I’ve previously written briefly about why the original Deus Ex is such a great game (You can read that here). To recap, Deus Ex is a game built around a number of consistent systems and large, open levels with multiple routes through each. It awards exploration and experimentation, and you can play the same map over and over, having a completely different experience each time.
The vast majority of Deus Ex is spent avoiding or eliminating bad guys, or exploring the large central hub levels. Overall, it’s a very well-paced game. The ratio of action to exploration to exposition is spot on most of the time, and very few of the levels outstay their welcome, despite often being vast and sprawling.
While there is a lot of dialogue in Deus Ex, there are very few cut scenes, or other moments when control is taken away from the player. Instead, the game handles exposition through world building; for example, you learn about UNATCO, the organisation you work for at the beginning of the game, by wandering through its offices, reading your emails, and talking to employees. It all helps make you feel like you’re inhabiting a world, rather than being funneled down a predetermined path outside of which nothing else exists.
Chateau DuClare is a level from quite late in the game; by the time you reached it, you’ve probably spent 15-20 hours sneaking, exploring and talking your way through Deus Ex’s world. The level takes place at the house of a secondary character and is, in effect, one big treasure hunt. Your aim is to firstly find your way into the house, and then find the secret room containing essential information to progress the plot. As with most levels in Deus Ex, there are several ways both to get into the house, and to navigate around it. There are hidden keys and secret passageways, but the level always manages to feel like a real space. Exploring the house is exciting, not because there are enemies waiting to kill you beyond the next door (in this level, there aren’t), but because it evokes that childlike sense of adventure, and the unknown, even in the most mundane of environments.
I think part of the appeal for me personally of levels like this stems from a birthday years ago. I had just turned 11 or 12, and woke up on the morning of my birthday to find a package wrapped on my desk. I opened it, only to find an empty box… and a clue. Which led to another clue, and another, and another, until eventually, I found my actual present (which turned out to be a Playstation!) It was amazing, and I still remember it vividly to this day.
Levels like Chateau DuClare, when well designed, evoke this feeling in me again, and for that, I love them.
It’s a shame that there just aren’t that many games or levels like this. In recent years, by far the best example I’ve come across is Gone Home. Going back a bit further, parts of the Thief games, some aspects of the mansion training levels from the early Tomb Raider games, and a point ‘n’ click horror called Scratches spring to mind. The early, pre-monster parts of Amnesia: The Dark Descent are another good example.
In a shooty, drivey, fighty, punchy, runny, jumpy world, making a game in which you explore an environment without any immediate threat or urgency probably isn’t going to be the most popular choice, but I do think there’s room in a lot of more traditionally action-packed games for a period of quiet introspection, without resorting to a boring cutscene or otherwise taking control away from the player.