Playing the PlayStation 4 demo of Prey resulted in me quitting in anger, hurling my controller at the floor, and deleting the demo.
Getting around to playing it on the PC, I have reached a point seventeen hours in where I encountered a bug that, though it didn’t prevent my progress, would result in a bunch of things being messed up were I to keep going.
Both of those things are true, as is this: Prey is one of best immersive simulation games I have played; I even prefer it to System Shock 2. There are only two games I could make a case for being better at this style of game: Deus Ex and Dishonored.
It’s been a difficult time for me recently for a plethora of reasons I don’t want to dwell on. Prey was a game I had largely discounted, what Arkane Studios were saying sounded too ambitious, and in terms of a spiritual successor to System Shock 2 I’d already been burnt by BioShock. A game I generally like but one whose connection to the earlier “Shock” games seemed superficial at best. I had struggled with Dishonored 2, a superbly made game that I should have adored, but one I just never felt I could connect with. So when I played the demo for Prey and my immediately reaction was aggressively negative I resigned myself to just never being able to enjoy these types of games again.
I am nothing if not stubborn, I decided to try the PlayStation 4 demo again. I took it slowly and, instead of trying to rush in and smash the scuttling Mimics as quickly as I could, I treated them with respect. I made sure my attacks were deliberate. It was a revelation. Once I stopped trying to approach the game with the assumption that these were cannon fodder enemies that I could easily dispatch I realised what this game was. It’s slightly too clunky. It’s slightly too difficult. It’s also incredibly smart, both in terms of systems design and writing, and confidently erudite without being patronising. It builds on everything I found compelling about System Shock 2 in well thought out ways, and makes small but significant changes to certain core tenants of the immersive simulation style that are so obvious in hindsight it’s shocking nobody has attempted them before.
It’s also subtle, I joked that it was probably going to be too subtle for some (reviews appear to have borne this out). There are no caricatured characters spouting philosophy at you for ten hours. It’s a game about scientists and corporations and technology, but it’s handled with a deft touch. The TranStar corporation is engaged in some incredibly unethical experiments on board Talos 1 and the people involved know that. They argue about it, they attempt to justify it to themselves and others. Their responses are entirely, tragically, human. There are people who totally buy the corporate line about the benefits of the work they are doing. Others who are willfully ignorant regarding the extent of their complicity. Even some who are attempting to lift the lid on what’s going on and reveal it to the world at large. Each of these people have their own motivations, none of them are cackling super villains. Even your brother Alex has clear reasons for his actions, reasons that might even convince you.
When it comes to systems design, Prey is maybe a little too late 90s, though it updates the interface and presentation of those systems in ways that make them more comfortable to engage with. Combat can get awkward if you are overwhelmed but at all times you have a myriad of options with which to approach each situation; though your character build choices will push you towards a sub-set of those. I’ve already seen dozens of people citing very different – and often mutually exclusive – ability combinations and weapons as being “over-powered”.
Prey is also rough, Patch 1.2 has just been released fixing a bug that was corrupting save games and preventing further progress. My own bug is less severe but still frustrating. I’ve been assured a fix is coming soon, and yet I think I’m going to restart the game. Seventeen hours in, I’m going to restart a game I’ve not finished yet. A game that is reportedly 20-30 hours long, and I’m really excited about it. To me that tells me all I need to know.
I really like Prey. It might be my favourite Looking Glass Studios game.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like its forebears, allows players to vary their approach, from direct combat to stealth, based on personal expression rather than the requirements of a given set-piece. The mechanics and level design combine to allow the player to engage in any encounter (excluding boss fights) through the use of stealth, combat, or some combination of the two. Key to this is the cover system around which stealth and combat are built.
In order to allow stealth-focused players to traverse an area successfully, levels need to be designed to allow those players to move between important locations while retaining some degree of concealment. In an occlusion-based stealth model this means providing occluding geometry, cover, in a pattern that enables players to navigate from one location to another while keeping an object between themselves and any NPCs. The combat-focused player is in a similar position, though they will not need a complete path through each encounter space; the more cover available the greater their range of tactical movement options. The same distribution of cover that provides concealed movement can be used by the combat-focused player to reposition and potentially outflank hostile NPCs.
This spatial arrangement of geometry is enhanced by the switch from first- to third-person once players take cover. If the game remained in first-person when Adam Jensen took cover behind a lab bench or crate it would be difficult to maintain situational awareness. For both the stealth and combat focused players an accurate mental model of where NPCs are within a given area is important. For the former it’s necessary to ensure that you keep some form of solid object between you, for the latter you need to know where somebody is before you can shoot them.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution does provide a radar display that can serve as a guide to the relative position of hostile NPCs in the environment, however it operates at a level of abstraction and therefore using it becomes a two stage process. Instead of looking at the world and seeing exactly where NPCs are positioned players relying exclusively on the radar will need to mentally overlay the information provided onto what they remember about the spatial layout of the level. Where the radar excels is in its ability to provide information on NPCs outside your immediate field-of-view, helping you to avoid being flanked.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution uses its cover system for both combat and stealth and in doing so has managed to enable the two to coexist in a way that allows both to be utilised within a single encounter. The same occluding geometry that provides concealment from detection also provides protection from incoming fire. Instead of making the stealth-focused player weak by forcing them into the darkness and away from enemies, the cover system of Deus Ex: Human Revolution ensures that stealth-focused players are in just as strong a position as combat-focused players when in cover.
By requiring both stealth- and combat-focused players to relate to the spatial layout of a level in the same way Deus Ex: Human Revolution is able to create a hybrid system where mastering the core abilities of movement and positioning are beneficial to all types of player. Furthermore, when the same layout of cover is beneficial to multiple approaches it makes it easier to switch between styles, even within the same encounter.
Note: This was originally posted as a comment on the Sparky Clarkson article I link to. As I was writing I realised there was a broader point to be made, so I extended and adapted that comment into this article.
Sparky Clarkson didn’t likeRemember Me as much as I did; reading his analysis helped me understand my own feelings and why certain types of cinematic action game have a tendency to feel awkward and dishonest. I believe it’s due to a misguided attempt to hide from players that they are taking actions within a fictionalised virtual world that has its own specific rules and limitations; a focus on cinematic as the end rather than the means.
I agree that the goal of the “cinematic action game” genre is to “engage the player as closely as possible with the characters and their stories” but I don’t think making systems invisible is the only, or even the best, way of achieving this.
To digress slightly, the oft misused and maligned concept of “immersion” is frequently cited as the point at which players “forget they are playing a game”. It is better understood from as a form of holistic completeness and coherence, rather than one of “systemic invisibility”. The player is never going to “forget they are playing a game” to any reasonably measurable degree, the artifice of the real world is too ever present to make that an achievable, or particularly rational, goal; no matter how deeply I am absorbed in a game if my bladder is full my body will relay that information to me urgently and persistently. What is a more useful way to frame immersion is as the presentation to the player of an environment where every action is responded to coherently and consistently so that there are no rough edges to their experience, no jarring edge cases where the implicit or explicit rules of the system break down and the illusion of completeness and wholeness is shattered. This is the “immersion” of the “immersive sim”, games like Thief: The Dark Project or Deus Ex which,no matter the technology used in their construction, are never going to fool anybody into thinking that they “are really there”, but which have a systemic honesty and consistency that makes them feel like complete worlds; where actions have discernible consequences, and it’s easy to get drawn into their constructed environments. This is also why Dark Souls is incredibly immersive despite its third person camera, overly large HUD and onscreen health bars; honesty and consistency.
The cinematic action game genre doesn’t have immersion as one of its goals, instead the means by which they strive to “engage the player as closely as possible” is through ensuring that the player and character frames are always synchronized, that there is minimal drift. The claim that the goal of the cinematic action game genre is that of systemic invisibility is a conflation of intent and methodology. Cinematic action games use the tropes of cinema toward the same ends, but that cinematic mimicry is not the end in itself. The goal, as it is with cinema, is to evoke empathy between audience and subject, between players and characters.
