In a shed just off my mom’s driveway, alongside a wood chipper, a lawn mower, more shovels than any normal human would require (maybe the wood chipper and shovels go together, I don’t know), and a shelf-full of ancient motor oil, rests a second-generation graphite iMac. Its been with me since 2000 –– from Boston to home and back again –– ever since my torrid affair with a Gateway laptop came climaxed in a plethora of profanity and blue screen rages.
During that summer of 2000, with the graphite iMac my trusted computing companion, I discovered a game unlike anything else I had experienced: DEUS EX, a first-person shooter / RPG hybrid in which you unravel a global conspiracy in the not-too-distant future as augmented (meaning you can do really cool stuff) UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition) agent J.C. Denton.
When it comes to noughty (those most active or relapsed in the first decade of the 21st century) gamers I believe there are two camps. Those who will stand on the DEUS EX side of the line, and those who will stand on the HALO side of the line. Both are gargantuan feats of video game storytelling that push the limits of what a video game is.
I love you HALO, but while you were an astonishing feat of first-person awesomeness that filled my early years in Boston with neighborly camaraderie over XBox and Dominos pizza, DEUS EX was a storytelling evolution that offered something far beyond HALO’s amazing graphics, far-reaching mythological underpinnings, and fun as fuck gameplay: choice.
You have the choice as the protagonist: go as deep as you wanted into the augmented dystopia of DEUS EX –– dig deeper into the lives and emailed minutae of Paul Denton, Bob Page, Walter Simmons, Nicolette DuClare,Tracer Tong, or Joseph Manderley to uncover all of the plots, motivations, double crosses and plans for world domination. Alternatively, you could go as shallow, blasting away terrorists and “the man” with equal aplomb. Deus Ex was a lengthy game, begging you to sink more hours in as you uncovered everything; it sucked you in, bit by bit, a sandbox of playability as much as a sandbox of world. It was a game that was decisively “of” the medium in which it was created.
Twelve years [edit: thirteen years] later, my favorite level in DEUS EX remains J.C. Denton’s Daedalus-aided breakout from the underground UNATCO prison. Upon learning of his brother’s defection to the NSF and his motivations for the action, Denton turned against his previous employers and became a wanted man. Hunted down and thrown in prison underneath the UNATCO headquarters, Denton eventually broke free and escaped through the very halls where he received mission orders not three missions before. I think it’s that very transformation of location by purpose that appeals to me; in earlier missions, the UNATCO building was a home base, a place to begin a job among colleagues. In the breakout mission, that same map was transformed into a do-or-die death trap where motivations were turned on their head, dark secrets were revealed, and I had the opportunity to blast away my former boss with a rocket launcher. I’m clearly not the corporate type.
The game was about rebellion, about rising up and becoming more than you knew you were capable of being. It’s that undercurrent that no doubt contributes to my love of the game. I’m a firm believer that stories that stick with us are ones that come to us at times in our lives when they strike an emotional core. In 1998, I had a seizure while playing video games. Never had one before, never had one after. But from the fear of death imbued in me by the medical incompetents sticking needles in my arm for two years, I abstained from playing video games. I was forbidden. When I purchased DEUS EX with my money earned from making pizza and spinach pies two years later, it was my way of saying, “I’m back and I’ve woken up.”
Though I’ve stayed awake in the twelve [edit: again, thirteen] years since, the graphite iMac still rests in the shed, a reminder of the fun I’ve had, of the story experience that contributed to my growth and fascinations as a storyteller, and of the personal experience that reawakened me to the brilliance of the video game medium.