Thursday, July 26, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol. IX: Summer Escapism

Adam Jensen in a piece of concept art for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. (Photo: Forbes)

As a creature of comfort – a seasoned indoorsman, to use a colleague’s self-applied title – summertime has always been a challenging season for me. I can only indulge in its bright and scorching pleasures for brief periods of time, before my mind and body cry out for relief and force me to retreat to the cool, crisp darkness from whence I came. Games were my summer escape, a way to splash through the sun and surf that didn’t involve a searing orb in the sky that peeled my actual skin off. And over time, this reinforced a Pavlovian connection between the real, tangible feelings of summer and the virtual adventures I’d enjoy once I’d had enough of them. Sunlight on my skin, beads of sweat on my neck, the smell of fresh-cut grass, warm air through the window, ice cream and sneakers and barbecue and soda – these things make me think of StarTropics and Mario Kart, of Donkey Kong Country and The Legend of Zelda.

When I was young, and this link was first being forged in that sweltering heat, a single game was enough to sustain me for months on end. There was no internet to offer walkthroughs or tips; no guide to follow but my own intuition (and maybe a cryptic word-of-mouth hint from a friend). But now, things are different: summer is known as a slow period for new video game releases, so the torrid days and nights between May and September are a perfect time for playing catch-up on all the titles I’ve missed. And once in a while, I’ll find a game memorable enough to be included as a new link in that chain, whose lineage stretches all the way back to the blue skies and blood-orange sunsets of those halcyon days.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, developed by Eidos Montreal, is the sixth game in the Deus Ex series, which began in 2000. Most of the buzz that preceded its release was mired in controversy (publisher Square Enix had co-opted the then-burgeoning “Black Lives Matter” slogan to communicate the game’s near-future SF themes, advertising the dehumanization and segregation of its cybernetically-augmented characters through the phrase “Aug Lives Matter” – something which the majority of people, myself included, saw as a tasteless and tone-deaf grab for attention in a crowded market). This, combined with a reluctance to engage with this Neuromancer-inspired cyberpunk series which I can’t justify and which now seems utterly ridiculous in hindsight, pushed me away from the game at release. I was very pleased to discover that my reluctance was totally misplaced: Mankind Divided is a brilliantly realized stealth-action RPG.

Developer Warren Spector (whom, to my great embarrassment, I’ve always confused with Phil Spector), is a storied gaming industry figure whose resume includes landmark properties like UltimaWing Commander, System Shock, and Thief. All of these titles represent games that prioritize player choice and agency, presenting you with difficult questions and remembering your answers later down the line. One of the strongest examples of this design philosophy is the original Deus Ex, which Spector directed and produced; though he wasn’t involved with Mankind Divided or its predecessor, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, his influence looms large over their designs. It’s clear that Eidos Montreal was interested in capturing the same sense of importance that the original Deus Ex placed on the impact of a player’s choices, because Mankind Divided is full of alternative gameplay approaches, branching dialogue and story options, and events that you can simply miss, and never see or participate in (which might sound limiting, but is actually quite refreshing in an era where “You can do whatever you want with zero consequences!” is the guiding light for most game design).

Jensen huddles in a Prague street patrolled by robotic police droids. (Photo: Steam Workshop)

The game’s setting is a collars-up dystopia where advancements in technology like mechanical body augmentations and hyper-destructive weaponry have led to a world in crisis; corrupt governments are beholden to shadowy corporate interests, millions languish in extreme poverty, and social issues like racism and segregation are rampant. The world’s so far gone, in fact, that the current era in Mankind Divided is referred to as a perpetual worldwide “mechanical apartheid.” Adam Jensen (a gravelly-voiced Elias Toufexis) is a covert operative for a special unit of Interpol, whose body is heavily augmented. (This allows for a myriad of interesting gameplay functions like superhuman strength or a cloaking field, and also cheeky references to cyberpunk’s aesthetic sensibilities, like Jensen’s retractable sunglasses -- which seem more like a nod to The Matrix than a practical mod you’d want to have.) Most of the game’s action takes place in this world’s version of Prague, which isn’t so much an “open world” setting as a series of bespoke interconnected areas that offer fascinating and gorgeous environmental detail. In an industry utterly saturated by open world games – most of which feel increasingly irrelevant in a world where The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild exists – it was invigorating to explore a smaller setting, whose every nook and cranny was hand-crafted and filled with narrative flavour.