There are genres for which making the systems invisible, either initially or entirely, is a goal however these games are built with a degree of systemic depth and complexity that rewards exploration and experimentation. Cinematic action games rarely share this systemic depth because they are designed to tell a specific story and make the player feel a part of that story for however long it lasts. One of the best means by which this is achieved is through clarity and consistency; the rules and limitations need to be clear and consistent if the player and character frames are to remain aligned. This is why cinematic action games that try to make their systems invisible often fluctuate between two extremes with systems that are either unclear and arbitrary, or unintentionally obvious.
The diegetic navigation overlay of Remember Me is functionally no different to the colour coded signposting of The Last Of Us. Both serve to differentiate usable surfaces from those that, despite being the same size, shape and within a reasonable distance of the character, are not usable. One key difference between The Last Of Us and Remember Me is that the latter never puts you in a position where you have to make a guess as to whether a surface is usable or whether the colouration is just an aesthetic choice and not a usability one. The Last of Us uses yellow in multiple and often conflicting ways: to signify usable surfaces, to draw the eye to points of interest, and as a means of aesthetic colouration associated with military barricades and warning signs. Two identical objects might be highlighted by yellow paint, one is scalable the other is not; because this happens frequently the colouration cannot be trusted and the difference between what is and isn’t usable begins to feel arbitrary. The character knows something you don’t (that one surface is functional the other purely aesthetic) and the notion that you are going through this experience together starts to break down, the frames diverge. This is a problem Remember Me never exhibits because it is absolutely clear at all times what is and isn’t usable, this helps maintain the alignment of player and character frames by constraining valid player actions to those that are relevant within the current context.
Cinematic action games and other genres that combine multiple forms of play usually divide the environment into spaces that serve one form and those that serve another. Exploration spaces give way to combat spaces or vice versa. The “obvious combat arena” level design is a common problem where certain aspects of the design of combat spaces are so obvious that they are instantly recognisable as such unintentionally foreshadowing the combat encounter to come; the “room full of chest high walls” problem.
Remember Me is no different to other games it its division of space between different forms, one way in which it avoids the “obvious combat space” problem is by simply not attempting to hide it; when you enter a combat space combat begins, there is no ambiguity between the use of spaces and therefore no divergence in awareness between player and character. At several points during The Last of Us you have the opportunity to explore an area that will later become a combat space. You are not made aware of this change in function directly but the differences in the spatial layout and the items available become glaringly obvious indicators that this is not an exploration only space despite what it may portray itself to be. Bricks and bottles only appear as items you can pick up within in a combat space, so the moment you see them you know what’s coming even if that change in state doesn’t trigger until after a cutscene. The shape, size and distribution of cover objects is immediately identifiable and distinctly artificial; even before you are introduced to the game’s combat systems. Instead of making the transitions between exploration and combat invisible The Last of Us makes it obvious in a way that gives the player greater forewarning than the character, creating a gulf between the two, and undercutting the tension created when safe spaces become suddenly hostile. Remember Me avoids this problem because combat spaces are immediately identifiable and combat within them occurs immediately. You, as the player, know something is a combat space the same moment Nilin does.
Games are artificial constructs, they have unique rules and limitations and in order to engage with them, in order to play, those rules need to be clear and consistent; or unclear and inconsistent in ways that the game is designed around. Cinematic action games are build upon a foundation of ensuring the player and character frames remain aligned and that any drift is kept to a minimum. It’s a relationship of trust, trust is built on honesty, and when the boundaries of the simulation are clear the game has to be honest.
Games have their own language, written in health bars, and experience points, and combo meters, systems designed to feed back information to the player with clarity and consistency. To strike out against the artifice of games is an insidious form of cinema envy, one that presumes that the language of cinema is the more developed language and the one toward which games should strive. Cinema is subjective, the camera lies frequently and intentionally; cinema disassembles and ambiguates as a means of eliciting an emotional response. This form of emotional manipulation has its place but when the player is in control, when their actions become those of the character such dishonesty is undesirable, it drives a wedge between the two, pushing the player and character frames apart in potentially irreconcilable ways.
Attempting to hide or obfuscate the boundaries of a virtual world can too often lead to confusion and ambiguity, to a game that feels dishonest. Without clear rules applied honestly players are left to second guess themselves and the game, the convergence of player and character frames that is the goal of the cinematic action game genre breaks down. Why can I climb this piece of yellow bordered scenery but not that one? Did I miss that bandit while exploring or did he only spawn after I opened the door? I don’t have the answers to those questions because The Last of Us is not honest with me about the application of its rules, they are hidden behind cinematic tropes. But I do I know that Nilin will always make that jump and that we both know when a fight’s about to start.
In order to promote my work on Groping The Map: Book 1, I have decided to release a .pdf sample of the first nine pages of the chapter on Nova Prospekt from Half-Life 2. Consider this a “vertical-slice” of the book, as you can see I have made some changes from the traditional format that the articles had when posted directly to this site. I’d greatly appreciate any and all feedback on this sample and please feel free to share this as widely as possible.
In addition to this sample of previously unseen work I have complied the three existing Groping The Map articles into .pdf files for easy distribution, they can be found here, again feel free to share as widely as possible:
Additionally I, along with a collection of other really smart writers have started RunJumpFire. I have a new weekly column there called Design By Example where I analyse one specific game mechanic or mechanism each Wednesday. Currently I have articles up on Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Super Metroid, forthcoming this month are articles on Dishonored and Alpha Protocol, the column archive can be found here.
In any simulated system there are boundaries, points at which the model being used breaks down, where player behaviour is no longer accounted for. The most obvious of these are the physical boundaries of the game space, the chasm too wide to cross or the wall too high to climb. To a large extent the methods for dealing with these physical boundaries are well developed and understood; though it’s still not uncommon for the occasional invisible wall to appear blocking progress along what looks like a valid route.
Another form of boundary found within the simulated systems of video games are those between supported player actions and unsupported player actions. In his GDC 2004 lecture (.zip file) on the subject Clint Hocking details three ways in which a game can deal with this type of simulation boundary. They can either “extend the design” by adding additional abilities so as to extend the bounds of the simulation further; “support the failure” by allowing the simulation to break but providing alternate means of progress; or “end the game” with a game over screen or a similarly absolute resolution.
Each of these approaches has its benefits and drawbacks, extending the design offers more possibilities to the player but is little more than a way of moving the goal posts. Supporting failure again serves to provide additional possibilities as success at a given task is no longer the only means of progression, unfortunately supporting all failure states can lead to actions feeling like they have no consequence. Ending the game has the benefit of being the clearest means by which to resolve player action at the boundary but it is also the most artificial and heavy handed.
In a recent article on Dishonored, Robert Yang describes a way in which that game deals with a simulation boundary he encountered within the opening moments. My initial reaction to this criticism was that it seemed petty to criticize what is ostensible a tutorial for limiting player agency for the sake of teaching something. This was narrow-minded of me, Robert is raising an interest point about the manner in which Dishonored handles simulation boundaries, and how that compares to the games it is drawing its design influences from. Instead of softly accounting for any errant behaviour and shepherding players back into the supported space Dishonored instead chooses to set a hard boundary identified in some instances by an explicit game over screen. It’s a choice that, as he points out, runs contrary to the approached traditionally adopted by the “immersive sim”. Instead of extending the design or supporting failure as the likes of Deus Ex and System Shock do Dishonored instead resorts of ending the game when certain boundaries are crossed.
