I found Friday’s skewering of Deus Ex Invisible War to be quite satisfying. So much so that I thought I might just indulge in it again. I’m not trying to be a bully, I just find it interesting that so many things that looked good on paper wound up falling so short in practice. The people behind the game are talented, so we can’t blame the failures on simple ineptitude. Certainly the console-itis (the miniscule levels and the harsh simplification of gameplay) crippled the title for fans of the original, but that doesn’t explain everything that went wrong.
The one gameplay aspect that they retained from Deus Ex to Invisible war was in offering lots of choices in how your character can behave. The sad thing is that in Invisible War the choices you get just aren’t satisfying. They’re just little detours where you choose which of the two or three factions of idiots and bastards you want to side with temporarily. No matter who you’re working for, you’ll usually travel to the same locations and do the same mission, but when you get to the end you can choose to do A or B. Perhaps A is “kill somebody” and B is “don’t”. Your choice will earn you a reward from a faction in the game and scorn from the others, but down the road it doesn’t make any difference. For the most part other characters don’t seem to remember which side you’re on. You can call this “branching gameplay” if you like, but meeting the requirements of a definition while not meeting player expectations is a cunning way to disappoint the audience.
In the past I faulted Jade Empire (an otherwise flawless game) for having some unsatisfying choices. Like many of the Star Wars Jedi games, it supposedly presents you with moral challenges between “good” and “evil” but usually end up as a choice between “good” and “jerk”. Invisible War is slightly worse, in that you usually aren’t given choices which might somehow be related to a particular philosophy or worldview. You just choose what kind of jerk you want to be. Do I support the murderous religious zealots or the murderous bureaucrats? The game repeatedly asks the player to make distasteful yet ultimately meaningless choices. (And of course the game is always filled with the meaningless faux-choice to gun down irrelevant NPCs.)
Consider the following scenario, which was offered in the original Deus Ex:
This is a cunning situation, and you could make a reasonable case for any course of action. It was a great moment. I made sure I explored every permutation of it in my various re-plays.
There is nothing in Invisible War that comes anywhere near this in terms of involving the player in interesting decisions. Even when your choice is between killing someone and sparing them, it feels contrived. Unlike the example above, your choices are clear cut and obvious. Do you kill a generic scientist because a church is willing to pay you money to do so? It’s the classic good / evil choice, except that here every faction in the game will ask you to do evil things at one time or another. Assuming you don’t want to be someone’s petty hired thug, you’ll be changing sides often. You won’t be acting in the name of any particular cause or ideal, you’ll just be trying to undermine whoever is currently acting like the biggest jerk – a fact which is in a constant state of change as the schizophrenic leaders hand down assignments to commit absurd little injustices.
At the end of the game you must decide which of three major factions you want to support. Each one wants access to a technology which will enable them to defeat the other factions and impose their own view on the rest of the world. Choose one of the following:
The most obvious “bad guys”. They wish to cleanse the world of biomods, and are willing to kill a tremendous number of people in order to do so. The problem with them is that – even if their aim was noble, which it isn’t – they are confusing fighting an idea with fighting the people who adhere to that idea. Bringing about peace by killing everyone who disagrees with you is a solution which scales poorly.
Siding with these guys will give rise to an ugly, murderous regime, a dark-ages kingdom wielding space-age weapons.
The classic “shadow government”, they make lots of sounds about manipulating the world with everyone’s best interests at heart, but it can’t go unnoticed that the world spirals into chaos and war as the Illuminati enjoy wealth, power, and a good layer of insulation between themselves and the masses.
Siding with these guys results in a world where everyone lives under the thumb of a manipulative superstate with no respect for privacy, ruled by an arrogant shadow government.
The supposed “good guys” of the game, who want to end all war and conflict by assimilating every human being into some technological post-human collective. Without asking. They are basically the Borg with better public relations. They wish to launch this effort from their base in the Statue of Liberty. I was never able to figure out if the irony was intentional or not.
If you side with these guys you arguably end the human race by taking away the individuality of every man, woman and child on the face of the earth. A hundred years later that collective seems happy enough, although since nobody has the freedom to think outside of the collective I’d assume they’re as happy as the collective tells them they are. It seems to me that they’ve just undergone a species-level lobotomy. Other interpretations are possible, but I didn’t find the ending any less distasteful than the alternatives.
If you choose “none of the above”, the world plunges into chaos and war that scorches the earth, which is an insulting cop-out. It suggests that without these rulers imposing order, people would revert to savagery (a bit of a non-sequitur, since all of the fighting in the game is because of these rulers) and that people would be unable to select a different set of rulers to take their place. It had a cheap, “rocks fall, everyone dies” feel to it, a punishment for not choosing one of the “real” outcomes.
While some endings are better for the planet than others, it all feels sort of arbitrary. I got all four endings, and none of them felt like a “success” for me.
I do give the game credit for making the choice more complex than the usual binary Sadistic Evil / Idealistic Good choice. I also enjoyed the way the various factions perceived one another, and that each one thought of itself as “good”. I wish that sort of thinking had extended into the endgame. I admire a choice with no obvious “right” answer, but I’d like for some choices to feel at least partly right. Certainly it’s not fun to choose between four options which are all wrong. It wasn’t so much about weighing tradeoffs as just deciding what group of arrogant bastards you want running the planet. Perhaps the ending cutscenes are the problem. I think they just looked too far forward. It would have been better if the outcome of your actions was less explicit, or at least more open to interpretation.
Worse still is how the decision is made: When it all comes down to it, choosing a faction is literally a choice between three buttons. You slaughter your way to a computer console and push the button for the ending you want. Nothing you’ve done beforehand has any bearing on the final moments of the game, rendering every previous decision moot.
This was a frustrating cycle for me: To agonize over a decision, trying to determine which of my two railroaded choices was the lesser evil, only to discover later that it didn’t really matter in the long run. In the original Dues Ex, I always lamented the road not taken, and wondered what I’d miss. In Invisible War, I regretted having to make the choice in the first place.
Quakecon Keynote 2013 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
The Plot-Driven Door
You know how videogames sometimes do that thing where it's preposterously hard to go through a simple door? This one is really bad.
Trashing the Heap
What does it mean when a program crashes, and why does it happen?
What Does a Robot Want?
No, self-aware robots aren't going to turn on us, Skynet-style. Not unless we designed them to.
Trusting the System
How do you know the rules of the game are what the game claims? More importantly, how do the DEVELOPERS know?