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The illusion of choice in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

2011-09-09 by . 3 comments

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a bloody good game and one that I have been having a lot of fun with recently. Hell, I even had the foresight to sneak in an early question on the game to pick up my first Taxonomist badge on the network for it (muwhaha, that’s how to do it folks!).

However, it’s not without its flaws, and now that I’ve reached the end of the game there’s one part of Deus Ex where I’m left feeling just a little disappointed, not enough to spoil the game for me, but just a little niggle that I’d like to discuss today.

That is niggle is choice. It’s something you may have heard the developers talk about in pre-release coverage, and the game presents a lot of choice, in many different forms too, but some of it feels a little flat

Oh, and a quick warning: spoilers ahead, so stop reading if you’ve not finished the game yet (no really, I’m going to ruin the ending for you if you’ve not made it there already)

Character Development

Most of augmentations that you can choose from when upgrading are unique, except maybe the various hacking augmentations, so upgrading is a good example of real choice in character development. You’re not just calculating what option to choose to get the best damage output, you’re deciding between very different abilities, and that’s great.

Do I want to be able to turn invisible, fall from any height uninjured or be armoured against gunfire..?

However, by the time I’d reached the end of the game I had a sizable proportion of the augmentations. Now, this isn’t automatically a bad thing; it’s a matter of taste as to whether you want to be all-powerful at the end or to still have a specialised character. Personally, I find that being all powerful made my earlier choices start feel a little inconsequential, maybe it’s my own fault for going out of my way to get as much XP as possible.

Still, if you ever want a great example of an upgrade or levelling tree that isn’t just grinding improvements to current abilities, then I think this has to be it.

Play Style

Stealth? Non-lethal? Murdering berserker? Yep, you can choose how you want to progress in this game and there’s even an XP shaped carrot to encourage stealthy and non-lethal approaches (because otherwise I suspect many gamers would automatically choose the easier “shoot everything that moves” method).

The weapons barely overlap – there’s no Pistol, Pistol +1, Pistol of Confusion, etc silliness here. With the exception of the Machine Pistol and Combat Rifle, where you can trade space for power, each weapon has a fairly well defined and unique role, enough to making choosing one for the job easy without reducing the player to pointless DPS calculations.

Do I want to stun people up close, blow their head off from across the room or maybe deploy explosives ...?

Layer on top of these the choices provided for progression – convincing people to give you what you want, sneaky vent work, busting though walls, hacking and so on – and the game really manages to give you the sense that you’re progressing how you want to.

Now, too much freedom and choice can lead to players fretting that they’re missing stuff and exploring every single possible avenue out of hundreds isn’t fun, it’s tedious – but I think the game strikes a good balance here, the amount of choice given to players is quite vast and still well balanced.

That is, until the boss fights. Oh, the boss fights… they’ve been getting a lot of stick elsewhere already and unfortunately I believe it’s quite justified. If you’ve chosen a non-lethal character you’re in for a bit of rough ride, so much so that they had to dubiously litter each boss fight scene with many lethal weapons in case a player needed them. Not only that, but you are then forced to kill each of them, (potentially) forcing the player has to break from their chosen style. Seemingly giving us a choice to only then take it away and indirectly declare it wrong? Not good.

Storyline

Given everything else the game does, the storyline is effectively linear. All the choices you make lead to minor short term modifications to the story, if anything. The reason for this is that, for the most part, the player doesn’t make a direct choice about how the story progresses. What changes there are come as indirect consequences of other choices – conversation conflicts, in game actions, and so on.

It's unclear where these options will lead me. This is problem solving, not choice, and I'll have to put up with the incidental side effects of trying to win this verbal tussle.

Now a linear story isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a good linear story is better than a crappy branching one, right? The problem is that it somehow feels like the game actually is giving you a choice in the storyline, which works well up until the point when you realise that the choices you are making are often inconsequential in the long run.

The End

From the moment I started talking to Taggart, holed up in the server room, I just knew the game was preparing to give me a final choice on the end of the story. Admittedly, this was hardly unexpected, but that’s the first point where it became entirely clear it was going to happen.

However, I don’t like the delivery. And by “don’t like” I mean “hate”.

After defeating the final boss you get given a full (and excessive) exposition on all the choices you’ve found by Eliza (in case you weren’t paying attention), including some slightly dubious reasoning for having magic buttons to make my choices (I mean, why would there be two independent video editing consoles there, of all places?) and then you just press the button of your choice. The End. Cue stock footage, voice over, credits and complete lack of closure.

Obviously, they had to make sure then ending somehow tied in to the start of the original Deus Ex (HR is a prequel, don’t forget), but pretty much every other choice I’d made in the game up to that point was rendered effectively pointless by a few measly buttons. It slightly soured the game for me.

Damn you, Eliza! You (almost) spoiled everything I've worked for so far with your rambling exposition and ... buttons.

Conclusion

Deus Ex: Human Revolution does a good job of presenting the player with so many different types of choices and making them feel important at the point of decision. However, many of these choices ended up feeling a inconsequential by the time you reach the end. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed playing and making those choices, it’s just that in retrospect that many of them seem a bit flat.

However, this is certainly a direction I’d personally love more games to move towards – a variety of choices presented to us via many different facets of the game. It’s going to a be a mammoth task to get perfectly right, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution takes a very good jab at it, and does a lot better than anything else I’ve played recently – for that it deserves plenty of praise.

Let’s hope this paves the way for other titles to follow suit.

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3 Comments

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  • yx_ says:

    “Hell, I even had the foresight to sneak in an early question on the game to pick up my first Taxonomist badge on the network for it (muwhaha, that’s how to do it folks!).”

    Ahha, thanks for that tip! :P

  • Mana says:

    I didn’t really feel as frustrated by the ending because I never really expected the ending to branch off based on my actions over the course of the game. That being said, I felt like a bit more closure for all of the characters would have been nice.

    • DMA57361 says:

      It wasn’t the lack of branching that was the problem, but the whole way the ending was delivered. It felt very much like I wasn’t really playing the game any more. Play had already finished and I was just choosing a final cut scene. That and it’s excessively slow pace (thank to Eliza’s rambling) made it all very anticlimactic for me.

      What they should have done is somehow bind the choice you make in to the final boss fight – provide different ways to beat the boss to influence the result, hide the buttons behind different sections you have to fight to or something of that nature. Make it part of the flow of the game, not just tacked on at the end.

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