When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say about who we are and the world we live in.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution came out a week ago. Its a game that by all accounts I should love. I am a huge fan of the original Splinter Cell Trilogy as well as most of Bioware and Bethesda’s roleplaying games. DX:HR promised to combine the best of both of those worlds and in many ways it does.

The year is 2027 and the world is experiencing a revolution in biotechnology, namely in the realm of human augmentation. Essentially people are augmenting their bodies in order to make themselves stronger, faster, and even smarter. Augmentation, however, is very expensive and consequently has further divided the world by class. You play as someone who can sympathize with both “Augs” (augmented humans) and purists (those who are morally opposed to augmentation). You are Adam Jensen, the head of security of a leading biotech firm who was nearly murdered but whose life was saved by augmentation that he did not ask for.

Playing as an “Aug” comes with special privileges–abilities to sense enemies, move stealthily, fight more aggressively, and even psycho-analyze people you talk to. However, there are some things that being an “Aug” doesn’t help you with, like climbing fences. The artistic direction, the script, the music, and the characters all serve to immerse the player into the world of a 2027 Detroit on the brink of revolution. But navigating the city is so frustrating at times, that I found this sense of immersion utterly shattered at times.

One quest in Detroit requires you to meet someone in an alley behind the police station. I can see the Alley but it is blocked by a fence. I searched all around the station and could not find any direct route to access the alley. I ended up finding my way to the alley by going inside the police station and sneaking through a maze of ventilation ducts and then climbing down to the alley from the roof. It took me a good 10-15 minutes to reach that alley and by the time I did, I was tired, annoyed and no longer cared about the quest.

Perhaps I was missing something really obvious about how to reach that alley, but for such a polished and interesting game, DX:HR sure does make simple things complicated sometimes. Navigation in this game is frustrating to say the least–my “alley” experience isn’t the only time getting from point A to point B has been frustrating.

That said, the games narrative and mechanics are interesting and compelling enough for me to keep playing but the unwieldy nature of navigating the game almost made me quit. Is there a time when a design choice in game nearly ruined the experience for you?


  1. Once I played a game where you take on the role of a hero destined to save a member of the royal family. I ran along, dodging enemies and grabbing things that were designed to help me on my quest. Then I came to a deep ravine, which I easily jumped over. I kept running, and arrived at a second deep ravine. This one was wider than the first, and practically every time I tried to leap across I died instantly despite all my power ups and whatnot.

    So yeah, that’s why I gave up on Super Mario.

    More seriously though, I’m sorry to hear about your experience. The first Deus Ex is one of my favorite games ever precisely because you could do practically anything.

    Then again, maybe it’s just realism… getting to a back alley in Detroit is way easier if you’re sneaking through a police station than it is if you’re trying to climb the barbed wire fences they have everywhere. :-)

  2. @Ben – I’ve been meaning to tell you about this game. I haven’t had a chance to play, but from what I hear it’s very much a spiritual successor to the first in all the right ways.

  3. Game designers seem conflicted, first they have to guide players through the environment using clues like strategic lighting or momentum like lamp posts that illuminate the correct door or architecture that leads the gamers eye in the right direction. But at the same time they reward gamers for exploring every nook and cranny off the beaten path, like the Traveller bonus in Deus Ex when you snoop around the pantry of a shop or enter a secret vent. The game tells me where to go but I also know it will reward me for going the opposite direction.

  4. Yeah, that’s happened to me more than once.

    Dead Rising: I’m a huge zombie fan. Getting this game on Wii (don’t own the other consoles) was a no-brainer. The graphics didn’t bother me that much (although they were bad even for the Wii) but man, I just got tired of all the repitition: endless grinding, the same enemies, spending more time figuring out which juices to blend than in battle.

    Black Ops (or any COD campaign): Why can I mow through countless enemies but have to repeat the same jump or vehicle section 30 times? Oh that’s right, HORRIBLE controls.

    Far Cry: No point in jumping into a vehicle if all they do is get you killed quicker.

    The Incredible Hulk: No, not the awesome Ultimate Destruction on the GameCube, but the crappy one they made as a movie tie-in. I stopped playing when I saw two army hummers coming down the street merge together to become a siamese hummer abomination glitch thing.

    I always preach the same thing when it comes to games: Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay. The new NBA Jam is nothing graphically exciting to look at, but it still remains one of the most requested games to play at parties, etc. Why, because it is just flat-out fun. I played through Resident Evil 4 again just recently, not because it still looks good graphically, not because the story is well put-together, but because the controls are tight and it is FUN shooting zombies in that game. I don’t care if it is last-gen. Also playing through Windwaker for that same reason.

