The Magic Trick in Deus Ex

I’ve been obsessively watching old clips of the TV talent show Penn and Teller’s Fool Us recently. The show’s premise is this: magicians come onto the show and perform a routine in front of Penn and Teller along with a live audience. At the end of their routine, Penn and Teller discuss amongst themselves and then provide feedback on the magician’s routine as well as their guess as to how the trick in their routine worked. If their answer is wrong, then the magician has successfully fooled Penn and Teller, and they win a trophy along with an opportunity to perform as Penn and Teller’s opening act at their Las Vegas show.

Magic routines are already interesting. There is a veneer of a dialogue between the magician and the audience, but often that veneer is arbitrary and superficially constructed because fundamentally, the routine is a power dynamic. The audience approaches the routine either with open-mindedness or skepticism, and either way the magician attempts to fool them, to create the appearance of being mentally ‘ahead’ of the audience. Penn and Teller’s Fool Us formalizes this dynamic, and turns it into a game. There is an explicit winner and loser.

Penn and Teller, however, frequently do not wish to win. There have been many magicians whose routines have been thoroughly impressive but have been unable to fool the duo. Upon the revelation that yes, Penn and Teller’s guess as to the mechanisms of the trick are spot on, the duo’s response is of disappointment, not at the magician, but at themselves and the rules of the game. They want to be fooled. They want to be the ‘dumb’ one.

Anyway there’s a scene early in Deus Ex.

The player character, J.C. Denton has successfully apprehended Juan Lebedev, the leader of the NSF, a radical terrorist group. His partner on this mission, Agent Navarre issues Denton, and the player, an order: kill Lebedev.

Denton hesitates. This goes against the basic principle of justice and the primary objective of the mission. Lebedev has been arrested and is fully willing to come in peacefully. Agent Navarre insists: kill Lebedev, or she will do it herself.

On the surface, the situation seems simple enough. This is a Hobson’s choice. Lebedev is not leaving the location alive. But Deus Ex is not like any other game. Deus Ex is an Immersive Sim.

There is another thing you can do here. It is not telegraphed or communicated in anyway. Nothing in the game so far has even vaguely suggested that this is a possibility, but you could do it, if you chose to. If you decided to just play around and test the game and its limit. You can try this: take out your gun, aim it, and kill Agent Navarre.

Discovering this possibility blew my mind. There are choices, perfectly valid ones recognized by the developers, that are not indicated to you. You think you know the game, you think you know its tricks, but the game is smarter than that. Playing Deus Ex was like a dialogue with its designers, and they were ahead of me. Like Penn and Teller, I was fooled.

There are certain narratives about what games are and what they allow the player to experience. They are power fantasies, fostering a sense of empowerment. They are role playing experiences, allowing players to live alternative lives. They are puzzle boxes, waiting to be understood.

Deus Ex is a magic trick. It fools you. If we think of our games as magic tricks, what games could we make? How can we surprise the player? How can we fool them?