Game mods that let you change the protagonist's gender are a dime a dozen, but not like this. A new Deus Ex Mod called the "Lay D Denton Project" lets you play the classic immersive sim as a female UNATCO agent, something developer Ion Storm ended up cutting from the original game. It even goes so far as to re-record all of the main character's dialogue, change every single text or verbal pronoun reference, and in some cases even add or significantly modify characters to have it make sense that characters are speaking with a female.
"While a model swap and a vocal plugin could create a cheap facsimile, we felt this would be woefully insufficient," the mod team wrote in their announcement. "Immersion is a core feature of the Deus Ex experience, and a half-implemented female JC Denton would sabotage that. Either we do it right or we shouldn’t bother."
For starters, JC Denton is now voiced by actress Karen Rohan, who recorded all 1,700 of Denton's original dialogue with the customary cool, stoic demeanor. Even that infamous "what a shame" line is recreated with the exact same sympathetic lip smack.
"I must admit, it was intimidating! A big challenge for me was getting my head around the fact that JC is a very famous and influential character with a unique style," Rohan told PC Gamer. "The deadpan lines were straightforward; instead, I struggled with some of the lines that had a lot of emotional subtlety. We paid special attention to the community favorites. [The vocal director] would warn me when we were getting to a “meme” line, and then explain what I needed to do."
The mod team's most daunting task was changing all the dialogue and text in Deus Ex that referred to Denton as he/him. Let's remember we're talking about an immersive sim here, which are typically filled to the brim with conversations to listen to and notes to read. Solutions for dialogue included splicing a character making a "sh" sound and placing it in front of "he," and similar cuts to turn "Mister" into "Miss," and so on and so forth.
"In some cases, the references couldn’t be cut naturally and couldn’t be fixed," the team wrote. "One example is the UNATCO agents offering JC tear gas. 'Give ‘em the grenades' just wouldn’t edit well and was needed because otherwise it’s very unclear what is being talked about. In order to solve this, we added the JC line, 'What, gas grenades?' to allow her to identify the topic of the conversation."
Chris Rohan (husband to Karen) served as vocal director and voice actor for replacement male characters. Speaking to PC Gamer, Rohan says the idea for the mod had always been in the back of his mind ever since discovering that Ion Storm initially planned to let players choose JC Denton's gender. The couple are currently working together on the fourth audiobook of a drama series, but were beginning to feel burnt out, so they decided to tackle voicing Deus Ex's first mission with a female character as a way to break things up.
"I don’t think any of us were expecting to be as happy with it as we were," Chris told PC Gamer. "The enthusiasm was electric, and we started to realize that we simply had to keep going. That was two months ago."
The couple enlisted the support of programmer and map designer Kyle "Mr. Poke" Peach, programmer "WCCC," and used a female JC Denton model designed by "Bogie." Not having any professional studio at their disposal, the Rohans jerry rigged a bed frame, memory foam, and blankets in their basement.
The last major overhaul includes dealing with character interactions and level design that didn't make sense in the context of a female JC Denton, such as The Lucky Money club. The Hong Kong nightclub is full of escorts trying to seduce men and various Russians either ignoring you or asking for more women to dance with. The mod team solved some of this awkward context by altering and recasting NPCs, or outright creating new ones.
More controversial changes included removing lines from an NPC and giving it to a new NPC so the world still felt like it was built for a female JC Denton. The mod team added Russ, a new NPC replacing two flirtatious female characters, Mercedes and Tessa, who normally stand outside the club. The mod team acknowledges that a female character flirting with another female wouldn't be immersion breaking, but they didn't want the scene to feel like it was defaulting to the existing interactions.
After community feedback, the mod team says it's working to allow for both approaches if a player wants to roleplay a lesbian JC. "Mercedes and Tessa were replaced because Russ was added," says Chris Rohan. "It’s very difficult to have these characters coexist because we can’t add any dialogue for Mercedes and Tessa. They’d just be completely ignoring him while he’s right there. There are also other technical reasons that would make it even harder beyond the voicework [but] It was a tough decision to take things out like that. We did not do it lightly and in no way did it to upset LGBT players. At the end, the deciding factor was immersion."
"While we stand by our decision, some people expressed disappointment that we made this choice. In response, we’re adding it as a toggleable flag for 1.1. All the dialogue is recorded and will be able to be turned back on as the player desires. Modding is all about playing the way that you want to play it, and we’re going to facilitate that."
As WCCC, the team's programmer puts it, Deus Ex modding is undergoing a small renaissance in recent times. The Lay D Denton mod rocketed to the number two spot on ModDB.com only hours after releasing on Friday, so it seems the Deus Ex and modding communities are reacting well to the team's efforts.
"It was hard to quietly sit on this while we were working on it, but you see so many half-finished mods out there," Chris says. "They look cool but it’s depressing how many promising ideas slow to a crawl or stop altogether. We didn’t want to sell something we’d never finish. We wanted people to be excited, and people to be able to enjoy it as soon as they heard about it. So, we sat on it in quiet and it was a wise idea. It pushed us to finish, and this response was our reward."