A Brief Note about Story in Deus Ex: Mankind DividedComplications Ensue
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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I'm enjoying Deus Ex as a series of stealth puzzles. The story raises some points about craft that I'm working on myself.

The world is one in which "augs" such as Adam Jensen, our gravel-voiced hero, are discriminated against after a worldwide accident caused many of them to go haywire. There is terrorism by augs, unless it is by provocateurs seeking to blame augs. There's political infighting within Jensen's organization, TF29, and Jensen is also involved, you quickly learn, with an aug organization that suspects TF29 is being used against augs.

There are global stakes. Jensen seeks justice against terrorists, and truth against plotters.

Now I'm only about 20 hours in, and I'm a bit of a completionist, so I'm not to Golem City yet. But what I would love to see more of is personal stakes. What does all this mean to Jensen? You get to choose what Jensen says about all this, so he doesn't really have his own a point of view.

It's received wisdom in a Hollywood action movie that the hero should have global stakes and personal stakes. John McClane is trying to save a towerful of hostages, including his ex-wife.

Why? Because we can't relate to a towerful of hostages.  "One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic," as Stalin said. That's why King Kong has to have Fay Wray in his hand. She's there to give Kong a personal goal, without which he's just an ape run amok.

A story needs jeopardy or stakes. You'd think you have jeopardy in a video game, because the hero can get killed, but after the 37th time you reboot him, it stops feeling like real jeopardy. So you need stakes. And global stakes don't create emotional engagement by themselves.

I mean, did you sob with relief when your Captain Shepherd saved all sentient life from the Reapers? I bet you had more emotional connection when Joel in The Last of Us did that thing that he did at the end -- because it involved his relationship with one person.

Heroes have girlfriends (or boyfriends, or wards, or moms) to humanize them; it's the same reason that heroes with flaws are more engaging. We'd care about Peter Parker less if Mary Jane weren't in danger. Fighting crime is abstract; saving the girl he loves is personal.

I'm not saying Adam needs a girlfriend (or a boyfriend, or a ward, or a mom). But if the global stakes were tied up in personal stakes, I feel the emotional engagement would be stronger.

E.g., rather than having him investigate a bombing, have him investigate a bombing that put his best friend in a coma. Rather than have him prove that an aug organization didn't commit a terrorist act, have him prove that an aug organization of which his ex girlfriend is a member did not commit a terrorist act and therefore she should not be executed. (Or his boyfriend, or his ward, or his mom.)

Or, maybe his girlfriend, or boyfriend, or mom, has turned against him because they think augs are terrorists. Or they think augs are terrorists and should all be locked up except for Adam and one or two "good augs." Or a judge is going to take away his kid because he thinks augs are terrorists.

Ha ha, I know, Adam Jensen would never have a kid. (But what if he did? And he had to choose whether to make his kid an aug, or let his kid stay in a wheelchair?)

(There are in fact side quests which create some personal stakes; but they're missions he does for people he runs into, mostly, not people who are necessarily part of his life. If he fails these people, he doesn't lose anything.)

Look, I'm painting in very broad strokes here. There are much more surprising, provocative and challenging ways to make global stakes personal. I'm just using these as examples.

I also tend to think, by the way, that it's much easier to follow a story when there are personal stakes. And it gives the storytellers something to sink their teeth into.

I bring this up because this is an argument I have with Guillaume and David every now and then. The player character stories in We Happy Few are all intensely personal. At a couple of points during our development of the game, G and David have complained that the stakes weren't global enough. "I know Arthur's trying to find his brother, but that's not necessarily what the player is trying to do." I rewrote the ending recently to make sure that the player gets both a satisfying end to Arthur's story, and a satisfying ending to his own story, that is, the story of his gameplay.

We have done a fair amount of work aligning player motivation with player character motivation. When those two are aligned, you get the player engaged both emotionally and intellectually. When we release the story, let me know how we did.

UPDATE:  Turns out Jensen's boss, Jim Miller has a kid who needs an augmentation to walk again, and he and his ex-husband disagree about that ... and suddenly I care a lot about Miller and how his story is going to end.


This is a well written blog post (one that I found becaues I was looking at Compulsion Games' Twitter for updates about We Happy Few) and I personally enjoyed Mankind Divided. I think Adam Jensen DOES have a personal stake in the game, just one that we never see the results of (everything is handled in the ending cinematic). The stake Adam has is that if the Human Restoration Act passes, all Augs will be sent to their own communities. It's 1960s American racial segregation, but more jack-booted and globally reaching. When you get to Golem City, you see what location set up specially for Augs is like and it's not pretty. Why would we think that Ra'biah, the 3D printed city by Nathaniel Brown and the Santaeu Group, would be any better? The overwhelming majority of Augs are not bad people, some of them didn't even choose their augments. They don't deserve to live in any Golem City, whether in the Czech or in the Omani desert.

By Blogger Joel H, at 11:01 AM  

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