This weekend, Steam had a sale on popular video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I had been planning on buying the game, because the subject of human-computer cyborgs is very cool, plenty of people raved about the original, and because it received a decent (for him) review from Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation.
Deus Ex is an action role-playing game where you play as a former SWAT commander who gets outfitted with a whole bunch of awesome cybernetic add-ons in order to save his life. There’s stealth, there’s multiple ways to solve puzzles, and you play as a freakin’ cyborg. It received a 90/100 rating on Metacritic.
So how did I strike out such an awesome game in 20 minutes?
It was Saturday, February 25th. I was still recovering from a cold, and thought I’d treat myself to an impulse buy of Deus Ex. The game installed fine through Steam, and I started it up. I had to tweak a few settings to get it to run smoothly on my laptop, but soon enough I was in the game.
First I watch an intro movie of some evil guy scheming some evil scheme. After his intriguing exposition, we go to the good guy’s science lab. The camera pans in to the back of some guy’s head and BOOM, there I am, standing in a futuristic lab with a Dr. Megan Reed who wants me to accompany her. Cool, I think as I examine every inch of the office. Disappointedly, I was unable to affect any of it. I wasn’t even able to bump a magazine sitting perilously on the couch. Oh well, better do my escort job. Walking up to Megan, a subtle popup appears saying “E: Talk”. Without hesitation, I mash the button.
The camera jumps and now I’m walking beside her through a science lab. So now we’re walking and talking? Except I’m not walking, the game is walking me. I am able to turn my head and look at other things, but I have no ability to move freely.
Right there, in the first three minutes of the game, strike 1.
After watching the intro, this is my first real chance to play the game. The game has given me complete mobility and freedom (I can jump up on the desk if I want). 5 seconds later, the game takes it away from me completely. What were the point of those 5 seconds of freedom then? Just to establish that you are this guy called Adam?
On-a-rails intro is not a game-breaker, by any means, but none of my favourite games have restricted the players’ movement to that degree without a damn good reason. Take Half life for instance: the intro does the exact same thing as Deus Ex’s intro: showing you that you’re in a place of really cool science-y things, and giving a pre-cataclysmic look at the world. You can’t leave the tram, so you are literally “on a rail” for the first few minutes. But you can move around in that little space. You can go “Ooo that looks interesting” and press your face up against the window. You can jump up and down impatiently. You can ignore everything and stare at the ground if you really want to. All of this makes the player identify with the silent protagonist Gordon Freeman.
In the office of Deus Ex, you’ve been given your freedom and you’re flexing your virtual muscles: every motion you make is helping you identify with the world and your character in the game. Then that control is half yanked away from you. More than half your virtual body is paralysed: you no longer have control over your body, and you can only look in a certain narrow scope. This is the game essentially saying: “Here you are! No wait, I’m taking that back, I’ve got something really cool to show you.” It’s like a five year-old. It doesn’t matter how cool everything looks (it does), that take-back leaves a sour taste in your mouth. It made me think: I really want my character to get a better look over there, but the game says no. Hey, maybe I don’t want to be this character if he’s not pressing his face up to the glass of a tank of exploding canisters. There’s no buy-in.
Contrast this with Fallout 3′s intro, where you get to control yourself even as a toddler.
Oh, and also, there’s no way to skip this intro. You cannot even exit the game while this intro is going on.
So after being held in a straightjacket and towed behind Megan, you end up in your bosses office, where, inevitably, the shit hits the fan. Sirens blaze, fires are seen out the window, and all hell starts breaking loose. My boss tells me to use the service elevator, telling me the code is 5042 or something like that. I go over to the control panel and, sure enough, I have to actually enter in 5042 in a mini keypad. After directing my every movement during the intro, my first act of freedom is to memorize some numbers?
Alright, so I descend into what sounds like a pretty intense combat zone. It’s a good thing I have no idea how to handle myself.
Deus Ex to the rescue! As I round a corner, a very intrusive menu pops up on my screen saying “Crouching. Hold Tab: View Tutorial”. A tutorial on how to crouch? Really? Okay, I think, holding tab, maybe they’ve got something important to tell me. Nope, the video shows a first-person narrated view of a hallway, where the player has to duck under a partially closed door. I say “Yeah, I get it”, turn the next corner, and the exact hallway detailed in the video is there, complete with partial door. I take a few seconds and realise that yes, it is exactly as easy as the 15 second video tutorial says it is, except it takes me only 10 seconds to perform the task.
30 seconds down that hallway, and another video pops up, explaining how to move a box out of the way of a vent. The next puzzle? Moving a box out of the way of a vent.
Turning another corner, I get assaulted by another video, explaining combat. Seriously? Bam, all the surprise and shock that might have gone along with armed invaders encroaching on this safe scientific sanctuary is GONE.
The player has been reduced to a simple process that inputs tutorial videos and regurgitates it back verbatim.
This is a gigantic strike 2.
Games have a learning curve. The first time you played chess, you had to sit down, listen to someone explain the rules, play a few games, maybe even watch a video on how to play chess. And most real-world games are like this. Video games, on the other hand, are interactive, which means that with a little creativity, a game can actually teach the player how to play it. Teaching (without lecturing) how to use a system is basic Human Computer Interaction, and it applies to most computer programs.
Take the box-moving puzzle. The purpose of the puzzle is to teach you how to pick up an object and move it out of the way.
