Deus Ex, atmosphere and an intangible quality we call 'fun'

Posted by gamma_male (69 posts) -

“Oh what an atmosphere!” sang no-longer-famous British comedian Russ Abbott in his magnum opus, 'Atmosphere'. “I love a party with a happy atmosphere, so let me take you there, and you and I'll be dancin' in the cool night air!” Words as poignant now as they were in 1984. Snobs out there may feel that Abbott's brand of 18-to-30s-holiday-in-Benidorm-pop lacks the emotional power and technical genius of, say, Joe Dolce but what it lacks in musicianship, it more than makes up for in evocative imagery. Listen to the music embedded below but ignore the video. The image of a shit party on a 1980s cruise ship will fill your mind's eye like diarrhoea in a water bomb.

What makes video-games art is their ability to transport the player to another world. All great artwork does it. No painting expresses the horror of the war more powerfully than Picasso's Guernica. The Wire is a brilliant portrait of modern-day Baltimore. Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier transports the reader to 1930s Northern England (then rants for a hundred pages about how socialists are dickheads). Some say art is completely superfluous but I couldn't disagree more. Art is escapism and escapism is essential, especially in a world in which the few people that actually have jobs seem to work in a call centre.

I'm in the middle of Deus Ex: Human Revolution at the moment. It's a magnificent piece of work. Seventy percent RPG and thirty percent FPS, it's extraordinarily ambitious. It falls flat in places. The FPS element is a touch under-cooked. Sometimes the conversations get rather 'Resident Evil on the Playstation' and the load times are a chore, especially when you have to re-play a few times. But it's a small price to pay when you take into account everything it does right. The story and illusion of non-linearity are all brilliantly constructed. The most striking element, however, is the atmosphere.

Walking the streets of Detroit and Shanghai is a pleasure. Sure, they're dank, dystopian shitholes but they're so perfectly crafted that you feel like you're right there. Despite being set in the future, there are enough familiar elements to help your brain fill in the blanks. At one point, I walked into a subway station and could almost smell the stale piss (I had just pissed myself but it wasn't stale yet). This hasn't happened to me since GTA4. I would happily sit in a taxi and watch Liberty City float past my window. My enduring memory of that game isn't a character, mission or spectacular building. It's watching a scabby old building go by. I've played plenty of games since then but none have drawn me in to that degree until now.

GTA4 is often criticised by the gaming community for forgoing 'fun' in favour of realism. It's not an argument I've ever bought into. Fun, as defined by these critics, appears to be directly correlated with the number of jetpacks and explosions in the game. Saint's Row 2 is presented as a superior alternative because, I dunno, you can customise your character into an obese transvestite with a shit Cockney accent. 'Fun', by definition, is something that provides amusement or enjoyment meaning 'fun' can be derived from, listening to Bitches Brew, reading Murakami, solving a Rubik's Cube or even watching a virtual city pass by your virtual taxi window. All relatively sedate activities when compared to spraying shit on a housing estate but no less 'fun'*.

When I play a game, fun happens when I'm whisked away from the drudgery of my life. Atmosphere is arguably the most important part of that. It's what tricks my brain into thinking I'm in another world being a fucking superhero and not an unemployed weirdo in a bedsit.

So yeah, more of it please.

* I don't want to come across as critical of Saint's Row. It does what it does very well and I'm not such a pretentious hypocrite that I won't admit to laughing like a chimp while battering someone to death with a giant purple rubber cock.

#1 Edited by gamma_male (69 posts) -

“Oh what an atmosphere!” sang no-longer-famous British comedian Russ Abbott in his magnum opus, 'Atmosphere'. “I love a party with a happy atmosphere, so let me take you there, and you and I'll be dancin' in the cool night air!” Words as poignant now as they were in 1984. Snobs out there may feel that Abbott's brand of 18-to-30s-holiday-in-Benidorm-pop lacks the emotional power and technical genius of, say, Joe Dolce but what it lacks in musicianship, it more than makes up for in evocative imagery. Listen to the music embedded below but ignore the video. The image of a shit party on a 1980s cruise ship will fill your mind's eye like diarrhoea in a water bomb.

What makes video-games art is their ability to transport the player to another world. All great artwork does it. No painting expresses the horror of the war more powerfully than Picasso's Guernica. The Wire is a brilliant portrait of modern-day Baltimore. Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier transports the reader to 1930s Northern England (then rants for a hundred pages about how socialists are dickheads). Some say art is completely superfluous but I couldn't disagree more. Art is escapism and escapism is essential, especially in a world in which the few people that actually have jobs seem to work in a call centre.

