Deus Ex's composers discuss remixing its score for the 20th anniversary

(Image credit: Materia Collective)

Plenty of things about Deus Ex can be brought up-to-date with the aid of mods (I recommend Give Me Deus Ex), but something that's rarely tinkered with is its music. It's good the way it is. Recently, I've been walking the dog while I listen to the ambient electronic wash that accompanied JC Denton as he tried to find Smuggler's hideout in an empty Manhattan, thinking that the most dated thing about Deus Ex is the idea that during a pandemic people stay off the streets.

Yet two of the original soundtrack's composers, Alexander Brandon and Michiel van den Bos, have gone back to remix their music for an album called Conspiravision, reimagining Deus Ex's 20-year-old tunes. And now I'm starting to think maybe the original music isn't fine the way it is. Compared to these more rounded-out renditions some of the old music seems positively tinny.

"Some songs have aged a little better than others mainly due to their composition," says Alexander. "UNATCO is a timeless classic and always will be. The remix, while updated to a degree, isn’t much different than the original."

Michiel agrees. "The thought of a makeover for UNATCO has been on my mind for many years as I thought it was way too short. That problem has now been fixed and then some." 

He's not kidding. The remixed theme, now called Home Base (UNATCO), is a full eight minutes longer. While still recognizable, the original's ambient synth noodling has been filled out and sounds like something that would have played over the end credits of the Deus Ex movie (starring Christian Bale) that fans always wanted.

"In most cases I tried to remain as close to the originals as I could," says Michiel, "but some songs warranted a change of pace or even a completely different genre. The UNATCO combat song, which I've been told was fairly well hidden in the game, was slightly timid and has gotten a huge boost."

Alexander explains they approached the tracks as they would if asked to write them today. "In a few cases we did some serious theme and variation work on the originals," he says. "In the case of Synapse (Hong Kong Streets) I made it more of a dance theme. And that was quite a lot of fun."

One of the topics explored in Deus Ex is the rapid advance of technology, as depicted in the conflict between a nanotech-augmented agent and his coworkers whose formerly cutting edge cybernetics suddenly look clunky and old-fashioned. Likewise, the process of composing electronic music has come a long way from what once seemed futuristic.

"While I wouldn't want to go back to composing in that way again, there was a charm to making do with what you had," says Michiel. "In the old days, you had a folder with maybe 250 samples that you'd use and manipulate to create different tracks. Now, there are tens of thousands of samples at your disposal with endless variations."

Brandon sums up the difference between now and then like this: "The sky’s the limit. We had 1.5 mb per song."

The Conspiravision album is intended as a standalone project, a reimagining for those who've already played Deus Ex and can recognize the difference between the Airfield combat music and the Oceanlab combat music. But Alexander has ideas for what he'd do with the music if it was to accompany a remastered version of the game. "I think Michiel and I would take it even further with more interactive blending and layering," he says. "The later Deus Ex games do this as well. Our style is just a bit different. It’d be fun to bring that back and update it to make it really shine with today’s game dev tech and music tools."

He has an ambitious idea for the main theme as well. "I'd like to do a full orchestral version of the main theme someday. We did that on the PlayStation 2 version but I'd like to have more players and do some more things with texture. One thing's for sure, the nostalgia is there each time I listen to the music."

Balancing that nostalgia with a desire to tinker with imperfections must be a challenge. "We tried to stay fresh while remaining true to the originals," Michiel says. "I hope the fans think we've succeeded in doing just that."

Nostalgia's had another effect on the composers, one that readers will be familiar with. "You know the old saying, every time someone mentions Deus Ex, someone reinstalls it," says Alexander. "I've played more of the fan remake: ReVision. It's awesome." 

Conspiravision: Deus Ex Remixed is available in physical and digital editions from Materia Collective.

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.