The benefit of such an approach is that the feedback is clear and unambiguous: this is an unsupported action, refrain from attempting it again. The same hard boundary can be enforced at many different points at the limits of the simulation, any actions that are unaccounted for can be dealt with in the same absolute fashion. A benefit of this approach is that it avoids one of the problems associated with softer boundaries which is that of repetition of behaviour If I perform an unsupported action once, such as jumping on an NPC’s head, it makes sense for this to elicit a response. Consider the Metro Cops in the opening sections of Half-Life 2. When you throw something at them, or otherwise antagonize them, they will push you back and tell you to stop, if you persist they will draw their stun batons and beat you. That is as far as the simulation allows them to go, you can keep throwing things at their head and keep getting beaten for as long as you like nothing further will happen.
When considering the different ways in which games like Deus Ex, Thief and Dishonored deal with simulation boundaries what stands out is that the times at which these games resort either to hard boundaries, or explicitly limiting player behaviour is when players are required to interact with other characters. It comes as little surprise then that the series that relies most on resolving boundary infractions softly is System Shock, where there are no living characters with whom the player can directly interact.
In Dishonored the approach of presenting a hard boundary is exclusively reserved for dealings with NPC’s, specifically those the game has identified as allies. Dishonored is attempting, by means of hard simulation boundaries, to establish an identity for it’s protagonist Corvo Attano. This is why these boundaries are most obvious in the the prologue section (where Corvo is still the Lord Protector and the Empress is still alive), and in the Hound Pits sections between missions. Certain parts of Corvo’s identity are defined, certain parts are not and the way Corvo treats the people deemed to be his allies is part of the former and something the player has little influence over.
Dishonored‘s design metaphor (that of being a supernatural assassin) doesn’t effectively account for Corvo having allies. As an assassin he only really has targets, and characters or objects that are preventing him from reaching those targets. Though appropriate fictionally even the notion of a non-lethal means of dealing with his targets starts to push at the bounds of that design metaphor. In the missions themselves where there are no explicit allies the approach Dishonored takes to simulation boundaries is to support failure. One of the side effects of which, as Clint Hocking describes, is that this serves to makes the game easier, there is almost always an alternate means of performing a required tasks or reaching a specific objective.
Corvo, and by extension the player, is assumed to be acting in the interests of the Loyalists even if they are not shared interests. This leads to the perception that the only meaningful actions are those related to people you are not required to be nice to, these are the only ones where player actions remain largely unrestricted and thus have direct consequences. In Dishonored the way you treat your “friends” is largely irrelevant. You are only judged by how you choose to treat people you don’t need to treat well.
For all that has changed in game design in the thirteen years since System Shock 2, games like it are still using conceptually similar means of dealing with living characters. These hard boundaries and limits on player agency are inelegant and often binary solutions that are jarring when set beside the softer less absolute means by which other forms of player behaviour are handled.
Building off the initial framework outlined in Part 1 these additional concepts serve to provide means of structure and control. The primary appeal of this model is that it marries dramatic character development with player agency while potentially allowing for more variation than can efficiently be achieved through the use of branching narratives alone.
For a possible manner in which the described concepts could be used within an existing game consider the myriad characters in Alpha Protocol with their conflicting goals and motivations. Instead of the increasingly complicated branching structures that were used the relationships between different characters and between each of them and the player could be handled systemically. For the player the observable outcome might well be very similar to that achieved by scripting each possible interaction, but by defining those relationships systemically and by allowing players inputs into that system numerous additional options are opened up and the range of player expression is increased.
Abandon the use of plot as the overriding motivator for progression focus instead on character motivations.
Separating player actions from a scripted plot allows players to take actions based on their desired outcome, or at the very least their least undesirable outcome, rather than the outcome decreed by the original designer. In the Alpha Protocol example a similar structure to the one that was used could be encouraged by simply giving the player the objective of disrupting the plans of Ali Shaheed. Certain characters would be motivated to help, others to hinder based on their long term goals as defined by the designers and writers.
Rely on basic assumptions about player psychology.
Players will naturally apply human traits and motivations to characters and they will tend to continue following a path they find interesting. If your characters are strong enough players will want to see their arcs through to the end. (Unsurprisingly this sections requires more in depth analysis and study to ensure that any assumptions made are accurate and appropriate.)
Focus on character arcs over plot arcs.
Dramatic moments are subjective what is important to one character is a non-event to another don’t try to imbue a scene with emotion if the characters the player is focusing on have nothing at stake.
Populate the world with characters that have non-aligned goals and motivations.
Two characters with directly aligned long term goals does not make for dramatically interesting conflict. Allowing the player to take sides, or not, based upon their actions immediately requires one or more of the characters to adjust their plans thereby creating conflict.
Allow events to unfold without player involvement.
If two characters are motivated to kill each other and the player or other characters do not act to stop them let them kill each other. The player doesn’t need to witness such events but they should, like all other characters, be affected by the consequences.
Treat the player as another character.
Don’t create special case interactions between the player and other characters.
Determine player choices based on the actions they take not through explicit decision points.
Defining players based on their actions allows characters to make judgements based on what they do and therefore react to them as they would any other character. Where the player goes, when, with whom and what they do there should all be used to determine other characters reactions to them.
Define player verbs by the characters, props and setting.
Don’t allow the player to use a weapon or directly attack other characters if it is inappropriate to the setting. A political thriller calls for a range of characters and props that a fantasy adventure does not, player verbs should be defined accordingly.
Use characters, and setting to determine genre and theme.
If the cast of characters, settings and props are those befitting a noir story then the choices available to the player can be organically restricted to those that are thematically appropriate for such a story. Genre conventions in this sense are not necessary a flaw and in fact they can help players understand the range of options available to them.
Make it clear that motivations assigned to actions are character specific.
If players want to act a certain way to gain the support of a specific character let them. They are not gaming the system, they are manipulating particular characters.
Implement a wide variety of vectors by which to inform players of events and character motivation.
News reports, emails, diaries, gossip, all these methods and more can be used to impart information to the player regarding events in the world and the motivations of particular characters.
Track interactions of players with the various means of obtaining information to create a model of player awareness of world events.
By tracking the vectors through which players obtain information, assumptions can be made regarding what events the player may or may be aware of at any given time.
Structure and Dramatic control:
The following are methods of controlling the structure and flow of the player’s experience and preventing potential combinatorial explosion. In general these rely on filtering possible character actions based on certain criteria. This criteria can either be defined at creation, or set up to change based on specific events.
Use dramatic filters to modify or influence possible character choices.
The use of specific constraints on character behaviour can be used to promote certain aesthetic experiences. A theme of tragic romance can be promoted by limiting character actions to those motivated primarily by emotional considerations over practical ones. (Requires codification of dramatic and thematic concepts, needs further examine in a later post.) This should not be necessary except in very specific circumstances because the characters and setting will have been designed initially to be ones appropriate to the theme.
Use player knowledge and player awareness to filter character choices.
Limit the ability of a character to take actions with wide ranging consequences if the player only has limited awareness of that character. This can be overridden by a dramatic filter for example if the player seems likely to meet this character in the future, allowing their influence to be felt before their make their presence known might be more appropriate.
As time progresses limit the influence of characters the player has had little or no interaction with.
Focus the story down to those characters the player had shown themselves to be more interested in. This will help to prevent events from occuring unexpectedly.
If necessary create a “Fate” character to allow actions to occur beyond the control of all other characters.
If designers desire certain events to occur such events can be instigated by a general purpose “Fate” character, who effectively serves as a designer proxy. Ideally such a character would never be needed but the possibility exists to allow this framework to work in support of a more scripted story.
Stories can be created that revolve around character emotions and desires rather than objects. What follows is an incomplete list of potential story beats possible with the techniques described. All these moments would occurred dynamically based on player actions and characters’ reaction to, and interpretation of, those actions. In all these instances player actions could lead to a variation upon or a complete reversal of events. Consider the possibilities offered by such events occurring dynamically in a game like Alpha Protocol or Deus Ex.
