Deus Ex: Fixing Adam Jensen

1 09 2011

Previously on Fixing Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

So. There’s a concept on TVTropes known as the Anti Sue.

Unfortunately, simply inverting the Common Mary Sue Traits does not prevent a character from being a Mary Sue. When other characters still worship her and the plot still bends over backwards to facilitate her, she’s still a Mary Sue, despite now being described as an unspeakably ugly and incredibly pathetic loser. This can actually be even more annoying than a vanilla Mary Sue — at least it makes some sort of sense for characters to worship a beautiful, friendly, hypercompetent Mary Sue, but when they’re physically ugly with an unpleasant personality and can barely tie their own shoes (much less solve other people’s problems) and everyone still treats them like the greatest thing since sliced bread, Willing Suspension of Disbelief gets smashed into tiny little pieces.

It would be far too harsh to label Adam Jensen, our intrepid cyborg, an Anti Sue. To do so would be to tar almost every FPS hero, with their penchant for bending the universe around them for no apparent reason, with the same brush. Nonetheless…keep the above in mind as we proceed.

Pretty major spoilers below.

Here are the various things we know about Jensen. He appears to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He was previously on SWAT and in a relationship with Dr. Megan Reed. He was involved in an altercation with an augmented fifteen-year-old, who he refused to shoot; the kid was shot anyways and Jensen resigned from the force. He seems to have done this in some disgrace, but is still well-liked by rank-and-file police.

At this point, still in a relationship with Megan, he was given a position as head of security for Megan’s company, Sarif Industries, the Apple Inc. of the augmentation world. Some time after this, he and Megan separated, he was beaten and near-fatally shot in a lab attack that took the lives of what appears to be the core team of scientists for Sarif, and David Sarif had him rebuilt as a mechaug.

I’m fairly sure that the image we’re supposed to be getting of Adam Jensen is that of the long-suffering, slightly variable FPS hero. He’s supposed to be gruff but ultimately kind and get the job done with varying amounts of carnage, smooth-talking, and exploration. He has awesome powers and responsibility but is conflicted about them, is bright but not book-smart or by-the-book, and is admired by all as pretty much the best around at what he does. In other words, he’s supposed to be terribly generic.

Fortunately, this is not what we get. Unfortunately, I don’t think the devs quite recognize this.

Adam Jensen is basically an incompetent jerk. For every augmented kitten he saves from a tree and returns to its rightful owner, there’s another person he sells out, needlessly bullies, or just plain fails. And, well, I’m kind of cool with that. But let’s go through a few vignettes.

First, there’s his initial response to the first attack on Sarif Industries. David Sarif sees an alert and tells Adam to go investigate. Further information suggests that there has been a laboratory accident, to which Jensen promptly pulls out a gun. For a lab accident. I understand that there may be some paranoia at work here, and of course it turns out he’s right, but even so, Adam must be such fun at fire drills. More egregiously, however, he firmly and resolutely fails to ever apprise anyone of the situation or alert the rest of his team, despite numerous opportunities to do so. Yes,  it’s cool to stealth around shooting goons, but you know what else is cool? Telling your boss the very important thing that he sent you down there to find out.

Later, you’re given a mission to retrieve stolen data for one of the game’s Powers-That-Be, Hugh Darrow. If you succeed, you have the option of wheedling some information out of the Power’s secretary, who will tell you about the existence of a top secret project. The Power gets on the phone. Adam’s next lines, roughly paraphrased?

“So, I guess you’re glad that top-secret project is safe now, huh?”

“Did my secretary tell you about my top-secret project!?”

“Yep.”

So, for the sake of needling his employer, Adam compromises the livelihood of a woman who has just broken protocol to be nice to him, plus he alerts the guy that someone is onto his secret plan. All I can figure is he sees her as a Just Following Orders employee of the Death Star (which would be strange, considering that at this point we’re supposed to consider Darrow to be a benevolent figure), but even so, that’s kind of cold. And this isn’t even a result of trying to play Jensen a particular way–there are no dialog options here. He just says it.

And then there’s his reaction when he meets Megan in the Singapore facility. At this point, he’s already met several other kidnapped scientists, who make no bones about the fact that they’re going to be killed if they don’t comply with their kidnappers’ demands. In fact, one of them already has been. They might find the research compelling, but he should be pretty clear about the general lack of consent. So what does he do when he finally finds Megan behind a door guarded by the same man who tried to kill him? He yells at her.

“How could you do this?”

Wait, do we have to explain the concept of kidnapping to you? I can understand somebody thinking they’d rather die than work on an ambiguously evil project for the world’s most obvious Dragon Lady, but once again, fully expecting someone to kill themselves and berating them when they don’t falls into some pretty shady territory.

More generally, I don’t think anyone in this game quite understands what “head of security” means. I’m willing to overlook the fact that Adam gets sent around the world on wild leads while he probably should be doing paperwork, because rule of cool. But don’t people in managerial positions usually have some kind of people skills? Every time we see Adam at the Sarif offices, he’s lashing out at some hapless employee about how I might be an aug now but my memory’s still intact, I wasn’t fired from SWAT, I quit because of a little thing called integrity that you should look up some time. If anyone at his initial job interview asked him how to handle conflict in the workplace, I fully expect him to have answered “Confront the perpetrator angrily and then threaten violence.”

