- Context, Dear Boy… Context
Here is a common complaint:
‘One of the problems facing video game writing is a systemic failure to place games in their correct historical context’
What this generally means is that writers fail to open their reviews with a lengthy diatribe on the history of this or that genre. While I think that there is definitely a place for that type of opening and am quite partial to it myself, I think that the real problem of context is far more local and far less high-minded. The true problem of context is that how you experience a particular video game is likely to be determined by the games you played immediately before. For example, if you move from playing one version of Civilization to the next then the thing that is most likely stand out is the developers’ latest fine-tuning of the game’s basic formula. Conversely, if you pick up Civilization V after Europa Universalis III, you will most likely be struck by the weakness of the AI and the lack of control you have over your own economy. Aesthetic reactions, like all reactions, are highly contextual. This much was evident in the reaction to Eidos Montreal’s recent reboot of the Deus Ex franchise entitled Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
The most visible response to the game was that its adoption of end-of-level bosses was not only massively unfair but also an affront to a franchise whose chief appeal lay in its willingness to allow the player to find their own solutions to the game’s problems. While I agree that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a very different beast to both the original Deus Ex (2000) and the unpopular sequel Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003), I believe that DXHR’s myriad eccentricities form a thematic whole that casts a rueful eye over the miseries and frustrations of modern life. The game begins this examination with a meaningful departure from the culture of generosity and empowerment created by the first two games in the Deus Ex series, before ushering in an atmosphere of frustration, claustrophobia and willing submission that closely resembles the mind-set required to survive in a system dead-set on grinding you into the dust.
- The Original Deus Ex
Deus Ex was not so much released as unleashed on the gaming public in June of 2000. Looking back at the list of games released in the year 2000, it is initially quite difficult to see why Deus Ex had the impact it did. Indeed, 2000 also saw the release of such classic titles as The Sims, Baldur’s Gate II, Thief II, Diablo II and Shogun: Total War — and while these are all great games that continue to produce their own sequels, reboots and spin-offs, none of them has proved as structurally influential to the culture of game design as Deus Ex.
Prior to Deus Ex, video game genres were both clearly and narrowly defined. If you wanted to play an RPG, you went with Baldur’s Gate II or Final Fantasy IX. If you wanted to play an FPS, you went with Soldier of Fortune or Perfect Dark. If you were really adventurous, you might go with one of the more experimental and genre-bending titles such as Thief II’s stealthy FPS or System Shock 2 (1999)’s baroque collision of FPS and adventure game. Deus Ex was not the first game to blur the line between FPS, RPG and adventure game, but it was the game that wrote the book on how to do it right.
Look at the other big FPS titles to emerge in 2000 and you see what Deus Ex was up against: First Person Shooters were habitually claustrophobic affairs that had their players crawling through mazes of corridors in search of bigger and better weapons they used to kill bigger and better enemies. Modifying your character was not allowed — and you certainly couldn’t make your own way to the end of the level.
Given the narrow way in which the FPS genre defined itself, playing Deus Ex was a liberating experience. Instead of banging their heads against difficulty curves, players encountered a game that seemed to rise up and embrace the peculiarities of their preferred playing styles. Do you enjoy playing games like Quake? Great… dump your points over here and Deus Ex can be a Quake clone! Do you enjoy exploring and sneaking your way through a game environment like in Thief II? Great… dump your points over there and you can be a creature of mist and shadow! Wanna climb a tower and pick off all the guards with an augmented sniper rifle before skipping through the level unmolested? No problem… Deus Ex has got your back. Deus Ex did it all, and did it with style. Even the game’s narrative crooned a ballad of empowerment in which its post-human protagonist JC Denton graduated from UN Peacekeeper to a realm of possibility where all conspiracies seemed simultaneously true.
From the smallest details of its gameplay to the broad sweep of its narrative, Deus Ex was a game about doing the impossible and being more than human. Compared to most other games of the period, Deus Ex seemed impossibly generous, and that generosity changed video gaming for ever. Indeed, without Deus Ex we might never had had the massively open-ended level design of Far Cry 2, the RPG/FPS crossover experimentalism of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, or the tactical intricacies of the special powers showcased in titles such as BioShock. Deus Ex is a game whose impact is still being felt today, but the force of that impact owes as much to the context in which the game appeared as it does to the beauty of its design. Had game designers not focused so relentlessly upon linear narratives and level design, then Deus Ex would not have appeared half as ground breaking as it did.