A character might lie to the player to get them to perform a specific task so they can avoid being implicated.
Because the transmission of information is modeled it might fit a character’s motivations for a certain action to be performed but not attributed to them. The variables that govern a desire for a certain outcome and a desire to maintain positive relationships with certain other characters might both be high.
A player could act as a puppet master exploiting the desires of multiple characters to bring about a specific occurrence.
With an understanding of the way in which knowledge of events propagates, players could manipulate the flow of information to convince characters to take actions on their behalf. This is in essence a reversal of the previous example.
While working for a particular character the player is betrayed because their previous actions, which had been unknown, come to light.
Information about actions occurs through interaction between characters so it is not instantaneously. It would be possible therefore, for a player to take an action detrimental to a charcter’s desires and then start working with that character, only for them to then discover the player’s earlier actions.
Characters with competing motivations and long term goals join forces because the actions of the player have disrupted both their plans.
Certain actions on the part of the player could make them a more immediate problem for two otherwise competing characters, leading them to both take actions to deal with the player, thereby either directly or indirectly helping each other.
“Don’t think you know something about the Lady I don’t. My dad did tours out here.”
There’s one word whose use is all but unavoidable when discussing Deus Ex: ‘possible’. The path across Liberty Island I have described is only one of many available routes, though all players start and end their paths at the same point the possibilities for what occurs between are legion. Convince Harlen Filben to give you the key to the Statue entrance, or ignore him completely, free Agent Hermann or leave him for the UNATCO Troopers to rescue, arrest NSF Commander Leo Gold or exterminate with extreme prejudice. The choices are yours and by making those choices you are responsible for the consequences.
The themes and mechanics on display in this level are ones that you will become increasingly familiar with as your progress further into the world of Deus Ex. Though some of the later levels present a more limited possibility space the same basic concepts and interactions you first experience here remain consistent. Augmentations and upgraded skills change the range of tools at your disposal yet their interactions with the systemic foundation of Deus Ex rarely change.
Liberty Island is the first level of Deus Ex and compared to similar first levels there are some notable differences. Within moments of arriving you are given the opportunity to use one of the most powerful weapons in the game, the GEP Gun. Even if you are unaware of it’s position in the hierarchy of weaponry in Deus Ex, it is clear that it is an extremely powerful weapon and to be given it this early is a markedly different decision than would be made by the designers of a pure action game. It doesn’t take long to understand the reason why being given access to this incredibly powerful weapon doesn’t totally unbalance the game. Weapons in Deus Ex are merely another form of tool, and though many problems on Liberty Island can be solved through the direct application of violence that is rarely the ‘path of least resistence’ that it would be in a more traditional first person game.
The ‘onion’ like structure of Liberty Island is populated with problem encounters both large and small, this serves to create a possibility space both physical and mechanical that can be freely explored and approached from a variety of directions. With few strict barriers between each problem and no set point of entry you are free to examine each situation from various angles before making any decisions on how to act. This ability to analyse a problem before initiating action promotes intentionality. You are in control and when things don’t work out as planned the reasons are usually easy to understand. It’s possible for elements of one problem to spill over and affect another but this is never truly unpredictable. All elements within the broader problem of Liberty Island itself operate on a consistent set of systemic principles and when unexpected elements do appear their behaviour is predictable. Deus Ex puts you in control, but not always in power.
The flip-side of this freedom to form plans and act on your own schedule is that Liberty Island can suffer from some pacing issues. Some problems will naturally be overcome quicker than others and that is difficult to predict and account for. This can lead to certain routes across the Island feeling more sluggish and drawn out than others depending on your playstyle. An inherent weakness of a game like Deus Ex, when players are the initiators it’s very difficult to manage pacing for dramatic purposes without cutting against that very player intentionality that is a core principle.
As a member of UNATCO, your standing orders with regard to those affiliated with the National Secessionist Forces are “shoot on sight”. They are a ‘terrorist’ organisation who have shown little regard for human life are to be treated as such. This clear cut morality is put to the test very quickly on Liberty Island. The other UNATCO Troopers you meet, such as Tech Sergeant Kaplan and Corporal Collins seem far more ‘gung-ho’ than the NSF whose discussions you overheard. The NSF might not all be named as the UNATCO Troopers are, but they seem far more nuanced in their beliefs than those supposedly upholding the side of ‘law and order’. It’s possible that the reason one group is comprised of named individuals and the other isn’t is simply due to the fact that the player character, JC Denton, is assumed to have already met all the UNATCO Troopers stationed on Liberty Island.
Before you meet him the final ‘boss’, if such a video game centric term is appropriate, is given a name and a face by another unique individual, Harlen Filben. Leo Gold is not some terrorist archetype, he is a person with his own opinions and judgements regarding his actions. Though there is plenty of fodder to be found, especially when the Majestic 12 forces appear during the later stages of the game Deus Ex is possibly the closest we have yet come to surpassing Steve Gaynor’s metric for meaningful violence, and it was released over ten years ago.
Liberty Islandis Deus Ex in microcosm, any analysis of the former is inherently also an analysis of the latter. The focus on problems built from systemic elements, the broad possibility space with room for creative solutions, even the problems with pacing, all these issues are as true of Deus Ex as a whole as they are of Liberty Island in isolation. This ability of Liberty Island to be representative of the game that will follow marks it out as a near perfect introductory level.
Liberty Island is the work of Designer Harvey Smith.
Deus Ex is the work of Ion Storm Austin (Now closed). It was published by Eidos Interactive, now a subsidiary of Square-Enix.
A Postmortem of Deus Ex written by Project Director Warren Spector can be found at Gamasutra.
The entire script of Deus Ex can be found at GameFAQs.
“A shame, isn’t it? The French terrorist group Silhouette claims that France was wrong to give the U.S. the Statue. We think they planned the bombing.”
Annotated Walkthrough, 4:
With two objectives and at least two separate entrances the Statue itself represents a higher level problem encounter than those you may have come across while exploring the exterior of Liberty Island. Though possible to break down each individual area within the Statue into it’s own discrete problem it can also be viewed as a single multilayered encounter space.
Opting for the subtle approach you can gain access via the shipping containers to the Statue base. Upon reaching the top you can take cover from the two patrolling NSF behind the crates positioned near the edge of the Statue base. These crates also grant access back onto the shipping containers if necessary. Aside from this initial position there is little cover from the three patrolling NSF on the first level of the Statue Base.
What remains of the head of the Statue of Liberty has been erected on the eastern side of the Statue base. The TNT Crate placed in front of it seems in slightly poor taste; though using it to kill the NSF, and possibly his Mercenary comrade too, does hold a certain ironic appeal.
The death toll from the attack on the Statue was likely small however the psychological affect on the citizens of an already conflicted United States must have been significant. Even with the World Trade Center towers already destroyed the symbolism of a decapitated Lady Liberty cannot be underestimated. Symbolism that appeared again eight years later when the poster of Cloverfield depicted a similar image of a headless Statue of Liberty.
Despite the limited cover the extended patrol paths of the NSF in this area make it easier to deal with each of them separately or, of course, avoid them entirely. A pair of NSF with much shorter paths mark out the western side of the Statue as important. Keeping close to the inner wall will allow you to can gain access to either the interior or, via a ramp, the unguarded upper levels of the Statue base.
If you choose to enter the Statue at this point, you won’t be able to take more than a few paces before hearing the footsteps of another NSF patrolling the central stairwell. If the two NSF are still on patrol behind you some quick thinking is required to prevent being seen by either them or their approaching ally; on the other hand there is plenty of 10mm Ammo to be found on Liberty Island and at this range a headshot will be instantly fatal. If neither direct action nor avoidance appeal there is a large Poison Barrel the landing just above you, which will incapacitate anybody who inhales its fumes.
