As I sit down to write about my expectations for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I instead find myself gaping at the shopping-list-length genre of the game: Action, stealth, fps, role-playing game (okay, so my shopping lists are kind of short). If genres are supposed to provide some up-front information about the game, what should I be expecting from Deus Ex? Repeated emphasis in reviews on open-ended gameplay and choices (and a similar focus in past games of the series, a long time ago though they may be) leads me to the interpretation that Deus Ex doesn’t necessarily strive to be all these things at once, but instead has the capacity to be whichever the player chooses as they play. In fact, it’s the presence and implementation of choice in a game that I want to talk about. Unfortunately, that on its own is a heck of a long topic, so here I’m going to focus on one type of choice: the implicit choices a player makes while playing (as opposed to the more explicit narrative choices of which some games are fond).
Here’s the rub: we make choices all the time in games, whether it seems like it or not. This may or may not be news to you, my educated reader, so I’ll illustrate with a quick example and get on with it. How many choices do you make if you play Super Marios Bros. (yes, the old NES game)? Let’s bolt past the possibly controversial ‘whether to play or not’ choice and assume you’re already playing. Do you jump on all the enemies? Do you try to get to the end as fast as you can? Do you get every power up? Do you hit every block? Do you in fact try to stylishly accomplish as many of these things as you can without sacrificing the others? Or do you enjoy watching Mario run straight into the most horrible thing you can find as you laugh evilly – who said you were definitely playing to ‘win’? Let me remind you that this is an old, pretty simple game with just running, jumping and the occasional fireball under the player’s control. So we can (probably) agree that there are plenty of choices regarding how you play a game, tempered by in-game incentives (like a timer and point rewards). Many of these choices can be described as contributing to how the player plays the game.
For fans of flashy action games, the Devil May Cry series and Bayonetta are some of the best games for showing awareness of these gameplay style choices (or so I’m told — I have yet to pick one up, but am waiting with bated breath on DmC and Bayonetta 2). The games are not just about winning, they are about winning with style — and not just the designers’ idea of style, yours. Many different weapons and associated combat options provide a large space of gameplay choices (with few being ‘wrong’), and the quest for the stylish win is encouraged through the grading of personal performance on qualities other than just ‘mission success’. Nothing gets a gamer to sit up and pay attention like grades. Before I get too carried away, though, this is a far deeper topic than I’ve got time for here (I’ve got one friend who would happily do an entire PhD thesis on the subject), so let’s get back on track.
With all these choices in gameplay and play styles, is it any surprise then that there are games which try to let the player choose even the genre of game they are playing through the medium of these choices? I’m looking forward to Deus Ex trying to do exactly this. For any of you keeping track out there, I don’t really get into games which have me mindlessly going around shooting and exploding stuff (with the possible exceptions of Gears of War and Borderlands, but I’ll leave those for their own posts), so if I can get through a game avoiding danger and puzzling my way through instead of blasting through it, that’s what I’m going to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against awesome explosions and great shoot-em-up action, and I’m not trying to be some kind of cerebral gaming snob, it’s just not my first choice of game. Naturally I’m more likely to consider a stealth game than the average FPS, but if I can pick up the same game as the guy who grabs every FPS he can get his hands on, and we can both play it the way we enjoy it, all the better. And this is just the first distinction explicitly suggested by the genre list on Deus Ex – maybe you can play the entire game roleplaying a squeamish super-techy hacker (okay, probably not, but something like it). Maybe you can do your best Arnie impression and Terminate the opposition (I already know you can smash through walls, for example).
The ability to play the game your way without the experience getting fragmented or losing identity has become important to me recently, as I’ve had in my mind and on paper a game design that does almost exactly this – let the player choose up front what kind of game they’re going to play. Keep your eyes on the blog and you’ll see more details on that project come to light in the future, but in the meantime, let’s stick to Deus Ex. Hopefully the story, goals and overall feel of Deus Ex will keep the whole thing solidly in one piece, even as I glide invisibly past the guys that you blow-dart into blissful sleep.
In brief, brutal shorthand, there are choices players implicitly make about how they play a game, whether they realise it or not. As long as the game designers have the time and resources to give the player flexibility while maintaining the identity of the game, letting the player express themselves and tweak their experience through gameplay choices is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It’s not easy, and it’s a sign of game designers who are really aware of their game and their audience, but I’ve got my eye on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the folks at Eidos Montreal as favourites for pulling it off. There’s a lot of content here to mull over (and far more out on the web and in game design studios and conferences), and I’m looking forward to hearing what you think in the comments down below. Do you have some personal favorite games that really let you choose the way you play the game well? How about some games that could do better? Do you agree, disagree, or something-in-between (but as a verb) with everything I’ve said up above? What’s your personal style in games, and how aware of it do you feel? Let the discussion commence!
(and then you can head straight over to WILA Deus Ex Part I)