    Gameplay is where it’s at. Not the story. Not the graphics.

  5. “Gameplay is where it’s at. Not the story. Not the graphics.”

    I want all three thank you very much. Actually, I also want invention, imagination, and something to spark my curiosity. Also, emotion, worthwhile mise-en-scene, replayability, expansive worlds, great music, good acting, and great direction.

    But what can I say. I have high standards.

  6. I’m with Seth on this one. Give me all sorts of things. Gameplay is made meaningful by story, graphic design, sound design. Case in point: Bastion.

    Game designers seem conflicted because they are: some believe strongly in leading the player exactly where they should go. This is valid.

    Others are convinced that player-led, emergent story is where it’s at. This is also valid.

    And as far as getting killed quicker in a vehicle in Far Cry 2 – I don’t have a huge problem with getting killed if it’s as fascinating as dying often is in that game.

  7. Vehicles in FC2? I thought he had to be talking about FC1 because I was almost invincible in a vehicle in FC2. SOP was: 1) Drive into roadblock and jump into turret while moving; 2) Shoot everything; 3) Get out to hunt stragglers; 4) Fix vehicle; 5) Collect drops. Repeat at next roadblock.

    Obviously a vehicle wouldn’t stand a chance at a highly defended Point of Interest, but in what kind of world *would* a vehicle survive such a place?

  8. I agree its a fine line to walk–because it can also be annoying when games hold your hand too much. As I have progressed through DX:HR I have grown to enjoy the multiple paths that the game provides.

    I probably should have elaborated on why this particular instance was annoying and broke the illusion of the game. This particular instance was annoying because it was a simple meeting that was supposed to take place in a safe zone (not a combat area) and it just was not clear how you were supposed to get there. I could SEE where I was supposed to go but could not get there in any common sense sort of way.

    I appreciate it when games give me freedom–this was an instance where my freedom was actually being limited and the game was making a simple task arduous.

    @Seth–so funny to read your systematic dealings with road blocks in FC2. I never really developed a system of getting through road blocks. Sometimes I sniped them from afar before going in, other times I avoided them altogether and drove off road around them, sometimes I jumped out of my jeep and threw grenades in all directions. … Writing this is making me want to play FC2 again!

  9. Yeah, obviously I drove the over-sized trucks with the turrets. Driving most anything else into a roadblock would be death.

    Sometimes I would also drive high speed through a roadblock and make it around the first bend, then jump into the turret and pick off the enemies as they came around the corner in their own vehicles (you could hear their engines start just as I was climbing into my turret). Then of course I’d have to ratchet my smoking engine.

  10. I remember playing those early Final Fantasy games where you would try to walk somewhere and have a random encounter every three steps. I hated that. I can’t recall any game that I just put down though, but I am an obsessive compulsive completionist.

    As far as the gameplay/story/graphics continuum goes. My order of importance goes like this:

    Story, gameplay, graphics. However, I must admit that even though graphics are last on the list, they are still important. I couldn’t go back and play the original Deus Ex because of the graphics.

    What I really, really hate worse than anything are buggy games. Man, if I get stuck in the wall, or if I find a bug I can exploit, I very quickly lose interest no matter how cool the other stuff is. Especially if this causes crashes and long, long load times. Yeesh.

  11. @Brad, I should really emphasize that DXHR is a largely good game and after I got over this hump, I have really enjoyed it. I would in fact be interested to hear if other people didn’t have this problem which would indicate that I am just dumb!

  12. I can’t play this game any longer. It bothers me that my high tech powerful augmented arms can only through three good punches and then suddenly I am helpless to defend myself. I have tried buying bullets, looting everything I can find, everyone I knock out or kill and it still doesn’t seem to be enough. The potential is definitely there but I just never felt like a super augmented bad mother- Shut yo’ mouth!

  13. @Generational Gamer – you have to eat energy bars or whatever to replenish your energy for those types of attacks. Also that ability will regenerate to some degree over time.

    I actually appreciate that you cannot do that an infinite number of times, it forces you to consider other routes–at least it works for me as a stealthy nonlethal character.

  14. 1. Put dumpster near fence
    2. Put box that is found nearby on the dumpster
    3. Jump on dumpster
    4. Jump on box
    5. Jump over the fence
    6. Talk to your contact.

    If people like you “lost interest in the game” after the simple requirement to THINK for 5 bloody seconds, no wonder the gaming industry is built to satisfy you people.
    What did you want? A big sign with a door saying “this way, please” ?

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