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rhalibus
29th Jan 2008, 09:37
How to preserve the "heart" of Deus Ex

About halfway through the first time I played through the original Deus Ex, I slowly came to the realization that I was playing one of the greatest games ever created. Since then I've played a lot of great games, some very exciting (Rainbow Six series) some involving (SS2, KOTOR, Bioshock), some moving (The Longest Journey and Dreamfall)--but no game has ever come close to the immersive feeling I got from Deus Ex: the sense that I was actually there--not playing a game, trying to anticipate the designers' wishes--but acting in a real world where I could do anything. I had dreams about levels in the game--I got bathyphobia (fear of deep water) in one level and claustrophobia in another. Truly one of the most immersive entertainment experiences of my life.

Why couldn't more games be this way? What quality in Deus Ex was so unique that it evaded replication in every other game, even the ones that tried to replicate it (STALKER, Bioshock, Oblivion)? Certainly it wasn't the graphics.

I thought about this a lot, and I now believe I have a good idea about the "heart" of Deus Ex. I know this is a bit long, but please just bear with me for a bit...

There approximately seven "things" a person can remember at once; this is one of the reasons telephone numbers are grouped by no more than seven digits. Our mind counts "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, many"--so anything more than seven can be thought of as an un-trackable amount of numbers, i.e., more than can be comprehended at once.

When the number of perceived ways to accomplish a goal exceeds this number, a psychological effect occurs in the player: Since there are too many options to remember all at once, the player perceives the game has having not just "many" options but an _infinite_ number of options--since an infinite number and an unmanageable number are, in a sense, the same.

By "options", we mean completely _disjoint_ categories of solutions: fighting (NPCs), evading (NPCs, cameras, beams), conversing (NPCs), buying (information, tools), manipulating (cameras, machinery, terminals, switches), navigating (levels, obstacles), opening (doors, containers), unlocking (doors, containers), damaging (doors, containers, machinery, objects), discovering (secret passages, switches), reading (books, newspapers, email). Sub-categories of each solution (weapon choice, path choice) are not counted.

It is when a player perceives an _infinite_ amount of options that true _immersion_ happens. This immersion will override any graphical or aural limitations of the game; the player will start to perceive the world as _real_ and start to think of not what the game's solution is supposed to be, but which choice the player would make _in a real world_ to find a solution. Suddenly the player may start to dream about places he has visited; they might also experience vertigo, claustrophobia, or bathyphobia depending on their situation.

This is the heart of Deus Ex. A few games have many finite solutions, i.e. "sandbox" games; Deus Ex takes this idea further and succeeds in creating an immersive world.

What does this require? Simply an environment that supports this idea. To include all the options, the environment should be large, dynamic, reactive, and detailed, with consistent rules. Graphics should take a _secondary_ role and should never be chosen over variety--much like World of Warcraft chose simple geometry and textures to allow more objects and texture variety. Didn't seem to hurt their bottom line much. :-)

One of the most difficult things for a developer to do is to create a level, event, or situation that they know the player may never find. Developers _want_ the player to see their levels, and find their solutions. I believe it is an act of nobility when the developer gives this choice to the player instead of making the player figure out how the developer wanted the game to be played.

Keep in mind this goal can be accomplished _without_ allowing the player to choose any moral alignment (KOTOR, Fable), or faction to join (Bloodlines), or even clothing (WOW). It doesn't hurt, but it can't cause the developers to sacrifice their fundamental goal--a perceived infinite number of disjoint choices to reach each narrative focal point. It is better to present the player with a single character in an immersive world than present them with a choice of characters in a limited one; many developers make mistake "customization" for true freedom.

From what I have seen from my experiences with earlier projects "Project: Snowblind" and "Tomb Raider: Legend", I believe the Crystal Dynamics Engine _is_ capable of creating this environment. Obviously it takes a lot of work to develop and QA a game with this goal: Deus Ex took over a year just to test. It is up to the current keepers of the Deus Ex flame to decide if this will be their goal.

I have faith in the developers at Eidos Montreal that they will use the new Crystal Dynamics Engine with this goal--but then again, I'm one of those optimistic Americans. :-)

Good luck to everyone at Eidos Montreal.

--rhalibus

NOTES:

A "narrative focal point" is a point in the game that the player must come to _regardless_ of the path they took to get there; e.g. boss fight, plot twist, essential location, etc. For example, the player in Deus Ex is _always_ captured and must _always_ escape from UNATCO.

