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How '90s graphics shaped the bleak future of Deus Ex

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All hail the low-poly wasteland

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Big-budget games are a paradoxical combination of incredibly conservative business strategies and incredibly fast-moving technology. Few other industries love franchises so much, and few other mediums change so quickly. The result is single stories that span decades, each entry shaped by both the culture it was made in and the machines that it was played on. Next year, we're going to see one of the weirder byproducts of this system: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a story connecting the future of the present with the past of the future of the past.

Deus Ex is the kind of conceptually fascinating series that's best when it feels dated. It's a set of four (soon, five) games based around contemporary conspiracy theories, from FEMA camps to chupacabras. The first game, despite being set around 2050, presented a very 1990s near-future; director Warren Spector described it as a cross between James Bond and The X-Files. But in 2011, it was pulled all the way back to the late 2020s for prequel Human Revolution — requiring developers to extrapolate forwards from reality and backwards from what is now the retro-future.

Deus Ex extrapolates forwards from the present and backwards from the retro-future

The original 2000 game features some normal predictive failures; news websites and ebooks, for example, haven't overtaken newspapers and hardcover novels. But the biggest issue is that modern technology and game conventions have left Deus Ex's 2050s in the dust. The game's nano-augmented protagonist is supposedly replacing Human Revolution's cyborgs, but in 2011, it's possible to animate far more over-the-top superpowers. First-person shooter characters have gotten more powerful. An average protagonist can constantly regenerate health and take down enemies by pressing a button. And little futuristic details in clothing and furniture can actually come through, instead of being lost in a low-resolution texture. In 10 years, we'll have Renaissance collars and diamond-textured slacks; in 30, we're back to plain leather couches and power suits.

But this gap hasn't broken the story, it's shaped it in a way that few other mediums could manage. If Deus Ex had been produced as a movie, it would be almost impossible to buy the premise that Human Revolution's writers came up with: that humanity reached a technological apex, then regressed to a world clearly filmed in the 1990s. But the beauty of the original game's rough design is that nothing has ever looked like it. Fashions are torn up and put back together with muddy textures and scant polygons. You feel an intense desolation in the world's flat, repeating textures. If you stop thinking of everything as a crude ancestor of modern gaming, it's not just futuristic, it's totally alien.

Here, for example, is Deus Ex's conception of a UNATCO (future UN) peacekeeper, compared to a Detroit cop from Human Revolution:

Everything exists at an almost symbolic level: you're in a shantytown composed of three or four shacks, a rat sliding awkwardly across a couple of strategically placed pieces of garbage. There's an empty barrel with the vague suggestion of fire. Why did the peacekeeper have to kill that terrorist with a Bowie knife? Because even the all-powerful world government's armories are feeling the pinch of recession, obviously.

The maps, meanwhile, are massive. They're built to an entirely different scale, with vast amounts of space and nothing to fill it. An office hallway in Deus Ex looks like a cathedral:

Warren Spector has said that everything in Deus Ex was modeled on a real place in some way, which feels right — I explored Battery Park there years before I moved to New York. But it's warped by the limits on textures and decals, as well as the fact that older first-person shooter protagonists covered ground much more quickly than their modern counterparts. And forget about crowds. Even for a neighborhood under lockdown, Hell's Kitchen is a wasteland compared to 2020s Detroit. Nobody even has the lights on.

The game's architectural decisions raise questions of their own. When did New York real estate value drop so far that bathrooms became the size of studio apartments?

You get the feeling that everyone is living in the ruins of a greater culture, where all available objects must be arranged at careful intervals, never touching, to disguise the fact.

While we've long recognized pixel graphics as a distinctive style, 3D models are often still judged by the benchmarks of strict realism and technological progress. The indie world is coming around to low-poly design as an artistic choice, with games like Neon Struct and the work of Brendon Chung. But like most AAA shooters, Deus Ex is devoted to pushing the boundaries of computer graphics. The game world might regress, but technology marches on. This means that starting with Mankind Divided — which takes place between the prequel and the original game — we'll get closer and closer to a photorealistic version of a place that was defined by its eerie unreality.

We've got a weird few decades ahead of us. But at least, contrary to the sum of my lived experience, there will always be room at the bar.