Deus Ex

Cover Photo of Deus Ex. All copyrights belong to their respective owners.

To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composer. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic. [1]

Roger Ebert

It’s under extremely rare occasions that a game comes to change the course of the industry’s future, but it’s even more uncommon that it excels with its brilliant elements of storytelling to a point where it completely changes the perspective of our own existence. I dare to say that there has never been a game in the entire history of game development that has questioned humanity, and what is defined as “human”, just as much as Deus Ex.

It essentially forced us to reevaluate the beliefs of a higher power and the fundamental pillars of a human society. As cliché as it might sound, all of us have probably looked up on the heavens and realized how small humanity is compared to the shiny wonders in the distant universe. For each day that passes on planet Earth, humanity wants to reach farther, evolve quicker and develop bigger inventions to measure up for the desired size in the universe that we don’t yet quite possess (I think…).

Before I continue, I must warn you that this piece of “game analyzing” will be really personal. Not just because of the fact that I truly love Deus Ex for what it is, but because this game inevitably triggers big thinking about everything. With that I mean literally everything, so you’ll later on in this article notice that I’m quickly going to jump between lots of subjects. Why is this? To simply show some parallels between different human mindsets, moral dilemmas, fields of science and how we all ended up where we are today. To show myself cultured, civilized and empathetic, right? (Damn you, Ebert). They are all important to talk about and especially relevant when I’m going to argument against Ebert’s statement that includes a phrase that I’m familiar with; the loss of hours.

Bear in mind that it’s only this one single statement I’m going to argument against, and not the entire existence of his works or career. However, to say that I hold no grudge against Ebert would be a complete lie. My point is, art is deeply bound in cohesion with philosophy and questions like the ones mentioned above. Ebert wasn’t necessarily wrong in his statement, this new form of “art” is indeed not that old compared to all the other great works of human value and entertainment in ancient history. Though I believe he misses out on the fact that games have developed quicker and most of all improved itself faster than any of the other mentioned human crafts. It’s in my eyes an assembly of many different art forms that comes together to create an interactive piece of human thoughts and ambitions. That’s where my question steps into the picture; did he even know about the existence of a game such as Deus Ex when he made this statement?

The American astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson said in one of the episodes of the scientific mini-series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey that it’s only in the last seconds of the cosmic calendar that humanity has actually used technology to look deeper and deeper into the unknown in hope to one day overcome our own mortality. We use philosophy and big thinking to explain, or rather make sense of something unknown. Humans don’t always have facts, but carefully tested theories that function as a current explanation or answer to the mystery of life and its components that are still out of reach for us. Many steps are required for a scientific theory to qualify as credible piece of science. Just because we have a written statement or answer based on a number of observations and experiments doesn’t mean that it might be the final nor the only answer to whatever is being researched.

Many, I’m not saying all, but many believes that merely controlling our own DNA coding and the course of the planet’s climate will bring us more control to life. Yes, maybe life on Earth but that’s currently the borders of our knowledge. When we think about life, most people will see the green landscapes and the warming yellow sun in the blue sky. Others think about dusty ruins, their dying family, if they’ll ever eat again, bombs, gunfire and marching soldiers.

All of this, based on the fact that humans hurt humans. Nobody should ever have to be living with such an experience rooted in their memories. Yet that’s the reality millions of people are living in every day and nobody seems to have a good explanation for it. Life becomes our experiences. Life is our time on this planet and everything we “know” about existence is made up on planet Earth. It’s a platform for sustainable life, maybe the only perfect match out there, so why are we still playing this game of world dominance?

We’re already dreaming about playing gods and it’s not just with our societies, but the fine Mother Nature. I believe in the strong bond between living organisms and nature, in fact that’s the closest I get to spirituality, but we can most certainly not call us intelligent when we’re on the brink of destroying that bond. At its core, Deus Ex works as a visual theory on how the lust for power and perfection can backfire on us; at worst destroy us if we’re not careful. The capacity of artificial intelligences are still limited but with the right amount of financing coupled with a healthy determination, this new field of science will have great potential in the future.

