I didn’t play video games when Deus Ex (the original) was released. I have, since then, acquired a copy of the game and played part of it. To be honest, it’s a bit dated, but still cool. Considering that it’s direct sequel was not received as well and that it’s been 11 years since the release of Deus Ex, the new prequel: Deus Ex: Human Revolution has been anticipated by fans for some considerable time. Luckily, it didn’t suffer the fate Duke Nukem… possibly largely due to the fact that it hasn’t been under constant development and revision for the intervening eleven years.
As I said earlier, Rock Paper Shotgun has run a number of articles including “I am not Adam Jensen” in which the author discusses the fact that his own motivations are quite different from the avatar in the game. Many role playing games (both on the computer and in other genres) allow you a high or even extreme degree of avatar construction such that your avatar is a reflection, if not of your own character, of the character you wish to play. Games like Oblivion and Dragon Age give you endless customizations of how you look, your backstory, your race, and what skills you have.
Other games give you customization of the avatar within boundaries. Some, like Mass Effect, allow you to choose from a few backgrounds and even choose the sex of your character. Then some others allow you to choose from a set of predefined characters with little or no changes like Torchlight, Dungeon Siege III and Left 4 Dead.
Then there is Deus Ex: Human Revolution. One character. One Look. One Sex. One Story. To be fair, I can’t imagine too much flexibility here (sure, he could look different or be lesbian (to explain “her” girlfriend)), but “Adam” Jensen (even the name is fixed) has a pretty messed up life and that messed up life informs much of the game’s story. This fact is also core to my thesis: that I am not Adam Jensen, either.
It’s worth considering that I don’t tend play characters that mirror myself in games where I have a large degree of freedom to design the character. I am neither a mage nor do I possess the ability to jump or run great distances (thinking specifically of my Obilivion character). I’m not even completely sure that there exists facets of myself in the roles I play in games: I ‘m fully capable of playing a character by role playing what that character would choose given the situations presented in the game.
But the jist of the “I am not Adam Jensen” article goes somewhat further; implying that the Deus Ex player character and the incentives of the game are at odds with each other and that many gamers (especially those that suffer a certain amount of completionist tendencies) will be guiding the player character of Adam Jenson to do very un-Adam Jenson like things.
An easy example would be hacking computers. There are times when hacking computers give you access to areas or items that you might not otherwise. There are also times when hacking computers can change the nature of a battle or confrontation that allows Adam Jensons that specialize in hacking to require less (or no) actual combat. This is the advertised feature of the game that allows the player to approach situations differently and with a range of player character skills.
But hacking computers gives, on every successful hack, experience points. To the completionist, this can drive the player to not only hack every terminal that is encountered (even those within your own base of operations and even your own terminal and even those for which you have received the password by other means), but also to hack a lock in addition to the computer controlling a lock — completely redundant actions that net more experience points.
Another example is that there are points in the game where you are genuinely given a sense of urgency by the actions and voice acting of the other characters. “Hurry on your mission as people will surely die if you are too tardy.” Experienced players of role playing games will immediately see where I’m going here. Very few sequences, especially sequences of any complexity, are ever time constrained by modern games. Generally, although the sense of urgency is given, the events in question will not trigger until the player character is in the right position to witness the events. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that the timed sequences can be difficult and frustrating but also because it is difficult to communicate “naturally” to the player that there is a timeout and what the timeout is.
Regardless, during these “urgent” portions of the game the player is often dragging the player character through a number of “side missions” … missions that give experience, but have no importance to the plot. In fact, many of these missions in Deus Ex would seem rather below the threshold of consideration during such a sense of urgency.
A specific example from Deus Ex would be the side quest “Rotten Business” in which a prostitute near where you land in China tells you her friend (another prostitute) has gone missing. Deus Ex is not as bad as some games … sending you out on endless errands that are meaningless … most of the side quests have time tie to the story or to the characters to which you are becoming attached if you are enjoying the game, but in bringing down a global conspiracy that could potentially oppress millions of people and change the course of history and when you are seemingly the only person in a position to do so, achieving the side quest is definitely in the interests of the player and not the player character.
When I am designing my own character, I can safely argue that he is obsessed with collecting things or even achieving each advance in his skill, but Deus Ex deliberately gives you a player character that has this situation thrust upon him such that even his “augmentations” (that which the experience points augment) are things that he clearly may not want … or at best is ambivalent about.
So it strikes me that the player (or at least I, myself) is at best messing with the player character instead of strictly role playing it. That is: I could strictly role play Adam Jensen, but my interests in the game and, indeed, most players interest in the game is actually at cross purposes with the goals of Adam Jensen. Further, this cross purpose is part of the core game design itself.
Gaming itself is a very young medium. I’m fairly confident that the creators and more specifically the writers of Deus Ex were scheming to create a great game — one that is fun to play. In that part they have succeeded, or at least mostly succeeded. But there is a subtle disconnect between the gameplay in the story — where one encourages finding every collectible and hacking every computer and the other involves a deeply troubled and imperfect protagonist that is pushed throughout the story to it’s inevitable conclusion.