Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Replaying Deus Ex 2: Invisible War - Meaningful Choices

(Originally written on July 15, 201)

DE2 is much more focused then I remembered. It tells a story that goes beyond the conspiracy thriller of the first, and tries to ask some serious questions about government and political freedom. But where in the original you felt your choices were meaningful, DE2 devalues your choices with each new revelation.

The turning point: A microcosm of the politics withing the world of DE2 is the war between two rival coffee chains. In almost every city you visit in the game you will find them, Pequods and QueeQuegs. And you have plenty of opportunities to support one or the other through sabotage, bribery and espionage as they compete over location, sponsorship and prices. Pequods is the respected brand which enjoys the patronship of the well-to-do, while QueeQuegs is the coffee of the lower classes.
And then, toward the end of the game you discover the truth. Both are owned by the same company. The competition between them is artificial and the people who struggle against each other never know that they serve the same master.
It's a cruel revelation for the player as well. Because now the choices he made, to help one rather then the other have become empty and meaningless. Both are the same, despite their pretenses, and no matter who you supported, the same entity prospered regardless.

A similar thing happens in the main storyline:
The game asks you to side with one of three factions. Apostlecorp, WTO or The Church of the Order. The WTO is a political organization that tries to unify the various city-states who survived the first game. While the Church unites all the world's religions into one and opposes the WTO attempts to form a unified goverment. The struggle between the two colors the game and the question of a centralized power vs autonomous states is one that pops up time and time again. Apostlecorp is a conspiracy which seeks neither, opting instead to create a new type of government through the modification of the human race.

The revelation comes when you discover that the same people created and lead both the Church and the WTO, trying to forge a global political organization that allows the illusion of freedom while preserving social and political order. The WTO representing the martial centralization of power, in the form of government, army and law. While the Church represents the centralization of social power, in the form of belief and ideology.
Discovering that both sides are the hands of the same entity, again devalues your choices. Throughout the game you helped one faction or the other and fought against material and ideological temptations, as each side tried to sway you. Now your choices, whatever they where, are meaningless.

It's a fascinating concept that manages to send a strong political message, but fails as a gaming experience. The game leads you to believe you are an important part of the story, that your actions change the world. And then, robs you of that promise. Your actions still change the story, but the impact you were supposed to have had on the world has become negligible. It's like struggling to win a rope-pulling competition, only to discover the to ends of the rope are tied together. As a gamer, there is something immensely frustrating about this revelation.

I wonder how I would have designed the game. Whether it is possible to deliver the same message, without devaluing the player's choice.

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