Fixing Deus Ex: Human Revolution

1 09 2011

Considering how late I got into games, it’s somewhat surprising that one of the first games I played–probably the first non-Valve game–was Deus Ex. It’s not a particularly difficult game, but it is big, messy, and complicated, and the chunky graphics and nonexistent physics make it particularly troublesome to modern eyes.

None of which can be said for its sequel, Human Revolution. It’s a big game, for certain, but it’s got a certain feeling of self-containedness to it, and despite the engine and texture quirks, it’s got an absolute beauty that I think is going to age well. The plot, while it lacks some of the intertextuality of the original DX, looks for a relative sense of realism and achieves it reasonably well for a series that is probably contractually required to throw in everything and the conspiracy kitchen sink. And yet, for a number of reasons, I find HR so very, very frustrating. Sure, there are the gameplay issues–the boss battles, the regenerating health but non-regenerating energy–but for me the important screen-yelling moments came when the game, time after time, presented a bit of worldbuilding and utterly failed to deliver on it.

As others have noted, the issue of augmentation is, well, oddly central to Human Revolution. It’s not only apparently the sole hot political issue, it’s virtually the only thing people will talk about, period. If you chat with a bystander, they’ll give you the equivalent of “How ’bout those Mets augs?” If you listen to the news, it’s all augs, all the time. I’m willing to accept a certain amount of this, especially since your protagonist would be a natural lightning rod for criticisms of augmentation (he’s probably a literal lightning rod as well, just saying) and the news, in HR world, comes with an agenda. But when you listen in on conversations surreptitiously, it’s the same thing all over again. This is just not how people work.

Even assuming that augmentation is a virtual necessity for the haves and a constant source of envy for the have-nots, there have to be other issues in this world. Like, how about the global warming that Hugh Darrow is apparently trying so hard to fix? Or the apparent endemic crime in Hengsha? Or just little personal stories and events? Even in Hengsha, the section of the game with perhaps the most diverse conversation (an excellent snippet where one character says that private military contractor Belltower makes him feel “that little bit safer”; a foreigner who perpetually wanders the streets looking for help), an overwhelming number of conversations are about augmentation.

I can defend this to a certain extent. In a game based on an overarching theme, this is the equivalent of a book cutting out the scenes that don’t advance the plot or detail the characters. But you could make an equally good argument that the world is a character in this book, and that by not detailing things that aren’t readily assumed, the picture that emerges is one of a world obsessed with augmentations to a bizarrely unlikely extent. It’s the difference between Batman’s parents’ death pervading his worldview and Batman prefacing every sentence with “Well, since my parents died…”

In terms of games that have done this better, I think Bioshock is a great example to pull from. For a game that’s equally built upon a single theme, the incidental character dialog still managed to convey a richness of life that, while centering the selfishness of the characters and their dependence on splicing, doesn’t have them constantly debating the merits of egoism or ADAM. Characters in Bioshock, as minimal as they were, had their own obsessions, to which augmentation was only an end: Andrew Ryan said he would make me a star! The cry of a fading actress, her face disfigured by splicing, says more about the desire for superhuman perfection and about human weakness than a hundred variations of “Augmentations suck.” “No they don’t.”

Which brings us to the second reason for the screen-yelling: For a world so utterly dependent on augmentation, nobody really seems to actually think about it that much. There are several distinct groups in HR, each with their own agenda: Sarif is a brilliantly convincing corporate technoutopian, Taggart an apparent self-help guru slash Nader-esque watchdog, Megan Reed a research-above-all scientist. But when they actually get down to arguing, it’s all distressingly abstract. Here, for example, is Sarif on human augmentation:

“All those purists out there, accusing us of tampering with the natural order, when all we’ve done is unlock the potential that exists within our own DNA!”

Okay, you say, that’s Sarif. He’s supposed to be kind of abstract; he’s a CEO. But the problem is that this is how the entire augmentation debate is aligned. The purists tell the augmenters that they’re “playing God” or “widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.” The enhancers tell everyone else that “This is evolution.” Repeat ad nauseum. That’s not exhaustive, of course, but here are the various concrete reasons that people in the game give for or against augmentation:

  • Megan Reed: “It can make us think faster, react quicker…it can really improve a life.”
  • Random bums, a few times: “I’m injured, but do you think I got these augmentations? How would I pay for the Neuropozyne?”
  • Random bums and prostitutes, a million times, in unison: “Eew, a coghead!”
  • Various civilians, after a few reveals, paraphrased: “It’s probably bad that they’re creating an army of supersoldiers.”
  • Civilian inside a Taggart speech: “It’s my choice to get augmented, and you have no right to restrict it.”
  • A side quest informs you that without augmentations, it’s virtually impossible to get into some businesses.

