Deus Ex: Looking Back at the Future - Prima Games

Deus Ex: Looking Back at the Future

by Prima Games Staff

Sheldon J. Pacotti penned Deus Ex, a title that’s often hailed as one of gaming’s brightest moments. Set in a downtrodden future noir world, Ion Storm’s 2000 game placed its protagonist’s destiny in the player’s hands to a level that was, at the time, unprecedented.

It’s no wonder the game is held so dearly by so many, and it’s also no wonder that the sequel, Invisible War, faced such an impossible task in following up the 2000 original.

Having worked with John Woo on an unreleased project, Pactotti joined his Ion Storm co-worker Warren Spector at Junction Point Studios, lending his hand on the Wii’s Epic Mickey.

Pacotti has since formed New Life, a fledgling studio working on the intriguing Xbox Indie Cell: emergence.

On the eve of the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Pacotti offers his thoughts on how Deus Ex came together, how its sequel fell apart and how Square’s third game can bring it all back together again.

Eurogamer: Looking back, what’s the highlight of your career?

Sheldon J. Pacotti: It’s hard not to say Deus Ex, because it really was a great game. It’s funny, when you end up on a project like that, there’s a little bit of luck to it in terms of where you manage to apply and what team happens to be there. So often teams just don’t talk and never get on the same page creatively. That was one of the few times where I could tell right from the beginning it was just an incredible game.

I remember looking over Warren’s shoulder as he walked around UNATCO throwing a basketball around, and just seeing the care everybody was taking to make a real place, a real world. As a writer, looking at that and realised I could just fill it up with very realistic sounding dialogue and real people and personalities… I just lost myself for a year. I was working all the time writing for the game. I just didn’t want to stop. Certainly that was the highlight.

Video: Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Eurogamer: It must feel odd to know you worked on a game many consider to be the greatest of all time.

Sheldon J. Pacotti: It’s nice to see that sometimes, and also a little surprising in a way. Most normal people have forgotten then game. I actually teach an interactive writing class at the University of Texas. A lot of the students, they were 12 years old when the game came out. The ones who’ve played it are like, oh year, I think I played that. My dad shouldn’t have let me play it. It was kind of a weird game. I get these comments, they’re just very oblique in terms of what they actually know about the game.

But you could feel the energy there. People were bringing different things to the game. One guy was a weapon specialist. The weapons were very well researched and thought out. Other people had other integrations. Pieces just came together really well, with some luck and some vision from Warren and Harvey [Smith] and some of the guys who were there early on.

Eurogamer: What happened with the second one?

Sheldon J. Pacotti: How would I describe it? The team got pretty ambitious and wanted to try some new things. Some of those ideas were a little too ambitious. From a storytelling standpoint, I personally felt the amount of freedom we tried to give the player made it very hard to create a really gripping narrative.

The example I bring up in class and got a lot of press was the old bathroom joke, where if you go in the women’s bathroom and, when you go get your mission briefing, the director is like, you know, you need to stay out of the women’s bathroom area. You’re embarrassing the agent.

I saw mention of it just this week on a site. It’s a serial joke, but the thing is, we wanted more of that type of stuff in the next game, but you can only have that kind of stuff if you have a really deep social context.

When you start Deus Ex 1 you have a brother, a job, a boss, co-workers, then you have other stuff that’s going on in the world that’s pretty realistic and tangible based on current events. So you’re in this network that makes a lot of sense, and then you can make a joke like that. You can embarrass the player.

But if you don’t know who you are, if you don’t have any allegiances, if you can change your mind about who you’re working for at any moment, then you’re just white noise, and it’s hard to get that identity to the player.

The game struggles with that in terms of presentation and the experience the player gets in the world. There’s less attachment to the story and to the game for that reason.

Eurogamer: Will you be playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution?

Sheldon J. Pacotti: I plan to have this project done very soon so I can do that. I think they’ve done a pretty good job. I’ve been in the loop a little bit. I helped frame some of it at the beginning and worked on the script. They’ve approached the franchise with a lot of care, a lot of respect. A lot more care and respect than we did on the second one!

We were ready to invent something new. They came to the franchise looking at what was good and really carefully looked at what worked and what didn’t work. From what I saw early on at least they were thinking through the combat really well and the art style and the story. They’ve been very diligent in trying to craft something that’s coherent and hangs together.

Eurogamer: So you give it your blessing?

Sheldon J. Pacotti: Yeah. I hope it does well.

Eurogamer: It seems to be reviewing very well.

Sheldon J. Pacotti: Yeah. We talked a little bit about doing Deus Ex 3 back in Texas before the studio shut down. And we were thinking also along the lines of a prequel. We thought the franchise needed a reset. I was excited to hear that’s the direction they were going. It’s the right thing to get the title back to more of a gritty, real world territory.

Eurogamer: Why didn’t you guys get the opportunity to make it? Did you ever get any work off the ground?

Sheldon J. Pacotti: It was a lot of upper management politics I don’t know much about. But there was a team in place. It was starting to move forward. It went through several iterations. I was there for the first one. We were actually coming up with ideas and level ideas. We didn’t get to the point where we were actually building anything. But we were starting on it.

Then gradually the studio shrank and closed down. I’m not sure of all the reasons behind it. I guess the titles that had come out hadn’t been that successful commercially. People started leaving. I’m sure Eidos had their reasons for shutting down the place.

Sheldon Pacotti is founder of New Life Interactive, His indie game Cell: emergence is due out on PC and Xbox Live Indie Games soon. Eurogamer’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution review will be going live later today.

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