Taking Liberties: a Deus Ex story

Well, no use crying over spilt legs. I've only got two more flights of stairs to haul my bloody bumps up before I can interrogate the terrorist leader, and then drag the surviving half of my body back to HQ for repairs. Charge!

There are two more guards between me and the leader, but I'm able to lug my dribbling thigh-sockets most of the way across the room before they turn and spot me. Shuffling frantically round the corner, I plant a LAM proximity-triggered explosive on the wall in case they try to follow.

When you reach him, the leader of this cell of the National Secessionist Front is chatty. It's actually a great conversation, with just enough merit to the bad guy's argument that you start to wonder about your objectives, but also with some reassuringly measured realism from JC instinctively defending his employers. But, like most Deus Ex players, I've heard the exchange a fair few times now.

“Don't shoot!” Skip!

“So you think-” Skip!

“You're too late-” Skip skip!

“Except send you back to the people – in a body bag.” Wait, what? Did I just threaten to kill him?

I just threatened to kill him. I pressed Space one too many times, and accidentally selected the option where you start a fight with the man you were sent to capture and interrogate. The NSF leader shoots my arm off. Fuck!

With only one remaining limb, my options are limited. I have to hurriedly wiggle round the corner before I lose any more body, then bounce down the stairs toward my LAM. You don't trigger your own proximity explosives, so if I can get past that, the leader will blow himself up trying to get to me. It's about then that the world goes completely white.

The building is trembling with the aftermath of a blast when it fades back into view. Round the corner, I find the corpse of the UNATCO agent sent to relieve me, next to the scorchmark of my detonated LAM. Fuck. The leader runs down the stairs towards me. Fuck. I throw myself down the ladder to the lower level, turn in mid-air and cling to it with my one remaining arm. Fuck. The head of the friendly UNATCO troop I inadvertently killed is hanging over the edge above, staring down at me with accusing piggy black eyes. Fuck. I hear the NSF leader reload above me, and his face pops into view. Fuck.

I shoot him in the head. He drops out of sight with a gurgling scream. My no-direct-killing rule didn't last one level.

“That might have been over the line, JC,” UNATCO comms jockey Jacobson croaks in my ear. You think? “I don't know. Better head back to base. Objective complete.”

So I lug my pegless half-body down the stairs from the corpse of the man I was supposed to capture, scrape it painstakingly past the unarmed cyborg I was supposed to free, and all the way to the brother I was supposed to impress back at HQ. He doesn't share Jacobson's moral ambiguity.

“You're a complete jackass.”

That's the last wonderful thing about Deus Ex, something that makes playing it feel like a process of discovery nine years and twenty play-throughs later. It doesn't just let you take liberties, it expects you to. There's no reason to kill the man you're sent to interrogate, but you can, and so there's a special line for those who do. Whatever absurd thing you try to get away with, every now and then you'll find the developers anticipated a batshit player like you would find a way to do it, and wrote a specific reaction just for you. It's more than just a pat on the head for experimenting, it's the creators of this game world looking down and saying, “Heh, we can't believe you did that. Have a cookie.”

There's a line for if, after being told to stay away from Walton Simons, you break into the cell where he's interrogating prisoners and kill them: “Jesus Christ, Denton.”

There's a line for if, when you finally get to fight Simons, you just run past him. He crops up in a later level, snarky about your slippery tactics, and you get to mock him.

“You take another step forward, and here I am again, like your own reflection repeated in a hall of mirrors,” he says.

“That makes me one ugly son of a bitch. How'd my face get all messed up?” Oh burn.

And there's even a line, it turns out, for if you murder the UNATCO agent sent to relieve you in the Statue of Liberty.

“Did you see what happened to the soldier we sent into the statue?” boss Manderley asks after the debriefing. “He turned up dead.”

JC Denton automatically covers for your lunacy.

“No sir. Friendly fire?”

Lines like that makes me feel like the game knows me. Someone at Ion Storm Austin thought “Well, some asshole's probably gonna try killing the UNATCO agent we send up to the statue, so we'd better have JC Denton cover for him with Manderley.” Thanks, guys. Apparently I am that asshole.

Unlike so many games, Deus Ex makes good on the promise of its first level. It continues to put you in large open spaces that give you room to strategise, guarded by security systems intricate enough to lead to unpredictable tales of dismemberment and failure like this one. It's a great game for giving you the freedom to come up with your own plan, and a superb one for brutalising you with its consequences. Until some other game dares to be that liberating and merciless, nothing's going to beat Deus Ex.