The most irrelevant plot twist ever.

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution has the mixed honor of being one of those games whose virtues outweigh its faults.  Despite some questionable pacing, overpowered abilities (cloak), useless abilities (more energy cells), and very ‘video game-y’ narrative elements, the experience feels right. Stealth is both challenging and transparent, the themes of human augmentation are interesting, and the persuasion dialogues make you feel like you’re talking to a real human being. It works.

What I find particularly interesting is the sheer confidence with which the game presents its setting and the issues surrounding it. Detroit, despite being only a few street blocks of explorable space, is a wonderful fit to the issues of human augmentation. One one end, we have the image of an industrial city, once crippled by the collapse of its automotive economy, reborn by the efforts of an idealist entrepreneur; the metaphor of revitalizing the city mirrors Sarif’s dream of revitalizing humanity itself. On the other end, the streets and alleys of Detroit are filled with the evidence of its death: gangs, homeless, and people forced into unemployment by a system that treats the unaugmented as lesser beings.

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It became clear, walking through the city and hearing its people talk, that the developers of Human Revolution truly knew what they wanted to make their game about. It wasn’t just about the story of Deus Ex – it was about the story of our own society and what kind of road lies ahead for us in the future. The game’s epilogues made this abundantly clear, breaking the fourth wall of the game engine’s digital representations and displaying a mosaic of images, photographs, video from our own world. Human Revolution takes the dirt and urban sprawl of Cyberpunk and asks its own question about where we, as a society, may be headed.

And then, there is the other story. You know, the one about conspiracies and the Illuminati and a dastardly plot to control the world. And that’s fine. I enjoy a good ol’ dastardly plot to control the world, but the results here are decidedly mixed. Half the story seen by our protagonist, Adam Jensen, works just fine, but is much less interesting than everything else that surrounds it; it’s a trail of breadcrumbs marking the path where you’ll see some very nice sights independent of that trail of crumbs. The other half relies on tired clichés we’ve all seen over and over and over again because, y’know, videogames.

Which brings us to the most irrelevant plot twist ever. Late in the game, Adam infiltrates a secret base in Singapore to rescue his ex-girlfriend, Megan Reed, from the hands of those who captured her many months prior. Finding Megan is important to the future of Sarif Industries because only she and her team (also kidnapped) have the secrets that will free augmentation technology from the expensive but necessary crutch of the drug Neuropozene. Their research can both grant a more independent life for augmented people and insure the future of Sarif Industries.

And when Adam finally reaches Megan, she tells him the shocking truth: the entirety of her research is based on Adam’s genetic code. Adam Jensen is the progenitor for the future of the augmented population.

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Now, even if you didn’t deduce this fact from the very first mention of “Patient X” in the first three minutes of the game, this revelation has a problem: it doesn’t matter. It has no impact on the story. It is the most irrelevant plot twist ever.

Adam Jensen is a character of the present. He barely survives an attack. He becomes an augmented man. He uncovers a conspiracy. He is defined by what he does. The history he has with Megan and SWAT flesh out his character, but these elements of his past have no bearing on either the big social questions of augmentation or the story of a shadowy organization trying to exert control over the population of augments. The knowledge of his true origins from White Helix Labs and the nature of his DNA doesn’t change Adam as a character, nor does it impact events in the future; it is a conspiracy isolated from the other conspiracies. Remove this piece of information, and the story doesn’t change. Adam doesn’t change. It has no function.

I suspect that this plot element exists for a sole reason: to call back to the original Deus Ex. While most games simply need to be good, Human Revolution sat in an uncomfortable position. It couldn’t just be good: it had to be worthy of the name Deus Ex. And it is. But the worst parts are when the game shoehorns in these callback elements from the first game, rather than having them support the design. Deus Ex had an AI? Human Revolution has an AI. Deus Ex had a protagonist “J.C.” who functions as a messianic savior to modern society? Human Revolution has a protagonist “Adam” who functions (not really) as forefather to a new form of augmented humanity. The parallels are there, but their purpose is lost.

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Conversation Fail

Potential Spoilers for The Witcher 2

Geralt of Rivia is being questioned down in the dungeons.  His interrogator believes that Geralt may be, as he claims, innocent of a serious murder, and offers him an opportunity to catch the real culprit.  Normally, our Witcher protagonist would jump at the chance to clear his name – but not this time.  This time, whenever a dialog choice appears, I choose the most belligerent, uncooperative option.  You know, just to see what happens.  What could be the harm?

Before long, the game gives me this choice:

Attack?  Hell yes!  Geralt charges back, fists flying, beating down his interrogator…and gets shot in the back by a soldier’s crossbow.  He falls to the ground, bloody and still.  The screen fades to black.  Game Over.

This.

Is.

Awesome.

