In 2011, SquareEnix released Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and people pretty much agreed it was one of the best games of the year. The third in a celebrated series (PC Gamer called the first one the "best game of all time"), Human Revolution took what was best about the first few games — a design commitment to player freedom and a fun, if goofy, cyberpunk aesthetic and story — and turned it into a modern shooter.
More than anything, this game was involved. The Deus Ex games are famous for letting you solve almost every situation with or without violence, and that was the case here, but the depth of the world was pretty astounding. You could read thousands of emails on hundreds of computers, shape the main character in dozens of ways, upgrade guns, direct branching conversations, etc., etc. In other words, it was a game that demanded your unmediated attention.
And now, of all things, it is a $7 mobile game. Deus Ex: The Fall, out today for Android and iOS, is its own game, with its own plot and its own mechanics, but it is unmistakably an offshoot of Human Revolution. Critics are praising the game for not diluting the Deus Ex experience. To my mind, though, the move to mobile is a baffling choice. Most mobile games, competing for human attention with the beguilements of the real world, focus on doing one or two things really, really well, like jumping, or launching birds from a catapult. Even the PC and console Deus Ex games are hardly known for their polish; they're more about giving the player a tremendous amount of latitude. Mobile games that attempt more, like last year's masterful The Walking Dead, wisely limit time-sensitive, granular player control. Mobile devices are notoriously terrible at doing first-person shooters: There's simply no substitute for a mouse or two joysticks. But The Fall is very much a shooter.
I began playing The Fall yesterday in the BuzzFeed office, which I think is a fairly useful proxy for the kind of conditions in which people play mobile games: sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet, sometimes bright, sometimes dark, at a finger's length from the ever-present distractions of the internet. Here is what happened.
The game started with an ominous and complicated narration in the classic Deus Ex mode. Cool, I thought. Then someone at the other end of the office inflated an enormous and lifelike shark balloon, which I looked up at and chuckled. Glancing back at the game, I realized that I had no idea what was going on. Something about a conspiracy and tyrants. Unlike in a movie theater, I could not lean over to the person sitting next to me and whisper annoyingly about "wait what just happened I slurped my soda too loud." I realized that I was unintentionally furrowing my eyebrows.
• I managed to figure out the first playable part of the story is a flashback, and mentally thanked the shark-balloon inflater for not having done his deed during this revelation.
• The color palette of the game is mostly brown and mottled brown. Because there was a faint afternoon light general in the BuzzFeed office, this meant that I could not see anything. The only way I could see what was going on was by bending over and tucking my head and hands under my desk. I grew concerned that my workmates would think that I was either nauseated or depressed, and so I began to alternate between periods of sighted play under the desk and guessplay sitting upright, which I hoped could be misinterpreted as a kind of modern calisthenics.
• Even under the desk it remained a significant cognitive task to distinguish between shades of brown. I spent five minutes in a single room because I could not tell that there was a ventilation shaft on the floor that was more of an almond brown than a toast brown. I considered the ideal light situation in which to play this game. It would have to be an unlit or tenebrous basement. Perhaps a wine cellar.
• I walked into a room occupied by a few grumbling guards. Despite my efforts at stealth — rendered difficult by my sweaty swipings at the screen — they immediately noticed me. Then they pointed their guns at me. Fuck, I thought. In the unforgiving Human Revolution, I would be seconds away from death. Here, my assailants, well, didn't assail. They just waited. I slowly walked up to each one and tapped the screen for a canned execution. Perhaps they were paralyzed by fear.
• Naturally, every task in the game is accomplished by touching and swiping. Because the game offers you about a million things to do, and the iPad screen is only so big, the potential for mistaps is high, even tragic. It took me four minutes to assign my first character upgrade on a menu screen that looked like a hex board. I considered the fatness of my fingertips.
My short experience with the game led me to believe that it is designed for people that like to game in the dark, sedentary, over long periods of time, with very few distractions, a high tolerance for awful UI, and delicate fingers. I then began to wonder how many of these people do not own a console or a personal computer. I then began to wonder why those people would buy this game when they could buy Human Revolution. I then began to wonder when I could get back to catapulting those brightly colored birds.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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