Deus Ex (and Game Narratives) Drop a Deuce
When Deus Ex: Human Revolution hit store shelves two weeks ago, thereby ending gaming’s annual summer drought of triple-A titles, critics welcomed it with the thirsty zeal of nomads discovering an oasis in the desert.
Almost immediately, the air around Deus Ex grew thick with rapturous reviews and game-of-the-year buzz. Critics didn’t adore everything about the game, of course—no one could fail to notice its exasperating boss fights and ancient-looking facial animations—but one element in particular won universal praise from public and media alike: its story. No less an authority than London’s Guardian declared that “Story-wise, Human Revolution is unimpeachable,” an opinion echoed everywhere from Game Informer (“Human Revolution weaves an amazing story”) to the typically caustic Destructoid (“Thoroughly engrossing story”) to user-review forums across the internet. (IGN’s review was more measured, claiming that the game’s narrative “holds together well.”)
This is high praise indeed, especially coming from the very same people who so often bemoan the shoddy storytelling in today’s games, where the best that players can usually hope for is that the cut-scenes won’t induce actual groans. Like most readers of these breathless reviews, I was eager to pop Human Revolution into my console and experience this lauded story. After finishing the game, I have one important quibble with the avalanche of praise for Deus Ex’s fiction, and I think it goes a long way toward explaining why video games typically have such unsatisfying narratives. That objection is this:
The sequence of events that takes place in Deus Ex: Human Revolution does not constitute a story. What it has is a plot, and the difference between those two, as a nerdy Mark Twain might say, is the difference between a lightning spell and the lightning bug.
Now, don’t get me wrong; my intention here isn’t to call Human Revolution out as a bad game, because it’s not. At least in this writer’s opinion, it’s a reasonably decent game with an excellent sense of visual style, neither a masterpiece nor a train wreck. (And while we’re passing out disclaimers, I’ll also note that I’m not going to spoil anything about Deus Ex’s plot for anyone who hasn’t played it.) My aim is simply to point out a common deficiency in game narrative—one that is by no means exclusive to Deus Ex—and leave the rest to the gaming gods.
So let’s talk for a moment about story.
Despite the differences that divide us as individuals, all humans have one thing in common: we know a good story when we hear one. The craving for narrative is encoded in our DNA; stories are how we make sense of the universe, and as such, we have an innate sense of what makes a story truly click. When a child says “tell me a story,” he doesn’t mean “relate to me a sequence of events.” He wants something deeper than that—not just to be drawn into a new world or to see exciting things happen (two things that games provide in spades), but to have a certain kind of narrative experience. Good stories give us characters who win our emotional investment, who develop over the course of the narrative, and who shed light on some aspect of ourselves. Good stories have a palpable dramatic arc that builds toward a climax. And by filling out these requirements, good stories also teach us something about the world.
The best storytelling games—Portal, Uncharted 2, Red Dead Redemption, Enslaved, and Bioshock, to name a few—fulfill these needs so slickly that they cast a spell over us, drawing us through the narrative with a tug far more powerful than the simple fun of their gameplay. The John Marston we see towards the end of Red Dead Redemption is a different man from the Marston we met at the beginning, and because of that development, we care deeply about his fate. The escalating tension we feel as we draw closer to the lair of GLaDOS (a fascinatingly evolving character in her own right) more or less provides a master class in dramatic arc, which is what made Portal so miraculously satisfying. Plenty of other games have Old West gun-play or spatial puzzles, but these titles are genre-transcending classics because they tell us engaging, fully-realized stories.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution does none of this. The game’s protagonist, a tech-augmented corporate security chief named Adam Jensen, not only remains personally unchanged through the course of the narrative; he even pronounces every one of his lines with the same breathy intensity, no matter if he’s speaking with a friend or confronting a super-villain. Leaving aside the stiltedness of Deus Ex’s sections of dialogue—jam-packed as they are with bizarre emotional left turns, crazy gesticulating, and wooden voice acting—the overcomplicated narrative line also lacks a sense of propulsion. Human Revolution’s “story” is, at heart, a linear and impersonal series of events that fails to build. In other words, it has plenty of plot, meaning that a lot of different things happen over the course of the game, but these assorted incidents just don’t add up to much of a story. If anything, Deus Ex’s overstuffed plot suffocates its story, smothering all character development and dramatic arc under the giant, overstuffed pillow of its conspiracy-laden narrative agenda.
None of this is meant to disparage Deus Ex’s writers (who made a valiant effort to create something smart) or to toss a turd into the punchbowl of those who enjoy the game. For the most part, it deserves applause. Yet at the same time, Human Revolution is a perfect embodiment of what’s holding games back from providing truly affecting narrative experiences. The franchise’s very title, it’s worth noting, derives from the Latin phrase deus ex machina, or “god from the machinery,” which is used to describe a plot development that comes out of nowhere, solving an immediate dilemma but also tarnishing the overall story. Without saying too much, the end battle of Human Revolution is one hell of a deus ex machina, and the game industry as a whole suffers from a plague of them.
What we need—what we all crave—are stories that tap into real humanity, stories that drive their ever-developing characters toward climaxes that challenge them as people, providing a resolution that means something. If we ever hope to see the quality of narrative in games improve, it’s time to stop pretending that Deus Ex: Human Revolution and others like it fulfill these duties. It’s time for games to drop the plots and start telling stories.