Micro-Essays on Deus Ex: Human Revolution

A little late to the party here – blame the vacation and my own stunning ability to procrastinate – but here goes.

This is going to be an in-depth comparative analysis. By which I mean that I’ll be stacking up Human Revolution alongside the original Deus Ex (and, when I feel like it, Invisible War) and seeing the design changes: what works, what doesn’t, what’s just a matter of taste.

I was originally going to cover both the mechanical and narrative aspects, but criticizing the mechanics is almost too easy and has been more thoroughly covered. If you want to know my thoughts on the praxis system, ask away, but otherwise I’ll stick to the fiction.

A General Overview

Deus Ex: Human Revolution takes place in 2027, twenty-five years before Deus Ex. Human augmentation technology – that is, prosthetics and neural implants – has progressed to the point where any number of augmentations are both fully functional and affordable to the upper-middle class. As can be expected, the rapid onset of transhumanist practices is not without its detractors, and Human Revolution’s principle focus is in exploring this debate.

This is both the plot’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. The writers manage to explore nearly every aspect and ramification of this technology, and by the time you’re finished playing you’ll have heard conflicting opinions about its effect on the economy, social classes, international relations, psychology, and (most of all) ethics. It’s rare to find a sci-fi game so concerned with the real-world implications of its ideas, and it manages to evoke all the arguments while letting the player make her own decision about what she thinks is the best path for humanity.

The downside is that the game doesn’t cover a lot else. This isn’t just the A-plot; nearly every sidequest also ties into this theme, and while its contiguity is impressive it also means that there isn’t a lot of thematic variety to the game. This isn’t really a criticism – I was always interested in what was going on – but at times I was nostalgic for the sheer variety of its predecessor. Deus Ex was basically a big hypothetical: “What if all the big conspiracy theories were true?” This wide net led to the game following a lot of threads. There was transhumanism, yes, but it was merely one of the many ideas explored; I’d say globalization and the rise of corporations as powerful as governments were much greater themes.

The other weakness of the game’s plot is just how mechanically transpaperent it is when it comes time to move protagonist Adam Jensen to the next area. Adam must infiltrate some place to talk to get to some dude, who inevitably gives him a single piece of information that leads him to another place he needs to infiltrate. In this sense the plot is too slow-burning and Jensen feels like too much of a simpleton detective: there’s no really mystery solving, just following the obvious clues that inevitably requires one to traverse guarded areas.

So it’s a thematic game. High concept. The writing varies between solid and outstanding, and the characterization is consistently good, but it’s not what you’re coming for. In the vein of most science fiction, Human Revolution is a game first and foremost interested in its ideas and its world, rather than the people who inhabit it. The fact that it so thoroughly explores these ideas, and so meticulously builds its world through a combination of overheard conversations, art design, and a shit-ton of e-mails, means that despite the aforementioned shortcomings the narrative is largely a success.

On Adam Jensen

RPS beat me to this one. Most of what I have to say about Adam Jensen is summed up in this very nice, light-on-spoilers article by Alec Meer (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/08/24/i-am-not-adam-jensen/). All I’ll say is that Adam is in many ways the opposite of JC Denton. They are both relatively undefined characters, blank slates that allow the player to roleplay effectively and avoid the sorts of ridiculous incongruities between player action and cutscene action that crop up in JRPGs. But Deus Ex was defined by the little things; think of the debate with the bartender in Hong Kong where JC struggles to defend American free-market capitalism. Admittedly, the player must choose this dialog option, but it’s creating a specific JC with a specific ideology. In the big decisions JC really is blank, and it’s entirely up to the player. Contrast this with Adam, who will basically mosey along until a cutscene pops up, in which case he’ll “take over” and become a strong, defined character.

Speaking of which,

Let’s Talk About Cutscenes

The cutscene debate tends to fall into a tired binary. There are the people who believe that cutscenes should NEVER BE USED, and all storytelling should be done Valve style, with the player in some sort of control at all times. Others think cutscenes are a legitimate and useful tool in the storyteller’s toolbox. Most gamers don’t think about it one way or the other.

DX:HR gives fodder for both sides. The cutscenes manage to look fantastic (It’s the first time Square’s cutscenes team has worked on a Western title) without being too visually incongruous with the real-time graphics. They don’t happen frequently enough to be an annoyance, nor are they particularly long when they do pop up.

Yet I resented them. I believe that cutscenes do have their time and place, and some games really benefit from them. But a series so focused on player decision-making doesn’t need them. Deus Ex opened and closed with a cutscene, but never took control away during the game proper. This one does, and I’m not convinced it makes the game better.

But that’s mostly a philosophical objection. The real problem is that the cutscenes frequently force the player to act stupid. Let me give you an early example: I’ve been stealthily infiltrating a warehouse, slowly creeping forward, remaining unseen, and being very aware of my environment. I sneak through a doorway and a cutscene hits. Suddenly Adam strolls into the warehouse, totally ignoring everything around him, and some dude walks up behind him and whacks him over the head.

