Something about my gaming life struck me recently, something that felt very odd once it sunk in properly.
It came about after the revelation that Heavy Rain [HEAVY RAIN 心の軋むとき]
, the ludicrously immersive interactive drama from 2010 by Quantic Dream, was now my favourite video game of all time; it not only had me rushing home from work to get further into the story, it completely blew apart just about every conception I had about what a game could do and how it could make me feel. If nothing else, it destroyed my previously carved-in-stone Rule #1 of Gaming - that games should not try to be like films (a rule that had recently been hardened by L.A. Noire
, an otherwise brilliant game that suffered just a little by trying too hard to be something it's not). This is no slight on gaming, in fact it's the very opposite - games are capable of being brilliant at things that films are, as a general rule, absolutely terrible at, and I don't feel that they should hold themselves back in a misguided attempt to cater to an audience that frequently looks down their noses at games. Heavy Rain
broke that rule by being more film than game, by co-opting all the great things about games into another form without diluting the artistry of either, and by being, quite frankly, the best film I've ever seen, let alone the best game. (Even though the inevitable straight-up film adaption will be terrible, of course.)
This in itself is not really that important - the salient point is that the game it displaced as my all-time favourite was Deus Ex
, a game that, when I finished Heavy Rain
, was almost exactly 12 years old. And that, to me, was a very, very weird thing to realize.
Here's the thing - video games are unlike any other art form, for two simple reasons. Firstly, the whole form is very young - it hit its own 'caveman banging on rocks' phase in the mid-'40s, 70 years after films did and several millennia after cavemen starting carving drawings into walls and, well, banging on rocks. The comparison to film is a good one here because of its own relative youth - so if we consider they first started to even resemble something modern around 1900 (think of A Trip to the Moon [Le voyage dans la Lune]
) and that the first widely-accepted masterpiece was made in 1915 (The Birth of a Nation
, depressingly), that would mean that games would have followed the same progression by having their equivalents around 1975 and around 1990 - hold that thought for now. The second reason is that games are inherently driven by technology, much moreso than music (which has typically been very slow to adopt new tech - how long did it take to get from Karlheinz Stockhausen
?) or the visual arts, and moreso than even films, where technology has been vitally important but hasn't moved as quickly, or shown off the tech as visibly (until very recently). When combined, these two things mean that, in comparison to any other creative medium, the world of gaming moves ridiculously quickly. Think about that 1975/1990 point above - Pong was released in 1972 and by 1990 the NES had already been on the market for 5 years, so games accelerated way beyond films from the off, and then continued to do so. A film released in 1970 looks roughly the same as one released in 1980, but in the jump from 1990 to 2000, gaming went from the SNES and the Mega Drive to the PlayStation 2 and the Dreamcast, from Sonic the Hedgehog
and Streets of Rage to Deus Ex, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
and Final Fantasy IX [ファイナルファンタジーIX]
These constant technical leaps mean that, by almost all objective measures, games just keep on getting better. The graphics, the smoothness of the gameplay, the freedom to tell a complex story (or more specifically the length of the game and the amount of data a game can hold); they all keep on growing and growing, and that's before you consider technology like online console gaming and motion control, which are still reasonably new in the grand scheme of things, even if they don't feel like it. Subjectivity will always come into play, of course it will, but consider this - if somebody told you that a game released in 2008 was their favourite of all time, and then somebody told you that a film or an album released in 2008 was their all-time favourite, you'd be a lot more shocked at the latter, wouldn't you? Games have a canon just as everything else does, but it's a lot more flexible and a lot more open to new entries; games like The Last of Us
(which has since displaced Heavy Rain
as my #1), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
, Portal 2
, and the Mass Effect
series are already canonical, where it will take years for any but the most gigantic albums and films of recent times to get there. And even then, I'm sure any suggestion that, say, Adele
is canon would spark massive debate.
And yet, even with this in mind, even though as a gamer that upgraded to a PS3 very late into its lifecycle I'm consistently amazed by the visuals and feel of every game I touch, even though gaming has been a seriously exciting world to be part as a consumer for about 20 years now, a game I played in 2002 held down that top spot in my all-time list for an entire decade. That, to me, feels like a ridiculous achievement. So Deus Ex
may not be my favourite game of all time any more, but the fact that it held that title for so long says a hell of a lot, not just about just how brilliant this game is, but about how at the time (and even now to an extent). Deus Ex
made me feel like it had been made just for me.
