Gaming has always had a tricky time with labels. Take the ways critics have Frankensteined together various genre names for the medium over the years; what other artform asks connoisseurs to regularly pit the merits of a “Metroidvania with a Roguelike progression system” against an “environmental simulator with strong narrative elements”? But even the simplest of gaming descriptors can be fraught with traps and assumptions. Take “first-person shooter,” the phrase that’s supplanted the once ubiquitous, overly brand-specific “Doom-like” in the gaming consciousness. On the surface, it’s a refreshingly straightforward term: You look at the world from a first-person perspective—i.e., one where the game’s camera represents the player character’s own viewpoint—and you shoot things. But what do you call a first-person shooter where you don’t have to shoot anyone? Maybe even don’t want to pull that trigger?
In the year 2000, Ion Storm called it Deus Ex.
Developed by industry legend Warren Spector—and augmented with DNA stripped from his earlier Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief—Deus Ex laid out a vision for modern gaming that was no less revolutionary than any of the frothing conspiracy theorists or would-be Illuminati masterminds who populate its cast. In a genre where “meaningful choice” typically amounted to asking “Shotgun, assault rifle, or pistol?”, Spector and his team created a world in which the hows and whys of assaulting a compound full of armed antagonists were just as important as keeping track of your ammo or health. Rather than sending the legions of hell charging blindly into your crosshairs, it forced players to ask themselves questions. Like, “Does this guy actually need to die?” Or, “How do I get those sentry guns working for me?” Or, “Is there a better way through this room of heavily armed killers than pulling out my gun?” And nowhere was that philosophy of choice clearer than in the game’s first level, an assault on the broken remains of America’s very own symbol of personal freedom: Liberty Island.
But first, some context. Deus Ex drops players into the sunglasses and monotone vocal cords of one J.C. Denton, a freshly (as of 2052) nano-augmented agent of UNATCO, the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition. (And if “The UN has cybernetic supersoldiers now” sounds like textbook conspiracy theorist nonsense, hoo boy will you be excited to hear what FEMA’s up to in this particular neck of the woods.) Formed in the aftermath of a terrorist attack that managed to turn the Statue Of Liberty into an inadvertent Planet Of The Apes advert, UNATCO suddenly finds itself in the embarrassing position of having its Liberty Island headquarters seized by armed insurgents of the National Secessionist Force—an occupation that gives J.C. the perfect opportunity to show off to his bosses what his new, nigh-magical cyber-augmentations can do. After a quick tutorial (and a character creation screen that allows you to choose whether your Denton has an aptitude for swimming, hacking, shooting, or several other useful skills), you’re dropped onto the island’s docks—and almost immediately presented with your first major choice.
Which is, admittedly, the same “Which weapon do you want?” question that we just got done making fun of from all those old Duke Nukem wannabes of yore. But the three weapons that J.C.’s similarly-augmented brother, Paul, offers him for his big wetwork debut aren’t just tools of the trade: They’re also philosophical choices. Do you want to work quiet and non-lethal? Grab the dart gun. Need a little extra firepower (and not too worried about dropping bodies)? Take the sniper rifle. And if you just want to get rid of the single biggest threat roaming around the island’s terrorist-infested grounds, well, that single-shot rocket launcher will make short work of the heavily armed sentry robot patrolling the statue’s entrance.
But here’s where we get to the meat of what makes Liberty Island, and so many of Deus Ex’s subsequent cities, secret bases, and security-filled compounds, so special: “Blowing it up with a really big gun” is just one way to cope with this automated threat. (And make no mistake: Run at the bot head on, and you’ll find out exactly how well stylish black leather trench coats hold up against mechanized assault rifles.) The simplest tactic, in fact, is just to not go near the damn thing at all. Rather than being set up like some sort of linear Quake map, Liberty Island is meant to feel like a real location, which means that it has things like, say, a back entrance, allowing you to bypass large swathes of the NSF troops and their little murderbot without even breaking a sweat. You could also just try to sneak past the robot—preferably after hacking the nearby security camera to ensure it doesn’t give away the game. (Don’t worry: People in the Deus Ex universe have a compulsive need to write their passwords down on PDAs, which they then have an equally compulsive need to leave laying around all over the place for you to snoop on.) Or you could chuck one of the EMP grenades locked up in nearby storage cache at it. And that’s the point: The robot isn’t a boss, or a mandatory enemy. It’s just an obstacle, existing out in the game world for you to destroy, circumvent, or subvert as need be.
That’s the first half of the Deus Ex revolution: Giving players a space to make meaningful choices in, whether that means ghosting your way through every mission like an air vent-crawling ninja, or leaving a pile of bodies 20 high in J.C.’s wake. Do you want to take the time to meet up with Paul’s contact, who’s hanging out in a cabin on the far side of the island, to get some more context about what the NSF is up to? Go for it. (Shocking reveal: It’s a bunch of Art Bell conspiracy theory bullshit, because Deus Ex never met an idea someone was scared about on the internet in 1999 that it didn’t aggressively incorporate into its planet-sprawling plot.) But you can also just cut the fastest path through the level possible, skulking in the shadows, cattle prodding guards as need be, and cutting off the invasion’s head by confronting the NSF leader up in what’s left of the statues’s central structure. Even then, you can choose whether to talk or put a bullet in the guy’s face; your dweeby mission handler, Alex, might not like it, but the choice is up to you.
Which also ties in neatly to the second half of what made Deus Ex so special: It cares about all these choices that you’re making. Sometimes that’s as simple as dropping an experience bonus into J.C.’s lap when he pops his head into an out-of-the-way piece of the map. But the game also keeps track of who, how much, and when you kill. It doesn’t judge those choices—there’s no simplistic “morality meter” at play here. But characters will notice, and care, whether you’re a gung-ho killer cutting a bloody swathe across the statue’s grounds or a careful, precise pacifist. (The game’s most famous instance of this reactivity actually happens in Liberty Island’s post-mission cooldown period; barge into the women’s bathroom in UNATCO’s offices, and J.C. will get an earful about it later from his boss.) Deus Ex might be willing to gun you down a dozen times over at the hands of some poorly-dressed cyborg with all the personal charm of a malfunctioning toaster. But it also cares about you—or at least about what you do.
And if the idea of a video game keeping track of the decisions a player makes sounds rote or passé, it’s only because we’ve all spent the last 20 years playing video games made by people who played, and loved, Deus Ex. There were games that asked you to make interesting decisions before this—the Fallout series was already going strong by this point, to pick a single data point out of dozens. But none of those titles, on either side of the action/role-playing game line, tied the freedom of expression of a first-person shooter to that consequence-based framework. None of them gave you interesting buildings—or a whole city’s worth of interesting buildings, in later levels—to crawl around and through, ferreting out secrets and alternate routes. And none of them felt quite so much like a digital playground, a space to express yourself in by choosing how you wanted to bring those challenges to heel. At best, the shooters that came before this were highly cinematic, gorgeously gussied-up corridors, funneling players from one high-octane gun battle to the next. Deus Ex gave its players unprecedented levels of choice and, in the process, made Liberty Island into something that had never felt quite so free.