If a game came out today that depicted a world ravaged by a viral outbreak, dehumanized by capitalism, in the throes of mass public riots, gripped by anti-government sentiment, and witnessing the progressive breakdown of American society amid the rise of China as an autonomous superpower, you might think it was too on-the-nose. Twenty years ago however, it was simply the setting of a radical, and somewhat prophetic video game, called Deus Ex.
Directed by System Shock producer Warren Spector and designed by future Dishonored creative director Harvey Smith, Deus Ex represented a profound leap in both storytelling and mechanical depth for first-person video games. The game placed players in the role of J.C. Denton, a cybernetically augmented United Nations Anti-Terrorism agent who gradually unravels a web of conspiracies gripping the dark cyberpunk future of 2052. Its sprawling world was dense with philosophical questions, conflicted morality, deep characters, and all the ingredients that make an instant classic; its character customization system and resulting player freedom is still imitated today.
It’s success spawned a lukewarm sequel in 2003 with Invisible War, and then a successful revival in 2011 with the prequel Human Revolution and its own sequel in 2016, Mankind Divided. The original game is fondly remembered in PC gaming communities with the meme, “every time you mention it, someone will install it.”
The game’s 20th anniversary lands on June 22, and there are almost as many ways to celebrate its legacy as there are ways to play the game itself. While it resonates today possibly more than it did in 2000—and it’s available on Steam—we wanted to celebrate by taking a look at one of the game’s most overlooked achievements. Seven years after its release, Deus Ex served as the basis for one of the most impressive mods of its generation, known only as The Nameless Mod.
The Origins of Deus Ex’s The Nameless Mod
Getting into games has always been hard, but in 2000, the tools available to beginners were either very expensive, or simply not available. Easily moddable games were often the best way to cut one’s teeth in game development, and Deus Ex had an active mod scene. Mods could range from being small texture or weapon packs, to larger mission packs and beyond. The Nameless Mod represented the largest and most complex kind of mod, known as a total conversion. A total conversion uses the modded game as a starting point to make an entirely new game, often including brand new assets, mechanics, and large teams.
Certainly, there is nothing else quite like The Nameless Mod. While it superficially resembles Deus Ex, The Nameless Mod takes place in Forum City, a virtual representation of the real Planet Deux Forums, an online community of fans. Nearly every character in the game corresponds to a real person who was active in the Planet Deus Ex community at the time, and is overflowing with references, in-jokes, and turn-of-the-century internet humor. The mod today is a barely comprehensible but fantastically endearing slice of internet culture prior to Web 2.0. It’s a game where your character will fight n00bz, sneak by firewalls, journey into old Gamespy message boards, and come across an entire in-game location dedicated to housing Deus Ex fanfiction. Wrapping one’s head around a mod this dense can be difficult 11 years on, so we tracked down two of The Nameless Mod’s creators to help lead us through a retrospective.
“I can’t play it,” says Jonas Wæver, lead designer, project director, and writer on The Nameless Mod, when asked about it 16 years after its development began. “I’ve tried to occasionally load it up again but I just cringe at the shitty writing. I can’t deal. I needed an editor so badly.”
Wæver is only half serious. The game’s 195,000-word script was written primarily by himself, spanning his life from 9th grade to the time he was writing his bachelor’s thesis. Nowadays, he makes games at developer Logic Artists, writing scripts three times the size.
His true feelings are somewhat more complicated.
“I remember it with a lot of nostalgia. It’s fun, it’s unique, it has a lot of personality, but you can’t sell it to people. I think I’m a little sad that it’s such a dumb concept.”
Wæver had an interest in making games from a young age, although his options for getting into games professionally was limited in his native Denmark. After dabbling in Half-Life mods, he managed to land a one-week work experience opportunity at IO interactive, the Danish developer responsible for the Hitman series.
“I managed to get that work experience placement because I sent them a 40-page design document for a different Deus Ex mod that I had been planning, which was something about time police, and a very stupid story,” he recalled.
“They asked me, ‘What do you want to be?’ And I said ‘Well, I kind of want to be a writer, don’t you guys have writers?’ And they’re like, ‘No, not really. We have a contract guy in the basement who occasionally produces text.’ Of course, Deus Ex was evidence that writers are completely a thing. They had three writers on the team. So I realized, okay, maybe there’s a chance.”
Work on Wæver’s time police total conversion mod slowed as he and his team gradually realized they didn’t know how to manage a project of that scope, and he soon joined the Planet Deus Ex forum community as a news editor. That’s when a news tip came through his email about a mod being made by a fellow forum member called Trestkon.
“He had managed to accumulate a team which had some programmers, it had some artists, and it had him as level designer. He didn’t have a story guy and he had no idea what story the mod would have,” said Wæver.
“His idea was he would make a mission set in the Deus Ex universe, but he would use people from the community as the characters. My contribution to that project was, ‘Why don’t we actually set it on the forums and make it a metaphor for the community itself.’ Which was a stupid idea,” Wæver said. “But it worked out.”
