Deus Ex: Human Revolution starts with an explosive start that shatters the life Adam Jensen was trying to build, and launches him into a career of chasing down a conspiracy. In doing so, the player guides Jensen through many types of activities, most having to do with sneaking around and taking down enemies with his cybernetic powers.
While doing the core activities of the game, the player is rewarded with experience. Shoot an enemy and you are rewarded with 10 points. Choke them unconscious and get 50 points. Experience is also awarded from things like exploring the game world and finishing quests, or to put it in other words, being thorough. More experience may be lurking in any nook or cranny.
The experience awarded unlocks Praxis points, which can be used to activate Jensen’s cybernetics, giving him superhuman powers. With the powers, he can sneak more silently, hack more efficiently – or punch through walls and turn invisible.
Having additional powers makes the game easier, but even more importantly, it makes the game more fun. Instead of slowly sneaking around the enemies, jump from the roof of an apartment building and explode in slow-motion like a human-bomb.
However, even after unlocking the superpower of being a walking bomb, there are incentives to refrain from using the power. The game rewards experience from many things, but it rewards some actions more than others.
To paraphrase Animal Farm: There are many correct ways to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but some of them are more correct than others.
Most experience is rewarded when the player completes missions while getting both the Ghost and Smooth Operator achievements. This means completing the objective without the enemies spotting you, seeing the fallen bodies of their allies or setting off the alarm. This essentially means that proceeding in the game must be done by sneaking very carefully, since an enemy spotting you will mean losing a significant amount of experience.
The rewards are cumulative, so in addition to being stealthy, the player should also defeat all the enemies and explore all the locations. This leads to a very particular play style, where it makes the most sense to slowly and meticulously creep through all of the available spaces while stealthily taking down all the enemies on the way.
The list of things to do for the maximum amount of experience includes at least the following actions:
- hacking every door, computer and alarm panel, whether useful for proceeding or not (25-125 XP) – additionally, the game rewards you for hacking all the data storages (additional experience and other rewards)
- retracing every path to every location, including all air ventilation ducts (up to 400 XP)
- punching all structurally weak walls (leads to exploration rewards)
- taking down every enemy, whether a threat or not (10-250 XP)
- attacking all human enemies non-lethally, and with hand-to-hand attacks, preferably in pairs (125 XP)
- finding and reading all of the game’s ebooks (200 XP)
- reading all of the game’s hundreds of emails (leads to information usable in other pursuits and exploration rewards)
- persuading all the NPC’s (1000 XP)
Therefore, if the player plays the game with optimal performance in mind, the tortured ex-SWAT Adam Jensen will spend much, if not most, of the game sneaking through air vents, reading literature and hacking cleaning closets. While you as a player may enjoy these things, they seem at odds with both Jensen’s goals and character.
You could argue that Deus Ex doesn’t force you to do any of this, but it still incentives some behaviour and not others. You can shoot all the enemies, but choking them silently is preferable. You can choose the most straightforward path, but the air vents on the way may hold secret rewards. Whether they intended to or not, the designers are telling you that some ways of playing are better than others.
Early in the game you are given a choice of approaching an explosive situation in two ways. Terrorists have taken over a factory from the company you work for. Your boss tells you that you can either go in quietly or loudly; choose which one you prefer. This decision affects whether you start the mission with a stun gun or a rifle.
I chose the rifle, thinking that I might use it if the enemies notice me. Afterwards, I felt cheated. The game told me that there were two ways to approach the situation. It never told me that one of them was clearly superior to the other. Realising that the game was geared towards sneaking made taking out the rifle feel like a failure, so I didn’t do so. Instead I learnt to crawl and hide, punch and choke. For much of the game I carried the assault rifle with me, but never used it.
The difference between the approaches was highlighted by how the game handled boss fights.1 In order for them to be beatable by a stealthy approach they were made especially weak against characters using the stun gun, rendering them immobile and harmless. Comparing this to my attempts to win the bosses with the assault rifle felt like cheating. The enemies would freeze in place, helpless, allowing me to just keep shooting them with the stun gun.
Of course, there was always the choice to do otherwise. Nothing forced me to play the game in a particular way, but you could say that the deck was stacked in a particular way. Be stealthy and you are rewarded, the game told me with the reward pop-ups. And being a good player, I explored all the ventilation ducts, hacked every cleaning closet and read all the emails.
I played the normal version of the game. I hear that the bosses have been tweaked in the director’s cut. ↩