Sadly, this is where history repeats itself. Humans are great inventors, yet we often fail to later control and correctly use our inventions because, let’s face it, we’re not ready. It also depends on how we seek to use our technology. We’re still better at finding new ways to harm and abuse one another rather than getting our paranoid, judging and egoistic minds out of the way to form a more globally peaceful society where freedom and creativity belongs to all. Then again, freedom comes with a price…or does it really? I’ll let that hang in the air for a while.

The main plot of Deus Ex brings up exactly these kind of problems as it takes place in the year 2052 where fully aware artificial intelligences are now among us. With the aid of the endless streams of information on the global net, these artificial intelligences have formed their own understanding of their creators and their evolution. Scientists and engineers all over the world are already in the second decade of the 21st century seriously worried about that this classic Sci-fi trope might become a reality one day if the development of such intelligences continues. The following question about ethics and morals within this rising field of science fascinates me and that’s why I believe that Deus Ex deserves to be more recognized in the world as a whole. At least qualify as art.

Artistic importance – The origins of Deus Ex

In order to be able to understand the many visual elements that are effectively used in Deus Ex, we need to wind back the clock a couple of years to the beginning of the 90s where the development of real-time 3D graphics took the industry to new heights. Warren Spector’s Deus Ex was mainly built in Epic Games Unreal engine that is famous for the exact same thing as its name suggests; the unrealistic technology to create highly detailed environments and handle even more advanced animation systems than ever before seen in a videogame (with the exception of Core Designs broad set of animations for Lara Croft, the stunning visuals of Half Life and the first Quake installment from Id Software).

Deus Ex was technically never a monster in terms of graphics as the Unreal Engine had already been released two years earlier. The Unreal engine was first used by its developer Epic Games in one of their most famous game titles of all time, which of course is Unreal from 1998. It was later also used in the creation of the first Unreal Tournament game that was released only a year after the first installment in the Unreal series. It was merely supposed to have been an expansion pack to the multiplayer section of Unreal, more famously known by the developers as “The Bot Pack”.

No matter the visual style of any videogame around the final years of the 90s, you simply couldn’t miss out to identify the unique appearance of the advanced graphics and lightning used in the Unreal Engine that in fact was revolutionary for the entire game industry. There were few companies that could keep up with the new standards in graphics but the strongest competitor at that time was still Id Software’s engine that was used in the development of Quake from 1996. As far as I’m concerned, they’re still competing in setting the new standard in eye-popping graphics. With the fourth installment of both the Doom and Unreal Tournament series in the horizon, nobody knows what to really expect from these two industry giants. The fantastic part about these powerful engines was that for the first time in the history of game development, developers could fully render 3D graphics in real time.

It’s amazing compared to only a couple of years earlier where only simple bitmapped walls and floors could be 3D rendered in Looking Glass Productions famous title Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss from the early 1992. Although Warren Spector never was technically involved in the creation of these engines, he saw the birth of this new technology way before the emergence of both Unreal and Quake. In reality, a talented painter traditionally has infinite amounts of resources and tools to draw a painting and replicate a part of the real world – or if she is bold enough to express her inner secrets to the world.

For example, there has rarely been a lack of color palettes, motifs and tools available for an artist in the company of its teachers and their fundamental schools of art. Compared to the world of game development, graphics in video games were very limited only a couple of decades ago. We have evolved from black and white pixels to life-like landscapes with large forests almost identical to those in the real world. We have ventured on from the 1980s limited 8-bit graphics color palette on the NES system to the infinite color palette that has been used by painters in traditional oil paintings ever since the days that Leonardo Da Vinci walked this earth.