Reaching the stairs the sound of a Camera can be heard from somewhere below, assuming that it hasn’t already been turned off via a Security Computer Terminals such as the one outside the main Statue entrance. Downstairs is the ground floor and the imprisoned Agent Gunther Hermann, while upstairs is your Primary Objective the NSF Commander, Leo Gold.
When the ground floor of the Statue comes into view it appears to be poorly defended, a single NSF circling the torch in the centre of the lobby and another on the balcony above. The entire ground floor however is one large interconnected problem, even if the five NSF total that can be found on this floor of the Statue are not as dangerous in isolation as the Security Bot outside the Statue entrance together they represent a significant threat.
Unlike the rest of the NSF on Liberty Island instead of responding with gunfire, the first actions of those guarding Agent Hermann upon being alerted is to call for reinforcements. This change in behaviour gives you a few seconds leeway in which to respond to an alerted NSF as well as presenting it’s own opportunities for exploitation; Gas Grenade underneath the Alarm Sounder Panel perhaps?
The arrangement of the Statue lobby is a great example of systemic level design in action, there are several elements positioned throughout the area, some of which you will have seen before others you may not have but which have clear affordances. Reaching Agent Hermann is a multistage process that be approached in more ways that I could reasonably describe here. Alarm Sounder Panel, Poison Barrel, Electric Control Panel, the interactions between these world objects and your available tools are easily parsable and depending on your personal preferences plans will be forming within the first moments of entering the lobby.
Approaching the laser grid protecting the doorway Alex Jacobson advises you that the security the NSF have in place is “strictly amateur stuff”, whether this matches your own assessment or not the implied message is that there is a way to bypass it and that even if the security initially looks imposing you have the tools available to deal with it. His further comment that the building is probably “riddled with ventilation shafts and maintenance tunnels” may seem a little cliched but it does help to indicate possibilities that may not yet have presented themselves. Indeed upon exploration a ventilation shaft can be found in the corner of the lobby in the shadow of a pillar.
At the end of this darkened shaft is a Multitool and access to a pair of rooms which are both currently sealed. Continuing on into a second leads to a small room the doorway to which has been barricaded by large, immovable, crates. On the desk within this room are a Datapad providing account and security details that will allow you to use the ATM machine in the lobby to acquire (Yes, steal) some credits; provided the ATM is working something the Datapad indicates might not always be the case. There is also a Medkit on the desk and a PS20, a device that looks like a futuristic lighter. Though cigarettes still exist in 2052 this is in fact the near future equivalent of a Derringer, a single shot, Plasma weapon that is 100% accurate at close range. Rare throughout the rest of Deus Ex, it is possible to find three PS20s on Liberty Island.
Returning to the room where you found the Multitool a locked door provides access to the area behind the laser grid. With both a limited lock strength and door strength this door can be unlocked with a Lockpick or simply destroyed with explosives. Interestingly a Lockpick and a LAM can both be found on the desk back in the lobby, alongside a Datapad detailing the login details for the Security Computer Terminals in the Statue; details that can be found in several duplicate Datapads across the Island.
There are only a few meters between this doorway and the door to Agent Hermann’s ‘cell’ but there are three NSF between those two points, two on patrol in the small area directly ahead of you and only sitting at a table directly outside the ‘cell’ door.
The two NSF have patrol routes of different lengths and unless you are willing to wait it’s difficult to see any opportunity to get past them without confronting either or both of them. Patience is a virtue and if you do wait their patrol routes to sync up leading to both of them entering the room overlooking Agent Hermann’s ‘cell’ at the same time thus providing you with the means chance to avoid them, or to deal with them both at once possibly with a LAM or Gas Grenade.
The final NSF in this area will remain seated unless alerted, and in this position he can be dispatched, either lethally or otherwise, fairly easily. In order to approach him you will need to be sure you take measures to deal with the Camera covering the ‘cell’ door. Positioned behind you as you enter it’s very easy to miss and the steps you take to avoid detection by it can lead to you giving yourself away to the seated NSF.
Gunther Hermann can only be freed by using the Security Computer Terminal next to his ‘cell’ door. In some fashion this serves as a form of gated progression. If you haven’t learnt to examine Datapads to find login details or keycodes then you will have difficulty in the future stages of Deus Ex. However it seems extremely unlikely that with at least three separate Datapads, containing duplication information, positioned throughout the level you will have failed to have read at least one of them. If you can’t remember the details they will have been automatically stored on the same interface screen as your Goals (Default F2).
Almost without preamble Gunther Hermann asks you to provide him with a weapon. Even if you wanted to give him your Pistol it could be problematic if you have equipped it with any Weapon Mods. You will never be able to get that Pistol back if you give it to Agent Hermann and those Weapon Mods are not as easy to find as they may have been on Liberty Island. You could drop your modified Pistol and grab a standard Pistol from the body of one of the NSF, however if you’ve already searched their bodies you will have taken some 10mm Ammo instead of the Pistol, and of course it’s entirely possible there will be no bodies to search. Suffice to say there is a way to arm Agent Hermann while keeping your potentially modified Pistol for yourself, but it requires foreknowledge regarding his request.
Either way, Hermann will leave his cell and make his own way back to UNATCO Headquarters attacking any NSF ‘Terrorists’ he comes across. If you have not supplied him with a weapon he will resort to using his Combat Knife, which can be a vaguely comical sight.
As a Secondary Objective freeing Agent Hermann rewards you with the same 150 skill points as talking to Harlen Filben. Because it can also result in the lose of your Pistol in functional terms there is little benefit to freeing your imprisoned colleague. Upon returning to UNATCO Headquarters Agent Hermann will be more favourably disposed to you if you did choose to help him escape but beyond these narrative beats there is little long term functional advantage or disadvantage to completing this Secondary Objective; finding another Pistol is a trivia task after all.
Whether you’ve selected to free Agent Hermann or not, your final destination is the NSF Commander at the top of the Statue; technically the top of the Statue base as the interior of the Statue itself is inaccessible.
Regardless of your means of entry to the Statue interior all routes converge at the same point.
Approaching from the outside there is an entrance on each wall three of which are protected by Gas Grenades; fast reactions will allow you to disarm and retrieve them. The fourth, the North facing, is guarded by a NSF and a Mercenary, who can be heard discussing the shipment and the actions of somebody called JoJo. The Mercenary doesn’t seem to agree with his younger and more obviously indoctrinated companion regarding the composition of the NSF and specifically JoJo’s place within it. JoJo Fine is a character you may have the chance to meet later once you reach New York city, though it’s also entirely possible that you will never hear his name again. Whatever their other opinions neither of them appears particularly concerned about standing next to a large Barrel with a clear Explosive warning on it’s side. This is the type of carelessness that can easily cost lives.
Move forward up the stairs and Alex Jacobsen will contact you again either to confirm that “Gunther has reestablished contact” after you helped him escape, or reminding you that he “remains in captivity on the ground floor”. He will also provide another part of the puzzle regarding the NSF presence on Liberty Island, apparently the shipment they stole was the plague vaccine Ambrosia. There’s a further 150 skill points ‘Progress Bonus’ for reaching this point.
Climbing more stairs there’s one further encounter with two NSF ‘Terrorists’, at least one of whom seemed almost reserved about the possibility of death. Senior to the Private next to him he can be overheard telling him that: “If UNATCO breached the perimeter, then it’s already too late. Get ready to fight.” Preoccupied, these two NSF can be avoided if you are careful and move while they are still talking, otherwise the Gas Grenades you recovered downstairs may prove useful, that’s assuming you are not following standing UNATCO orders regarding the NSF threat.