A lot has changed in eleven years. Back in 2000, FPS/RPG crossovers were unusual enough to seem experimental and tentative in their design choices but now hybrids are so common that FPS/RPG crossovers almost constitute a genre of their own — one that creates expectations and lays down rules, which ensure that no mere remake or reboot could ever hope to recapture the impact of the original Deus Ex. At a time when open-ended level design and pluralistic character builds are common, generosity no longer raises eyebrows or merits much discussion. Because of this change in gaming culture, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions simply could not afford to be generous, and so Eidos Montreal decided to go the other way and construct one of the most claustrophobic and repressive games in recent memory. However, far from being a weakness in the game, the unpleasantness of DXHR’s atmosphere lends the game a rare thematic power, a power drawing upon narratives of racial and economic oppression.
- The Persecuted Overman
DXHR’s protagonist Adam Jensen begins the game as a cop forced into early retirement by his refusal to follow questionable orders. Now working in the private sector, Jensen is the head of security at Sarif Industries, a high-flying tech company specialising in cybernetic human augmentation. Following a mysterious raid on the company’s offices by a group of heavily augmented commandos, Jensen is mortally wounded forcing his employers to step in and save his life. When Jensen wakes up from his coma, his ex-girlfriend is gone and his body is stuffed full of cybernetic implants.
Right from the start, Jensen’s augmentations are presented as an external imposition rather than a choice. Jensen did the job he was paid to do and should have died in the process — but because he did his job particularly well, his employers decided to ‘save’ his life by turning him into a cyborg. Jensen’s reluctance in accepting what he has become fosters a sense of ambivalence surrounding the benefits of augmentation that was entirely absent from the original Deus Ex games.
Ambivalence towards human augmentation is something of a recurring motif in DXHR’s plot. For example, the second you step outside the offices of Sarif Industries, you are confronted by the prejudice of non-augmented people who look upon the augmented with a distaste bordering on outright hatred. The low status of augmented people is further reinforced by the fact that most augmented people are forced to pay through the nose for expensive medication that prevents their bodies from rejecting the cybernetic implants. While the game never makes it explicit, the suggestion is that the anti-rejection medication may well be both addictive and entirely unnecessary, a chemical cosh used by the Powers That Be to keep the augmented in a state of docile servitude.
The idea of using drug addiction as a means of social pacification also features in the plot of James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential (1990). In Ellroy’s novel, a group of rogue police officers flood Los Angeles with cheap heroin in order to keep the Black and Hispanic populations ‘under control’. Given that the game does not explicitly state that the anti-rejection medication is a means of social control, this connection may come across as something of a stretch… but this stretching is made a lot easier by the game’s frequent allusions to the issue of race.
In what must count as one of the more bizarre casting decisions in video game history, DXHR presents FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) as a catspaw for sinister political forces. Normally, when games are looking for villainous government agencies they tend to go for such usual suspects as the CIA, the NSA or the Department of Homeland Security. However, once you familiarise yourself with some of the more conspiratorial thinking regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the decision to cast FEMA as the villains makes a lot more sense: many people argue that FEMA intentionally botched their handling of the Katrina aftermath as part of a deliberate attempt to destroy one of the great bastions of African American culture.
When you consider the use of FEMA alongside the fact that Jensen has post-humanity thrust on him almost as an accident of birth, as well as the game’s representation of a series of riots following the mistreatment of augmented humans, a clear set of racial themes begins to become apparent. In the world of DXHR, the augmented are not superhuman, they are a persecuted minority in desperate need of protection.
Having disenfranchised the augmented, DXHR then sets about making the situation even more morally ambiguous by presenting Jensen as an Uncle Tom-type figure who is complicit in the subjugation of his fellow augmented people.
- A Cybernetic Uncle Tom
Despite being the titular head of security for one of the most visible corporations on the face of the planet, Jensen is not paid a penny for the work he does. Nor does he get to draw on any of the resources of the company that employs him and sends him on missions. This means that, in order to acquire the ammunition and augmentations that he needs to do his job, Jensen is reduced to carting around useless shotguns and rifles in order to sell them on the black market.