These are all pretty good answers, but they’re not taken nearly far enough. Only one of these–the Neuropozyne–will ever feel like an organic part of the world, and it’s only the most obvious manifestation of the utter dependence that augmentation can saddle you with. Overall, characters seem to far prefer to focus on augmentation making you less or more abstractly human, or being more or less like “evolution”, a statement so nonsensical that I can only suspect everyone in the HRverse of being a closet Lamarckian who believes that amputees’ children are born with prosthetic limbs.

For fairness’ sake, though, let’s look at the best augmentation bits from Human Revolution, and then see how they could have been even better.

Augmentation makes you better at your job.

This is something that, when it’s done right, is extremely convincing. There’s a side quest, mentioned above, that involves a woman who has bought black market augmentations as the only way to be a profitable trader/forecaster. Although the quest’s a bit more complicated than this, it really drives home the fact that the augmentations aren’t just a gift, they’re an arms race, and a way for people who already have an advantage to capitalize on it.

What I’d like to have seen more of, however, is what these augmentations actually do. The only civilian aug we see much of in action is the hacking one, but we’re told (by Megan, who admittedly isn’t the best source of information) that teachers and other legitimate employees use them regularly. Here are some things I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Memory enhancements (teachers, lawyers, journalists, any other knowledge worker)
  • Wakefulness stimulators (truck drivers, anyone who has to work long hours)
  • Pheromones (lobbyists, pick-up artists)

Honestly, the pheromone thing raises enough questions on its own. Are they actually dosing people with chemicals, or just giving augs the equivalent of heightened social sensitivity? If the former, then it’s truly creepy and coercive, and people should be raising that as an anti-augmentation talking point. If the latter, they’d be really digging into the inequality issue: Are rich children hacking their college admissions interviews by analyzing the interviewers?

One final thing that gets mentioned is that it sounds like (according to a conversation in Hengsha) you actually have to be augmented to work for some companies, like TYM. This is something that I actually find far creepier than the simple fact of augmentations: It’s the idea of work made so important, and employees having so little power, that you’re literally required to lock yourself into a career path and get majorly-invasive surgery to get any kind of job. Adam can complain about his augmentations all he wants, but in the end, is he really all that different from the poor guy who had to get leg surgery (which, remember, requires immunosuppressants for the rest of your life) so he could lift warehouse boxes at PageCo?

Although I don’t think this was completely intentional on their part, the Recycle Military bill is also wonderfully creepy this way, and raises the specter of how the government itself would be promoting augs as a fix for unemployment. If you’re required to take career classes from an outsourced business now in order to get various welfare programs, what’s to stop you from having to get augs in this world? It’s entirely possible that instead of a “more than human/less than human” argument, we could have had sides who saw unaugmented humans as simply lazy. Don’t you want to work? Don’t you know you have to make sacrifices? What are you, some kind of human-only welfare queen?

All of which brings us to something that should have been in the game, but wasn’t, which is:

Augmentations kind of suck.

Yes, yes, you can jump nine feet into the air and turn invisible, at least if you get lucky and are put in the supercop program rather than the checkout-cashier one. But even beyond the downside presented in the game (Neuropozyne forever), there are a number of things that should be getting mentioned.

The computer you’re reading this on? How long do you think you’re going to be using it for? I’ve had my current computer for about a year and a half. I had the one before it for four years. Phones are designed to be replaced every two years.

Now imagine your phone is grafted into your skeleton.

Technology, especially emerging technology, moves fast. Firmware, okay, that’s not that hard, but how long do you think that hardware is going to stay top-of-the-line? How much longer is Adam going to be fighting other augs before they start showing up with faster implants and more power? How long before the hacking hardware he has stops being able to interface with current computers and he has to get another surgery?

Some of it probably isn’t going to be an issue, just like prosthetic limbs or hip replacements aren’t constantly becoming outdated. And if it wanted to, the game could easily handwave a solution to this. But I think it’s actually more interesting this way, with augmentation as a very, very fragile form of superhumanity. It also makes Adam’s objections (and those of the private investigator you’ll meet later in the game) to augmentation that much more concrete, as not only are you buying into being “half a machine” or whatever, you’re buying into a lifetime of constantly chasing the cutting edge. It would at least be enough to make you think twice before cutting off your perfectly-functioning hand and turning it into a metal one, as people in this game seem so wont to do.

But one of the biggest disadvantages to augmentations is one that’s never even brought up: While they’re great industrially, it’s highly unlikely that they will provide anything like the sense of touch that comes with current human senses.

There’s a character in Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol who’s the equivalent of a brain in a robot body, and is constantly frustrated by the fact that he feels disconnected from the world–his body gives him only the most rudimentary sense of touch, smell, or taste, and while he’s very powerful, he’s cut off from a whole array of experiences. In the HRverse, I can imagine that the high-end augmentations, maybe Sarif’s, would have the best sense of touch they could muster (which might be varying levels of good), but the PageCo lackey mentioned above probably isn’t going to get that. He’s going to be making the ultimate workplace sacrifice. Sure, I can punch through walls. But will I ever really feel it when I touch my girlfriend’s face?

