It’s been over a couple decades since the original Deus Ex’s release. Since then, many folks have articulated the brilliance of the game’s opening level far better than I ever could. Like here, for instance.
As much as I love video games, most of them do a goshdamn terrible job of introducing themselves. I’m talking, of course, about those dreaded opening — or tutorial — levels. I respect how impossible it must be for developers to tread that fine, delicate line between clearly introducing the player to a game’s mechanics and systems, naturally, without having them slog through a grueling gauntlet of unavoidable textboxes and droning dialogue to fully grasp its increasingly complicated concepts. Perhaps that balance is simply easier for games like Deus Ex, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Hitman (2016), and other immersive sim-adjacent titles which make organically experimenting with complex systems a central (and deeply rewarding) part of their core conceit.
Deus Ex is generally remembered for having one of gaming’s best opening levels, and I remember it as such. On a whim, I recently reinstalled the game to see if that perception still holds.
Upon arriving at the docks of a dilapidated Liberty Island, I was given some basic expositional bread crumbs to kick things off. First, I learned that I am JC Denton, a rookie agent from the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO). Second, I learned I’m here on a training mission to deal with a group of National Secessionist Forces (NSF) terrorists who have besieged the island. Third, I learned I have a brother. His name is Paul.
Over the years, Deus Ex’s introductory Liberty Island level has been heralded for offering players myriad options to resolve its objectives, whether via stealth, hacking, diplomacy, guns, crowbars, and/or pilfering. Empowered by this freedom, I adore Deus Ex for letting me discover and express a nuanced, personal approach to play which reflects precisely who I am as a coward.
In my defense, I suck at the shooty bits, which at least partly informed my cowardly play style. My/JC’s weapon stats were pretty bad to begin with and dumping points into melee and pistol skills didn’t seem to help much. Whenever I did engage in battle, it was slowly, quietly, and usually involved clobbering enemies in the head with a baton. Luckily, enemy soldiers are pretty oblivious to their surroundings and gave me a generous berth as I circle-strafed around them while crouching. Maybe the NSF should outfit its soldiers with eye exams? I dunno. Perhaps that’s indicative of a healthcare system that’s at least as broken in 2052 as it is now.
Inching my way around to the opposite side of Liberty Island, I met some friendly faces, including an NSF turncoat who sold me some tranquilizer darts she was issued but couldn’t use. There’s also a gentleman who gave me dirt on how to sneak into the statue and peacefully confront the terrorist leader holed up inside. That was good enough for me. I promised them I wouldn’t be too much of an asshole and they sent me on my merry way.
Once I snuck around the statue’s backside and climbed up to a decent vantage point, I finally caught a glimpse of Lady Liberty’s head. Apparently it was blown off in a previous terrorist incident. So if it’s not clear that our liberty is the first thing we sacrifice when we give into terror, Deus Ex’s dystopic iconography takes great care to drive that point home. Unfortunately, the game is set far enough in the future that its obsession with conspiracies, corporatocracies, and militarized police states aren’t very relatable today.
Once I’ve knocked out all the dudes atop the statue’s base, I worked my way down to the lower floors where the NSF held my fellow special agent Gunther prisoner. I’ll admit our encounter was a little awkward. This was my first mission ever and we hadn’t yet met. I hacked open his cell door and luckily he was just fine…except for his pride, which I promptly murdered when I declined to give him a pistol I wasn’t really using. He took that pretty personally. Dialogue choices, amirite? At any rate, it was clear we have a lot of work to do on building rapport going forward.
Overall, I believe my first mission was a big success. I rescued Gunther, convinced the NSF leader to stand down, and non-lethally incapacitated the bad guys (except for all the ones I coaxed into getting killed by Paul and/or the robots). After completing those objectives, I walked over to UNATCO’s underground headquarters — also on Liberty Island — for a debrief. I also never once questioned why the agency assigned one rookie agent to singlehandedly deal with a battalion of terrorist soldiers on its home turf.
In all, Deus Ex’s opening level succeeds as a microcosm for the types of emergent stories and open-ended experiences that will define the rest of the game. It immediately gives players a breadth of tools to discover their own unique play styles through exploration, experimentation, and expression. Even if the game doesn’t immediately communicate every possibility afforded by its mechanics, systems, and space, it provides more than enough information for players to anticipate the future stories they might forge for themselves, regardless of where the structured narrative takes them.
For my JC Denton, it means setting the tone for my many awkward and cowardly shenanigans to come.