On Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and how video games aren’t ready to replace movies
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided came out this week and it’s a pretty good Deus Ex game. Mark Brown, of the great YouTube channel Game Maker’s Toolkit, released a video last week called “The Comeback of the Immersive Sim” which you should watch if the names Deus Ex, System Shock, Thief, and Looking Glass Studios don’t mean anything to you. Brown says in this video that System Shock “…killed off all the humans to avoid those immersion-breaking conversations.” I want to focus in on that sentence because, as an actor and director, I find it a very interesting (and twenty-five-year-old) solution to a huge problem in modern gaming.
I’ll be blunt: modern cutscenes are terrible. They’re filled with overwritten, confusing, expositional dialogue spoken by poorly sketched out characters acted out as broadly as possible by actors who are given very little usable direction. I have many friends who have been leads in some major releases over the last year. They are very good actors. Their performances in these games are not. I don’t think this is their fault.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will be my focus for this review but really you can swap any major release from the last few years and change very little. DX:MD picks up the torch of the other games in the series but takes itself much more seriously. The original Deus Ex was pretty pulpy, but this latest instalment feels like a season of 24 set in the future. That should be exciting, but the ambitions of the storytellers are let down by the technology available to them and a total lack of vision in how the story is staged.
DX:MD is trying very hard to be a major release in a tentpole franchise, so it’s filled with fully voiced and animated characters with lots of interesting design details and visual candy. Unfortunately, someone at Eidos Montreal has decided that for a character to have depth, they need to be a totally unlikeable asshole 90% of the time. Your boss? Asshole. Your partner? Asshole (Voiced, inexplicably, by Peter Serafinowicz.) The forensics guy? Whiny, smug asshole. Your conspiracy buddy? Urban asshole. Because of the climate this game is trying to convey, a world in which mechanically augmented humans are treated like terrorists, every single cop on the street treats you like an asshole in unskippable cutscenes where they check your documentation every time you get on or off the subway. The game’s impressively complex message about tolerance, safety, technology, and humanity is undermined at every turn by a cast of characters that have the subtlety of a bad sketch show. In particular, the trope of the supposed good guy who is a total dick to the player for no reason and then turns out to be a traitor really needs to get gone. In the original Deus Ex, the only characters that were jerks to protagonist JC Denton were mechanically augmented agents who were staring their own obsolescence in the face when they met the nano-augmented hero of the story. They were flawed people who had sold their humanity for their duty and were being phased out for it. That makes sense. That is justified by the writing. Needlessly eccentric character traits don’t add depth, they accentuate how thin your characters were to begin with. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of a comedian pitching their voice up and playing with their hair to signify they’re portraying a woman.
It’s not just the writing that lets you down, though. The worst culprit is less noticeable but a much greater offender. In film, you have many elements making up a scene: the actors, the director, the lighting, the sound mixing, the script, the set, the props, etc. In a video game, many of these elements are overcomplicated further. The lighting isn’t just setup by someone, it has to be created and then setup. A light source could be created by one person, placed in a level by another designer (who is themselves going off a drawing from a concept artist) and then the director has to place two actors in the space. If that light source makes the shot look bad, there’s nothing to be done because that room was rendered and completed months, maybe even years, ago. What I’m talking about is shot composition and in DX:MD, as in most games, there isn’t any. Conversations, and there are a lot of conversations, are TV-standard medium close-up two shots that alternate on lines of dialogue. The effect is of two action figures dropped into a room, with the camera being placed where that medium close-up two shot is more plausible. There’s no sense of background or depth (even though ‘depth of field’ is a standard graphical option these days) and the conversations, which are generally pretty well acted, are so boring I end up looking at my phone during most of them and using the game’s journal to get the salient points.
During these dialogue scenes is when the true artificiality and limitation of games becomes most apparent. The pace of dialogue in most video games is brutally slow. No one ever talks over another character. Physical movement becomes a part of the line, so that character B will wait for character A to finished shrugging their shoulders at the end of a line before speaking. And those animations themselves are canned, so you’ll see hero Adam Jensen do the same weird, artificial double head-nod dozens of times during your play through. As an actor, the idea that an animator can manipulate my body in a way I didn’t intend in the scene is incredibly frustrating. As a director, the idea that I have to assemble my scenes like a toybox is equally frustrating.
I want to emphasize again what a great Deus Ex game Mankind Divided is. You play a morally ambiguous character in a morally ambiguous world, there are multiple choices and paths to accomplish your objectives, and you spend a ton of time hacking computers and crawling through air vents. There are some terrific systemic eureka moments as well. On a break from writing today, I used my x-ray vision to look through a wall and locate a hidden path I knew had to exist but couldn’t find. I don’t want this article to dissuade anyone, especially Looking Glass fans, from picking it up. Video games and television both represent long-form storytelling and both are evolving very quickly together. It’s time to demand more fidelity and creativity from our digital avatars. It’s time to expect every conversation to be as well crafted as major story moments and it’s time to start treating cutscenes like scenes, not breaks in the action.