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?

Well, it’s really just an extremely competent game. I wouldn’t call the gameplay revolutionary in the same way I would the original Deus Ex, but it’s certainly an improvement on many aspects of it, particularly the writing and characters. Human Revolution has a fine line to walk between the somewhat cheeseball bombasticism of the original game and the things people have come to expect of serious games in the meantime, and with the exceptions that I’ve already mentioned, it does it quite well. Bob Page is still awesomely evil, but his world is toned down somewhat, and his henchmen–the power players of Human Revolution–have their own satisfying goals.

And then there are the support characters, who fill a role in this game that they were never quite able to in Deus Ex. As much as I loved Paul Denton and Alex Jacobson, Malik and Pritchard are fantastic bit players, so much so that when Malik was in danger, I broke my oath of nonviolence and went on a madman’s rampage to make sure she flew off safely. The dialog between them is crisp and clever, and I genuinely enjoyed it whenever one of them broke in on my radio frequency. With some exceptions, the secondary characters feel more like people with opinions than walking tropes or ideological set pieces, even when they’re going over their spiels on augmentation for you.

I would have loved some more closure–especially because, depending on your ending, you may never see any of them again–but as it is, there’s still an evolution in their relationship with you that’s really pretty rare. Malik, who comes off initially as somewhat hesitant and blandly friendly, places her trust in Adam implicitly by the end. Pritchard and Adam develop a snarky form of friendship, going from chilly enemies to a mutual support system. Not that that will stop me from stealing his credit chips when he leaves them around. Even if I don’t think Adam necessarily deserves all the good reactions he gets from people, and more of the change is on Pritchard’s part, it’s nice bit of development.

And then there’s Megan, who is about fifty layers of tightly-packed cipher. Without appearing or acting in any way the femme fatale, she comes off as a far more successful schemer than Zhao or Darrow, managing to always somehow place herself exactly where she needs to be. It’s a common enough hardboiled and cyberpunk trope–the minor character who nonetheless manages to always get what s/he wants–but here it’s done almost invisibly: It would be entirely possible to miss all of Megan’s agency, or to see it as coincidence, if one doesn’t delve into Adam’s backstory or find the stinger at the end of the game.

To be fair, this sometimes gets into weird territory that’s never explained, as I’ve gone over earlier. But it’s impossible to make sense of Megan’s backstory without something fascinating coming up. If she made Adam fall in love with her to get his DNA samples, she’s a master manipulator. If she was working with his DNA and then fell in love, it’s a tragic getting-too-close-to-the-research. If she’s set up with Adam by Sarif, she’s a fantastic opportunist who pursues her research at all costs. And regardless of which you pick, the fact that she goes to work for Bob Page at the end, designing the Gray Death, just adds another layer to the puzzle.

And yet for all the strange goings-on surrounding Megan, her first scene with Adam comes off as surprisingly genuine. It’s a convincing portrayal of former lovers and close friends at a moment of great importance to one of them, right down to the necklace-twirling and the dialog surrounding the various items in her room. I think I’ve written before about the difficulty of creating established relationships between characters at the start of a video game, and Human Revolution is one of the best examples of it that I’ve seen.

Outside the major characters, I’ve complained about the odd focus on augmentation in dialog. What’s funny is that this is completely absent from the emails and pocket secretaries, which largely seem like, well, the devices of ordinary people. They range from the petty (minor office romances in Sarif Industries and the police station) to the referential (Detective Alex Murphy, aka Robocop, has a computer at the Detroit police station) to the heartbreaking (the capsule hotel contains a number of these in both conversation and pocket secretary form, as people with no money and little hopes of getting jobs sign petitions, pick up lovers, and finally commit suicide). The text and dialog in Hengsha, in particular, shines in this respect, and I’d like to put it forward as my favorite level of this game or any other this year.

One of the biggest changes in the writing of Deus Ex and Human Revolution is the latter’s decision to remove the intertextuality that so pervaded the former. This came up in at least one review, and I’d like to talk about it briefly as well.

I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t absurdly thrilled by DX’s references when they came up. Deus Ex was masterful at developing weird concepts that stood alone pretty well, mainly the snippets of conspiracy classic The Man Who Was Thursday and the fact that Silhouette, the French freedom fighters, were based on Guy Debord’s Situationists.

But I don’t think I miss them too much now that they’re gone. They added an interesting depth to the game, but it was one that was rarely explored, more of a straightforward reference than a commentary on those things. From what I can tell, Silhouette never really did much Situationalism, and the conspiracy of Deus Ex was entirely unlike Chesterton’s work.

(Ironically, you could probably see Human Revolution as a sort of dark mirror of The Man Who Was Thursday, with a cabal of Illuminati who don’t really consider themselves Illuminati, each looking out for themselves in this version instead of, as in the book, trying to end the conspiracy by joining it. Bob Page is, of course, Sunday.)

Finally, I just have to say: There are women in this game. That shouldn’t be as big a deal as it is, but I still feel compelled to point it out when it happens. There are women in this game, and they talk to each other about their jobs, their political sympathies, and their lives. They are reasonably practically-dressed, play very different roles, and aren’t all shoehorned into prostitutes/girlfriends/dominatrixes/plucky sidekicks, although many of them, including the oft-lampshaded Dragon Lady, are. In a fairly common video game move, there are no female goons, which is slightly but not incredibly strange.

If I wanted to be picky, I would probably say that it would be nicer if the whole plot weren’t based on Women in Refrigerators, or specifically fridging Megan Reed to catalyze the plot (even if she does get defrosted later when she turns up at the lab). My coblogger jokes that Adam and Isaac Clarke should start a support group for men with PTSD and missing girlfriends. Being halfway through the tie-in novel, though, I’m starting to think that it’s not so much your standard-issue “kill the girlfriend/plucky female sidekick to catalyze the hero” as that the entire world of Human Revolution resistance works on the idea of vengeance. There are two protagonists in the tie-in novel, and both are seeking closure for their fallen comrades. It’s perhaps a bit much, but it’s not so much problematic as it is either an odd storytelling choice or a deliberate decision that I haven’t quite parsed yet.

(Also, why does the only female Tyrant walk en pointe all the time? Even for somebody with robot legs, doesn’t that get uncomfortable and Rob Liefeldy?)

So there we are. It’s not so much that the game has flaws (although it does) as that it has puzzles, things that aren’t really explained or are left unfinished in a way that frustrates deeply. But when it goes right, it really goes right.


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