Deus Ex: What Doesn’t Need Fixing

6 09 2011

I’ve been admittedly a bit snarky over the past few posts, because I feel like, well, the HR devs can take it. But I’d hate to leave the impression I didn’t like the thing I’ve just sunk about forty hours into over the past two weeks. I’ve practically got a Deus Ex-shaped hole in my chest right now, from all that time I could have spent bathing or putting on clothes that I spent, instead, shepherding Adam Jensen on his latest mission. The game really grabbed me, to the point where the things I’ve spent the last several posts on started bothering me as much as they did. But why? Read the rest of this entry »

Marathon and Unreal Spaces

5 09 2011

I am just never going to finish Marathon. The fact that there are two whole games after the one I’m currently playing fills me with hopeless resignation, because at the rate I’m going, I could easily do this for the rest of my life.

While I know the broad strokes of the incredibly complicated plot already, what’s really interesting to me about the game is the balancing act it manages between a purely abstract environment and a quasi-realistic story. Obviously, most early first-person shooters weren’t exactly photorealistic. But Marathon is unique in that while the player knows a great deal, textually, about the world and characters, very little can be gleaned from the environments themselves, nor do they seem to exist for any in-world purpose. Read the rest of this entry »

Deus Ex: Fixing the Conspiracy

2 09 2011

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? Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Test Machine, Part III

30 08 2011

Previously and Previouslier.

The final part, now. In terms of commentary, I feel like this ends a little suddenly, but then, that’s also rather the point, as the story never gives away the real end. Parallel universes and all that.

You Ask Me, I Ask Who?

Hu released the switch. The girl slid from the machine, sobbing hysterically. You can’t help her. Nobody can help her. She shouldn’t have had those thoughts; the bricks should make more bricks obediently.

The door to C opened, and out stormed a squad of soldiers!

They grabbed their guns, some homemade and ugly like everything C produced, others the special-issue revolvers from Borough B.

Hu raised his hands quickly. Mai Ya was still vacantly standing by the test machine, his hands holding a mop, preparing to go clean the machine. Hu called for him to raise his hands as well. Across from them, a full-bearded young man laughed wholeheartedly: “Don’t worry! Listen, we’re not going to kill you if you just listen! Now open the A door!”

Looking at their clothes, Hu vaguely recognized them as the bandits from the sewers, although they were all dressed roughly the same. “We don’t have that power. This door hasn’t got a key—it’s controlled by the machine.”

“Then you’re pointless…Come up here! You two, help him take the test. If he doesn’t passes, I’ll kill you both!” They pushed forward an old man, his eyes piercing and colorless. He wasn’t like the B people; in fact, he simply didn’t seem living at all, his movements robotic. Could he really be a visitor from Borough A?

They switched on the machine quickly. The old man’s inner power was obviously profound, and after ten minutes, the red light flashed, and the door to A opened.

The Thorny Path to the Great Tower

The bandits, their training obvious, proceeded to the gates of Borough A.
Were there only these few of them, or had this been staged at every test center? Hu didn’t know, nor did he know the intent of these interlopers.

Mai Ya headed for the A door. “Me too…”

A bandit turned and unloaded a clip, and Mai Ya had no time to finish before the bullets shredded him.

“Oh my god…I’m too nervous.” The bandit could obviously see that Mai Ya had not come forward to resist or question.

He looked at the girl sitting in the corner, and Hu realized he had forgotten to look after her. Her wide eyes looked at the approaching bandit the way one would look at friendly reinforcements on a battlefield, filled to the brim with concern and envy.
“Do you want to come with us?” the bandit asked her.

She nodded forcefully.

“Can you shoot a gun? Come on, I’ll teach you.” The bandit led her to the door.

“Hey–” Hu didn’t know why he cried out to the girl, didn’t know what he wanted to say.
The girl turned her head and gave him a look.

History stops at that point.

The universe splits…

In one world, the C mob is put down by Borough A, and more advanced testing machines installed in every center…

In another parallel universe, the C uprising destroys Borough A, and from this point on, Y City returns to an unscientific, irrational, but person-centered primitive society…

Only one thing remained the same:

Hu remembered that one look his entire life.

The Test Machine, Part II

22 08 2011


In case it’s not already obvious, “The Test Machine” is a commentary on the Chinese gaokao system, a massive, detail-oriented test that decides one’s admission into college. Here’s a recent story about it.

A note: The word failed at the end of this section is 淘汰, a term that more literally means something like “left behind” or “die out”.  It has a sort of Social Darwinist implication that’s incredibly useful when you’re trying to convey the idea of life as a competition. My Chinese coursebooks, of course, tended to talk more about old-fashioned ideas that were 被淘汰的, but this story uses it quite often to describe people being systemically left out of society as a result of their own supposed inadequacies.

More notes: There’s a bit here about Planck and black body radiation. All these words are right, but I’m probably parsing them wrong, since I know very little about scientific theory, and have forgotten what little I once knew.

