When Games Matter: Deus Ex and Its Dirty Trick

When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say about who we are and the world we live in.

Because I write about games, people often make the mistake of assuming that I am skilled at them. When I play skill based games like Tetris, Super Meat Boy, Trials, or even Bejeweled, I generally play until it becomes clear to me that progress would require more time than I can realistically commit. The type of games that I am more drawn to, however, are not mere skill games.  And I submit that the more heavily a game relies on story, the more careful that game should be in raising the bar when it comes to skill. In fact, narrative-heavy games do gamers a disservice when they require an inordinate amount of skill from them.

Games that highlight narrative certainly can and should require skillful play, but if these games want the average player to experience the story that they worked hard to create, such skillful play is best taught to the player gradually over time. Additionally if the game gives the player multiple skill paths to take, those skill paths should be honored throughout lest the game deceive the player. That is exactly what Deus Ex did to me.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution gives the player options–you can play stealthily or boldly, you can kill enemies or subdue them non-lethally. The player improves upon his ability to carry out these various options as he progresses by spending skill points on abilities that help him improve in these realms.

I chose to play the game stealthily and non-lethally, in part because I enjoy a challenge. Playing stealthily requires patience and creativity both of which appeal to me because of their tendency to be absent in action games. When I first started playing DX:HR, I would constantly save the game so that if I made a mistake and was seen by enemies as I snuck around levels, I could would have a fail safe to go back to. After playing for a while, I realized that I was taking some of the fun out of the game by doing so. Part of the fun of games is learning from the challenge they present and I was not learning from DX:HR because I was constantly protecting myself from failure.

Thus after playing Deus Ex for several hours, I determined not to rely so heavily on fail safe points and to approach each level carefully, thoughtfully, and patiently. Before too long I was traversing a massive office complex sprawling with guards, cameras, and robots without being seen by any of them. I even managed to hack the office’s computer system and shut down cameras and reprogram the robots to attack the guards. In short, I had learned to play DX:HR skillfully and was thoroughly enjoying it. Though I am not a skilled gamer–DX:HR succeeded in making me feel like a pro.

My delight in skillfully playing DX:HR was shattered when I encountered the game’s second boss battle. Given the game’s narrative, it makes sense for some enemies to be more difficult to deal with and I don’t mind the game occasionally forcing me to take lethal measures. What I don’t appreciate, however, is when a game essentially punishes you for taking a route that it encouraged. The second boss battle required skills that I had not developed and play mechanics that I had not, up to that point, utilized. It was so frustrating that I very nearly gave up on the game altogether.  I put the game down for a few days after which I picked it back up and defeated the boss. Guess how I did it? Creating fail safes … a lot of them.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    PWNED by l33t design, noob!!!

    Uh..I hate it too, for the record.

  • Steven Sukkau

    It would’ve been great to have the option to let the bosses live at the end too, you can deal with every other character non-lethally, even the robots. But to do that, the player needs a reason to sympathize with them. Instead the bosses themselves have zero characterization. Such a wasted opportunity.

  • Adam Marshall

    I played through DE:HR twice, once on Normal, once on Hard. The second time was MUCH easier, since I knew from the get-go that I would have to be selecting my augs all along with boss battles in mind. Having prior experience with the battles helped a great deal, too – I knew going into the room exactly what I’d have to do to fight effectively and efficiently.

    But that was on my second play-through. The first felt a lot like what you’ve described above. By the time the second boss battle came around, I had already decided to just Google a how-to on defeating each one. The fight with Barrett took about twenty tries and 2 hours of my life.

    That said, the feeling of achievement, of actually having overcome a nearly insurmountable obstacle, was far more palpable on the first run – even though my second run was on a higher difficulty level. In all honesty, that’s a feeling I miss. When I was much younger, boss battles (I’m thinking Wolfenstein 3D) were TERRIFYING. You knew going into them that you were going to be dying 100 times before you figured out the strategy to win. I think that’s what the folks as Square-Enix were going for. Unfortunately, they missed two major marks: (1) After dying, you have to walk through areas and click through cutscenes instead of being thrown immediately back into the battle, and (2) as you’ve said, you have no way of knowing what augs to deck yourself out in ahead of time. These factors, both of which are fairly minor, certainly made the boss fights far less enjoyable than the rest of the game.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    I can’t wait until this game goes on sale for $10! :)

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Steven Sukkau–that is an excellent point Steven. For a game that emphasizes human emotion to a great extent, the bosses seem to be nameless/faceless casualties–that is unfortunate.

    @Adam Marshall, yeah this boss would have been less frustrating if I had read a strategy guide a lot earlier. BUT I hate reading strategy guides–what makes games great in part is figuring them out within their systems of play. I more or less figured out this boss battle but figuring it out really didn’t help me much, it was still inordinately hard.

    Anyway–apparently the boss battles were outsourced which explains a lot: http://kotaku.com/5841910/those-horribad-deus-ex-human-revolution-boss-battles-were-outsourced

  • Bmanster

    This game was definitely amazing. Blew everything in 2011 out of the water, it was a way deeper experience then skyrim, batman, portal, and call of duty and battle field.

    It definitely got cheated out of a lot of recognition though when it was probably the most well made game I’ve played in years since they’ve been pretty bad with streamlining the games lately and making them really easy, have poor gameplay, or having horrible to no stories at all.

    Oh well, not everyone has the same tastes.


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