Clearly, attacking the interrogator is a Bad Idea.  Geralt is a prisoner in a dungeon filled with hostile soldiers, he knows there is a guard within hearing on the other side of the door, he’s unarmed, unarmored, and the man in front of him has more or less admitted to wanting to help him escape.

And yet, the game allows me this obviously bad choice, one whose only result is death.  I imagine the developers of The Witcher 2 scolding reckless players, “Hey. Pay attention. We put a lot of effort into this game, so take it seriously.”

But really, the reason I love this option is that it defies the notion that dialogue options are defined by their results.

As I’ve written before, the typical RPG dialogue choice is one where you choose a consequence, as opposed to an action.  Choose to persuade, and you will persuade.  Choose to kill a character, and the target will die.  You know exactly what will happen before you even click your mouse.

Now, I’m not opposed to having results match the chosen action.  After all, we are playing a game, and frustrating player desire too often is simply not fun.  Most of the great choices in RPGs are about deciding outcomes, and serve as either a chance to shape the world to your liking or as a moral barometer for difficult situations.

But at the same time, I’m a little tired of the notion that my player character is the ultimate superman who can never fail.  It bugs me that, every time I see that [PERSUADE] icon, I never have to think about the content of the choice or whether the person I’m talking to is the receptive sort, or any number of other factors that come into play when dealing with real people.  No matter what, the choice is instant success.  My RPG adventures are populated by weak-willed, easily-manipulated, easily-killed humanoid approximations.  They cower before my awesomeness.

Please, RPG developers, give me a conversation where I can make a mistake; even if you never let me stumble for the rest of the game, that one instance will keep me on my toes.  Let me believe that I’m part of living world, full of a plethora of different people with different motivations.  Let me think about how I want to interact with the world, not just how I want the world to interact with me.

Don’t be afraid to let me get myself killed.  I’ll thank you for it later.

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Imports/Exports

Potential spoilers for Mass Effect and Witcher series

For gamers like me, there’s a certain appeal in games with an import feature; to carry a character you’ve come to feel some kinship with into a new adventure, to see the results of your actions from the previous one.  Developers certainly see the appeal, as more and more titles are allowing us to carry over characters from one game into its anticipated sequel(s).  And while import functionality is not exactly new (the Ultima series was doing this back in the late ‘80s), it has a lot more potential in an era where digital storage space is no longer an issue.

And yet, I just haven’t been satisfied with the way it’s been handled. Maybe I expect too much, but so far, there’s always been something in the imported save that doesn’t sit right.  The results are either big, gaping inconsistencies or a lack of consequences that reduces the saved data into a file of trivialities.

Take Mass Effect 2, a game with the unhappy burden of dozens and dozens of binary choices to account for.  The solution to this wide array of possibilities is to reduce the number of factors that actually have some tangible effect – and while it makes sense that not every action you take will have significant consequences, at some point I began to wonder if all these people I helped from the first game had anything better to do than send me email messages.

Despite my complaints, she is one cool character.

On Illium, I ran into Gianna Parasini, an acquaintance from Mass Effect‘s world of Noveria.  She recognized me, quipped about how I didn’t help her out all those years ago…and then asked me to help her out.  What was the point of my choice again?  Shouldn’t I be expecting some real consequences, and not just flavor text?

I’m not expecting every choice to change the fate of the galaxy.  I’m not looking for wildly divergent paths based on past choices.  But while there are a few real interesting consequences (the Rachni resolution, in particular, works well because the result is both flavor text and a dissemination of new, interesting information), most choices make me feel like everything I did in the first game had no point – and not in the in-character dramatically fatalistic way.

The most disappointing choice, by far, was probably the biggest and far-reaching one: whether to save or doom the council.  The fate of the ruling governing body was in your hands, and yet, no matter what you do, the result in the sequel is the same: whoever is on the council refuses to help you out. End of story.  And while this could work as a commentary on the fickle nature of politicians, the way it’s presented makes it feel like a cheap cop-out.

I harp a lot on Mass Effect 2, but other games fare little better.  The Witcher 2 uses an import feature, yet almost none of your import data make a dent in the story.  There are some references here and there to whether you saved a character or sided with one group over another, but in the end, it’s just an after-the-fact sidebar.

Now, I could overlook most of this: after all, almost all the events of the first game took place in the city of Vizima, a locale that you don’t see once in its sequel. It makes sense that the fate of a single brothel in Temeria wouldn’t have an effect on any person in the whole Pontar Valley.

And yet, the game commits the great sin of ignoring one of the most potentially important characters from the first game.  Did you start a serious romance with her?  Forget it!  It’s been thrown out the window, replaced in the sequel’s first scenes by ‘canon’ (sexy canon, but canon nonetheless).

Why did you give us an import option again? Oh, right: that sword I got in the first game.  That was somewhat useful.

Maybe I’m expecting too much from game developers, but the way I see it, if you decide to feature imported saves, you should take the time to make the imported data matter.

What do you think?  Is flavor text enough?

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