If you’re a fan of the literary underpinnings of the Deus Ex series, you’ll be familiar with the Giant Maguffin Plot. Favored in particular by William Gibson, the trick is to create an incredibly convoluted but only tangentially important mystery as a way to propel the plot forward, drawing characters and threads together in fascinating ways. The result is usually a really excellent story that is nonetheless virtually impossible to explain. Like how in Mona Lisa Overdrive there’s an AI…that’s trying to create its own world…by merging with a virtual reality star who had her brain modified by her father several years before the book’s inception…and the AI also shaped her career and has now masterminded a kidnapping plot that involves multiple murders and a teenage prostitute body double. I’ve read this book about five times and it still takes me several minutes to reconstruct.
While Deus Ex took this on to some degree, it was also surprisingly straightforward: You’ve got a war between a couple of different secret societies, which ultimately leads to the creation of something greater than either of them. Your protagonist starts on one side and ends up on the other, and eventually must choose his loyalty to a faction. But Human Revolution has the GiMP in spades.
Like so many things in Human Revolution, this has fantastic potential. The warring societies are still around, but instead of all-out battles it’s quiet double-crosses, utterly subverting the notion of a single, omnipotent syndicate. There are threads that connect to the original game, a subplot about your protagonist’s identity, and surprisingly complicated villains. And yet it never seems to really add up to anything.
Need I say spoilers below?
Here’s how I understand it. The bulk of the plotting in the game takes place between a group of four Illuminati: Darrow, Taggart, Sarif, and Zhao. They appear to be under the direction of Bob Page, who at this point seems to be still with the Illuminati, having not yet split off to form MJ12. Insofar as they manage to work together, they’re trying to build two things: A killswitch for augmented humans and Hyron, an AI that may be the precursor to Page’s Icarus. The one thing they seem to have been successful at creating so far is Picus, a propaganda news network fronted by Eliza Cassan, the semi-sentient computer.
Sarif is, as far as I can tell in the game, only associated with the Illuminati as far as he must be as a captain of industry. He also is either unaware of the Illuminati’s full power or recognizes the dissent within their ranks, as he says at one point that it’s “just a name to get investors to throw more money at it.” He’s the catalyst of the game’s actions: Megan Reed’s research in his labs is going to possibly solve the problem of dependence on Neuropozyne by using the case study of an anonymous patient whose immune system seems unusually accepting of augmentation. This, apparently, forces the Illuminati’s hand, as Megan’s research is also the key to creating an aug killswitch. There’s also a Congressional hearing that might decide the regulatory future of augmentations, at which Megan is going to speak. So they invade the Sarif facility, kidnap the scientists, and leave destroyed bodies to fake their deaths. Oh, and they kill(ish) Adam.
Over the course of the game, virtually everyone in the Illuminati will betray each other, trying to use Hyron and the killswitch for their own ends and, to some extent, succeeding. It’s a reasonable, fairly clever plot, as long as you accept that both Hyron and the killswitch are things that it would make sense to develop in the first place.
But then we find out about Megan’s research. I…think it hinges on getting the body to bond with augmentations better, thus removing the need for Neuropozyne. At least, it’s based on DNA samples from Adam, and that’s what Adam’s body can do. Why can he do this? Because, according to a private investigator, his scientist parents used him in a VersaLife (Bob Page’s evil corporation) study to discover “the next step in human evolution” by dosing babies with a ton of chemicals and seeing which ones survived, and Adam was the only one who did. They were going to use him to inoculate the next batch of babies, but his parents, disillusioned with the experiment, snuck Adam out to be adopted, burned down the facility, and died in the fire. When Adam finds the woman who snuck him out, she claims that he is far too old, and should be “twelve or thirteen” by now.
David Sarif, apparently, knows this, because when he hired Adam, he created a massive security hole so that he could surreptitiously contact the PI for a background check.
This is a pretty fun V For Vendetta-style twist, so it’s a bit too bad that it raises an absurd amount of questions. The moment I found out about Adam’s past, the whole thing became a massive plot-derailment bomb from which the story never really recovered. Here’s what I’m wondering:
- Why would parents be allowed to perform an experiment on their own son?
- What, exactly, would VersaLife be testing that results in a fix for a problem that doesn’t even exist yet (Neuropozyne treatments)?
- Does this mean that Adam ages really quickly, or that some of his memories are actually faked?
- Does Adam also have some other kind of special powers?