A ladder now stands between you and your Primary Objective. Reaching the top of the Statue grants a ‘Critical Location Bonus’ of 750 skill points which are awarded regardless of your actions after this point; even if you choose to simply kill Leo Gold out of hand you will still be awarded the skill points for reaching the top of the Statue.
Surrendering the moment you speak to him Leo Gold seems resigned to his fate. If you choose not to kill him, he’s more than willing to talk to you as in his mind he has already won. The NSF have the Ambrosia and for the moment there’s little UNATCO can do about it. You can initiate conversation with Leo Gold three times, and the more you do the more the topics stray off into the world of conspiracy theories upon which the storyline of Deus Ex is built. There are reasons that will only become clear later as to why Leo might feel discussing his motivations with a Denton to be a worthwhile pursuit, but the manner in which they are presented feels rather blunt. The hand of the designer is a little too obvious in this instance. Little of the information or organisations mentioned in this exchange are referenced again and other than serving to show that Leo has heavily bought into the NSF rhetoric they come across as out of place and forced.
As you finish talking to the NSF Commander, footsteps behind you announce the presence of a UNATCO Trooper who informs you that they have now retaken control of the Statue. In a noteworthy decision on the part of the designer this UNATCO Trooper is the only one on this Island who is not invulnerable to damage. If you so desire you can shoot him and take his Assault Rifle; though it only contains a single bullet if you do. During you subsequent debriefing by Joesph Manderly you can even deny any knowledge of this act of cold blooded murder. Curiously Alex Jacobsen remains uncharacteristically quite about the death of this UNATCO Trooper.
No matter the matter you choose to deal with the NSF on the Island every single one of them is now dead, the UNATCO Troopers that finally stormed the Statue were operating under the “shoot on sight” orders that were initially given to you.
Returning to the UNATCO Headquarters both Tech Sergeant Kaplan and your brother Paul will be waiting for you, and both have their own opinion of your actions. Even though every ‘Terrorist’ on Liberty Island is now dead your decisions have been noted and it seems everybody in UNATCO has their own opinion of what they indicate about your character.
“I warned him, you know. I said right to his face, ‘Don’t take weapons into the Lady. That makes you as bad as UNATCO.'”
Annotated Walkthrough, 3:
Heading to the right after leaving the South Dock you will pass the corpse of another UNATCO Trooper, this one armed solely with a Pepper Spray. So far the concept that UNATCO are a law enforcement organisation seems to be borne out by the equipment of the UNATCO personnel you have encountered. It is difficult to reconcile this with your stated orders to “shoot on sight”; something is not quite right. The path to the informant on the North Dock leads to a number of situations that call into question the black and white morality of UNATCO and their opinions of the NSF ‘Terrorists’.
Moving off the direct path to the Statue, the first impression is that this side of the Island is less heavily guarded; there are fewer NSF and their patrol routes are longer. To stay hidden you will need to stick close to the base of the Statue where there are more stacks of crates that can provide cover from the patrolling NSF. Eventually these crates runs out and in order to keep going it is necessary to risk moving through the open (There is also the option to take a shortcut to the Statue entrance, but we’ve discussed that area). The gaps between the the different patrol routes mean that with some planning it is possible to time this movement to avoid being spotted before you can make it round the corner of the Statue base into the darkness on the far side.
With no lights and no patrolling NSF there is a curious dead zone along the southern side of Liberty Island. In a ‘V’ created by the Statue base you are hidden from view and are probably at the most safe of anywhere on the Island. To balance that there is very little that can be done in this part of the map, there are no objects to interact with, the only options available are to remain where you are, move back toward the South Dock or continue forward.
Security on the south side of the Island is obviously of a lower priority than that around the Statue entrance, the two NSF standing beneath a light near the Statue base are more interested in talking to each other than maintaining any form of patrol route. In the open, with their backs to you, they would seem easy targets. Unfortunately neutralizing two NSF can still present some problems, especially for players choosing to take a non-lethal approach. Pepper Spray or a Gas Grenade are the obvious options to incapacitate them before moving in with either the Electric Prod or a Baton to knock them unconscious, though as with many other encounters on Liberty Island there is the option to simply avoid them altogether.
Even if all you do is put a 10mm bullet in each of them, it is worth staying until they have finished their conversation. Despite never mentioning him by name it doesn’t take long to conclude that their are discussing their recently captured prisoner Agent Hermann and the mechanical parts that have been used to ‘augment’ his natural abilities, in the words of one “They cut off his arm, replaced half of his face.” The brief discussion about the merits of mechanically augmentation presage some of the themes that will be explored further in subsequent parts of the game. This narrative beat also serves to show that not all NSF ‘Terrorists’ think alike, and some are clearly more convinced by the rhetoric and propaganda than others. ‘Terrorists’ with personalities and strong arguments for the sanctity of human life? Once again Deus Ex shows that its world is not going to be one of moral absolutes with clearly defined villains.
Moving away from this pair you are offered another establishing shot. The initial impression is that movement through this area should be fairly uneventful if you choose it to be. There are various points of cover with a lot of darkness between each of them and the only NSF in sight are some distance away. Of course there is no way to determine if the NSF and his Mercenary comrade will continue to talk indefinitely or whether they will move away to resume their patrol routes, and if so in what directions they might head. Furthermore if the pair of NSF behind you have not been dealt with you will need to take them into account when moving across this area. Another example of having to operate on incomplete information, moving forward with cause you to break line of sight with at least one of the groups of NSF and therefore you will need to either rely on speed, or take it slow and hope that you will remain undetected.
In actuality the sensory range of the NSF is surprisingly low, it is unlikely you will be spotted by any of them even if you decide to run across the middle of this area. Without experimentation this is not a known factor, as Liberty Island marks your first encounter with the NSF (and if this is your first experience of Deus Ex) it is unlikely you will have had the opportunity to experiment enough with their sensory abilities to be that brazen.
Nearing the eastern shore of the Island you will approach what appears to be a bunker with a ramp leading below the surface. There is also a large stack of, well illuminated, shipping containers and a patrolling NSF.
There are no stated objectives that require exploration of this bunker and it could just be ignored, though I suspect few would be willing to do that. It clearly serves some function and therefore it is worth at least a cursory examination. Doing so is a potentially risky proposition, either the NSF patrolling in this area will need to be dealt with or you will need to risk allowing him out of your sight by moving down the ramp. From the top of the ramp it’s possible to make out the footsteps of a second NSF somewhere within the bunker, stealth focused players will need to ensure that they are not spotted by either of these two NSF; there are of course other options available such as killing both or using a noise to distract one while you focus on getting past the other. This latter option is complicated by the strange industrial pounding that grows louder as you descent the ramp, drowning out your footsteps. The source of this noise is never identified though the indication is that there is some large machinery under the surface of the Island.
The bunker is not very large and in order to explore it the NSF guarding it will need to be naturalised directly. With this done, in whatever fashion you feel is appropriate, you will find another problem, this one slightly different to any previously encountered.
Rounding the corner large blue bolts of electricity can be seen arcing from a damaged “power box”, while on the far side a number of crates are visible, the logos on two of them indicating they contain munitions of some form.
The subterranean location and droning industrial noise serve to isolate this problem from the rest of Liberty Island. Unlike the patrolling Security Bot outside the Statue entrance there is little likelihood of any stray NSF finding their way down here and disrupting your attempts to get past the sparking power box. Entirely optional, this is a problem unlike any others you may have been faced with previously. Even the Security Bot encounter, challenging though it is was foreshadowed somewhat by the final stage of the your Training.
In a similar fashion to the Comm Van there are a number of possible ways to overcome this problems using tools that can be found in the vicinity. The electrical discharge can be mitigated through the use of the Environmental Suit which is clearly visible at the base of the ramp. An examination of the top of the adjacent container will provide you with a Multitool that can be used to bypass the power box and shut down the discharge. The forks on the forklift can be used to allow you to climb over the power box avoiding the electricity entirely however some thought is required if this is the method you choose, getting across to the crates is one thing, getting back is another. Much as with the patrolling NSF, sometimes avoiding the problem simply leads to it becoming another problem later on.
