‘You are an unfamiliar face on Tonnochi Road.’ What a great line. Even spoken in that painful, bordering-on-racist, fake Chinese accent you couldn’t want for a more fitting introduction to that shady clu-de-sac of secrets, power play, conspiratorial triad machinations and Maggie Chow. It was a special moment within a special game, and arguably progenitor to many a great game location since - from City 17 to Colombia, not to mention a certain excellent website. Shameless self-promotion aside Tonnochi Road (The game locale) is a place that warrants a revisit. Just what was going down on that Honk Kong street? Who was really visiting who? And why for all of JC’s globetrotting adventures was that the place that stuck in my memory after all these years. Let’s break it down.
From your very first steps you begin to notice a different set of rules to the rest of the city. A hurried triad passes a cryptic warning - there is danger here. The number of bystanders thins and an ominous luxury apartment building can be seen towering overhead, exuding an invisible influence over its neighbours. Venturing deeper it increasingly becomes apparent that despite the public façade you are not welcome here. ‘Strangers to Hong Kong should stay near the market’ threatens a visibly armed security guard as a hulking militaristic mech towers behind him.
Back in the 90’s it was still quietly revolutionary to have a peacetime space in an action game. But Deus Ex didn’t just participate in this concept, it actually deepened it by exploring the thresholds in between. As evidenced on Tonnochi Road, that first encounter was designed to evoke a very particular feeling - that you were being repelled but not expelled, threatened but not attacked. There was a frizzon here, a forbidden allure. The limits of your permit were dangerous, unclear. Of course, this was all part of a deliberate design, constructed in an effort to fuel your curiosity, tempting you to probe deeper. But surface intrigue over private/public thresholds was only the beginning.
You see, Tonnichi Road, like the larger game, had conspiracy built into the very fabric of its design. While engagement had to start on the ground floor but we sometimes forget that half a game’s worth of set up had gone into priming the player for that first encounter. By the time you had reached the infamous street, Liberty Island, Hells Kitchen, the rest of Hong Kong had already acclimatised you to an immersive typology of depth – Those buildings towering overhead were no mere set dressing because the player would already recognise them as shielded but accessible domains, holding rooms, stories, people and their secrets. How deep the layers went - an alluring unknown, how forbidden - a tantalising mystery. It was that fuzzy edge condition married with the carefully constructed intrigue that began to give Deus Ex its compelling, seemingly limitless quality as the ‘immersive’ sim.
Fast forward and you’ve found your way into Queen’s tower for a private audience with the enigmatic lady herself (Although unfortunately voiced again as another cringe worthy caricature). Maggie Chow, that snake, sells you a good story as you stare into her expensive Tibetan carpet contemplating your next move. Next thing you know she pointing you in the direction of the police station and giving you a code to break in. The maid loiters nervously at the periphery. Something’s not right.
Despite the accent it’s actually an unnerving scene. You know she’s hiding something though quite what is a little beyond your understanding by that point. It’s a key moment and set up again by earlier player experiences that play into the affect. By that point certain previous employers (I’m looking at you UNATCO) have already gotten you used to the idea that the story someone tells you, the objective you are given can easily be a lie. But this time the there is no rug to pull, the game wants you to doubt. Who’s playing who and who can you trust? It’s clear you’ve entered a snake pit but what to do next?
In the absence of a game telling you what to do a strange thing happens. You actually start to make value judgements, contemplating the characters, their motivations because once more - this time in a dimension of cause and effect - the edges of the simulation have become blurred. You could follow Maggie’s lead but it could easily be a trap… Spring the trap? Sleuthing around her apartment looking for more clues could yield something but that pesky maid seems to be following you around everywhere. Could you knock her out? Stash the body… What if Maggie finds out? Or what if there’s another angle – that back alley entrance blocked by the guard, or better yet the adjacent apartment building for a more elevated vantage point.
The options seemed limitless because the limits were unknown. It was all to do with perception. No person, organisation or game system was telling you what to do - you simply had to read the situation, listen to the different perspectives and figure it out for yourself. It was choice, but not such binary, signposted choice as we have come to know in the post Mass Effect age. Of course the variables were limited, the response scenarios pre-programmed, but it was that subtlety of design and the obfuscation of its edges that allowed Deus Ex to transcend its technical limitations. In the end it felt less set piece and more social sandbox. In other words it just felt more real.
After some sleuthing you’ve cracked the police vault (Turns out a bogus lead) and further down the line you break into that apartment across the way discovering an old haunt of Jock’s (A mildly interesting diversion). Eventually you find yourself doubling back to Maggie’s for some answers, only this time to the maid seems to have forgotten her etiquette as she slams an alarm and whips out her piece. The secret doors slide open and commandos start pouring out. A secret base - Cool! A blur of violence later and the base is awash with the pixilated innards of a small legion on MJ12 elite who shared the misfortune of coming to work that day. You stand before the fabled dragons tooth – the bad ass futuristic samurai sword they were protecting – and grab it in both hands. The cyberpunk lightsaber lights up like it’s Christmas. Catharsis!
So Tonnochi Roads thematic finale ends up being a secret base with a cool sword. I can mock it now but at the time it really did feel quite cool (Come on – it was still the 90s!). Not just for the satisfying violence, or the fulfilment of a paranoid conspiracy fantasy, but because I had finally broken through all those layers of lies to expose the truth – understanding that street and the entire power structure that made it tick. Even Maggie Chow was just a pawn in a much larger power play and that knowledge gave me satisfaction.
Because Deus Ex was not a game about following orders and being dumped on by a story, it was a game about figuring out those urban environments on your own terms, by understanding the relationships, back alleys and network exploits, of getting to the bottom of that conspiracy and feeling like you’d earned it. The final gratification worked because it lived up to the promise, cashing the check that had been written the moment you set foot on that street. And like icing on the cake the player took their own reward either in the currency of knowledge, action or just a damn cool sword.
Vandenburg and Area 51 were always fun as playgrounds to become J.C Denton the augmented super solider. But for me it was the public/private thresholds of the urban context that became the most interesting landscape to inhabit that other J.C. Denton – the pedestrian, the detective, the burglar, the spy. Tonnochi Road was just one of the urban environments of Deus Ex, and just one of the streets of Hong Kong, but I would argue it was the richest, the most alive in depth and possibility.
Why was Tonnochi Road special? Because essentially it felt like a real place. Embedded in the context of a larger city but uniquely distinct. Playing off established expectations and then blurring the edges of the simulation to create true immersion. Giving the player unqualified choice and then treating them with the respect to figure it out for themselves. It was a place that took us on a journey, a mystery waiting to be unravelled, a character with a life of its own. Oh, and did I mention the cyberpunk ninja sword?
I am and always will be the unfamiliar face on Tonnochi Road. And perhaps that’s exactly who I want to be.