People say this kind of thing all the time about music ('this song is all about me!'), and it's normally a reflection of a kind of vagueness in the song or album in question - music allows us to fill in the gaps, to flesh out a three-minute story with as much detail as we like. Hell, in the world of pop and rock especially, the extent to which a song allows and encourages you to fill in those details is often as accurate a mark of greatness as any. Gaming's not like that, though; with very few exceptions a story-driven game is bigger, is more detailed, and leaves a lot less room for the kind of ambiguity and space you'd need to be able to put parts of your own life into it. So when one comes along that is so perfectly tailored to what you want out of a game, it's a much rarer and, as far as I'm concerned, special event - and for the teenage me, Deus Ex
was literally perfect.
You can blame The X-Files
, I guess, but right from the age of about 7 I was obsessed with conspiracy theories and unexplained mysteries. Ancient Aliens
has made this whole kind of thing a bit blasé and silly now, but back when ironic television stardom was but a faint pipedream in the back of Giorgios Tsoukalos' mind, this was very much a niche concern, and one that you didn't really have much opportunity to discuss with other people if you didn't have an internet connection. So I had to turn to books and special order magazines, of which I had literally dozens. Rendlesham Forest, Roswell, Majestic 12, the Illuminati, false flags, reptilians, the Apollo landings, GM foods, Stonehenge, Heaven's Gate - I could quite happily have held a lengthy conversation about any of them, and you probably would have walked away thinking 'fuck me, that is one weird 12 year old'.
And it was weird, let's be honest. Beyond The X-Files
, this kind of stuff didn't permeate much popular culture at the time. To top it off, I started getting heavily into dystopian fiction at the time - I guess after spending so long reading about alleged shadowy and evil real-world meta-narratives like the Bilderburg Group, the jump to 1984
and Brave New World
was an obvious one to make (as well as post-apocalyptic films like 12 Monkeys
, which was a particular favourite of mine at the time).
If you've played it (and if you haven't, fucking hell, sort your life out), you can see why Deus Ex
was such an immediately thrilling experience for me. The nearest thing I'd seen to any of this in a game, either visually or spiritually, was Final Fantasy VII [ファイナルファンタジーVII]
's Midgar - and sure enough, it was FFVII
that Deus Ex
replaced as my favourite ever game - but that only accounted for a fraction of the game, whereas Deus Ex
launched you headfirst into pure scorched Earth dystopia and kept you there. The sheer scale of the web of conspiracies it presents remains impressive even now - Majestic 12, the Knights Templar, the Illimunati, and the Trilateral Commission are all major plot points, as are Area 51, Men in Black, UFOs, and unexplained animal mutilation. And that's just the obvious ones, before you start thinking about how The Grey Death, the virus that has wiped out millions of people in the game, might relate to conspiracy theories surrounding AIDs. And somehow, all these fit in alongside one another in a plot that is shockingly easy to follow given the scale of the concepts it touches upon. It's memorable, too - to this day I still catch myself watching shows like Unsolved Mysteries
or Fact or Faked
and thinking 'hey, that looks like Deus Ex'.
I knew a fair bit about the vast majority of these things before I played it, but I often wonder how Deus Ex
would have played out to me if I hadn't, whether it still would have registered with me that this such a special piece of work. True, there's a lot of stuff in here I didn't get - there's reference to things like Marcy Playground
and Tommy Tutone
that sailed as far over my head at that age as the My Bloody Valentine
poster in FFVII
that I didn't discover until 2011, as well as weapons that seem to hark back to earlier games and nods to Star Wars
, Shakespeare, and probably dozens more films and books I still haven't recognized to this day. Yet all of this is perhaps the exact reason why I would still have loved it. It's clear with Deus Ex
, perhaps as clear it has been with any computer game ever made, that this is a true labour of love, crafted to the tiniest detail by a design team that didn't just build a world but inhabited it, filling every nook and cranny with detail that reflected not just the world they'd invented but their own personalities and passions. The sheer breadth and extent of the references is such that it's hard to imagine anybody not spotting at least a handful.
Perhaps that matters to you, but what ultimately matters to me is that this was my
game, the game that I feel like I would have ended up making if I had the resources and the skill, or a developer would have made if I'd been sat in the room telling them what to do. And it's only really now, writing this out, that I realize that I've never heard anybody - fan, professional critic, blogger, whatever - talk about a game in those terms. There are clearly things about Deus Ex
that haven't aged well - the graphics were pretty good for the time but technology has left them behind, and much more pertinently, a few of the minor characters and bystanders are nothing more than jarringly crude and fairly offensive national stereotypes - but every time I've played through it since, it's never lost that appeal, that spark that makes it feel so special. That probably explains why I've completed this more than any comparable game. It certainly explains why it's just about the most nailed-on 5/5 rating I'll ever give anything on this site.