Different Game Narrative Structures:

"Shooter" Structure: Linear path through narrative focal points
(Quake series, Half-Life series)
-Limited player choice of strategy (includes some of the following: fight, evade, damage, converse)

"RPG" Structure: Linear path through narrative focal points, with loops at each focal point
(KOTOR series, Oblivion, Mass Effect)
-Occasional player choice of strategy (includes some of the following: fight, evade, converse, buy, unlock, damage)

"Sandbox" Structure: Multiple paths through narrative focal points, with loops at each focal point
(Bioshock, Deus Ex 2, Crysis, STALKER)
-Persistent but limited player choice of strategy (includes some of the following: fight, evade, converse, buy, manipulate, navigate, unlock, damage)

"Deus Ex" Structure: Perception of Infinite paths through narrative focal points, with loops at each focal point
(Deus Ex)
-Persistent and extensive player choice of strategy (includes all of the following: fight, evade, converse, buy, manipulate, navigate, open, unlock, damage, discover, read)

RedFeather1975
29th Jan 2008, 10:17
Emergent game play is a powerful, yet elusive element to incorporate into games. You're right, Deus Ex 1 was an emergent game play oriented game. They should focus on not only retaining that, but developing it further. AI social behaviour, a fluctuating economy, realistic physics and collisions, are probably the base they can start from.

I think story telling in future games can use techniques to mimic what emergent game play has brought to video games. I'd have to think about how that could be accomplished, but I imagine it would be well received by the fanbase, as Deus Ex was really one of the first big games to tinker with emergent game play techniques. They can do it again, but I think it's time to push the envelope further.

You mention narrative focal points, and I don't really think they are always going to have to be mandatory. Carefully designing the game to allow sequence breaking, without breaking the logical flow of the story is something that can really make the story seem more under the player's control. Perhaps looking at Mass Effect will yield some insight into where to start in that kind of story telling. Although Mass Effect did not truly accomplish it, there are areas of the game that can be done in any order and still manage to tell their part of the story in a logical way.

BTW, nice topic rhalibus! It's important the developers know what truly made the original so cool.

Xcom
29th Jan 2008, 12:04
When the number of perceived ways to accomplish a goal exceeds this number, a psychological effect occurs in the player: Since there are too many options to remember all at once, the player perceives the game has having not just "many" options but an _infinite_ number of options--since an infinite number and an unmanageable number are, in a sense, the same.

Hm... but the options you are confronted with are logical, wouldn't you say? Unlike telephone numbers.. hehe. Usually you have time to think about how to address a particular problem, so if, for example, you encounter a locked door with a keypad, you can logically deduce what your potential options are in order to get in. Doesn't that imply that remembering it all at once is not really that relevant? :scratch:

rhalibus
29th Jan 2008, 22:27
Hm... but the options you are confronted with are logical, wouldn't you say? Unlike telephone numbers.. hehe. Usually you have time to think about how to address a particular problem, so if, for example, you encounter a locked door with a keypad, you can logically deduce what your potential options are in order to get in. Doesn't that imply that remembering it all at once is not really that relevant? :scratch:

I would argue that the immersive quality of Deus Ex would be that in that particular situation the player could also be thinking of the other options of getting to the area beyond that door (which is the true goal other than simply unlocking it). In Deus Ex, the player knows that they might not have to unlock the door at all--they can find another way around, blow up the door, or even ignore the area completely if it's not a primary goal...Furthermore, each alternate solution into the area has its own multiple solutions (Secret passage? Information from guard?) that form an expanding tree of real-world options.

My humble point is that you actually can't logically deduce what your potential options are because Deus Ex gives you too many to remember.

In other games, you need to unlock the door. In Deus Ex, you simply need to get to the area beyond it, and you get to figure out your own solution.
:)

RedFeather1975
30th Jan 2008, 05:58
Sadly what I found in DX:IW is when I found a locked door I'd be thinking about all the ways to get into that room based on what I'd seen so far, knowing that each and every way to access what was beyond that door was purposely designed into the game.

I think it's more immersive when the game world is set up in a way where not even the developers could have foreseen all the ways a player can accomplish a goal.

rhalibus
30th Jan 2008, 07:36
Sadly what I found in DX:IW is when I found a locked door I'd be thinking about all the ways to get into that room based on what I'd seen so far, knowing that each and every way to access what was beyond that door was purposely designed into the game.

I think it's more immersive when the game world is set up in a way where not even the developers could have foreseen all the ways a player can accomplish a goal.

I agree...a famous example is when a player figured out that a solution to get into the top of the Statue of Liberty in the first level was to use their LAMs as stepping blocks to climb the outside wall, all the way up to the roof. Amazingly, it didn't break the game because the developers were only concerned with the player reaching the goal, by any means necessary; they didn't have _any_ locations the player had to visit other than the final location.

But it took a world with consistent rules and logic to make it happen: A LAM can be stuck to a wall, and the player can stand on it. The rest was just an innovative solution. This is the heart of Deus Ex.

