Persuasive Processes

Procedural Rhetoric and Deus Ex

My name is Steve Wilcox. I’m the Editor-in-Chief on First Person Scholar. I’m mid-stride in my Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. My research looks at the ontological nature of objects, games among them, as irreducible entities that escape mediation.

Procedural rhetoric is the core concept behind Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games. As a concept it is intended to identify the unique process-driven persuasive capacity of games and computer programs. In contrast with verbal and written modes, procedural rhetoric is concerned with the persuasive elements of a simulation and its affordance (or lack thereof) of user participation in that process. This adds a much needed critical tool to the video game theorist’s set, as it accurately identifies a distinguishing characteristic of the medium. As Bogost notes, far too often games are assessed in terms of what we might call the ‘content’ rhetoric (cutscenes, character models, etc.). For example, the FPS/RPG Deus Ex (2000) contains numerous documents scattered throughout the game world. Some of these texts are excerpts from established Western authors and philosophers (passages from G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday appear frequently). Interspersed with these texts are excerpts from a fictitious  novel called Jacob’s Shadow that can only be experienced in a disjointed manner (chapter excerpts appear out of order as the player progresses, and chapter numbers indicate large gaps in the narrative). In my research I’ve detailed these texts at some length to emphasize that one could spend a great deal of time discussing the implications of the intertextuality at work in Deus ExThe ManWho Was Thursday, for instance, thematically reflects the conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy tone of the overarching game narrative, which sees the player repeatedly misled and betrayed. What procedural rhetoric suggests, however, is that this approach is akin to analyzing a film by still frames—it can be done but such a methodology overlooks the far more persuasive mode of the medium, namely, its real-time representation of action and reaction or, simply put, its interactivity.

For Bogost, procedural rhetoric is designed to explore and expose the manner in which a player’s actions enact certain portions of a process in order to bring about a new state in the system. In this context, Bogost finds that titles which increase the subroutines or sub-processes can also function more persuasively. This, of course, depends on the objective or aim of the game in question. It seems implicit to this theory of procedural rhetoric that the choice between subroutines, or what we might call potential in-game action, is always already rhetorically charged. In FarmVille, for instance, the two main actions are to either 1) click on the ‘crops’ to harvest them after x amount of time, thereby increasing in-game resources, or 2) purchase those resources outright. That is to say, either you work in the game world or you buy your way through the gameplay process. Rhetorically speaking, these processes of are immensely reductive in respect to the world at large. It is important to note that this rhetorical analysis persists beyond or almost before the content itself (as Bogost’s Cow Clicker exercise attempted to prove).

Deus Ex, an FPS-RPG hybrid, draws on many cyberpunk tropes while enabling players to implant ‘biomodifications’ at a whim, radically altering the physiology of the player as well as the gameplay itself. And for these reasons Deus Ex might not seem very well attuned to procedural arguments, except for two major exceptions: 1) Deus Ex constructs a persuasive procedural argument through its combat structure (or lack thereof); and 2) Deus Ex deconstructs the conventions of the genre by placing the player at odds with the requests made by the system.

1. Deus Ex  constructs a persuasive procedural argument through its combat structure (or lack thereof).

For the first exception, Deus Ex plays like a game that knows its audience. After all, the first person shooter was dominated by the likes of Doom and Wolfenstein, titles that asks you to, essentially, shoot anything that moves. Even previous FPS-RPG hybrids such as System Shock 2 (1999) present an environment devoid of non-combatants. This approach can heighten the tension but it also establishes that all non-player-characters are hostile and should not only be subdued, but killed without prejudice. This history of the FPS seems to be at play in Deus Ex, as the first ‘process’ players are engaged with is a binary decision between a lethal or non-lethal approach. This decision comes in the form of a dialogue tree as an NPC explains that a group of militants have stolen some government property and that he is there to provide armaments for the mission ahead. The weapons made available each come with their own particular set of conventions within gaming culture: a sniper rifle is typically an over-powered, high-skill weapon, a rocket launcher is often high-powered/high-damage, (and a common weapon of choice in fast-paced FPS games), and a cross-bow, which is often slow but powerful, typically fires both lethal and non-lethal ammunition. Prior to selecting a weapon, the NPC strongly advises for a “non-lethal” approach. If the player selects the most lethal weapon he/she is promptly reminded that these adversaries are human beings, who, though hostile, are essentially politically-motivated activists. And thus begins a recurrent process, enacted throughout the game, where players must choose between lethal and non-lethal tactics.

