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Some years ago, legendary game designer Warren Spector laid out his commandments for making a good RPG. Spector devised them while starting in on the development of Deus Ex, which would go on to become known as one of the best RPGs ever made.
All of Spector's rules are worth reading, but there's one in particular that stands out to me. "There should always be more than one way to get past a game obstacle. Always," he wrote. "Whether prep-lanned (weak!), or natural, growing out of the interaction of player abilities and simulation (better!) never say the words, 'This is where the player does X' about a mission or situation within a mission."
That was perhaps the defining trait of Deus Ex, which helped to define an RPG subgenre that would later give rise to everything from Vampire: The Masquerade to Mass Effect. Ultimately, you always had a choice. From the moment you chose between the sniper rifle, the GEP gun, and the mini-crossbow, to the moment that you decided whether or not you wanted to blow up the train station in a hostage situation (note: I wouldn't recommend this situation). Deus Ex set a new standard for open-ended design when it launched in 2000.
Deus Ex's was the culmination of an extended Golden Age for PC gaming in the mid-to-late 90s, and for RPGs in general. Its progenitors were classics like Ultima Underworld, Thief: The Dark Project, and System Shock—incredible games that utilized open-ended design and creative audio work to introduce new types of gameplay. Its contemporaries included the likes of Baldur's Gate 2 and Fallout 2.
It was a period in which PC gaming was evolving at an incredible rate. In 1993, Doom popularized the first-person shooter and changed games forever. Just seven years later, Deus Ex appeared on the scene to provide a shockingly advanced gameplay experience that still holds up today. For reference, think about the difference between Dark Souls and Skyrim, which came out seven years ago, and Doom and Deus Ex. The gulf between the two was incredible.
Most players weren't prepared for the type of experience that Deus Ex had to offer when it was first released. While games like Half-Life hinted at more advanced games to come, first-person shooters were still largely built around arcade-like experiences. Quake and Unreal Tournament were the norm. But in Deus Ex, running in and opening fire almost invariably got you killed immediately. A new approach had to be taken.
Coming on the heels of Thief and Metal Gear Solid, Deus Ex was one of several games to help popularize the stealth genre, which was new and novel at the time. While still largely smoke and mirrors, stealth did lead to more nuanced and interesting gameplay. More importantly, it forced you to consider how to approach a given situation: stealth, or guns blazing?
To broaden those choices, Deus Ex gave you all sorts of useful tools. It was one of the first games to feature a tranquilizer gun, putting it ahead of Metal Gear Solid 2, which was still roughly a year away at the time. You could hack systems. If you were willing to take some time to explore, you could almost always find a backdoor of some sort, which was another one of Spector's basic design tenets. It was a rich and nuanced approach to gameplay that many games struggle to match today.
All of this was wrapped in a story that, while very late 1990s/2000s, still feel prescient in some respects. Like Deus Ex's protagonist, JC Denton, we are not so far away from cybernetic augmentation ourselves. The main villain, Bob Page, is a cartoonishly evil billionaire, but nevertheless wouldn't seem that out of place in your typical Silicon Valley boardroom. Look out on the horizon, and you'll see that the Twin Towers are missing. It's pure coincidence—there wasn't enough memory to include them—but eerie nevertheless, especially when you consider that the official in-game reason was that they were destroyed in a terrorist attack.
Are we heading toward Deus Ex's vision of a dystopian future? Well, maybe not. After all, in the world of Deus Ex, the conspiracies surrounding the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and the aliens from Area 51 are all very real. But its visions of a world ridden with secret societies also can't help bringing to mind the fever dreams of Alex Jones. Whether it was intended or not, Deus Ex's future recalls our own increasingly crapsack world in more ways than one, Matrix-like fashion sense notwithstanding (gotta love Denton's response to the question of why he always wears sunglasses at night: "My vision is augmented." Alright, buddy).
Cheesy as it can be at times, Deus Ex's rambling monologues are part of it lasting appeal. It speaks to the rapid maturation that the medium was undergoing in the late 1990s. And ultimately, it raises issues worth discussing about the wealth gap, privacy, and cybernetic augmentation.
Putting aside all that, though, Deus Ex is just a damn cool game to play. Spector and his team were given carte blanche to make their dream game, and they responded by making a massive globetrotting adventure with a huge number of options. And remarkably, it didn't suck. Its open-ended design was revelatory in 2000, and dated as its graphics may be, it still largely holds up today. In particular, its audio design is some of the best ever. The first moment the evil A.I. Icarus appears unbidden and intones, "I now have full access to your systems," is one of the most chilling moments in gaming history. And it had a kicking soundtrack to boot.
Deus Ex has since given rise to multiple sequels, including the well-regarded Deus Ex: Human Revolution. But while the follow-ups are very good on their own, they can't quite match the scope of the original. It will forever be known as Warren Spector's greatest work, and it certainly deserves to be counted among the best RPGs ever.