The thing is, I’d see this as a perfectly legitimate character interpretation, if that’s what I thought the game was actually going for. In fact, I’d think it was kind of neat: Adam Jensen, after being forced to resign from SWAT, sleeps his way into a job for which he is patently unqualified, then suffers the consequences when the facility is actually attacked. Coming back to the job, he maintains a demeanor of bristly resentment towards everyone involved, but slowly moves on a path towards competence and even heroism, using his augmentations to protect the powerless and uncover a global conspiracy. I’d be especially sympathetic towards his easy anger, given that he’s gone through major physical and mental trauma and getting back in the field is probably the last thing he needs right now. If he didn’t have PTSD after the incident that made him quit the force (which it’s mentioned he might), he certainly should now.

But, instead of presenting these elements as essentially unfavorable character traits, they’re downright vindicated. Whenever he jumps to a conclusion, it’s the right conclusion, as if they handed him a copy of the game’s script before he started (and once again, none of the things I’ve described above are optional actions. Unless there’s some kind of very sophisticated behavior-determining algorithm at play, he will always do this.) When he pulls out his gun for a lab emergency, he’s right. When he tells Darrow he’s onto him, it has no negative consequences. When he berates Megan, we find out later that she’s perfectly willing to work for the Evil Conglomerate. The nepotism in hiring him is only ever questioned by Pritchard, the guy who nobody else likes who questions literally everything that Adam does regardless of reason. I don’t even think his temper is supposed to be particularly out-of-character; it’s just expected of him as the Designated Anti-Hero.

I love characters with weaknesses, and I have a soft spot for Jensen, silly Christian Bale bat-voice and all. But if you’re going to be gruff and angry and constantly forget about your boss to go off on random side missions, people in a reasonable universe are going to react to that, and it’s not with constant admiration and love. Part of a character having weaknesses is him or her having to actually deal with their consequences, and I feel like that’s something that the game could have addressed, but never did.

Next: Fixing the Conspiracy


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9 responses

3 09 2011
Deus Ex: Fixing the Conspiracy « CYBERPUNKS NOT DEAD

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3 09 2011
Fixing Deus Ex: Human Revolution « CYBERPUNKS NOT DEAD

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5 09 2011
A.

I thought Jensen’s tirade at Megan Reed was about her secretly harvesting his DNA for her research, not making the Deadly McGuffin.

5 09 2011
Adi

I went back and watched the cutscene, and here’s the transcription:

Megan: “Adam? Oh my god, Adam, it’s you! You’re hurt. What happened?”
Adam: “What happened to *you*? I risked my life for you, Megan, I came halfway around the world and for what?”
Megan: “It’s not what you think!”
Adam: “Are you part of this?”
Megan: “No, no Adam I swear! The kidnapping was real! The attack on Sarif Industries–they came after me. They wanted my research.”
Adam: “And when did you decide they could have it?”

There’s a little more waffling after that, and then Megan says that “David said we had to use it”, at which point Adam asks her what she’s talking about. Only after that does she tell him that she’s been using his DNA. She clearly feels guilty about using it and semi-confesses, prompting his questions, but he seems to be talking more about the kidnapping.

5 09 2011
A.

Okay, I can see that. I wonder if Adam is so paranoid at this point that he does suspect she might have gone along with the staged kidnapping – in which case the post-credits dialogue proves he was right to be paranoid.

But no, I agree, seem the credited writers might have either forgotten by that point or the three writers might not have known what the overall story trajectory was anymore.

Maybe you might want to interview novelist James Swallow about this, as well as ask him about his tie-in novel.

5 09 2011
Adi

I’m still finishing up reading the tie-in novel (which so far seems like it might shed some light on the plot in general, although it’s from a totally different angle), plus then there’s the comic miniseries to consider too, although I think it’s pretty much entirely separate. I’d love to do an interview with any of them, although they probably have better things to do than go over fan theories.

5 09 2011
A.

I’m sure James Swallow would be happy to be interviewed. He doesn’t get asked very often.

I read the comic. It doesn’t feel essential to the game story at all, more of a tie-in written by a British writer who usually writes for 2000AD.

15 09 2011
TheMattman

Hilarious read!! I thought the very same thing about the Hyron conversation.

21 09 2011
Karsten Sørensen

This is great! I found this site by accident (I was googling away to see if someone made a voice/character mod so I can finally play the game without feeling im incarnating a total douchebag). It’s nice to see articles like this, and I really think character portrayal+development should be a key area for reviewers in main stream media too. Too many games are based on extremely shallow characters you have to be a teenager (or an somewhat emotionally crippled adult) to believe just a little bit in. Most dialogue etc. is straight out of action films like Commando or Escape From N.Y., and it would be satisfying if we gamers got offered something more nuanced story- and character-wise at some point in the future.

Tonnes of kudos to you!

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