Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

Considering that the latest Deus Ex is about being divided, people have reacted in a strangely harmonious manner. Everyone says that the level design is fun, the story is disappointing, the art direction looks great, and the microtransactions are horrible. But one aspect that the reviewers seem to overlook is Breach, an arcade-style minigame that shipped along with the base title. Breach offers a Deus Ex experience in controlled bursts rather than the sprawling campaigns we’ve come to expect, and this departure represents a fascinating new design direction, although perhaps not a good one.

WARNING: Spoilers for certain events in Mankind Divided.

The Mana System Paradox

I’ve written extensively about what I call the “mana system paradox,” which applies to any game that uses an external resource to constrain the player’s actions. In fantasy games, this is mana that’s used to cast spells, but in Deus Ex, this is energy that’s used to fuel Jensen’s augmentations. My central argument has always been that if using your superpowers is what makes the game fun, then mana systems (or energy systems) punish you for trying to have fun, and you’re forced to have less fun in order to conserve your resources. On the other hand, if it’s the decision to use superpowers that makes the game fun, then mana is an important part of that decision and it belongs there.

Tactical games belong in the latter category, whereas action games belong in the former. But I’m not sure which category Mankind Divided belongs in now. Yes, it is still a tactical game about logical decision-making like its predecessors were… but at the same time, now you have augmentations that let you teleport and shoot explosive swords at people. In these cases, the fun comes from the act rather than from the decision.

The prequel series starting from Human Revolution have always had an interesting solution to this paradox. You can automatically regenerate energy, but only up to a small minimum limit. Consumable items allow you to recover the rest of your energy, so you’re still incentivized to explore and collect those items, but at the same time you’re never left completely powerless.

This is a nice mechanic, but it begs the question: what would the game be like if you just didn’t need to worry about energy at all? If you could use all of your augmentations with reckless abandon, and the game rebalanced the difficulty to accommodate?

As it turns out, that’s what Breach is for. The idea of Breach is that you play a series of short missions where you have a set of objectives (kill X units, collect Y objects). Each mission is a complete reset, so you can spend all of your energy in one mission and go into the next one topped off again. You’re encouraged to be a little more ambitious with your energy usage, and often you have to go all out in order to win. Even though the missions are small, they make up for it in density.

At least, this is how it should have been in theory. Breach is filled with one-time-use items that need to be bought with microtransactions. In a way, Breach is what would happen if the main game was scaled up by several magnitudes. Your “minimum energy” is now your whole bar, and the extra items you find by exploring in the main game are instead bought with microtransactions to provide much larger benefits.

This is a miserable approach for a full-priced game to take, and unfortunately it warps the design discussion. But if we ignore the microtransactions as much as possible, we can ask a deeper question: why doesn’t anyone play Breach?

A Different Fantasy

In one Breach mission, I got 25th place on the global time score on my first try. For a hyped-up triple-A title, that is ridiculous. The media is indifferent and the leaderboards are empty. What is it about Breach that makes it so lukewarm?

People are always talking about how they like Mankind Divided‘s gameplay but not its story, so wouldn’t a mode that’s all-gameplay-no-story be perfect? Maybe it’s true that Breach would be more popular if it wasn’t for the aggressive monetization, but for now, it may as well be a thought experiment. Are the core mechanics of Deus Ex not suited for a sequential mission format?

Part of the Deus Ex promise is that you will always be able to choose how you approach any given problem. Of course, this isn’t real because eventually you will run out of approaches. The solution is to keep giving players new problems to solve. You will find that in Mankind Divided or Human Revolution, you will rarely ever go back to a mission area. They don’t get reused for anything, and instead every mission takes place in a completely new area.

On one hand, it represents a massive investment into level design, but on the other hand it maintains the feeling of improvisational freedom. That feeling gets undermined when you revisit areas and see that there were actually only a few paths you could have taken. It’s like seeing behind the curtain.

And yet, this is exactly what Breach does. In Breach, you replay the same levels over and over, perfecting your route for a high score. You learn all of the subtle intricacies, all of the shortcuts and guard patrols, and all of the spots to hide from an attack. Many different missions will use the same level layout and just change small elements here and there.

Your augmentations are there to make it feel like you’re always exploring new possibilities. When a mission goes wrong and enemies are following you, there’s something in your toolkit that can help you pull off a MacGyver escape. But this doesn’t happen in Breach, because you might as well spend a bunch of lives dying and restarting so you can scope out the level.

Deus Ex is all about surviving through sub-optimal situations, getting through by the skin of your teeth. Sometimes, you have to make hard decisions in order to do so. You have to go against your pacifism and kill someone so they can’t wake up and flush you out later. Or you have to decide between protecting a VIP versus protecting a group of civilians. There isn’t a perfect ending, because life doesn’t have a perfect ending.

In one of the ending cutscenes, Jensen says that “You can’t change the past. We have to keep going,” which is essentially the thesis statement of the whole game. But Breach is about changing the past. It’s about going back into levels you’ve already played and changing the past over and over until you get a high score.

Breach might have been an interesting approach to the mana system paradox, but even if it solved one design problem, it violated the core of what a Deus Ex game is supposed to be about. It offered a different fantasy, one that players weren’t interested in. That, combined with the microtransactions, spells out a recipe for failure.

Long-Term VS Short-Term

There’s another “mode” called Jensen’s Stories which acts as a midway point between Breach and the main game, where you have a single mission that is self-contained but also large. Presumably, Eidos Montreal will publish their DLCs under this name as well. Currently, the only one is a mission called “Desperate Measures,” which follows Jensen as he enters a hostile security company looking for answers.

“Desperate Measures” feels like it could have been seamlessly integrated into the main questline. However, the fact that it isn’t means that players can enter this mission with reckless abandon, using everything they can find without worrying about whether or not they need to keep their collectibles. It offers the same kind of refreshing aggressive play that Breach was meant to provide, while also balancing it with the long-term strategy you would expect from a main storyline mission. You can pick up a biocell and use it on the spot if you need to: for hoarders like me, that’s mindblowing.

Breach had good intentions, and it might have worked for a different game. But when it comes to Mankind Divided, it seems that Jensen’s Stories are a better fit for the experience they’re trying to deliver. Maintaining the classic Deus Ex feeling is about balancing long-term and short-term gameplay in an industry that has been trending towards the latter.