Deus Ex is a cyberpunk role-playing PC game released in the year 2000 and was developed by lead director Warren Spector and his former team at the Ion Storm gaming company. Many gamers and professional reviewers consider it among if not even the best PC games ever made. An opinion that I share in every way.
This has its basis on the way and form how the game was designed. It makes use of some of the strongest narrative elements that video games as cultural media can offer: Maximizing interactivity and the player’s freedom of choice. It enables the player to progress through a deep, well written storyline in a highly individualized and customized way. By being provided with multiple narrative paths to take, you are able to achieve various goals in your own way. Be it in an action oriented way with guns blazing, a stealthy approach to the tasks you choose to follow or a mix between the two – it is the player’s free choice.
This article tries to shed some light on the dystopian cyberpunk plot aspects, the main character JC Denton and the cultural impact that this cult classic had (and has) on video games and even on pop & internet culture in general.
Due to Planet Dystopia being devoted to the analysis of dystopian elements in all kinds of cultural media, this post will not provide you with an in depth analysis of the gameplay or similar elements. If you want a more “gamer-centric” overview of this masterpiece, check out the various gaming networks, platforms and private blogs on the internet.
If you want to share your thoughts about Deus Ex in general or about certain topics I covered in this article, feel free to use the comment section or contact me. As usual, I will be happy to provide updates to this post from time to time, to include your suggestions and I may even add additional content about the other parts of the series. Regardless of that, have fun!
The World of Deus Ex
In general, storyline and plot of Deus Ex draw heavily from the multi-layered conspiracy theories of the 1990s (think of topics from the series “X-Files”, for example). Numerous SciFi as well as Cyberpunk elements and ideas can be discovered and the game puts its very own spin on top of them.
As usual, I am not going to spoil advanced plot points, so don’t worry about that if you are new to the franchise.
Key Points of Plot, Game World Setting & Main Character
The game is set during the 2050s, in a world shaken by highly unstable conditions, falling apart rapidly. The division and tensions between the winners and losers of society continues to grow even further, especially as natural resources get more scarce. To make things even worse, a deadly plague called the “Grey Death” spreads wildly among the crowds in the decaying urban centers.
Governments and social order are on the brink of collapse. Riots are common due to starvation and because of regular conflicts caused by the uneven distribution of the only medication that seems to help against the plague, a substance called “Ambrosia”. Heavily regulated and primarily distributed to the top 1% of administration, celebrities, megacorporations and politicians, its value skyrockets.
The player slips into the role of JC Denton, a highly trained special agent employed by the “United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition” (“UNATCO”). He has enhanced cognitive and physical abilities, possible thanks to recent enormous advancements in bio- and nanotechnologies. They enable him to perform his job with an efficiency unmatched by his colleagues. Even the people who are hybrids of humans and machines with advanced robotic implants (cyborgs) can not compare to him and his abilities.
Given the mission of fighting those who oppose the failing governments supremacy, JC Denton stumbles, step by step, into a spiderweb of multiple, interwoven conspiracies and intrigues. Questioning the motives of his superiors as well as the consequences of his own doings, JC has to decide which paths to take. Involving all kinds of age-old conspiratory groups as well as new factions, it is up to the player to choose which organization to follow and side with to bring order and peace to a world ridden by chaos and turmoil.
The unique mixture of different cyberpunk, SciFi and conspiracy topics combined with a fresh, individualized gameplay, made sure that the fanbase of the game grew quickly in the early 2000s and have been growing rapidly since then.
While the setting, characters and other elements were important factors for this, there are additional elements that you can consider to be important for this.
Beside of the aspects I already covered, another influential content of Deus Ex is the astonishing official soundtrack composed by Alexander Brandon. It consists of a set of different electronic ambient tracks inspired and influenced by a multitude of genres, from classic via jazz to techno. Powered by one of the first dynamic sound and music systems the tracks change whenever the player visits specific in-game locations, starts conversations with other characters. It even switches the pace when the player enters combat.
