they were creating an unbalanced game.

In describing how things went wrong he also gave to suggestions on how to make things go right: have a diverse design team, and actually think about this stuff when making the game instead of only thinking about it afterward and having there be nothing you can do but regret not doing a better job. That sounds like good advice to me.  Especially if both parts are used in combination.

In some cases the unequal representation makes sense, there are certain organizations in the game that I in no way expect to be equal opportunity employers. But there are other organizations where they have women in positions they'd only get to via rising through the ranks yet the ranks are exclusively male. So how did they get there? It's like the observation rooms with no doors. Someone is in a place, we know because we can see them there, but there is no reasonable way for them to have reached that place.

When it comes to the background characters that aren't foot soldiers for potentially discriminatory organizations there might be a more equitable distribution, though I'm not sure even there.

This map has five scientists and one PiB.  That's six unnamed characters whose genders can be whatever the map maker feels like them being.  Two of them are female.  On the one hand, that's not far off from an expected value of three.  On the other hand that means that there are twice as many males as females.  Of the remaining characters (named characters and character types restricted to a single gender) only one is female.

Anyway, it is definitely true that when it comes to movers and shakers of the game the numbers are skewed way in the direction of male.

Of the bad guys we have two leaders, both male. There is a woman who appears to be a sort of regional leader of one of their operations, and she is the only such regional leader we see.

Of the less evil conspiracy there are four leaders who stayed loyal. Of them three are male.  The female one is dead.

The resistance is less centralized and you meet seven leaders of various parts of it, of them one is female.  She's also the one who takes the least active role, mostly restricting herself to financing instead of leading. There might be an argument that someone else should be added to this category, but as far as I know there's no female character I could be said to be leaving out.

There are so few AIs that I'm just going to count all of them. There are 5. Four of them have male names. The remaining one seems to be genderless (or possibly gendered but plural.)  There was supposed to be an AI with a female name, going to the moon to stop her was to be the climax of the game. At some point (about three quarters of the way through development as I recall) it was decided that the game should remain terrestrial, the moon and space missions were cut, the plot was rewritten, and the female AI disappeared from the game.

When it comes to important people, the game is overwhelmingly male.


* Every code in Deus Ex is potentially a reference to something, but given that the code is 0012 I think I'm just going to let this one slide by. If I weren't interested in accuracy I could just make something up, say, “This is clearly supposed to call to our minds MJ12 but since M and J aren't numbers they're replaced with zeros.”



  1. I appreciate it when game designers just straight-up admit that they goofed on gender. Yay! (I mean, boo, but at least they're not covering by being giant jerks about it.)

    How do the characters that are women hold up otherwise?

  2. I doubtless have many blindspots, so it's possible this is wrong, but I think the women who are in the game are portrayed well. They represent a range of characters stretching from good to evil and I think they're pretty well handled.

    One area that you repeatedly return to has two recurring female characters. First off, I like both of them. Second, being able to look into the game files gives me a little insight into how the characters were made. Which means that I know the developers were concerned that a character could come off as a damsel in distress (for she is female and her life can be saved) and specifically tried to avoid falling into that cliche.

    I also know that the other was originally written to be male. I never would have guessed that because there's nothing in her lines that would indicate not-female (she's an ex special agent who runs a bar, nothing not-female about that) and I think that in itself speaks well of how gender was handled. At some point the decision was made to switch the character from male to female and it looks like rather than saying, "But what we wrote wasn't girly enough!" they left the dialog completely intact. I take that to mean that they were treating female characters as human beings, rather than treating women like some strange and different species. (Which is a very low bar to meet, but gender essentialism is all about not meeting it.)

    I was going to say that when it comes to saving individual people you save more women than men, but I think the numbers might be even. Though I do note that twice you can save a man's daughter (that's two different men and two different daughters), but you'll never be called on to save some woman's son (or anyone's son for that matter.)

    Also, separate from the above, Deus Ex is definitely set in a misogynistic world, but I think it does a good job of portraying misogyny rather than supporting it.

    But I don't know for sure, we'll see. Very, very slowly

  3. The Avengers (UK TV series of the 1960s) is a salutary example of how to do it right (by accident). During series two, Steed had a rotating selection of three partners, two of them female; sometimes the scriptwriters didn't know which one would be available, and wrote a generic (i.e., by the lights of those days, male) part. When one of those female partners became the regular for series three, they kept her character consistent with what had been established...

  4. Actually, you can save a woman's son, sort of. In Paris, you can meet a couple in a café who turn out to be the parents of one of the MJ12 troopers patrolling the area and she asks you, choking back tears, to spare her son.

    It's a pretty powerful moment if you've been cruising through the game gunning down random nameless, faceless mooks without a second thought.

  5. It's not that I don't know about that, it's just that I think there's a difference between saving and not killing. Sandra will die if you stand by and do nothing*, and if he has the chance Gilbert will ask you to make sure she's ok. Tiffany was captured and is being held as a hostage. In contrast the woman's son is simply out doing his job.

    He doesn't need to be saved, he just needs JC to not kill him.

    I do agree that it's a very powerful moment, especially since they literally all look the same to you. Most of them, including the woman's son, also sound the same to you. (At least I don't remember any special MJ12 troop dialog on the Paris street.) You have absolutely no way of knowing who the woman's son is.

    The degree to which Deus Ex manages to humanize the characters is a big part of why I can't play it as a straight shooter. These people have families. I don't play a fully nonlethal game either. My general stance is that if a character is going to kill an unarmed person then lethal force is justified. If a character is going to kill an armed person it becomes more tricky, but I don't think that comes up much. Well except for the various people trying to kill me, but I'm not taking that into account. I'm an augmented super agent, they're not.

    Hostage taking is tricky. Obviously it's better that the hostage takers die than the hostages, and trying a non-lethal approach might put the hostages at greater risk, but I have a lot more sympathy for someone whose position is, "Oh my God, I don't know what to do. This is nothing like training. I don't want to die, I don't want to die. I know they said don't threaten civilians but I don't know what to do. Please someone tell me what to do," than someone whose position is, "If you don't give me the the components my boss needs to get his plague making machine up and running again I'm going to kill this person."

    I'm more likely to try for a non-lethal approach when faced with the first than the second.


    Jedi Outcast gave conversations to the Stormtroopers, I really think it shouldn't have. The effect is to hand you a bunch or lethal weapons, put you in a position where you have to fight, and let you know that that the people you're killing are actually people.

    That's, in my opinion, not the right thing for that game. I love the Dark Forces games, but they're not about being a in a realistic world with shades of gray and enemies with lives of their own. They're about having a story play out that involves doing a lot of guilt-free fighting.

    If they were going to give the enemies enough personality to make it feel less like thoughtless play and more like ambiguous war they should have also given options that don't involve dealing death to all who oppose you.

    Then again maybe I only say that because I think Kyle Katarn being in a Deus Ex style game would be all kinds of awesome.


    * Though not if you never come by that area, which I think is an oversight. You can go over there and, by keeping some distance, see what happens if you don't get involved at all. If you never go over there in the first place you're not getting involved at all, so the result should be the same. Keeping Sandra alive by keeping the outcome in limbo seems more to me like exploiting a flaw in the game than anything else.