AI Prototype
30th Jan 2008, 08:26
I agree...a famous example is when a player figured out that a solution to get into the top of the Statue of Liberty in the first level was to use their LAMs as stepping blocks to climb the outside wall, all the way up to the roof. Amazingly, it didn't break the game because the developers were only concerned with the player reaching the goal, by any means necessary; they didn't have _any_ locations the player had to visit other than the final location.


Emergent game play is a powerful, yet elusive element to incorporate into games. You're right, Deus Ex 1 was an emergent game play oriented game. They should focus on not only retaining that, but developing it further. AI social behaviour, a fluctuating economy, realistic physics and collisions, are probably the base they can start from.

Might that emergent gameplay be the vehicle for a more fundamental feature of the game, like self-expression? Warren Spector talked about that, letting the player express themselves through their actions in a world where you have to question what is ethical and what is not, and what consequences will be spawned by your actions.

Sandbox gameplay is great but I'm not so sure that's Deus Ex's thing. That gameplay tends to produce unpredictable series of events rising from many interacting systems (well, RedFeather mentioned emergence).. and it can be highly entertaining and memorable. But those games are usually light on specifically designed content. The less likely it is that a player is going to visit a specific location, the less likely it is that the developers will hide a juicy datacube in that room.

Mass Effect was a good example of having so much choice of where to go and what to do that the quality of your experiences in each location was badly diluted. You could go explore one of a bewildering amount of star systems, but there wasn't anything entertaining to find (and why would there be, when 5% of players are likely to find it).

Part of what was at the "heart" of Deus Ex has to be meaningful choice. The feeling that the world was malleable, and your choices affected meaningful consequences. JC had real power over events, and how they unfolded were up to you.

On a slightly more specific note, part of what captured my imagination was the setting and atmosphere. I loved that society-at-the-brink-of-collapse dystopian world. I had the feeling that I was in over my head, that the world was almost too turbulant, too unstable. It made my choices more meaningful; in a world so tumultuous and chaotic, the slightest events can have the largest repercussions.

minus0ne
30th Jan 2008, 17:17
I'm dumbfounded as to how horribly you get stuck in your own rhetoric. I stopped reading the second you mentioned emergent gameplay though.

rhalibus
30th Jan 2008, 22:57
I'm dumbfounded as to how horribly you get stuck in your own rhetoric. I stopped reading the second you mentioned emergent gameplay though.

Let's see if we can keep this discussion thread positive, minus0ne!

AI Prototype has a point. Warren Spector talked about his desire to control the main story structure through professional writers (the "what") but leave the journey through the story to the player (the "how"). It's that freedom that allows the player to feel they're controlling the events, even if the narrative follows a structured path. Other games like Mass Effect might give you more configuration options and weapons, but the perceived finite number of solutions makes the game feel more like a "choose-your-own-adventure" game other than an immersive world. Still a great game though. :)

AI Prototype
31st Jan 2008, 06:48
I'm dumbfounded as to how horribly you get stuck in your own rhetoric. I stopped reading the second you mentioned emergent gameplay though.

If you were referring to me, I probably do get too interested in my own opinions sometimes. This is the right thread for rhetorical commentary though.

Xcom
31st Jan 2008, 11:05
My humble point is that you actually can't logically deduce what your potential options are because Deus Ex gives you too many to remember.

In other games, you need to unlock the door. In Deus Ex, you simply need to get to the area beyond it, and you get to figure out your own solution.
:)

I have to respectfully disagree with you then. :) Somehow, I just can't connect the dots between memory and the number of options, and even if I could, I just don't feel like the game gave me _infinite_ options as you say. Perhaps it's a matter of individual perception, I don't know. Also being RTS games fan, I for example cannot even compare the complexity of decision making and the amount of choices in an RTS with Deus Ex.

SageSavage
31st Jan 2008, 16:17
"Infinite options" is an exaggeration of course but there really is an impressive amount of different ways (planned and unplanned) to reach many of the goals in DX - as we all know. Especially for the time it was released and the genre(s) it covered. I think it is well possible to summarize them but add a modern physics engine (destructible environments) and a better AI and the amount of options will be multiplied. Sounds promising but will be very hard to balance the difficulty level correctly. Might need even more beta-testing than ever before.

rhalibus
31st Jan 2008, 23:38
I have to respectfully disagree with you then. :) Somehow, I just can't connect the dots between memory and the number of options, and even if I could, I just don't feel like the game gave me _infinite_ options as you say. Perhaps it's a matter of individual perception, I don't know. Also being RTS games fan, I for example cannot even compare the complexity of decision making and the amount of choices in an RTS with Deus Ex.