Once a standard feature of RPGs this absurd approach to in-game economics was rendered glaringly obsolete by Fable II’s decision to decouple saving the world from paying the bills. This design threshold having been crossed, playing DXHR feels like a trip to the past when shopkeepers made fortunes by exploiting the people who were risking their lives in order to save the village from demonic hordes. I remember one particularly depressing moment when, having invested heavily in my 10mm pistol, I was reduced to ransacking my own apartment in search of ammunition prior to going on a mission. While there is something sad about a modern world that expects us to devote eight hours a day to work, at least employers tend to pay us for our time and don’t expect us to bring our own printer cartridges! [Well, *some* employers… –PGR.]
Unpaid and deprived of resources, Jensen is reduced to petty larceny in order to subsidise his attempts at furthering his employers’ agenda. The moral hideousness of this situation is brought powerfully home in a scene where Jensen encounters his boss’s secretary: the pair engage in idle chit-chat until the secretary expresses her deep concern about the possibility of the UN adopting a regulatory role in overseeing the augmentation industry… and Jensen agrees with her.
Thus Jensen is revealed as a man who burgles houses in order to do his job, which entails murdering people in order to prevent his employers from becoming subject to health and safety legislation designed to protect people like Jensen. Jensen is not just a corporate lackey and race traitor, he is the ultimate submissive, actively participating in his own dehumanisation and debasement. The African American author, critic and activist James Weldon Johnson (a prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s and 30s) expressed his feelings for the character of Uncle Tom in words that could just as easily be applied to Adam Jensen:
For my part, I was never an admirer of Uncle Tom, nor of his type of goodness; but I believe that there were lots of old Negroes as foolishly good as he; the proof of which is that they knowingly stayed and worked on the plantations that furnished sinews for the army which was fighting to keep them enslaved.
By killing and stealing to further the agenda of employers intent upon profiting from the augmented, Jensen is furnishing sinews for the army that fights to keep him enslaved. Jensen’s slavery is particularly evident at the end of the game when it is revealed that his augmentations allow him to be controlled by the rich and powerful. Jensen had no choice but to be augmented, but — despite being aware of the plight of the augmented — his actions cannot speak of freedom; indeed, they scream their submission.
Though clearly inspired by issues of race, DXHR’s narratives of oppression also seek inspiration from the world of work. By presenting the augmented as a racial group subject to the whims of corporations able to switch off their augmentations at will, DXHR transforms the augmented into a people designed to be both an ethnic and an economic underclass.
- The Miseries of Work (and Play)
Arguably the most interesting relationship in the game is the one between Jensen and his employer David Sarif. Sporting a cybernetic arm and the stressed monophthongs of a Californian surfer, Sarif is an engaging and charismatic figure who initially seems entirely deserving of Jensen’s unquestioned loyalty. However, as the game progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Sarif knows a lot more than he is letting on and that his involvement in the darker corners of augmentation politics has resulted in a number of morally questionable actions. However, despite Sarif repeatedly lying to Jensen and omitting to give him information that might have made his job a little less dangerous, DXHR can never quite bring itself to condemn Sarif. The ambivalence of Jensen’s feelings towards Sarif is symbolic of the game’s wider ambivalence regarding the world of work.
One of the most common lies told in the workplace is that companies reward creativity and want to empower their employees. Unfortunately, while most companies believe that they are doing just that, their narrow and self-serving definitions of empowerment and creativity usually serve as straightjackets rather than skeleton keys. Try announcing to your boss that you are no longer going to answer your email or give status reports and see how far it gets you! All too often, when companies speak of empowering their employees, they really mean that they want their employees to see their confinement as a source of emotional satisfaction. DXHR replicates this passive-aggressive double standard by encouraging you to build a character that suits your preferred style of play only to set about punishing you for failing to build the right kind of character.
As the boys at Penny Arcade pointed out in their strip, DXHR allows you to build an expert hacker who can cut through firewalls like a cyber-knife through butter, but all the hacking skill in the world is not going to help you when you are locked in a room with an armour-plated killing machine. Similarly, the later levels are so packed with heavily-armed mercenaries that any character not maximised either for combat or for stealth is likely to find the game almost unbearably hard going. Thus the game engages in a series of passive-aggressive mind games encouraging you to build the character you want and to ‘be yourself’ whilst making it abundantly clear that some types of character are more welcome than others. Far more insidious than the boss-fights is an experience point system that gently encourages you to play the game in certain ways. Picking guards off with long-range shots from cover may be the way that you want to play the game, but you’ll earn three or four times more XP by sneaking up to the guards and knocking them out — thereby encouraging you to play in a particular way, and to follow particular kinds of build. The game’s carefully cultivated atmosphere of frustration and claustrophobia also extends to the level design.
