Golden Era of PC Gaming

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The more interesting Deus Ex-related Extra Punctuation would probably be the one that follows my Human Revolution video, but for right here and right now there’re a couple of things to talk about exclusively relating to the first Deus Ex. Don’t fasten your seatbelts too tightly, now.

I’d almost go as far to say that the first Deus Ex came out of a sort of golden age for first-person PC games circa the end of the last millennium. Half-Life and its wayward children Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic were the least of it; this was a time when the model of the shooter was being challenged on all sides by games like Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock 2 and Hitman (and arguably Morrowind). Each game to a man possessing considerably more depth than the mainstream games of today, and the main reason for my recurring claim that the unwieldiness of modern technology has led to creative devolution. Incidentally, Looking Glass Studios, which brought us Thief and System Shock, was one of the companies that went down in the sucking Eidos whirlpool caused by, amongst other things, the spectacular failure of John Romero’s Daikatana. Then Thief 3 – or Deadly Shadows – had to be developed out of Ion Storm Austin, the Deus Ex people. Marvel at the interconnectedness of all things. The games industry is basically as incestuous as a Louisiana farming community.

This period was almost the equivalent of what the PS2 era was to console gaming: a sweet spot when technology was advanced, but not so advanced that developing for it was hugely shackling, and games had room on their disks to spread out and explore the depths of the medium. Thief: Deadly Shadows was almost a symbol of how it would all go wrong; the chubbier graphics and hardware meant the levels had to be split, smaller and less open-ended than the somewhat uglier Thief 2, and so the pressure to look good brought with it the age of gameplay compromise.

The thing about games from this period is that they were also somewhat loosely bound together. As what happens when you push an older engine until it’s swollen and bloated, a few cracks start to appear that some smart bugger somewhere will learn to exploit. On the one hand this means that even today there are huge modding communities for these games adding whatever gameplay or graphical tweaks the fans think are necessary, but it also meant the games were rather easy to break. Sites like it-he.org exist solely to catalogue the many ways games like Deus Ex could be ruined without even needing to cheat, generally by stacking pseudo-physics objects to get to places you shouldn’t, or (in one of the highlights on the linked site) getting the entire staff of UNATCO to attack the same invincible vacuum cleaner robot.

These flaws are part of the attraction. It gives the games a sense of loveable experimental fun that later, snobbier games lacked. It felt more like the developers and players working together to create the playing experience rather than developers looking down on players as troublesome elements in the game that have to be herded into line. I guess the point I’m getting to is that there was no better time in the history of gaming for acting like a complete jerk.

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Not the Infamous kind of jerk that is forced to fit within strict, approved parameters of jerkdom, but a jerk that the game doesn’t have a clue what to do with, and can only attempt to get through the game before they do too much damage. What moral-choice games like Infamous don’t realize is that part of the appeal of acting like a jerk in a game is that we feel we’re bucking the system the game laid out for us. It’s a test of the promise of freedom. It’s a form of emergent gameplay that adds to the sense of the developers’ willingness to let go of the steering wheel now and then, and emphasizes the closer bond between player and creator that has always been a strength of PC gaming.

I was in idle conversation with someone recently when he caught me off guard by blaming Half-Life for the current state of overly cutscene-heavy gameplay. And it seemed like he couldn’t get any wronger, because like most Valve games Half-Life very deliberately has no cutscenes and almost never takes control from the player. But then he pointed out that there are several moments in Half-Life – and more so in Half-Life 2 – when you’re trapped in a single location and aren’t allowed to leave until the non-player characters have finished talking at you or among themselves. Which is fair enough, I suppose, but these pseudo-cutscenes never bothered me too much. Why? Because I was free to act like a jerk. Mess with people’s ornaments, throw boxes at them, stand on top of things they’re trying to use. And this made their scripted actions all the more entertaining as they now had an undercurrent of desperation as they determinedly ignored the fact that you were discharging firearms into the wall right next to their head.

Even better are the games that make an effort to call you out on this sort of behaviour. Deus Ex itself had a generic irritated response most characters had for weird behaviour (“Are you OK, JC? You’re acting weird,” Alex Jacobson would say as you stole all his possessions and murdered his cat) but there were some quite famous specific examples. If you went into the UNATCO women’s bathroom, your commander would specifically ask you not to the next time you spoke to him. More gratifyingly, if you did something like kill the terrorist leader you were told to take alive or murder all the hostages in the subway station, then JC would actually try to justify himself when his NPC friends got mad at him, usually sounding like Judge Dredd in the process. And then, dear readers, the challenge was on. Alright Deus Ex, if you’re so smart you included dialogue for murdering the hostages, how about if I pick up one of the corpses and leave it in Paul’s shower? Got dialogue for that? Hm? Didn’t think so.

Now, obviously I’ve played Human Revolution by this point, and I don’t want to talk too much about it until the video is out, but I will say this now: it’s very gratifying to me that you can pick up vending machines and throw them at people. Tell me the image isn’t a little bit amusing: the employees of Sarif Industries huddled together in the staff canteen, living in constant fear of the door suddenly flying open and that all-too-familiar voice bellowing “WHO’S THIRSTY?!!!”

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.


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