- How did Megan, apparently accidentally, find the one person VersaLife had been testing between thirteen and thirty years ago?
I’m pretty sure the plot never explains any of this, preferring to focus on the impending killswitch and the Hyron AI. So let’s go through it.
I’m going to skip the first point, because I can just chalk that up to the story needing to get his real parents out of the way or something. Plus it allows me to imagine GLaDOS telling Jensen “You are adopted. And that’s terrible.” At which point Jensen presumably tries to strangle her and then rolls behind a desk.
Question 1: What is VersaLife doing?
There’s a temptation here to imagine that Bob Page or whoever was running VersaLife at that point just decided to run an experiment called “dose babies with chemicals” because they’re evil. I’m not…entirely sure that’s not what we’re supposed to think. But the Illuminati are supposed to be the masters of the long con, so there has to be some way to explain this.
The easiest explanation is that they were trying for the results they got–freedom from Neuropozyne–and that they’d already done early tests with augmentation and determined that rejection, while it could be managed with the drug, would be better-managed by a permanent solution.
Actually, more problematic is that this seems to indicate that the Illuminati are being weirdly nice. Remember, last time we checked (in Deus Ex), VersaLife was manufacturing a nanovirus that was threatening to kill off half the eastern seaboard. They have no reason whatsoever to try to get people off Neuropozyne: It’s both bad business logic and bad evil-conspiracy logic. As long as they keep control of the Neuropozyne supply, they don’t even need a killswitch, as all they have to do is cut off an aug’s supply if s/he starts asking questions.
There’s only one reason I can think of for them to do this, and that’s if they’re planning on augmenting themselves. This makes the experiment the Ambrosia to their Gray Death, a way to keep themselves safe from their own machinations. Granted, it still seems a little unnecessary, since they presumably have access to all the Neuropozyne they want, but it’s at least a rational explanation.
This also explains the rush to develop a killswitch once Sarif threatens to go public with Megan’s research. They’ve accidentally handed him the means to take away their power, and now he’s going to use it. Thus, they need a new means of control.
I’m still a little unclear of how Sarif is connected to the Illuminati, but the general feeling I get is that he’s at least subtly resisting it, and this bolsters these claims. It also explains why Sarif would be doing something that presumably cuts into his profits significantly, if he’s making any money at all from Neuropozyne sales: He’s trying to stop his competition and their evil conspiracy by starving their profit margins as well.
I actually like this, because it significantly undercuts the “all corporations are generically evil” assumption that’s so much a part of Deus Ex. Sarif’s not a particularly altruistic guy–he’s willing to let his own employees die to save a defense contract–but you also get the feeling that he’s genuinely trying to run a meaningful business, not just an exploitative trust.
Question 2: Why did Sarif open the security backdoor?
One of the early missions in the game is to shut down a satellite that’s been serving as Sarif’s massive security backdoor, which, as I’ve mentioned, was meant to be a way for Sarif to contact his private investigator.
This can’t be real.
First of all, why would he even need to conceal doing a background check on Adam? He’s the head of the company; it’s not like somebody can tell him not to. Moreover, isn’t this standard practice for heads of security, especially those who have just quit SWAT under mysterious circumstances? If he has to hide the fact that he’s checking up on Adam, why wouldn’t he set up an encrypted channel to do so, instead of creating a security gap? If there’s some handwavey reason he can’t do that–encryption is inadequate or the amount of information is too great–then hasn’t RoboJobs ever heard of sneakernet?
There is just no way that Sarif is telling Adam the truth. And yet we never hear it contradicted, and it never comes up again.
So what is Sarif hiding? Well, one explanation is that he’s hiding his incompetence: He doesn’t know a lot about computers, and he hadn’t realized what a massive security flaw this was until Pritchard found it. But although Sarif seems kind of naive, I find it unlikely that he’s capable of setting up a hole that Pritchard couldn’t find without knowing what it does.
So that brings us to a different explanation: That he’s not actually the one who set it up, at least not of his own accord. The security backdoor is a kind of protection racket for the Illuminati.
If the Illuminati is supposed to be some kind of uber-trust, it makes sense that people from the individual businesses, regardless of their centrality to the group, would be forced to submit to oversight of their activities. For Sarif (and possibly Zhao and Darrow), that means a backdoor that can only be used by Page & Co in exceptional circumstances. It’s meant as a failsafe, and when Sarif starts going off on his own, the Illuminati uses it to take control. Sarif can’t tell Pritchard about it, because the Illuminati will make him disappear. And Sarif certainly can’t tell Adam about it.