Whatever method you choose to reach the crates the reward is significant, the crates contain a Bioelectrical Cell and two Weapon Mods (Laser Sight and Clip Size increase); the use of the latter have yet to be identified however an analysis of their description in the Inventory will explain their use. Along with the contents of the crates there is the opportunity to pick up a Fire Extinguisher, the primary purpose of which is obvious, the potential secondary uses not so much; a cultural understanding of action films will reveal some possibilities. Even if these tools themselves were not a sufficient reward reaching the far end of the bunker leads to another ‘Exploration Bonus’, this time a not insubstantial 250 skill points.
Leaving the bunker leads back to the large pile of shipping containers, some of which have ladders attached a clear indication that climbing them may prove beneficial. Doing so will lead to some further information from Alex Jacobsen informing you that it’s possible to use these shipping containers to “avoid some of the security”. Alex now seems far less strict about the UNATCO orders requiring all NSF to be shot “on sight” and instead encourages a more subtle approach. There is apparently more to Alex than the ‘by the book’ approach he espoused when he first spoke to you. At this point you have still not met Alex in person and his somewhat flexible attitude towards your orders is handled with enough subtly that regardless of your actions he can be read as a supportive character. As Deus Ex progresses Alex becomes the only person you can reliably trust, he sees everything you do and even if he doesn’t always agree with some of the more extreme actions you can take he will still support you, even helping to cover up those extreme actions when necessary.
There are no NSF between the bunker and the North Dock itself, the presence of the UNATCO Security Bot no doubt a large part of that reason. A reassuring sight it is still a little odd that it merely patrols back and forth near the entrance to the North Dock when there are NSF on the dock itself and around the Statue. Even if the Bot is now operating under the same orders as the rest of UNATCO and leaving the situation to you it is still strange that he was not destroyed in the initial attack. If he has been patrolling there all night then how did the NSF on the North Dock infiltrate the island without his intervention? If he wasn’t there all night how did he reach the North Dock without either attacking or being attacked by the many patrolling NSF? A little mystery that is never entirely explained.
With the Security Bot serving to both physically and logically separate it from the other NSF on the island the North Dock is, like the bunker, another isolated problem encounter. One Mercenary ‘Thug’ standing guard and a single NSF ‘Terrorist’ patrolling around a collection of crates, this is a fairly basic problem which, as always, has a number of possible solutions.
If you can get a clear shot there’s a TNT crate that will make very short work of the patrolling NSF, though this is an exceedingly messy way to deal with the problem. Not to mention that the shipping containers will protect the Mercenary from the blast and his Tranquilizer Darts are not only effectively lethal to you but they can also greatly disrupt your aim. The manner in which Tranquilizer Dart are handled is an interesting one. Defined as non-lethal they can be used against NPCs inflicting damage over time before causing them to run way and eventually succumb to the effects. When used against you they will also deal damage over time alongside screen altering visual effects that can make aiming and combat particularly challenging. This secondary effect actually makes being hit with such darts more problematic than simply being shot with a firearm, the Mercenary Thugs who are only armed with Mini-Crossbows are in a number of ways more of a threat than their more overtly lethally armed NSF companions.
One possible approach to the problem on the North Dock is to avoid the two NPCs completely jump over the side of the dock and swim to the end. There is no way of knowing if it will be possible to gain access to the dock again once you have entered the water, but so far the logical presentation of locations on Liberty Island has been such that the assumption there will be some means of egress from the water is a sensible one. There is in fact a ramp at the end of the North Dock that will allow you to climb back onto land. If you take this approach you will be able to locate the sunken barge lying on the sea bed north of the dock.
If you can unlock the hatch a further two Weapon Mods (Reload speed and Accuracy increase) can be found inside along with a Sawn-Off Shotgun. The 50 skill point ‘Exploration Bonus’ seems a little small compared to the drowning risk associated with exploring the hold of the sunken barge. Of course the functional value of the items to be found within counter balances the limited skill point reward; though for a non-combat player nothing within the barge is of much use.
Choosing to avoid the NSF on the North Dock can lead to some interesting consequences such as one of them attempting to interrupt your conversation with Harley Filben.
Filben might well be your “informant” but that doesn’t mean he’s on your side. The Commander of the NSF on the island is his main contact within that organisation and he wants him kept alive. Since your objectives are to question the Commander to see what he knows about the NSF attack agreeing to keep him alive is justifiable, but you may not see it that way. Telling Filben that you might not be able to keep the Commander alive means he’ll refuse to give you the key. As he is a character who turns up again later in Deus Ex for the moment there’s no way to just kill him and take the key. Talking to Filben further reveals that he’s no real fan of UNATCO whatever his motives for helping you; judging by his clothing those motives are likely monetary in nature, idealism is noble but it doesn’t put food in your mouth.
For somebody who doesn’t class herself as “high-level” Filben’s companion is apparently the only person you’ve found yet who can explain what the NSF are doing. If the attack on the UNATCO forces on Liberty Island was a diversion whatever the “more elite troops” stole from that ship must have been incredible important. Whoever the “drifter woman” is she has some ammunition for sales to complement her information.
Agreeing to do what you can to avoid the death of the NSF Commander completes your secondary objective and along with a 150 skill point reward you will now have a means of directly unlocking the doors outside the Statue entrance. Whether you actually follow through on your promise to keep the Commander alive is up to you, after all sometimes you may “have to use force”.
Stepping up the ramp from the South Dock, the first sight to meet you is likely the dead body of a UNATCO Trooper, lying on the path ignored by the patrolling NSF.
Directly ahead there is a stone pillar of some sort, despite not blocking everything from view its position does mean that you will need to start moving off the direct path straight away. It’s subtle but the placement of this single stone pillar (Which was likely placed there to limited visibility for optimisation purposes), serves to push players off the direct line path to their objective in order to allow them to actually see the area ahead of them.
Pushed out to either the left or the right players will move into areas of shadow from which they can survey the area ahead of them and monitor the patrol paths of the NSF from a position of relative (That word again) safety. Providing players with this ability to see the area ahead of them before requiring them to move across it, serves a similar affect to that of the establishing shot in film. It allows players to mentally map out the position of object and NPCs within the environment, a mental map they can refer back to while moving through the area itself. This information enables players to make plans and encourages intentionality. Without these initial few moments to gain a lay of the land players will be forced to become reactive instead of proactive, and they may have trouble working out which direction to be heading in without some clear guidance from within the environment.
After a minute or so, it’s possible to locate the patrol routes of at least five NSF, two of whom pass close to the stone pillar north of the South Dock ramp making them easy targets for players who wish to take a direct approach to conflict resolution.
Combat in Deus Ex is a hybrid system that uses character skill more than player skill to determine the success of an attack, but not exclusively. With a Trained Pistol Skill (The level provided at the start of the game) it is still possible to kill an NSF will a single shot to the head, however from anything more than extreme close range players will need to hold the crosshair over the target’s head until the reticule shrinks to it’s smallest size. Only then is the shot guaranteed to hit; rapid movement and player stance also have an affect on the size of the reticule. With more skill points invested in each Weapon Skill the initial size of the reticule shrinks and the more player skill comes to the fore in determining the success of each attack. Increased levels of each Weapon Skill also provided bonuses to damage and weapon reload speed, though a headshot against an unprotected target remains instantly lethal.