I totally understand if you didn't experience the sense of infinite options--especially if you play RTS games, since I totally suck at them..:)

It's just that for me, it was the seemingly limitless options in Deus Ex that enlightened me to the idea that I was actually there, instead of playing a computer game...and no game has done that since. I can't think of any other single idea that had such a powerful effect on immersive gameplay--although the epic story, level design, and detail definitely made it more than the sum of it's parts...

I hope Eidos Montreal understands what they have.

gamer0004
1st Feb 2008, 18:19
I agree with rhalibus. It seems like you can do almost anything. When you think about it, there are only a few ways to get past a door, but because there are multiple ways to get to that door, and because there might be an alternative route to avoid the door completely, it SEEMS like there are infinite possibilities when you are playing the game.
And yes, I play a lot of RTS games, too ;)
And many RTS aren't so complex... BFME anyone? (EA, of course).
Rome: TW wasn't so complex and M@:TW wasn't, either. Red Alert wasn't. Generals wasn't. Panzers wasn't. Soldiers: Heroes of WW2 was quite complexe, as complex as DX1 was.
I mean, in an RTS you HAVE to complete every goal. And there is only one way to do it: by fighting. Of course, you have to decide what approach you're going to use, and what troops you're going to let whatever enemy unit, but that's about it.
In DX, you have to that when you are going to fight (instead of selecting certain troops to kill certain enemy units you select a weapon), but you have to decide whether you do that, or that you're going to sneak, or going to look for an alternative route. And if you're going to sneak, what approach and where you can hide and so on. When you're trying to find an alternative route, you have to think about where it will lead you and what use it is, and you need tot hink of a way to get past the obstacles there.

B0b_P@ge
6th Feb 2008, 00:03
Good job rhalibus, excellent thread, I read all through it and enjoyed the read.

tanonx
6th Feb 2008, 02:23
Gotta like this thread. I'd like to put forward a fairly small theory, in that the feeling of many choices comes from the varous levels of choice you have. You can choose all sorts of weapons in one game, but you always have to fight. Fighting games, you can pick a character and a position to launch your moves from, but that's it.

Deus Ex seems to hold a lot of levels at which you can make your decisions, and further varies these levels, rather than keeping the same ones. In one situation you can initiate or avoid, fight or sneak, use vents or time the patrol patterns, and combine options at each level (stealth-kill, use the vents to get in the right position to duck patrols). In another, you're having a conversation, and can take the basic methods of branch conversation, themselves already a decent representation of this if enough options are kept.

Last off, it may be possible that in DX, despite the complexety of the situations, your next choices are always clear, and it is always clear exactly how you came to them, making the entire game a huge choice tree. There was no obvious reset button, despite some well-hidden ones scattered across the game to keep you on track and in plot. Everything was beleivibly the result of your actions and reactions. The huge machine of the various schemes for global dominance could be expected to go on fairly normaly, but the parts you interact with always respond to your actions. This veiw can be reinforced with datacubes left behind warning people about your imminent arrival, or newspapers reacting to the incidents you participate in, and also your own mind hooking together the various bits of story, as it does in life, and to a greater extent in less immersive video games.

I'm getting realy long winded...

rhalibus
6th Feb 2008, 09:16
Another immersive quality to Deus Ex was the knowledge that you could shoot anyone and they would react, regardless of their alignment to you: Shoot a UNATCO NPC and they'll change their alignment and attack you. It doesn't mean that you'd do that, but the knowledge of what would happen deepens the player's sense of a real world.

Which leads to a possibly non-conventional idea about the invincibility of important NPCs and how it relates to gameplay: In Deus Ex, there are some NPCs that you can turn against you, but you can't really kill them; they're set to "invulnerable" because they are required for you to finish the game. (You can actually see this if you load a level in the SDK.)

Now, what if it were possible to kill anyone in the game, with the appropriate consequences? Kill Nicolette and you get a datalink message informing you that you can't complete the mission; maybe you'd get one more chance to find another way to reach the goal, but if you blew that then the mission would truly be impossible to finish. But the game wouldn't end.

Most developers would say that there needs to be a way to complete a game no matter what happens--that's why they make certain NPCs invulnerable...But what would happen in the real world if an agent were to kill their contact? They probably wouldn't be able to finish their mission either. So what would be so wrong about allowing an essential NPC to die with the consequence that the player would have to reload a previous game? The player would learn a lesson: Want to finish the game? Then don't kill your contact!

I also like your idea, tanonx, of more visible consequences of a player's play style...say a player got through a level without being seen; maybe afterwards some NPC's would affectionately refer to the player as "The Ghost", or a datacube would mention that no-one saw who broke into the complex and took the secret plans...DX does this on a small level: every now and then an NPC will comment on whether or not the player killed a lot of guards or snuck by them instead...but the more the player can feel their actions are being remembered, the better the gameplay...:)