Seven Years of Scope
These days, Lawrence Laxdal is a virtual construction manager for PCL Construction, one of Canada’s largest general contractors for construction. He is passionate about engineering, and although evaluating technology is a major part of his job, he doesn’t immediately come across as a computer geek. But 16 years ago, most people who knew him best, knew him only by his online forum handle: Trestkon.
“I really don’t remember how I discovered that modding could be done,” said Laxdal. “There was a website on IGN’s network called Planet Deus Ex, and they had some very active forums. I’m sure I was probably looking for cheat codes or help on the game, and they had a really active modding section.”
Laxdal admits he had no modding skills of his own at the time but was inspired to make one after seeing other mods and being captured by the idea of making his own game. That’s when the concept of offering to include forum members in the game paid off.
“Everybody wanted to contribute and see themselves in the game, which ended up working out well because we attracted a lot of talent,” Laxdal said. “But also it took seven years to finish.”
A couple weeks into the project, Laxdal’s news tip came through Wæver’s inbox, and the two would quickly solidify as the core of the team for the mod’s entire development.
“Without him it would have gotten nowhere,” Laxdal said of Wæver. “He was a huge driving factor in actually getting it done and having a cohesive story.”
While Wæver fell easily into his role as lead writer, Laxdal ended up becoming the primary project manager and jack-of-all-trades, learning to do all sorts of diverse tasks, from video editing, audio editing, marketing, coding, and personnel management.
“We had people with all sorts of different personalities and everybody was working remotely, so you kind of had to interpret what people were feeling and mediate disputes and know when to give and when to pull,” Laxdal explained. “For those seven years we worked more closely together than people do with their real coworkers.”
As a mod, everyone was bound solely by their passion for the project, since nobody was getting paid during development and there was no plan to monetize the game when it came time for release. This made “scope-creep” a constant problem throughout development, with various contributors insisting they implement their own personal ideas. Since they were giving their labor for free and the tone of the project was so silly, it could be hard to say no to these increasingly bizarre features. The game ended up stuffed with an almost unmanageable amount of content.
“Nobody on the team were professionals. Everything was chaos,” said Wæver. “I don’t think we got our first dedicated programmer until two years into the project.
“I would say that the most valuable thing I got from all of The Nameless Mod was I learned how to motivate people to do good work without being able to pay them,” Wæver added. “Being able to give feedback in an encouraging way without making people feel like they were getting whipped is a really valuable thing. It’s just about the best game development education that I could have gotten I think.”
Laxdal agrees that The Nameless Mod was a crucial experience for him. “It’s interesting to me how much preparation working on The Nameless Mod provided for this totally different job,” he said. “I didn’t have any special skills. I wasn’t the writer, I wasn’t the coder, but having to tie all those people together, I was always doing a little bit of everything. Knowing at least how something works has been invaluable in my career.”
Giving the Community a Voice
One of the most endearing parts of The Nameless Mod is the characters themselves, and according to the creators, the vibrant personalities found in Forum City were not all exaggerations.
“The community did these weird, almost roleplay-like things on the Planet Deus Ex board,” said Wæver. One of The Nameless Mod’s stranger factions, the Goats, and its rival, the Llamas, were based on real networks of forum users that pretended to be in cults that worshipped animals and mystical cutlery. The playfulness of the community was easy fodder for the developers.
The Nameless Mod’s villain, Scara B. King, was a real forum user who styled himself as an evil billionaire.
“His joke was that he was this super cynical multi-billionaire, and he would roleplay as that on the forums,” said Wæver. Though they accepted nearly everyone who wanted to be in the mod, Wæver worked with them to develop their character and in-game appearance. And once that was all done, it was time to give them a voice.
“That was the real achievement I think,” he recalled.
“At one point we decided that we were going to voice everything,” said Laxdal. “We went out to different websites that have voice actors for hire. Not for money, but who were willing to voice act. It was a nightmare.”
Originally Laxdal was pegged to voice the main character, Trestkon, but soon figured he wasn’t cut out for voice acting. That’s when they decided to spend money on their only paid contributor: a voice actor out of Germany named Jeremiah Costello.
“I had to take the train to Hamburg, then spent the weekend sleeping in his recording studio on the floor,” said Wæver. “He just chewed through those lines, like 10-hour sessions, two days in a row, and then just got all of it done which was amazing.”
The work the team put into gathering voice talent resulted in a fully voiced game that sounds miraculously better than one would expect from what are essentially home recordings from the early 2000s with little quality control. But like everything else in the game, it came together in the end to create a wholly unique result.
The Nameless Mod released to the public on ModDB on March 14, 2009. It was met with positive reviews and industry recognition.
“Of course Warren Spector and Harvey Smith both sent us congratulations,” Wæver recalled.
“I frequently wish that I could work on a game like The Nameless Mod again. It was a huge achievement and I’m really proud of it. I just wish that it was easier to explain to other people who don’t already know why it’s so impressive,” he laughed.
“Because it sounds very bad on paper.”