Examining the corpse of the UNATCO Trooper shows that he was only carrying a Baton, a Candy Bar and a Carton of Cigarettes, another sign that he was a member of law enforcement rather than part of a paramilitary force. It is possible that the patrolling NSF removed any other weapons he may have had and if this is true then the NSF were clearly careful with regards to who was allowed to recover those weapons. While all the uniformed NSF on Liberty Island are armed with firearms (With a few exceptions) none of the additional plain clothed Mercenaries they brought with them are armed with anything more powerful than a Mini-Crossbow. Loaded with Tranquilizer darts these weapons are functionally lethal to JC Denton, still it is noteworthy that the Mercenaries and NSF are not exactly on equal terms.
Moving to the left upon reaching the top of the ramp seems a sensible decision as it enables you to search the dead body of your comrade, and continuing in this direction takes you into the darkness surrounding a shipping container. From this position none of the patrolling NSF will locate you provided you keep quiet. This is complicated somewhat by the presence of a number of Pigeons, which will take flight when startled, potentially alerting nearby NSF to something suspicious. This ability to be discovered indirectly is rare as it can be difficult to provide accurate feedback on which of your actions caused you be to noticed. Birds taking flight at your approach is something recognisable from the real world and therefore it doesn’t necessarily require an in game explanation, a suitable audio cue from the alerted NPC would probably be enough feedback to sell the idea.
Lacking the Light Gem of Thief: The Dark Project, or any other interface element to indicate current visibility it can often be difficult to judge exactly how hidden you are at any moment. As Alex Jacobsen reminds you darkness decreases your visibility, however the only certain way to avoid being seen is to break line of sight with any patrolling NSF. This requires you to pay close attention to the audio environment, listen for footsteps and use them to time your movements. These first sections of Liberty Island place the majority of patrolling NSF on the paved pathways making their footsteps clear and enabling you to pick them out easily against your own which, if you are keeping to the shadows, will be muffled by the grass.
This lack of clear feedback creates a large functional grey area between being seen and being hidden which increases tension at the expense of clarity, creating a conflict between improvisation and intentionality. The former often stems from taking actions without complete information while the latter requires players to make informed decisions.
The route between the South Dock and the front entrance of the Statue is open, and patrolled by several NSF, the only cover being provided by several stacks of crates. A cliched symbol of level design Deus Ex once again manages to make this ubiquitous object serve multiple purposes.
Breaking up the visual environment and providing cover in combat are the two most common uses of crates and other similarly shaped objects, they also serve as a cultural shorthand for ‘warehouse’ or ‘industrial district’. These requirements are all fulfilled by the crates on Liberty Island, however their placement also provides a route for stealthy players from the South Dock to the base of the Statue. Positioned in such a way as to provide cover from the NSF patrolling along the path, each stack of crates requires stealth players to time their movements between them to coincide with the patrol patterns of the NSF. Furthermore they provided a visual obstruction that at once keeps the player hidden from view while also preventing them from being able to see the NSF. Players are required to move without having first observed the area, in order to remain undetected they will need to constantly be comparing their current location, with the mental map they established earlier, along with any provided audio cues.
It is interesting to consider that if these positions of cover had been based on areas of shadow it is much more likely players would have been able to directly observe the patrolling NSF and so would not have to risk moving without complete information regarding the current state of the environment. Being forced to act on incomplete information? Once again the mechanics of Deus Ex mirror its broader themes.
Of course it is entirely possible for players to choose to obey their stated orders and “shoot on sight” any and all NSF they encounter, in which case the crates become useful points of cover, or positions from which to ambush the NSF at close range, thereby negating the affects of distance on their aiming reticule.
The presence of so many crates and shipping containers on Liberty Island indicate that it is some form of transit hub, and it was this that the NSF were targeting not the UNATCO Headquarters.
Taking a detour away from the Statue allows you to locate the UNATCO Headquarters, which is currently “under lockdown”.
Approaching the UNATCO Trooper inside the front gate initiates a conversation with what turns out to be Tech Sergeant Kaplan. Kaplan is less than thrilled to be on guard duty outside the sealed UNATCO Headquarters while the NSF are roaming the island. Trying to make some money to augment his UNATCO wages, he has a number of items which he has acquired and is willing to part with for a suitable price. Offering to “clean the place out” seems to impress Kaplan and leads to him providing the code to the Comm Vam in additional to your purchasing opportunities. A preferences for a “minimum-force approach” will still allow you to purchase items from Kaplan, though he will not provided you with the Comm-Van code and may comment on some of your purchases, particular if you choose to stock up on 10mm Ammo.
The door code for the Comm Van is the first code you will come across outside the tutorial and the number used for it has some special significance: 0451. A reference to Fahrenheit 451 and once the door code for Looking Glass Studios this number was the first door code in both System Shock and BioShock, it appeared in a modified form, 45100, as the first door code in System Shock 2, and it can be found written in reverse on a steamed up window as the first door code in BioShock 2, 1540.
The Comm Van is the first of the many examples of the Deus Ex mentality of ‘problems not puzzles’. Despite there only being a single door into the Comm Van there are several ways in which access through that door can be granted. If you have convinced Kaplan that you are a “born and bred killer” then he will have provided the door code and entry is immediate, otherwise some alternate means of access is required. Because the code is fixed it is possible to guess the combination, those with an understanding of the legacy of Looking Glass Studios might have done this anyway, though statistically guessing the correct code without any clues is extremely unlikely. The other way to gain access is to use a Multitool to bypass the Keypad thereby unlocking the door. If required there is a Multitool in a Crate between the Comm Van and the Satellite Dish.
Whatever method you use to unlock the door entering the Comm Van rewards you with an ‘Exploration Bonus’ of 25 skill points. Unlike other role playing games experiencein Deus Ex is not rewarded for neutralizing NPC rather for achieving goals, or in this instance gaining entry to secured locations.
A couple of useful objects can be found within the Comm Van along with a Security Computer Terminal. Using either the login details found on a Datapad beneath the desk, or your Hacking skill, this Terminal provides one means of opening the Hatch outside the Comm Van. Like the Comm Van this Hatch is initially locked but the variety of ways to unlocked it highlights the scope of the possibility space in Deus Ex. Locked and with an infinite door strength explosives are not an option so some other means are necessary. It’s possible to pick the lock, if enough Lockpicks are not available some exploration will reveal a crate containing a Lockpick behind the Comm Van, closer examination of this area will reveal the Key itself. Players who chose to access the Comm Van first have the previously mentioned option to unlock the Hatch via the Security Computer Terminal. Regardless of the method used, entering the small room below the Hatch is rewarded with an ‘Exploration Bonus’ of 50 skill points, a more complex problem has a commensurately larger reward.
Not all of the problems on Liberty Island have such clearly delineated solutions nor do they have such absolute success conditions. The Hatch is either Locked or Unlocked, the same is not true for the patrolling Security Bot outside the Statue entrance. Unlike the two legged varieties operated by UNATCO this smaller wheeled bot was either been brought to the Island by the NSF or if it has recently been reprogrammed to be hostile to all non-NSF forces, yourself included. Its threat can be mitigated in a variety of different ways. Tools can be used to change its status from Active to Disabled, or from Alive to Dead, alternatively it can simply be avoided. This is a problem with multiple definitions of success depending on playstyle, and often multiple means of achieving the required degree of success, how do you fairly reward players for a partial success? EMP Grenades (Such as the one found beneath the Hatch) can be used to Disable or Damage the Bot, it can be destroyed outright with explosives such as the GEP Gun or one of the TNT Crates found throughout the level. It is even possible to reprogram the Turret outside the Statue entrance to destroy it for you; the code for this Security Computer Terminal can be found on a Datapad between UNATCO Headquarters and the Statue entrance.
The direct route to the front doors of the Statue is a challenging one, the Security Bot is easily the most powerful enemy you will face during the first few hours of Deus Ex. Of course the direct method is not the only way to gain access to the Statue, and we will examine some of the alternative routes next.