This collection of well produced, catchy but gritty electronic synthesizer beats capture the essence of the dark futuristic setting perfectly. I have been listening to them on a regular basis to this very day and I can highly recommend it to everyone who is into atmospheric electronic music. Due to copyright issues I am not going to link them directly here but a quick internet search for the Deus Ex soundtrack will bring you to some samples for sure.
Usage in Internet Culture
Due to the huge fanbase of people who regard Deus Ex as one of their absolute favorites, a lot of internet memes have been created on all kinds of imageboards and other internet platforms. There are numerous variations of different themes and topics that got covered, this also goes for content based on Deus Ex. Some of them more and some less entertaining.
The most basic and well known meme is a hint and nod to the still unbroken popularity of Deus Ex. Even after all those years, former players of the game tend to come back to the game after they have read or seen any content related to it by chance. “Every time you mention it, SOMEONE will reinstall it” is the common catchphrase for this and it usually gets combined with a screenshot of the first game level showing the ruins of Liberty Island with the decayed Statue of Liberty in the background (see the following pic as example).
Another well known meme which spread far and morphed into all kinds of variations, is part of an ingame dialogue between JC Denton and the helicopter pilot Jock. As they both discover that an explosive device got planted by their enemies, Jock says “Oh my God! JC! A bomb!” which leads JC Denton to simply stating “A bomb!”. This is certainly not the highest quality content or even the most eloquent dialogue in the entire game – but at the same time the involuntary comedy is the reason why the sequence has spawned so many memes in so many different forms. See for yourself:
For additional related content and memes you can check out this section on the platform KnowYourMemes. Be warned though, it may lead to amusement but this kind of research of internet culture tends to be quite a time sink.
World Trade Center Controversy
An interesting aspect of the later reception of the game is an internet controversy that involves the two towers of the World Trade Center. During the stages of the game that take place on Liberty Island in New York City, both towers of the WTC are missing in the background.
According to in-game logs, that the main character can find, they got destroyed during a huge terrorist attack. Quite an astonishing fact, if you keep in mind that just one year later the 9/11 attacks happened in reality. Check it out for yourself:
There was almost an immediate discussion and numerous posts on all kinds of platforms about “How Deus Ex predicted 9/11” and similar talking points. It went so far that due to the ongoing debate Harvey Smith, lead designer of Deus Ex at Ion Storm, had to explain that because of texture memory limitations, the WTC was left out of the final game. However, the director Warren Spector just stated afterwards that the artist responsible for the NYC background “just uh, left them out”, according to the Deus Ex Wiki about the game’s beta version.
The first Deus Ex is still alive
Even today, almost two decades after the release of the original game, there are still people not only playing this masterpiece but also tweaking and improving it via custom modifications / mods. The most famous one is the “Give Me Deus Ex” (“GMDX”) mod. Dubbed by the makers and fans as the “Definitive Deus Ex Experience” it enhances the graphics by far, improves gameplay issues and applies bugfixes. All these things, while trying to remain true to the original identity and atmosphere of the game.
Check out their website, it contains all information regarding this project and also a lot of sample images, comparing the original version of the game to the completely overhauled contemporary one. You can also check out the project and download the files for your (re-)installed game version on ModDB. If you really want to delve deep into Deus Ex again, I can highly recommend it to you.
A unique experience that focuses on dark dystopian cyberpunk topics. Various technological topics such as Artificial Intelligence and Robotics get illuminated and viewed from fresh and new perspectives. Transhumanist developments in the field of biotechnology and their consequences for society are also being addressed in detail. These are all topics that are even more urgent today than at the time of the release of Deus Ex and retrospectively they are almost frighteningly authentic.
The almost unprecedented combination of interesting storylines, the manifold protagonists and the sheer amount of freedom of action and options related to that, keep you always on edge. Even multiple playthroughs offer different experiences each time you play. The sensational soundtrack is the additional icing on the cake.
See, hear and feel it yourself, you can still get Deus Ex on all types of gaming platforms today at a low and fair price. While the basic version of the game has not aged well in terms of graphics (something that can be defused by things like the aforementioned GMDX mod), the benefits outweigh the disadvantages by far.
Deus Ex is a monument of dark interactive narrative art and definitely a must-play.
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