Saturday, August 25, 2012

199X Dispatch - JC Denton and the Prison of Possibility

muteKi keeps it gangsta.

JC Denton is a nanotech-augmented UNATCO super-cop. He can survive a ten-story fall, hack ATM machines, and swim with a trench coat on. Malt liquor heals him. So why the hell can't he just CLIMB DAMMIT!? CLIMB! JUST GRAB THE LEDGE AND PULL YOURSELF UP! DAMN.

The one thing everyone knows about Deus Ex is that it has a very wide range of meaningful gameplay options. I say "meaningful" to distinguish it from the lower tier of "sandbox" games, wherein the wide variety of options are, in truth, different cars to steal and NPCs to murder. DX is a game where you can hide behind a sofa, or use it to barricade a door, or pick it up and throw it at a helicopter.

Even twelve years ago, this kind of thing wasn't unique to Deus Ex. Computer RPGs had long provided at least as much gameplay variety, if not more. But the fact that Deus Ex gives the player so much control within a three-dimensional environment is something more than variety — it's freedom.

Feynman demonstrates JC's Jenga skills.

This is rare, even today, because freedom is contrary to the very nature of games. A game is nothing but a system of rules, and rules are limits on the player's freedom. In a game like Monopoly or tennis, the rules are very obvious; but in video games, a lot of rules are hidden. One of the rules in Deus Ex is that JC Denton can only climb ladders and sufficiently horizontal surfaces. Anything else must be jumped over, either by building steps (with crates or the infamous LAM climbing technique) or upgrading the jumping ability. But JC cannot climb over that fence, no matter how easy it would be for a real person.

Functionally, this is no different than Gradius constraining the Vic Viper to one plane of existence. Nobody is flustered by the inability to fly to the left or right of oncoming enemies because there are no visual queues telling us to try it. But if Gradius used a first-person viewpoint and a 3D environment, being limited to up-down-forward-backward would be infuriating, even if the enemy ships had the same limits. It would be promising freedom it could not deliver. 

Paradoxically, the less abstract a game is, the more frustrating its limits become. And the more possibilities a game creates, the more glaring its omissions.

Still, 80% of the time, Deus Ex will let me try whatever zany, sofa-throwing  scheme I come up with. And that's really impressive, and really fun. We're collecting DX stories in this month's Game Club thread. Please feel free to add your own, even if you didn't participate. For even more tales of derring do, check out the Retronauts Live episode on this game.

1 comment:

  1. Deus Ex was great for giving you so many different ways of completing a mission. Plus it's one of the few games where it's actually viable to destroy locked doors and containers, transforming the GEP gun into a very heavy set of lockpicks.