Deus Ex is a game packed with essential dialogue: political philosophy from Ion Storm firefighter Sheldon Pacotti and lifesaving advice from your big brother Paul Denton. And so a rendering bug that skipped the last four or five words of each line practically broke ground when I fired up the classic shooter RPG for another playthrough on its 20th anniversary.
“Some say that concentrated power leads to abuse, but I believe that if an institution has a solid foundation, it can overcome the narrow aspirations of…”
“It’s only a matter of time before someone smart and ambitious realizes that the tools of dictatorship are ready by…”
“A non-lethal takedown is always the most silent way to…”
A quick google took me to a Steam forum thread, where veterans recommended editing .ini files in the guts of the game to fix the problem. It all looked a bit clumsy. Or, read one reply, you could just use Kenties Launcher.
Kenties launcher (opens in new tab), or Deus Exe, turned out to be an all-in-one compatibility solution that came with a configuration menu and mod manager. I installed it and then happily played Deus Ex for dozens of hours.
It’s a story that plays out multiple times with only minor variations on my PC. Arx Fatalis, the very first Arkane game, didn’t become playable until after I downloaded the open source engine Arx Libertatis (opens in new tab). And before Quake’s recent remaster, the unofficial engine Quakespasm (opens in new tab) was the best way to see the gothic halls on a modern machine. Still, no compatibility issues are mentioned on these games’ official pages on Steam, where all three are currently lining their publishers’ pockets.
Perhaps it’s asking too much to ask the likes of Square Enix and Bethesda to keep decades-old products they acquired with their parent studios. But a thank you to those modders who kept their classic games alive wouldn’t go amiss.
Kentie – full name Marijn Kentie, now a 36-year-old programmer who creates software used to automate bridging processes on offshore dredgers – has never viewed his work on Deus Ex as an unpaid support role.
“I was just happy to teach myself and be able to play the game,” he says. And of course allowing others to play it too. I don’t really feel it’s unfair that I have to support a game that someone else is selling. However, I have to admit that the actual support part isn’t. It’s my favorite: replying to people’s emails or trying to troubleshoot their systems.”
At some point, digging through a player’s log files or installing different driver versions to track down their problem starts to feel more like work than a hobby. “But that’s the risk you take in marketing something that people can use,” says Kentie. “I never thought, ‘I wish the publisher would contact me or pay me.’ Though it’s kind of strange how many games are sold without any fixes, or use a lazily bundled version of DOSBox.”
Kentie first assembled his launcher in his twenties, in his spare time between courses at university. “Deus Ex was, or is, my favorite game of all time,” he says. “So I really wanted to be able to play it well. It was released at a time when computer hardware development was still a bit faster. It was really aimed at the end of the Windows 98 and 3dfx card era, and compatibility with Windows XP, multicore processors and newer video cards wasn’t that great. My favorite game became hard to play in a way that replicated the original experience.”
The Kentie Launcher includes an alternate renderer – and while it’s now 15 years old, it hasn’t needed to be updated too frequently as the rate of change in computer hardware has slowed. Most of the more recent problems are related to graphics card drivers. “They are very annoying,” says Kentie. “You change something, and that fixes the game, for reasons that aren’t really clear.”
A time to give
Despite being a hobbyist, Kentie has been at the forefront of the rise of digital distribution and the ensuing commercial comeback of classic PC games. Whenever Deus Ex went on a Steam sale, he noticed an increase in both its launcher downloads and user inquiries.
He points out that resources like the Steam community, where players gather and manage information about mods and fixes, didn’t exist when he first got involved in modding in the late 1990s: “People had more personal, simple websites where they said, ‘ Here’s the mod I made.'”
Making the launcher was Kentie’s way of giving back – an expression of gratitude to others who had made similar compatibility projects available online for free. “I had to market something myself,” he says, “to pay for it upfront.”
Today he avoids the same problems he once solved in a different way: playing old games on their original hardware. Over the past few years, he’s set up a PC using old parts to play the original Doom “the way it was meant to be”.
“That’s nice, but I also realize that not everyone can play the game like that – you have to have old junk lying around, or be able to find it or buy it,” he says. “Some of it is very expensive. So I think it’s really important that there’s a way to keep games on modern systems the way they were meant to be played. It’s an interesting hobby to get those old computers up and running but I really like that there are efforts for people, including myself, to just be able to start something and play like it used to be, in an easy way.”