Everything is technically possible today, except the ever-lasting dream of FULLY being able to simulate fluids like water in real-time, but what is most important for this analyze is to look a bit closer at Warren Spector’s situation during the period of graphic revolutions between the early 90s and the beginning of the new millennium. Ion Storm did in fact try out the concept of simulating water in Deus Ex: Invisible War by giving the player a more realistic reaction to smashing objects into walls and dropping items from top of buildings.

Vases and glasses of waters could be picked up and crushed into smaller pieces as the water slowly poured down from the walls. That kind texture or shader used in the visualization of that particular water effect was not an actual simulation of fluids, rather an excellent pre-rendered simulation of dynamic events. In the lack of better words, it’s still only a method of displaying dynamic textures and not an actual optimized particle system.

The graphics in Warren Spector’s Deus Ex basically derived from the same style and atmosphere of the Unreal Tournament games. Both Epic Games and Ion Storm embodied the true meaning of visual quality; optimized graphics that was generally built out of low poly resources with carefully drawn textures and high resolution skyboxes with global illumination. Characters in videogames today can consist of millions of polygons while the developers of Deus Ex were limited to an average polygon count of 500 – 1000 per character.

However, one should note that good textures are more important than a realistic 3D object, due to the fact that different tricks with both depth and color of a texture can hide the flaws of a seemingly edgy object (Normal Maps for example). Not only does it look better, but it performs better. Old racing titles such as Need For Speed and Monster Truck Madness used this type of technique by using 2D sprites of trees and bushes alongside the racing tracks. This might just be my opinion, but I’ve always thought the human eye prioritizes color before shape.

The use of graphics and color themes – Introduction

Cold, dark blue shades have been used extensively in Warren Spector’s Deus Ex as a means to bring a darker yet harmonic tone into all the game’s environments. Because most parts of the game takes place in the night, there were several clever design decisions and uses of the Unreal Engine’s lightning that visually enhanced not only the depth of the shadows but also the overall atmosphere. The graphic artists picked a more accurate shadow for the buildings since it would require far too much processing power for a computer at that time to render a fully detailed dynamic shadow from moving objects, such as a sun. Therefore, the game uses only a concrete shadow under each character that changes in size depending on how high the player jumps. This particular shadow is not affected by other light sources.

It’s not really the buildings that draw most of the player’s attention but instead the dynamic characters’ mouths and faces that invites them to some interesting dialogues. This is another brilliant example of how the hardware limit of polygon use was cleverly turned around to become a greater strength in the game. The hard edges and hairlines formed sharper and even more credible facial features than you could ever imagine.

The topology in Deus Ex is nothing but well-planned and organized, so it’s hard to realize what kind of talent it must’ve required to create such a masterpiece with the limited technology at that time. Depending on how one uses the lightning, developers can obtain a beautiful weight and severity of the eyebrows which obviously also worked well in Deus Ex. The graphic composition is uniquely cohesive as the artists have mixed Asian culture together with the European which contributes to an increased variety of colors and architecture.

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More on this in Part II of Artificial Gods and Black Helicopters, which I’ll hopefully be able to finish within a near future. I’m planning to talk about the following subjects related to Deus Ex:

  • The use of graphics and color themes – golden era to the grey death
  • Different cultures and their meaning in the game
  • Apparitions of observation, judgment, and punishment (Helios, Daedalus, Icarus and Morpheus)

Part III will probably take much longer to finish, but I’ll get there. The basic structure and research is finished, now I just need to put it on paper. My goal is to end on a high note, which is analyzing my favorite story of all time and the core of Deus Ex. The mythological story of Icarus is always present in every Deus Ex game, so it’s important for me to fully cover its essential meaning to the overall plot. Part III of Artificial Gods and Black Helicopters will include the following subjects:

  • Conspiracy theories and the Illuminati
  • The unique blending of genres and mechanisms
  • Why the story of Icarus fall still remains in modern days

[1] Ebert, Robert. Why did the chicken cross the genders? Från http://www.rogerebert.com/answer-man/why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-genders [2015-10-30]

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