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Deux Ex: The game you can't win

Why I Love: Bow to Blood developer Matthew Hoesterey says the immersive sim was everything he hoped for, but not what he expected

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This edition was contributed by Matthew Hoesterey, co-founder of Tribetoy, the Seattle-based studio behind Chu's Dynasty and Bow to Blood.

Throughout the years I've always been drawn to games that are, at least to me, unsolvable. These unsolvable puzzles are often presented in complex strategy game like Duelyst and multiplayer battle arenas like League of Legends, where the players constantly learn and adapt, thus changing the very nature of the game. It's rare for me to consider a single-player experience unsolvable. At their very core single player games are meant to be "won." Deux Ex was the first single player experience I finished and realized that I hadn't won, and that I never could.

Back in 2000 when the original Deux Ex was released, I was one of those sad people who suffered from motion sickness when I played a first-person shooter (FPS), and thus had avoided them for years. I knew I didn't like FPS games -- they made me sick after all -- but Deux Ex sounded beyond amazing to my then 19-year-old self. Role-playing elements, goal-oriented level design that let the player make choices... you can just blow a door off the hinges rather than find the key! I had never heard of a game that provided this much freedom! I was beyond intrigued and willing to put my hard-earned dollars on the line and try to get over this motion sickness thing.

The inventory hints at the game's variety of problem-solving approaches. (Image credit: MobyGames user Unicorn Lynx)

The inventory hints at the game's variety of problem-solving approaches. (Image credit: MobyGames user Unicorn Lynx)

Luckily, I didn't get sick and was able to experience a game that has had a huge influence on my life. Deux Ex lived up to all my hyped teenage expectations. It provided unprecedented freedom, amazing level design, and an interesting story. All the things that had initially drawn me to it were there, but what really made it special was something I didn't expect.

In Deux Ex, I constantly had to make moral and philosophical choices that had no "correct" answer. The moral ambiguity was further enforced by factions. The factions often had conflicting goals, but none of them were fully right or wrong. It was impossible to just "be a good guy." It was the unanswerable questions and the complex relationships between factions that stayed with me for years, and inspired the core feature in our latest game, Bow to Blood: Last Captain Standing. (Bow to Blood is a game where the player is a pirate in a reality show and every choice they make has both positive and negative effects on those around them.)

"Deux Ex never kept things simple; instead they layered on the moral complexity"

As the years went on, more Deux Ex games were released. While I can't say every moment in every game was perfectly crafted, they did for the most part continue to provide goal-oriented level design that allotted the player freedoms to act as they saw fit, all the while presenting the player with unsolvable ethical dilemmas.

One moment that has always stuck with me was in Deux Ex: Invisible War, the second game in the franchise. I had discovered that a corporation had created a cure for a fatal disease, but they were not releasing it despite millions being affected. Instead, this corporation was releasing an expensive, temporary cure. On the surface this situation sounded pretty cut and dry, and many games would have simply kept it simple. Most games would have had the corporation be run by evil, money-hungry scientists who were releasing a temporary cure as a way to generate endless income. You the hero would save the day by exposing them and releasing the secret cure. Deux Ex never kept things simple; instead they layered on the moral complexity. In Deus Ex, I confronted the scientist and learned:

The temporary cure is fully tested but expensive to make. The real cure needs years of testing before they would release it for fear that it could mutate, create something even worse. They claimed to keep it secret because people would riot and that they needed more time test the cure.

I remember at this point I searched for something to discredit the scientist. I was frantic. I didn't want to make the hard decision:

● Expose the corporation and release the cure, knowing that it could save millions or mutate and kill more people in the long run.

● Allow the corporation to keep the cure secret knowing people would die.

In the end, I couldn't discredit the scientist and was unable to discover if they were telling me the truth or if it was all an elaborate lie I had to make a choice. The game never told me if my choice was the correct one, I'm left to wonder.

Ethical dilemmas are littered throughout the franchise and tend to build to a final quandary at game end. When I finally got to the end of the first game I was placed in a situation where I had to choose my government, my "Deus Ex Machina" if you will, and I didn't like any of my options. What made this moment genius is that no option I could imagine at the time was missing and I still didn't like my choices. I had to make a choice in order to finish the game, but I couldn't really "win." Finishing the game, I wasn't provided any answers. Instead I was left with a question to ponder once I left that game, and that was my reward.

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.

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