I'm in the middle of Deus Ex: Human Revolution at the moment. It's a magnificent piece of work. Seventy percent RPG and thirty percent FPS, it's extraordinarily ambitious. It falls flat in places. The FPS element is a touch under-cooked. Sometimes the conversations get rather 'Resident Evil on the Playstation' and the load times are a chore, especially when you have to re-play a few times. But it's a small price to pay when you take into account everything it does right. The story and illusion of non-linearity are all brilliantly constructed. The most striking element, however, is the atmosphere.

Walking the streets of Detroit and Shanghai is a pleasure. Sure, they're dank, dystopian shitholes but they're so perfectly crafted that you feel like you're right there. Despite being set in the future, there are enough familiar elements to help your brain fill in the blanks. At one point, I walked into a subway station and could almost smell the stale piss (I had just pissed myself but it wasn't stale yet). This hasn't happened to me since GTA4. I would happily sit in a taxi and watch Liberty City float past my window. My enduring memory of that game isn't a character, mission or spectacular building. It's watching a scabby old building go by. I've played plenty of games since then but none have drawn me in to that degree until now.

GTA4 is often criticised by the gaming community for forgoing 'fun' in favour of realism. It's not an argument I've ever bought into. Fun, as defined by these critics, appears to be directly correlated with the number of jetpacks and explosions in the game. Saint's Row 2 is presented as a superior alternative because, I dunno, you can customise your character into an obese transvestite with a shit Cockney accent. 'Fun', by definition, is something that provides amusement or enjoyment meaning 'fun' can be derived from, listening to Bitches Brew, reading Murakami, solving a Rubik's Cube or even watching a virtual city pass by your virtual taxi window. All relatively sedate activities when compared to spraying shit on a housing estate but no less 'fun'*.

When I play a game, fun happens when I'm whisked away from the drudgery of my life. Atmosphere is arguably the most important part of that. It's what tricks my brain into thinking I'm in another world being a fucking superhero and not an unemployed weirdo in a bedsit.

So yeah, more of it please.

* I don't want to come across as critical of Saint's Row. It does what it does very well and I'm not such a pretentious hypocrite that I won't admit to laughing like a chimp while battering someone to death with a giant purple rubber cock.

#2 Posted by RsistncE (4496 posts) -

I agree with you almost 100%.

#3 Posted by gamma_male (69 posts) -

With that avatar, you could disagree with every word and still be my hero.

#4 Posted by SlashDance (1814 posts) -

I think this might actually be my game of the year. When playing Skyrim I thought that one would be it but now, looking back at the two games, Deus Ex stuck with me the most. It was just the perfect game for my taste. Good setting, awesome music, great themes. Not the best story in the world but as you said, the atmosphere was enough to make it enjoyable start to finish.

#5 Posted by gamma_male (69 posts) -

@SlashDance: I'm waiting until I can afford a new PC that can run Skyrim because I figure that's the way it's meant to be played so I can't comment on that. Deus Ex is probably going to be my GOTY too. I've been saying all year that it'll take something special to knock SpaceChem of its perch but I do think this is the one.

#6 Posted by GTCknight (692 posts) -

@gamma_male: Let me just tell you right now. I LOVE Deus Ex: Human Revolution it is without any doubt my game of the year. A friend of mine was hanging out at my place and saw I was one my third playthrough (I think the game had been out for at least one or two months). I had just about 80% of all the augmentions in the complete and I was only 45% of the way done with the game.

My only real complaint is that I want more. I keep wanting to see more, yet at the same time I know that it gave me everything I needed to see.

#7 Posted by valrog (3671 posts) -

Enjoyable read.

#8 Edited by Tru3_Blu3 (3203 posts) -

It's usually games with great atmosphere that come out to be my most remembered. Diablo 1's amazing gothic tone and acoustic/sinister musical score are what drew me in, despite how addictive the clear-and-loot mechanics were back then. It was also FEAR1's haunting, near-futuristic atmosphere that sucked me in; the little girl, the high-tech Japanese mecha inspiration, the Japanese paranoia inspiration, the deranged female choir during combat--all of it was just unique to me.

STALKER is also quite amazing on how it portrayed Chernobyl. The small details like the rust and tear on graffiti and barrels lent this unforgettable feeling that this place has been desolate for years on end. Games may be limited on how they tell tales, but they sure can elaborate the conflicts and problems of the world by its people, its signs, the music, and fuck.

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