January 24, 2008

Important Announcement / The Man Who Was Thursday

Let me begin by thanking all of you who have read and supported Hit Self-Destruct. That you took the time to read this stupid site genuinely meant a lot to me. There are a couple of reasons why I felt I had to make this decision. The most distressing to me is that the blog has taken on an unfortunately and increasingly negative tone over the last few weeks and I question the worth of that. Second, in light of the seriously low returns (you know what I mean) given the amount of investment on my part, the enterprise no longer seemed especially viable. I believe that it's in everyone's best interests if me and Hit Self-Destruct moved on. Therefore, Hit Self-Destruct is officially and abruptly changing direction. Starting today we hitch a ride on the positivity train! All aboard!! Choo choo! Our destination is exhilaration station. Tickets please!!!

To kick it all off, here's a series of posts comprehensively detailing the reasons why I love Deus Ex. Just kidding, that sounds terrible. I'll begin and end with reason #001: Chris Todd.

Chris Todd was one of three writers on Deus Ex, along with lead writer Sheldon Pacotti (who also worked on the sequel) and Austin Grossman (System Shock, Soon I Will Be Invincible.) Between them, Pacotti and Grossman handled all the spoken dialogue in the game. This left Todd to write every piece of unvoiced text. Essentially, his job was to write fifty variations on this: "Hi, how are you? The passcode is 7049. Take care (Heil Hitler.)"

Not the best job in the world but not too difficult either. Yet anyone who's played Deus Ex should recognise the significance of Todd's accomplishment. By any contemporary standard, Deus Ex is a huge game. Those strictly-referential keycode datacubes are buried beneath a wealth of newspapers, emails, diaries, news broadcasts and books, impassioned political editorials, semi-literate email screeds, and passages from Thomas Paine, Richard III and G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, all of which exist as purely optional texture. Todd did so much with so little. That he went further and seasoned the whole thing with hidden literary references and multiple chapters from fictional books indicate that he had fun with it, and I believe that the relevance of that last bit to the overall success of the project cannot be understated.

Apart from filling in a considerable backstory, Todd's prose adds a necessary emotional quality to an otherwise dry game (albeit one that is intentionally so.) It's not as simple as Deus Ex being a dull, stock-standard action/thriller with some poignant, philosophical passages bolted on, but the characters are never any deeper and never more honest than when represented in the text. Deus Ex without Chris Todd is akin to playing the game stripped to 3D wireframes.

It's remarkable that one man did this. Still, it's not a volume contest, Deus Ex doesn't win for having the most writing. There are a lot of reasons why I like Deus Ex and a lot of reasons why I like Todd's contribution. Here's one.

In the first act of the game, the player is a government agent in pursuit of a terrorist network. This involves infiltrating a lot of terrorist bases, and those terrorists happen to have left a lot of datacubes lying around containing helpful passwords, because that's the kind of game this is. After a couple of these messages, and also some of less immediate relevance, you'll notice, if indeed you do, is a trinity of names that seems to recur. Decker, Young and Todd (laziness alert.) What the player picks up in these initial missions is the close relationship between these three terrorists and that their lives are moving forward. These are not static characters who exist one-time-only to hand you a password, nor are they ghosts to whom something happened once. They're around at the same time as the player, reacting to the same events and maybe even causing them. Their situation is changing constantly, they will move from location to location throughout much of the game and the player has to work to keep up with them. It's almost chilling when, reading one of these communiques, one of the characters for the first time makes an oblique reference to the player.

Three further points of interest: the entire Decker/Todd/Young thread comprises, in all estimation, less than 1% of the script. That speaks not only to the mountain of text in this game but also how much care and detail was put into each 1%. Secondly, the player never meets these people. They don't even have in-game models. All they are is lines of text hidden deep below the surface. Nevertheless, these lines of text have been turned into real characters and an active plot thread. When I talk about the transformative power of writing in games, this is what I mean.

Third. This does not happen in any other medium. The presentation of this story to the player is entirely optional. It's up to the player to find it in the first place and then to keep themselves appraised on its successive installments. This whole experience comes off as authentic -- what you learn about these characters is gleaned from reasonable context: communications or references in other texts. It's never spelled out, because it never becomes relevant. What's the reward for doing all this? Nothing, really. Other than a greater appreciation of the Deus Ex fiction and the knowledge that you saw this subplot to its completion. You put together these pieces that other players ignored totally. I don't mean to be disingenuous, because it doesn't require very much effort, but you're entitled to feel good about yourself. And the game, for that matter.

If Deus Ex left any legacy behind, it wasn't this (but it should have been) -- a complete validation of the use of text in games. Not as a replacement for voice acting but as a fully viable, self-sufficient augmentation to the general experience. It affords so many opportunities and I've only scratched the surface in this post. For more than that, Chris Todd is the one to talk to.

I don't mean literally. Don't go call him or anything.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fuck you for making me momentarily think this site was coming to an end (though I suppose the Man Who Was Thursday bit should've clued me in.) This is only the gaming site I regularly read for anything other than general cynicism and in-jokes. I've always thought the novel excerpts, both pre-existing and original, are a brilliant way of deepening the world and that the text is some of the most effective writing in the game but was unaware it's all the work of one guy. I also failed to notice those particular names recurring. Being a more attentive gamer is my new New Year's Resolution.