Groping The Map: Liberty Island, Part 1.
“The bots have them bottled up, sir. We’d go right in, if it weren’t for the hold-back order.”
The second instalment of Groping The Map will be presented in multiple parts running over the next several weeks.
- Annotated Walkthrough, 1: South Dock.
- Annotated Walkthrough, 2: Island exterior and UNATCO HQ.
- Annotated Walkthrough, 3: Island exterior and North Dock.
- Annotated Walkthrough, 4: Statue.
- Conclusion and References.
With the, optional, Training level providing basic training on the mechanics of Deus Ex the Liberty Island level is used to provide training in situ. A few new mechanics are introduced but overall Liberty Island presents the various interconnected systems of Deus Ex within the context they will likely be found throughout the rest of the game.
Aesthetically Liberty Island is an example of a common theme throughout Deus Ex, the use of modified but still identifiable real world locations as game spaces. The use of recognisable locations serves to ground the world of Deus Ex, the events that take place are not occurring in some fantasy realm or alien planet but in our own world, albeit after several decades of degradation.
This grounding in ‘reality’ has several purposes, in terms of narrative it opens up possibilities for environmental storytelling through the changes that have occurred in the world. Observing how these locations are presented in Deus Ex, we are reminded of how these spaces appear currently and the changes that must have occurred. A headless statue of Liberty, roadblocks throughout New York city, what such changes imply we are left to dwell upon.
Structurally this use of real world locations leads to a common style of level design through many of the locations of Deus Ex. Designed around a specific location and the immediate area surrounding them, levels are built with a layered onion structure. The primary objective is to gain access to the main location, usually a building or compound at the centre (Metaphorically if not physically) of the level. The goal is to peel away each layer of security until this centre is reached, it is here that the main objectives lie. Liberty Island follows this layout the first goal, to gain access to the statue itself, is achieved after exploration of the outer layers of the island. This is also the same base layout of many of the later levels, the NSF Airfield and Brooklyn Naval Base being two good examples.
This ‘peeling the onion’ theme to level design is a mirror to the development of the narrative. In a world of shadowy pseudo-government organisations and conspiracies, it becomes necessary to strip away the surfaces layers of misinformation and propaganda to expose the truth underneath. Using low level systems to reflect and reinforce higher level systems is something that Deus Ex does in a number of places, it’s a subtle technique but one that provides a cohesion to actions and events that a lot of games lack.
Released in 2000 the open plan layout of Liberty Island has more in common with the design of levels found in Thief: The Dark Project than with any of it’s Unreal engine contemporaries. There are several elements of the level design alone that hark back to Garrett’s adventures; in many ways it makes more sense to consider Deus Ex as an expansion and broadening of the Thief philosophy than it does to consider it as an attempt to add additional action adventure and role playing systems to a traditional first person shooter template.
The combat mechanics alone are enough to convince that despite the heritage of it’s engine, Deus Ex, is not a game based exclusively around shooting hostile NPCs. Much like the sword based combat of Thief, the ranged combat of Deus Ex is functional if lacking in depth, which helps to encourage alternate methods of play. However unlike Garrett, JC Denton has more options available than simply avoiding being seen.
In fact much as it’s combat mechanics are functional without being deep enough to carry a pure action game, the implementation of stealth in Deus Ex is handled with less fidelity than in a game where stealth is the focus. With little direct feedback regarding visibility or AI alert levels, it’s becomes necessary to not rely too much on stealth. Few of the core systems of Deus Ex are implemented deeply enough that they can be absolutely relied upon in all circumstances, even if you have spent the skill points necessary to improve in a particular area. This pushes players to experiment with alternatives. Mechanically nothing is perfect and there is no one optimal solution, this is as much true of the mechanics as of the world of 2052 itself.
Stepping off the boat onto the South Dock of Liberty Island the objectives at first appear very clear, terrorists have taken over the statue, and it’s your job to remove them. Very quickly this black and white certainty is put to the test, first by your brother Paul and then by the ‘terrorists’ themselves. Everything about the game serves to reinforce this notion that there is no singular neat solution and that exploration and experimentation are the only viable options. The first hints of this philosophy of ‘problems not puzzles’, this awareness of the underlying complexity of the world, can be seen in Liberty Island, and it serves as a superb microcosm of the game as a whole. It could be said that the rest of Deus Ex is simply Liberty Island writ large.