All The Righ Elements: Deus Ex – Human Revolution
July 25, 2012 Leave a comment
Let me make something very clear from the start.
I love cyberpunk.
There are few sci-fi niches that deal with the problems of today or a potential future better than Cyberpunk, while also asking the really big timeless questions.
Cyberpunk as a genre originated from a very particular time in our history, when information-technology accelerated so fast that people started to feel threatened.
It wasn’t just the normal technophobia of every generation, it was a new fear, almost physical. It was the fear that technology combined with corporatism would bring about slavery, genocide and discrimination.
The cyberpunk-movement addressed those fears in their fiction, the dramatization and exaggeration always serving the point of creating the “worst case scenario”.
Megacorps exploiting workers, mercenary groups policing the streets instead of the government, the augmented high class being superior, not just economically, but now also physically and mentally, the dichotomy of the poor and the powerful.
And below that the techno-anarchists, the digital pioneers, hackers, the “punks” of the information age, flipped off “the man” from their rooms with huge fans.
As someone clever once said
“Classical Science Fiction shows us how science and technology will save us, Cyberpunk shows us how it won’t.”
But as we stepped more and more into the information age, when our computers, cellphones and MP3-Players became like limbs we moved on from those fears.
Cyberpunk changed, it moved on.
When someone read Neuromancer in 1984 he would have said
“Wow, thats a crazy/scary vision of the future”
When someone reads Neuromancer today he says
The old cyberpunk dealt with corporatism, technophobia and trans-humanism, these topics were contemporary back then. Today these questions are not on our mind anymore, or at least in a different context.
Our fear of technology is gone, computers, cellphones and the Internet are like our limbs, corporatism isn’t an issue anymore, the corporations won.
Cyberpunk today, (nuCyberpunk? Post-Cyberpunk?) needs to deal with different, contemporary, issues of the information-age. Intellectual property rights, digital privacy, net-neutrality, electronic terrorism, software rights etc. those are the issues we need to look at, closely.
The question has shifted from, “Do i really wan’t that bionic arm and retinal implant” to “Do i want the corporation manufacturing it to have proprietary rights and access to that bionic arm of mine”. It’s not as much a question of IF we want those technologies or what they will mean for society, its a question about how much control do we want to have over them.
Because you can be sure when Apple rolls out their bionic arms, there will be an app-store for them.
And that brings us directly to Deus Ex Human Revolution.
I am not particularly interested in dissecting the gameplay-mechanics, the voice-acting or the graphical fidelity, everything about those has been said ad-nauseum by others. If you want a good listen/watch about the shortcomings of the games plot in detail, please look here.
What I’m going to look at specifically is the high concepts used by the games and its cyberpunk themes (and by that I mean the main plot and its peripheral tied-in side quest)
Spoilers may follow!
I need to address one very annoying element.
Please stop fucking misrepresenting evolution.
There is some extraordinarily shoddy science in this game, and I do not mean the augmentations or antigrav landing, I do possess suspension of disbelief.
The plot centers on Adam Jensen being “one or two steps ahead of humans in the evolutionary ladder” and i just can’t let that one slip.
Evolution ISN’T a ladder, it has NO goal!
The whole game centers around the fact that some scientists found a way to create a “roadmap” for human evolution into the future from junk-DNA. Thats just simply -not possible- furthermore it doesn’t even make sense in the context of what evolution means.
How can the scientists know what will or will not be beneficial to us in the future? Evolution is about adaptation to the environment, so unless these scientists can divine the future condition of our environment with dead certainty (from your DNA), it ain’t happening.
The line of thinking that we can tell whats “genetically better” with science was already tried out, know what it was called? Racial Eugenics. Gattaca explored this concept in its biopunk setting?
And this isn’t even an issue brought up in the game, as in:
“Some scientists think that they can tell genetically if you are better” with an implied “think about that”.
No, its presented as fact, Adam Jensen is scientifically Homo Superior, period, full stop and Sarif wants to make more Übermensch with his DNA (quote: “we wanted to make all humans like you.” – “like me?” – “yes, like you. more than human”)
Its a load of bullshit and should have been vetted by someone in an science advisor role. Especially since the rest of the game is usually very coherent and tidy on the science side of things.
Now back to the analysis.
Deus Ex Human Revolution certainly revels in its updated cyberpunk visuals.
Light streaks falling through the half opened blinds, beyond them a vista of a corporate city, huge fans pumping air through the ducts, cardboard and electronics everywhere and everything framed in a renaissance style decor.
Yes, entering Adam Jensesn apartment certainly brings back memories of Blade Runner or Johnny Mnemonic.
Except, sadly, the visuals are the only thing cyberpunk in this game.
Ok, now after you have calmed down and stopped throwing things at your monitor let me explain.
The whole plot of Deus Ex Human Revolution has absolutely nothing to do with cyberpunk, yes there are cyborgs in it, yes there are body-augmentations, yes there is a lot of hacking and technical mumbo-jumbo but that doesn’t make it cyberpunk or Deus Ex for that matter.
Just like spaceships and lasers do not necessarily make a space opera.
That whole paragraph where I explained where cyberpunk came from had a point, cyberpunk always was about -issues- connected to these backdrops.
“What if technology starts invading our body?”
“What if we blur the line between human and AI?”
My point being that Human Revolution doesn’t actually deal with any issues. The supposed augmented/normal people schism isn’t there, its a backdrop. Yes we are told that there is that schism, we even see the riots, the politics play out, but there isn’t any inkling -WHY- there is this schism.
