PC Gamer US Edition|December 2021
Celebrating the bravery and unbridled intellect of ION STORM AUSTIN
Jeremy Peel

The life of a studio famed for big, difficult decisions began with a no-brainer. When John Romero approached Warren Spector with a blank cheque to make his dream game, Spector’s team was unemployed—showing up to the defunct Looking Glass Austin office to pitch ideas unpaid. In their sketches and documents was a concept for a spy game called Shooter, in which an agent could hack devices and control nanotechnology. The year was 1997, and the air was thick with Hollywood actors in mirrored sunglasses tapping away at chunky keyboards.

Suddenly, with Romero’s backing, anything Spector and his studio could imagine was fair game. The fundamentals were clear for a team that had coalesced around Thief: The Dark Project—a first-person world in which objects behaved as expected when subjected to gravity and the elements, and NPCs reacted with a nuance that enabled players to manipulate them.

Yet it wouldn’t be true to say that Deus Ex was born from a unified creative vision. In fact, Spector encouraged discord by creating two design teams, each with a separate idea of what the game should be. One, headed up by future Arkane boss Harvey Smith, was determined to ground the adventure in a fashion that emphasized the ‘near-’ of near-future; the other had inherited the Ultima RPG sensibilities of Spector’s alma mater, Origin Systems.


The results could have been disastrous, a game pulled apart by horses. Instead, Deus Ex was elevated by its whiplash variety. One level, which Smith fought to keep free of enemies, was a prototypical Gone Home in which you quietly explored the mansion of a dead Illuminati leader, listening to the wistful observations of the daughter she left behind. Another was a Matrix-esque hotel escape best handled with a flamethrower. A third, Hong Kong, was a massive city hub stuffed with engrossing dialogue—a no-no in Looking Glass games, which had favored abandoned or out-of-hours spaces in order to dodge uncanny NPCs. Forget Assassin’s Creed, Deus Ex was the game in which everything was permitted, for player and developer both.

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