So he lies, and makes up something that sets angsty, self-centered Adam off on a chase for his own identity, giving Sarif plausible deniability the next time the Illuminati come calling while still ensuring that Adam ends up at VersaLife, aka the Illuminati.
However, this still doesn’t explain why Sarif hired him in the first place, which brings us to our next issue:
Question 3: How did Megan think to test Adam?
What are the odds that a scientist specifically working on human augmentation is going to stumble across an artificially-created perfect test subject? That might just barely squeak by as a coincidence in real life, but it’s way too perfect for fiction. Megan had to have known about Adam. But how?
Similar to this question is why Sarif hired him in the first place. If Sarif had been doing market research and stumbled on the VersaLife experiment, he could have learned about Adam that way, tracked him down, and arranged the Mexicantown Massacre as a way to get him fired and rehired at Sarif, keeping him close while not naming him as an official test subject. Sarif explicitly has some measure of control over their police–he can threaten to pull money “out of their retirement funds” at the very least–so this isn’t a huge stretch.
But instead, we’re told he hired him because of nepotism, because Megan convinced him to hire her boyfriend. This doesn’t really add up either…unless we consider the alternatives.
Pritchard says early on in the game that he wanted to hire Belltower, a group that appears to have Illuminati connections. I’m guessing almost every other company has them too, meaning that no matter which contractor Sarif hired, he’d be bringing in a Trojan horse. Hence why he wanted somebody in-house.
So he kills two birds with one stone and brings in Adam. But he can’t just hire him out of the blue–that would look suspicious, and he wants the Illuminati to still believe Adam was killed in the fire. So well before he hires anybody–I’m not sure what the timeline is here–he sets up Megan with Adam, then gets Adam disgraced over Mexicantown and brings him in. What might have looked suspicious before now seems like a simple case of nepotism, lulling his opponents into seeing Sarif as a man easily influenced by his subordinates’ love lives.
And how does he make them fall in love?
Okay, I’m completely making this part up. But the pheromone brain control is such a huge thing that it does it almost a disservice to not use it. And as amusing it is to imagine Megan obsessively saving DNA samples for all her boyfriends, it’s far more likely that Sarif set them up, then slipped her a suggestion to use him as a test subject.
(One possible other explanation is that Megan was in on it all along, or that she was the one who found the VersaLife experiment and Adam, then drew him into a relationship as a way of getting samples. Given her apparent duplicitousness at the end of the game, this is also not unreasonable, but to actually get Mexicantown to happen, she’d probably need Sarif’s help.)
Question 4: Is Adam really thirteen?
I have no idea. I can’t see any reason for it other than moving up the timeline, which isn’t really necessary anyways. The easiest thing to do would be to just say that the woman he talks to is confused about the timeline, and she does have dementia, so anything’s possible. But this is DX-world, where every random street preacher is 100% right. Seriously, a bum in Human Revolution predicts the Gray Death. So how is it possible for the Jensens to have adopted a baby and not noticed that he aged at about three times the normal rate?
Well, the only reasonable explanation is that they did. Like JC Denton, Adam Jensen’s growth was accelerated by the VersaLife experiment, optimizing his body for augmentations and aging him to maturity within a few years. Grateful to have any kind of child, the Jensens were instructed not to mention his aging and to keep him out of school, giving him as much education as they could in the five or so years they had between baby and apparent eighteen-year-old. Then either he was implanted with false memories or the poor guy simply doesn’t know what a normal childhood is supposed to be like. This could even explain his apparent emotional immaturity, although it does make it super-creepy that he’s been in a relationship with Megan.
Thus, the rest of it–the SWAT team, Mexicantown, Sarif–all actually could have happened, plus it cements Adam’s status as an Illuminati ubermensch never designed for mass-production, but as a prototype for the ultra-powerful.
It also changes the central conflict of the story, making Sarif a combination of free market crusader and anti-Illuminati power player, a man who probably could give the group a run for their money if he wanted but who really just wants to run a business by giving people the best product he can.
There’s more I wouldn’t mind discussing about the plot of Human Revolution. But the major issues are all above, and while none of them are guaranteed by the text, they all make more sense than the current lacuna. Barring any new information I come across in a second playthrough of the game, or a canonical explanation from Eidos, this is probably the best I’m going to do.