This isn’t necessarily¬†true in this world–maybe augmentations have better-than-human senses. But as far as I can tell it’s never mentioned one way or the other, when it’s actually an issue that’s quite pertinent. At it’s simplest, it’s the corporate and governmental coercion that comes up fairly often in DX; at a different level, it’s a literalization of the internal conflict between skill or success and enjoyable living. In order to gain something, you give up something else. And it, too, would go a long way towards explaining why Adam is so upset about his augmentations.

Augmentation is my choice.

The abortion arguments have a certain logic to them, particularly the “I regret my abortion augmentation” signs scattered around Detroit. They probably could have run with the patronizing “people don’t know their own mind about augmentations” thing a little more, but overall I approve. But you know what the aug movement really seems more like? The gun debate.

I mean, think about it. Half the augs you see in the game turn you into a black-hat hacking death machine. Every random streetfight and stickup now includes the possibility of somebody getting electrocuted or turned into mush by a hand-gatling. Your home is no longer safe because criminals can literally punch through your walls. Considering that this is America, wouldn’t people be trying to get their own augmentations to retaliate? Why no “When augmentations are outlawed, only outlaws will have augmentations?”

This wouldn’t just be another way of making a hot-button political comparison–it’s also just far more fertile (as it were) than the abortion question, where the comparisons largely end at the most basic question of bodily autonomy. Unlike abortion, augmentation and guns both are political issues because one person having them automatically gives them the ability to harm or, at the very least, affect someone else.

But perhaps the greatest oversight in Human Revolution is that it needed this:

An open source movement.

Seriously, there is no way that this does not exist. You’ve got a fascinating bunch of gadgets seemingly designed to appeal to precisely the kind of technoutopian crew that runs Linux, and nobody’s trying to think of an alternative to your augmentations being DRMed by a trust of obviously sinister corporations? Windmill should have an Augmented Frontier Foundation sticker on his terminal. The techier folks should be busy trying to develop open drivers to control mechanical hands. Pritchard should be taking heat from his friends about working for a company that doesn’t make its vision augmentation firmware open to the public, because come on, it’ll just help us squash any bugs quicker, man! Even if augmentations are tightly controlled, anything that’s available to the public in such vast quantity is going to get reverse-engineered. And hell, even Apple (upon which I believe Sarif Industries was based) has Google, a nominally open-source competitor, breathing down its neck.

Not only would this have added an excellent subplot to the game, it would have highlighted one of the glaring false trichotomies of the ending: That the only choice is between no augmentations, tightly government-restricted ones, and corporate-controlled ones. I’ve thought about this a lot, and decided it’s possible it’s intentional–the DX theory, after all, is that the world is inevitably going to end up controlled by somebody. But not even mentioning the possibility of other choices just makes everyone involved sound like they’re either being deliberately disingenous or painfully short-sighted. One of the things that this DX was supposed to bring us was a less bombastic take on politics and morality, one more grounded in human behavior. If this is the case, why not at least include something that points to ¬†individual agency?

Next: Fixing Adam Jensen and Fixing the Conspiracy


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4 responses

1 09 2011
Deus Ex: Fixing Adam Jensen « CYBERPUNKS NOT DEAD

[...] Previously on Fixing Deus Ex: Human Revolution. [...]

5 09 2011
JCD

An interesting article. I’ve enjoyed reading it and I like they way you tried to deeply analyze augs and choices that come with them.

You said that you played the original Deus Ex, which should answer one of the questions you brought up – when will Adam’s augs feel outdated. The original DE took place in the 2050s, the HR starts in year 2027. Gunter Herrman and Anna Navarre were basically rusty walking tin cans by the time nanoaugs like JC and Paul came by. Their augs were faulty (Gunter’s arm cannon was easily jammed by a bullet impact) and JC could look down on them. Basically, in about 20 years from HR, the mechs are going to be rejected by society and start falling into obscurity.

5 09 2011
Adi

Yeah, that was one of the things I had meant to comment on but forgotten about, because it was pretty much my favorite thing about DX, and something I’d wanted very badly in Human Revolution. I wouldn’t expect the characters themselves to recognize it, but I felt like the developers had forgotten the ultimate fate of the mechaugs in all their descriptions of how shiny and human-controlled-evolutiony they were.

1 11 2011
marcula

Great article. You’ve summed up a lot of the little nagging questions I had about DXHR’s world (the most glaring of which was if limb augmentations have a sense of touch… which wasn’t brought up in the game once. C’mon now.)
I too find myself questioning a lot of pop sci-fi — “Why didn’t you go more into depth with THAT? That could’ve been amazing….” I think gaming is slowly getting there, though.

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