We are left guessing as to the reasons why people are reacting like that. Our society is over the technophobia, it seriously is, I’ve asked around. Is it the corporatism? The poor/rich schism getting bigger? None of this is addressed in the plot.
So what is this game about? Its simple. Its a cheap Dan Brown thriller.
Its a simple story, there is corporate espionage and the Illuminati created a doomsday weapon (making people crazy with radio waves) and you are The Key (TM) to stop them.
I mean seriously, thats all.
You can cut -all- the cybernetics, robots, cyborgs, augmentations and visuals of the game and you get yourself a run of the mill Dan Brown novel.
Some of the side-quests approach cyberpunk, however they also spectacularly miss the mark at thinking their plots to the end.
For example, in one of the missions in China you get to investigate a murder for your pilot. You unravel a plot of corporate protection, bribery, deceit, family and corruption. It ends on you turning the information about the culprit to the police (or not).
However your Pilot applies her own dose of “street-justice” by broadcasting the credentials of the culprit on huge LCD-walls of the largest club in town for everyone to see. This would be a perfect moment to have the game approach the issue of information privacy, even for criminals. But no, you pet each other on the backs on a job well done and never mention it again.
Not to mention a huge amount of unethical crap you needed to do to get this information, hack personal peoples computers, breaking and entering. I mean yeah i know Adam is The Hero(TM) and gets a free pass to rob people blind in broad daylight, by taking their shit in front of them, gameplay-wise, but the concept is never explored in any detail.
In the end Human Revolution, contrary to its predecessor, chickens out at asking the big interesting questions while giving you dull moral oatmeal.
Remember Icarus? The AI from the first game that was created to control information on the web for the Illuminati?
Now thats an interesting concept to explore, especially now with net-neutrality legislation, corps pushing for IP-bans and disconnects on citizens.
We get introduced to another similar entity in this iteration with Eliza Cassan a news-network anchor that turns out to be an AI. But before you can deal with this implication, the conversation is cut short for a bossfight. The line of dialogue is ridiculous: “I am allowed to shape public opinion and the flow of information” – “thats impossible, people would know!” – “I can’t tell you more, she won’t let me” – que bossfight. Afterwards you get nothing more out of “her”.
And this happens almost every time when some interesting concept worth exploring is brought up. Its infuriating and frustrating. Its like the writer decided: its too hard to think about this anymore, shit, lets throw in some gratuitous explosions instead!
After a while I caught myself waiting, waiting for that curve-ball that the game is going to throw me. That WOW-moment where I discover the whole plot isn’t as dull as it seemed to be.
But it never came.
The ending is as formulaic as the boss-fights themselves.
You are presented with three choices (buttons) to end the game (four if you include the suicide ending):
- Expose the Illuminati
- Blame the Humanity Front
- Promote Illuminati and blame Versalife
- Decompress Panchea and kill everyone involved
The endings are as simplistic as the plot itself and provide little to no resolution.
This is additionally overshadowed by Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a prequel to Deus Ex, so we know, no matter what you chose, history will play itself out in the end.
Why not provide one ending? One without the false choices presented but instead composed of all the actions you performed in the game. How unscrupulous you were, how many invasions of privacy you committed, etc.
The ending can be boiled down to either “technology good” or “technology bad”, the context if you expose the Illuminati or not is just gratuitous fluff, a red-herring, it has nothing to do with the plot.
And to make it even more obvious how simplistic it is, those are issues humanity already decided on long ago.
We tried “technology bad” for a while in a period called The Dark Ages and it didn’t work out well for us.
I want to address one last element of the plot before I give my closing thoughts.
An element of the plot that is remotely in the spirit of cyberpunk.
Its about DRM and intelectual property. It is introduced in the last quarter of the game that a specific update to augmentations has a sort of DRM feature that enables the company to update its software wirelessly. This is later misused by Darrow to broadcast a signal that essentially turns people into rage-zombies.
I think its a great way to pull the attention to several real-world problems we face today.
Unfortunately this thread is also weak, because it is not explored in the game with dialogue. Even if you confront Darren you don’t discuss this, only try to convince him with false arguments.
Actually thats another problem of the game.
While the dialogue-challenges are one of the best and freshest additions to the genre, they lack a certain believability in the later parts of the game.
Especially confronting Darrow and Taggart I felt that I could not represent the stance I wanted, the way I wanted.
It’s reminiscent of watching a debate on TV and thinking “Wow, I could have immediately shot down their argument” while Adam bumbles around and provides the wrong answers to the right questions (even when “winning” the challenge).
Taggarts challenge is especially faulty, the arguments provided by him and Adam are borderline stupid. It made me feel like the writer did not understand trans-humanism or even humanism while writing that debate.
It did not feel like Taggart was a good debater, and so Adam felt even more like an idiot responding to his straw-man arguments. It wasn’t two well-spoken, educated people having a conversation, it was what the writer -thought- was a debate on the topic while never having experienced one himself.
Deus Ex had all the right elements to be a cyberpunk classic.
The visuals and atmosphere certainly were superb and the general game-play reinforced the sense of options and different viewpoints.
However it never thought its premises to the end, never strayed from generic pulp-writing in its concepts and never provided interesting avenues of discussion after the game ended.
The deepest discussion about the game I had was about if the environments were too yellow, thats not a very good sign for a game with high-concept story-telling and plot.
Its a pity.
Having all the right elements sadly isn’t enough.