This is not simply a philosophy embraced when the context supports it—this ethical question is posed throughout the game and it is in direct response to the preceding entries in the genre. For up until this point, to attempt to play a first person shooter without firing a bullet or killing a single ‘enemy’ would be considered subversive and deconstructive. In contrast, the gameplay of Deus Ex, which is now bifurcated into lethal and non-lethal tactics, supports the option to play through the entire forty hour campaign without killing a single individual. What’s more, the structure not only enables non-lethal combat (stun prods, tranquilizers, gas grenades) but combat-avoidance is presented as a viable option and is even encouraged throughout the game. This is reflected in the structure of the game itself, as players are rewarded experience points for exploration (rather than the typical RPG approach, which  rewards the player based on the number of combatants killed).

Furthermore, the skill tree supports numerous non-lethal skills, such as becoming an expert computer hacker or lock picker, as well as movement-based upgrades that facilitate combat avoidance. If presenting the player with a divergent range of potential, sometimes contradictory, processes constitutes a more persuasive procedural argument, as Bogost suggests, then Deus Ex succeeds on the grounds that it incorporates elements that deconstruct its own genre. This is fundamentally distinct from subversive dialogue options or choosing a ‘light’ or ‘dark’ side in the campaign, which are content-based considerations. That is to say, they may alter the way the player thinks about on-screen events but they have little impact on the actions taken by the player. One cannot simply decide to align with the aliens in Doom; the processes and procedures the game utilizes to achieve narrative progress necessitate a point-and-shoot approach, encouraging the player to heighten his or her combat skills. And therefore, procedurally speaking, this is far too reductive an argument.

It is worth pointing out that as one becomes more skilful at games like Doom the difficulty experienced decreases (in other words, killing becomes easier and more ‘natural,’ since there is, after all, only one process at play). In Deus Ex the easy or low-skill path is also the most violent and homicidal. In fact, the real challenge presented by the game is in its non-lethal and avoidance approaches. The unstated premise here is that violence is the easy solution and that truly skilled players will have pursued the far more challenging tact of non-violence. These two approaches are problematized within a second procedure that is endemic to video game procedures, the quest system, and this brings us to the second major procedural argument in Deus Ex:

2. Deus Ex  deconstructs the conventions of the genre by placing the player at odds with the requests made by the system.

The initial premise of Deus Ex is that you are an employee of UNATCO; a special anti-terrorist organization whose headquarters are your base of operations for the opening levels. Each ‘mission’ in the game involves a briefing from various specialists employed by UNATCO—the player is either required or strongly encouraged to meet with a communications specialist, the munitions officer, a medical advisor, and a tactical specialist prior to embarking on any given mission. In addition to these supplementary informants, you also receive orders from your superior, an elderly, bureaucratic-type named Joseph Manderly. At times you will be called into Manderly’s office to receive mission objectives and general plot details. This is rather standard fair for RPGs – a classic quest-giver that also acts as a source of rewards upon the completion of certain objectives. In the opening missions of Deus Ex the player must, in typical RPG fashion, return to the quest-giver to be rewarded. However, Manderly offers more than just experience points, for he prefaces any rewards with mission-specific feedback tailored to your actions and, this is the interesting part, he will actively dock your ‘pay’ if your behaviour doesn’t reflect the interests of the company as a whole. This means that at times those players who have selected the role of pacifists experience a reduction in the only currency that really impacts the player.

The process here (rather transparently) mimics that of an employee who must weigh his/her pursuit of personal prosperity against the moral and ethical implication of the actions of the organization. If one looks only at the content here, where killing the terrorists benefits UNATCO, the moral choice seems rather obvious and frankly overly-dramatized. But in the context of the procedures of a first person shooter, the obvious choice (in fact, typically the only choice) is to follow orders. This is not to suggest that penalizing players for deviating from objectives is anything novel. But by immediately and actively problematizing the quest process (the initial, lethal or non-lethal choice), and then reinforcing the traditional violent approach through in-game currency, Deus Ex exposes the procedural rhetoric at work in other games, which typically offer fewer choices. As Bogost notes, “A procedural model like a videogame could be seen as a system of nested enthymemes, individual procedural claims that the player literally completes through interaction.” Deus Ex explodes the enthymeme of ‘kill, reward’ into the now obviously faulty syllogism of ‘killing is necessary to complete the objective, objectives should be rewarded, therefore, killing is worthy of reward.’ Couching this within briefing/debriefing office procedures (the term ‘performance bonus’ is used), Deus Ex asks players to question the very rhetorical processes behind the classic quest system that underlies most contemporary video games.