I spent most of my time with Mankind Divided sneaking through air vents to bypass waves of enemies, hacking terminals to disable security systems, and generally feeling like a cyber-ninja who could ghost in and out of a terrorist compound without anyone ever knowing I’d been there. The game’s systems were thoughtfully designed to support my choice to play this way (both through the level design, which always offered multiple routes through every area and plenty of secret places to explore, and through the upgrades to Jensen’s augs, which made it easier to sneak around and execute on my clandestine plans) -- even though I could have barrelled through the entire game guns blazing, if I’d chosen to do so. But it was the story I was playing through that really pushed me forward, trapping me in an atmosphere of murky morality and shifting loyalties. While investigating a train-station bombing attack – and whether or not it was committed by the ostensibly peaceful body called the Augmented Rights Coalition – I was also investigating Jensen’s direct supervisor, whose motivations were thrown into doubt by an underground hacking ring. I helped two citizens take down a corrupt cop who was extorting them for fake travel visas, but I only ended up with one visa – meaning one of them would be deported no matter what I did. I investigated a serial killing at the behest of Jensen’s neighbour, and had to convince an aging cop not to arrest an innocent man just so he could close his career’s last case, even though everyone in the neighbourhood agreed that man was a total asshole who probably belonged in jail anyway. These storylines, both large and small, were personal, compelling, and united in their exploration of the irreconcilable complications that surround human rights issues – a far cry from the empty-headed “ripped from the headlines” fare that the marketing campaign had prepared me for.

In its satisfyingly in-depth exploration of these SF themes, which were equal parts Star Trek and Blade Runner, the game reminded me of the Mass Effect series, and of how disappointed I was with its latest entry, Mass Effect: Andromeda. I wasn’t able to put my finger on why I was enjoying Mankind Divided quite so much until it dawned on me that it was scratching the same itch that Mass Effect used to, until the series’ focus on thoughtful themes, strong world building, and exciting storytelling were torpedoed by the many issues that plagued Andromeda’s development. Like Mass Effect 2 before it, Mankind Divided worked hard to earn a spot in my list of summer favourites – a deeply atmospheric and intimately paranoid cyber-adventure that feels like breathing a plume of cigarette smoke through a shaft of holographic light.

A park in Planet Coaster by Frontier Developments. (Photo: Gamespot)

I’m probably not alone in associating simulation games with summertime; I imagine there’s a common Venn diagram whose point of convergence is people who a) loved to play games on summer vacation, b) played games primarily on a computer, as opposed to a console, and c) preferred more peaceful, Zen garden-like gaming experiences to more violent or adult-oriented fare. This is the domain of wide-eyed children creating their dream neighbourhoods in The Sims, fathers buying overpriced joysticks to play flight simulators with their kids, and friends huddled around the PC monitor, collaborating on the design and management of the ultimate theme park in RollerCoaster Tycoon.

Released in 1998, RCT was a title that spawned several expansions and sequels, and an entire subgenre of “tycoon” games about property management, from zoos to space colonies to prisons. Every game of this ilk has a type of “campaign” mode, where the player is asked to achieve certain entrepreneurial objectives within a restricted scenario – in the case of RCT, it might have been “build 3 thrill rides with a limited budget” or “make $50,000 in park revenue” – but the “free” modes have always been the true draw, where there are no financial limits and your creativity is free to run wild. Whatever you can imagine, you can build. Of course, when you’re a child, your inherent faculty for suspension of disbelief can bolster any gaming experience, no matter how low-tech (something anyone who grew up with 8-bit games will understand). But what fascinates me is how more polished modern versions of these experiences – namely, Frontier Developments’ Planet Coaster, regarded as a spiritual successor to RCT – manage to cater to a mature and developed creative mind in equally satisfying ways.

I haven’t yet tried the campaign scenarios of Planet Coaster, though they’ve been well-received by critics and fans. When I grabbed the game (in a burst of sun-soaked nostalgia for those old Tycoon experiences), I dove straight into free mode, and immediately broke ground on a park I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid: a pirate-themed paradise called Treasure Trove Cove, centered around a mountain with a crashed pirate ship perched on its peak. Did I steal the park’s name from a level in Banjo-Kazooie? Yes. Did I steal the ship mountain idea from Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park? Of course. But these shameless acts of intellectual property theft only reinforce the power of Planet Coaster’s fun, which lasts as long as my own creativity does. Making this thing, in all the tiny frustrations, revelations, and inspirations that go along with managing the game’s park-building mechanics, has been an exercise in taking some of the best creative advice to heart – to steal from the best, and to make the stuff you want to see in the world. I’m nowhere near done this monstrously complex project, but it’s a constant joy to add and tweak things to my park, watch its visitors enjoy the attractions like a little virtual ant farm, and cultivate the same feeling of total summer relaxation that those early days of PC simulators achieved so effortlessly – without a tenth of the shiny bells and whistles I get to savour now.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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