Let’s take a look at how Half Life 2 does this:
As you can see, you get blocked in a side entrance by one of the metrocops, who casually knocks over a can. Looking down at you he says: “Pick up that can!” Simultaneously, a non-intrusive popup tells you what button to use to pick objects up with. Once you pick it up, it tells you how to throw the can or simply drop it, allowing you to be passive by dropping the can in the trash, or aggressive by throwing it at the cop. Bam. The game has not only taught you how to pick up objects, but it has provided you with two more pieces of information: these cops are used to bullying people around (setting the stage for the Combine world), and that you have the power to resist them. As anyone who has played Half life 2 knows, the entire game is about overthrowing the oppressive Combine regime. So, Half life 2 not only teaches you how to move objects, it tells you about the entire game!!!
You might think this gameplay advice is new and exciting stuff, but an epic game by the name of Megaman X was able to do it all back in 1993. Egoraptor (a guy who makes comics and videos about video games) reviews exactly what I am talking about in his very excellent 20 minute explanation of why Megaman X is the best game ever. His main point is that Megaman X is able to teach you everything you need to know in the first level.
Take 20 minutes. Watch it. I’ll wait.
Did you watch it? Good.
Everything in that video can be applied to modern games today. And some games do this very well. Fallout 3 did a decent job teaching the player how to survive in the barren wastes of a post apocalyptic world. Portal and Portal 2 both did terrific jobs teaching the player how to bend time and space. So it’s clearly not impossible to teach difficult concepts, as long as you don’t treat your audience like they’re five.
At this point, I’m hanging onto the game by a thread. I am not empathising with the character at all, I have no idea who these people are who are storming the facility, and I really don’t know why I should care.
For all the babying the game does leading up to it, the combat section proves to be very difficult! I end up dying three times because I get stuck behind cover. The enemies’ bullets are realistic, so I die upon taking more than two, but the interface feels so clunky to someone new to cover-based-combat that I am unable to wield my weapon without flailing around.
Finally I kill these faceless enemies with whom I had no quarrel. (Contrast this to Half life 2: I was killing enemies and glad to be. One of them even made me pick up a can! That sucker’s gonna die.)
The music changes, the mood heightens, and I can just sense the boss battle coming up. Despite the previous two strikes (large though they might be), I’m actually looking forwards to this. Finally, a chance to see what I’m up against.
I open the final door and BOOM.
It is at this point that I throw up my hands and walk away from the game. Strike 3.
The camera jerks to third-person, I see my character get the ever-loving shit beat out of him, while I take my hands off the controls.
I already have nearly zero empathy for this guy because I don’t know who he is beyond a few obviously-tossed-bones sentences. Now feeling I had remaining for him has been forcibly ripped from my hands, just like the controls.
Yeah, I get that it’s an important plot point. And I understand that it establishes a reason for my character to undergo expensive radical surgery to rebuild him with all sorts of nifty gadgets that will form the basis of many awesome gameplay elements. But I don’t care. I have nothing to fight for.
In Fallout 3, you’re fighting for your father, or to meet your father, or to try and impress Amata.
In Half life 2, you’re fighting for Dr. Kleiner and Alyx Vance.
In Half life, you’re fighting for your life and the scientists at Black Mesa.
In Deus Ex, you’re fighting for nobody, and this is made clear by you having no control over your character. Because it’s not your character.
Let me make it clear that this is not about cutscenes in particular. There are many places in my favourite games where cutscenes have been used to good effect. In Half life 1, after fighting swarms of Black Ops ninjas, you finally reach the exit only to have the lights extinguished and you beaten to unconsciousness. This takes you completely by surprise, and the events in the game are out of your control. So in this case, a cutscene helped you, the player, identify with what was going on.
In Deus Ex, you know the boss battle is coming. You can see the door. You know there’s going to be something bad behind it.
How might this have been done differently? Look at Megaman X: when you’re fighting the boss of level 1, you don’t know if it’s a cutscene, all you know is that you are mashing every button you can and nothing is affecting this guy. As Egoraptor says, this promotes a feeling of helplessness by putting you right in the thick of things. There’s no deep explanation of “This is the evil bad guy for the whole game”, it’s visceral, that feeling of helpless frustration is integral to the game and gets across the message that this guy is too powerful to take on right now. Just when you’re about to cry (okay, maybe not that bad), Zero swoops in and saves you. To paraphrase Egoraptor again, this gives you everything you need to know about the game: you can’t beat this bad guy now, but someday you will be powerful enough to beat him. This sets the theme of the ENTIRE GAME: everything has to do with making Megaman X stronger. Beat the game by killing the bad guy. Kill the bad guy by being stronger. Be stronger by being more like Zero. Bam! There’s your entire game theme.
Don’t believe me? Think about how much better that whole fight scene in Deus Ex had been if it was like this animation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N9Zq-_9Er8
Whew this has turned into a long post.
Let me sum up.
Deus Ex lost my interest for three reasons:
- I was not involved in the character, location, or story,
- The game force-fed me how to play itself, spoiling upcoming surprises whist doing so,
- And I was not involved in the character, location, or story
Like Yahtzee says, these aren’t complete dealbreakers. There are worse games out there. Trouble is, there are much better games out there.
So, after that cutscene (2 whole minutes of opening credits again), I saved my game, turned off Deus Ex, and went to play Terraria with my friends. Terraria is also $10 to buy, and I’ve already spent an obscene 25 hours playing it, getting far more than my money’s worth compared to Deus Ex.