There’s also a reference to “mao” and “kuai”. The kuai is one Chinese “dollar”, officially known as a renminbi (also known as a “yuan”, about six RMB to a USD), and there are ten mao (officially called “jiao”) in a kuai. A third unit, called “fen” (a hundredth of a kuai) exists, but is almost never seen in the wild.


Rats in the Sewers

When Hu arrived at the testing facility, the door had already acquired a small cadre of followers. And his new partner, Mai Ya, was not an endearing supervisor.

“You’re late…in 1900 Planck developed the quantum radiation hypothesis…” Mai Ya was forever studying the encyclopedia, and hoped feverishly to someday ascend to Borough A.

“Someone died on the street this morning. Right in front of me.” Old Hu thought suddenly that he was as weary of all this as the test-takers.

“The Planck constant is therefore equal to the black body radiation capacity distribution formula…”

Hu glanced at Mai Ya, and remembered the science fiction storybook that Zhao had left. Everyone thinks a little differently, he supposed.

From beyond the entrance of the test hall came a sound of surprise, and Old Hu ran to the fence to look. On the ground twenty feet below, people were scrambling, running, and then he saw that the covers to the sewer had been flipped open, and out they were crawling, threadbare denizens of Borough C, pawing at the things of the citizens of Borough B.

The police bots gave chase immediately, and the band from C retreated underground. The sound of the cheers afterward bored down, down as if in pursuit…
“Let’s get started,” said Hu to Mai Ya, who was still whispering a recitation.

“We’ve started, we’ve started…everyone pay attention! When your number comes up, don’t even try any kind of interference machine or cheating—all it’ll do is lose you your citizenship, and you’ll be exiled to the farms in the western mountains to become fodder for their animals. All right…when your number is called, come up with me…”

The Thinking of Bricks

The testers went in one by one, and entered the machine. Those who passed from Borough B to Borough B returned.

Generally speaking, the bulk of the citizens from B were able to pass, and to be demoted to C because of poor study habits was, in the end, a rare occurrence; to ascend to A was again rarer. But all it took was a demotion, and to worm your way back up again was hard indeed, when one no longer had the time to look at books.
Hu enjoyed games, and would often seek out the Forty-Sixth Street chess masters for a game of go, then proceed to play the Nineteenth Street go masters at chess, or something of that sort. Last week he had won a ping-pong match against a bridge champion who, quite displeased, shouted: “You cheater! The ball obeys you but not me—there must be something wrong with it. The board isn’t fair—let’s play a game of cards, and see who wins that.”

“You’re a champion, what kind of talk is that? If we play cards and you win, can’t I say that the cards listen to you and not me, that the cards aren’t fair? Is it not like that?” Hu countered.

“Yes, what you say makes sense…but then again, I just don’t believe that after ninety years of honing my bridge technique, I can’t win a game of ping-pong!” The old man was quite earnest. The people of Y City were all earnest, and besides the knowledge of an immense number of books, their bricklike minds were empty.
They even did their calculations mindlessly.

It was like a computer. If you ran the CPU at full capacity executing some garbage code, even the most powerful processor crawled at a snail’s pace.
The Y City citizens were snails, carrying a full set of encyclopedias on their backs.

Besides The Test, What Way Out Do People Have?

The wisdom of the machine was endless, and not only did it decide in which city you belonged, it told you what you would do.

Hu had never wanted to be a test machine operator, but he had not chosen it, just as the bakery proprietress sold her water at two mao a bottle and the water bureau sold theirs at five kuai. You couldn’t say that the bureau’s was expensive, because this was what Borough A had decreed. A decided everything, and if you wanted a say it it you had better get to A, and to get to A you had to pass the test machine, and the test machine, well that was A’s design.

It was an endless cycle: The tests turned the people into bricks, and the bricks drew up plans to manufacture themselves again.

The door opened, and today’s seventh tester entered the hall. It was a girl—this was probably her first test, her eighteenth year. Her face was panic-stricken, in comparison with the older test-takers’ mechanical and insensate looks, but there was also, on it, a little anger. Perhaps she would ascend to the gates of Borough A, and Hu was not sure why he felt a rise of passion: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be sick. It will all be over in a minute. Come on, take off your shoes and stand in front, right, put your hands in place, okay, close your eyes…”

Hu flipped the master switch. The test machine gently extended its electromagnetic feelers, firmly fixing the girl in place, sliding a helmet over her head. After struggling slightly, the girl obediently allowed it to slide in place…


Her bowels loosened. The stupid girl hadn’t outfitted herself with any sanitary pads—maybe her whole family had gone to Borough C, and there had been no one to give her the basic instructions…The first test was really a nightmare. The test machine’s feelers went into your body, and drew out your thoughts, squeezed out your ways of thinking. If your brain offered up any dissatisfied opinion towards Borough A, you were done for sure.

She didn’t need to stay the full ten minutes. The red light flashed, and the machine spat out her report: Failed.


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