Much like the original Deus Ex games, DXHR has a globetrotting narrative that has you making your way between cities and complexes in such far-flung places as Montreal, Detroit, Heng Sha and the Arctic Ocean. However, while the original Deus Ex games went to some length to make their various locations feel quite different, DXHR depicts the world as a seamlessly integrated suite of offices all boasting the same computers, the same media and the same architecture. Whereas the original Deus Ex games boasted large open-plan levels filled with by-ways and hidden places, this game has you sneaking around the same set of offices and hiding under the same set of desks. The only things that change are the voices of the guards as you clobber them into unconsciousness.
Even when the game allows you to escape the corporate maze, its level design is oddly claustrophobic and frustrating to navigate. Heng Sha and Detroit, we are told, are vast and sprawling cities… and yet the game presents them as a series of cramped city blocks filled with ladders, blind alleys and public transport hubs that do not actually lead anywhere. Clearly, DXHR lacked the technology to reproduce the sprawling levels of Deus Ex (let alone Oblivion), and so the game shrinks its horizons to a series of small streets and office complexes. At one point, the game gives you a sniper rifle, but the weapon is almost completely pointless as guards are seldom so far away as to be out of pistol range. (And that’s without taking into account the game’s tendency to both withhold ammunition and castigate/penalise you for shooting people rather than sneaking up and subduing them.)
Taken together, these racial and economic narratives combine to create an almost intolerable atmosphere of disempowerment. Whereas Deus Ex sought to empower its players, Deus Ex: Human Revolution constantly reminds them of how worthless and incompetent they really are. Playing DXHR is like spending an afternoon with a depressed and alcoholic mother who is not only disappointed with what you have made of yourself, but also insistent on letting you know how she feels about your failure as an individual. However, as unpleasant as DXHR can be, it is an intensely enjoyable game. Indeed, the game’s real thematic power lies not in its narratives of disenfranchisement and oppression, but in the fact that it keeps us coming back for more in spite of them.
- A Systemic Stockholm Syndrome
To look at the world without sentiment is to survey a perverse catalogue of injustice and oppression. Everywhere you look, people in power are benefiting from the subjugation of the powerless, while many of the people who benefit least from this system reveal themselves to be the system’s most vocal supporters. As Middle Eastern tyrannies begin to teeter and fall, the streets suddenly fill with people singing their praises and crying out for the pleasures of the lash, the boot and the gun; in America, people on the left are habitually painted as effete middle-class elites completely disconnected from the realities of a working class existence rendered tolerable solely by the knowledge that they will never have to endure the indignities of free health care.
In The Fear of Freedom (1942), the social theorist Erich Fromm argues that many people struggle with the experience of being free. Upon entering a landscape stripped of objective value and being left to develop their own codes of ethics, some people react by adopting theories and behaviours designed to minimise the impact of that freedom. Fromm’s account of Nazi Germany suggests that, confronted by the harshness of freedom, many Germans opted instead to embrace an authoritarian form of government that told people how to feel, what to think and how to behave. Jensen’s supine cowardice in the face of oppression and manipulation marks him out as a perfect candidate for authoritarian rule: Ever the masochist, Jensen keeps working for the benefit of his exploitative employers while his sadistic impulses are ruthlessly channelled into the domination and murder of his employer’s political opponents.
By making this act of submission both enjoyable and compelling, DXHR does a wonderful job of reminding us of our own acts of submission. Do we feel pleasure when our company does particularly well? Do we sneer at the nasty foreigners when they beat our sports team in competition? Do we cheer when our supposedly progressive leaders announce the extra-judicial murder of a political dissident? DXHR captures the schadenfreude lurking in all of those moments and delivers it to us in a package that is both obviously joyful and obviously shameful. Few games have the courage or the insight to remind us of the ugliness of our day-to-day lives; as such, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions is a game worthy of both commercial success and serious discussion.
Jonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK. His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector. He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.