Games aren’t meant to be fun, right? We’re past that. These days they’re designed to be satisfying, and playing Deus Ex satisfies some of my deepest, darkest needs. I need to be fast. I need to be efficient. I need to ferret out every secret, and eliminate every obstacle.
I need to be perfect.
My Adam Jensen stalks through the streets of Hengsha like a fucking panther, silently scaling fire escapes and pouncing on unsuspecting rent-a-cops by the dozen. It feels good. So good that I can’t imagine playing Deus Ex any other way than with one finger always hovering over F5, compulsively quicksaving every few minutes so I can instantly restart when I slip up and get spotted. If I need to vent a little frustration I just murder someone, hit F9 and try again. I never have to live with the consequences of my actions unless I want to.
Braid touched on this phenomenon briefly, alluding to a perfect world in which young lovers with the power to reverse time could share the perfect relationship. A man with the power to save and reload might safely learn his lesson from every mistake without consequence, safely concealing his greatest failures in the folds of time. It sounds nice, if hopelessly optimistic; I can’t help but feel that time travel will turn everyone into sociopaths.
That’s because I play Deus Ex with such an intense need to be perfect it’s almost pathological, and as long as I can hide that part of myself in a game it’s a good thing. The best thing, really, to be playing a game about what it means to be human and trying to do it perfectly.
Deus Ex brings out the optimist in me: I can accomplish my mission without engaging anyone; I can knock out every enemy, sneak past every sentry and save every hooker with a heart of gold. In my Deus Ex the meek will always be saved, and justice will always be served. It’s the lighter side of perfectionism, what some call optimalism.
How appropriate then, that optimalism is such an integral part of the transhuman philosophy which permeates Deus Ex. The fantastic work of fictional character Hugh Darrow is predicated on the belief that humanity can be better, and the game reinforces this message with gameplay systems that reward the player who does no evil. Ammunition for lethal weapons like the heavy rifle and Typhoon augmentation is always scarce, but it’s possible to perform as many nonlethal takedowns as your little biomechanical heart desires. Sure you could just as easily drop fools in a more permanent fashion with a handblade to the face, but a lethal takedown has no gameplay benefit over a nonlethal one; in fact they’re actually louder, increasing your chances of being detected and triggering an alarm. And triggering an alarm will lock you out of some hefty experience point bonuses at the end of a mission, a penalty that subtly encourages the player to complete objectives without engaging anyone. Take a nonlethal approach and Deus Ex showers you with cash, experience and a few extra lines of dialogue teased out by playing the game with a silver tongue instead of a twitchy trigger finger.
The game can afford to reward perfect play because we as players can choose whether or not to face the consequences of our actions. It’s a great example of a game conveying a message through both narrative and gameplay, and it’s the perfect playground to let my perfectionist tendencies run free without having to worry about the consequences. When I was younger, playing the original Deus Ex helped me cope with the stress of moving to a new school and the growing discord in my home as my parents grew apart. It became a safe space, one that allowed me some modicum of power and control during a time when I often felt weak and powerless and pitifully human. As JC Denton, I could be better than human. I could be perfect.
Human Revolution came out more than a decade after the original Deus Ex, and it’s an altogether stronger and better game that still exhibits some of the weaknesses (bad AI, scripted boss fights, shitty acting) of it’s predecessor. I’ve changed too, become stronger and smarter, but I still struggle with some of the same issues that plagued my younger self. Playing Human Revolution has made me realize that, but it also reminds me that I can be better. I can save the hostage without killing Zeke. I can complete the game without killing anyone. I can succeed in my work without ignoring friends and family. I can be happy without being perfect.