This is lame. It’s denying my skill, denying the character I’ve built up, and even denying our belief in the scripted Adam Jensen. This guy is supposed to be a great SWAT cop. He’s not going to shamble around in enemy territory like an oaf. This is lazy plotting just so they can set up one of their needless boss fights.

The DLC Hole

One of the most peculiar moments in DX:HR comes right before the final level. There’s a cutscene that ends with Adam Jensen in a very bad situation. Once the cutscene ends, the final level loads, and finds Adam extracted from his troubles and in a different location. There is no explanation or acknowledgement of this missing link – it’s just there.

It should come as no surprise that the first DLC for the game (titled, yes, “The Missing Link”) is set to take place during this period. One of the designers commented on the announcement by saying “We are very excited for Deus Ex: Human Revolution fans to be able to complete Adam’s journey in the game with The Missing Link DLC.”

This is outrageous. When I buy a narrative game, I expect a complete story just as much as I expect a finished game. Having a cliffhanger is bad practice, but at least there’s a narrative contiguity. Here, they intentionally created a hole with the sake of filling it later for extra cash. It’s a stain on an otherwise very professional release, and I find it appalling that the developers would cripple their own product just to make a quick buck. What’s next? Paying for patches?

The Prequel Problem

When Eidos decided to make a follow-up to Deus Ex, a prequel was the obvious choice. Invisible War’s multiple endings were all of an extreme nature, and a follow-up would have required a significant shift in tone. Creating a prequel not only gave them more creative freedom (and allowed them to outright ignore the unpopular Invisible War), it made it an easier sell for the target console audience who had never played or even heard of Deus Ex.

It was a smart decision, but it presented some issues. The most obvious one is the fact that 2027 in Deus Ex looks far more futuristic and advanced than 2052; and while this will no doubt be jarring for people who play the original after HR, I agree with the art director that it was a necessary misstep: to do otherwise would be to pretend that aggressive design developments of the last ten years hadn’t happened.

 

More subtle is the degree to which HR is a game much farther removed from our reality than Deus Ex. While it’s rampant conspiracy theories were not credible in the least (nor were they intended to be), the technology and society it presented was wholly believable: a lot can change in 52 years, and everything the future world contained was built off of currently existing technology and theories.

Contrast that with Human Revolution, which postulates that in only 16 years we’ll be able to run around with neural implants that allow us to read a person’s personality at a glimpse, robotic legs that allows us to jump from any height without falling, and pheromone systems that allow us to persuade a person to our point of view. It’s simply not going to happen, and it’s more science fantasy than science fiction. Most of the technology present in the game is theoretically possible, just not within the timeframe they’re talking about.

Also, food for thought: every future-based book, game, and movie does not portray the future of our own timeline, but the future of an alternate timeline in which the respective book/game/movie was never released. Because if it had been, than people would surely notice that they were following the events of fictional product, and would respond to this.

Actually, that’s a pretty cool idea for a game.

The Four Endings

Huge spoilers here, obviously. You’ve been warned.

As I reached the conclusion, I’ve noticed that all three Deus Ex games have offered the same basic ending choices:

  1. Make the transhumanist ideal reality in some significant way
  2. Join the Illuminati and help them rule.
  3. Trigger a new dark age.

Human Revolution also uses the “fourth ending” of Invisible War, which is some variation of a sort of democratic anarchist “let the people decide” ending.

The degree to which these pre-established endings fit into the new framework of Human Revolution is impressive. The Illuminati one is a little lame – the game really sets them up as the villains, and the “hey we’re actually good for everybody do us a solid” speech at the game’s end is well-written but totally abrupt and unearned. Contrast this with the much more nuanced portrayal of the Illuminati in Deus Ex and, yes, Invisible War. There’s also a notable pro-transhumanist bias in the game’s writing; I don’t think it’s intentional, but the anti-transhumanist factions tend to be vilified (and end up playing guilt-by-association with the Illuminati). I didn’t mind it, but it’s a peculiar encroachment on an otherwise neutral, you-make-the-call design philosophy.

The actual endings work far more effectively than they have any right to: rather than actually SHOWING us what the effects of our decision is, we get a voice-over from Adam talking about the justification behind this decision, overlaid over live-action historical and industrial footage.

It immediately calls to mind the ending of the first two Metal Gear Solids. But while those endings were essentially the proselytization of Hideo Kojima, Human Revolutions chooses to speak for the player, providing a heartfelt argument as to why the given choice was clearly the best one. It’s surprisingly comforting to have the game affirm your decision in so thoughtful a manner, and the footage helps bring it down to earth (as well as occasionally serving as a subversive criticism, as when video of Tony Blair and the 2000 election of George W. Bush is juxtaposed with talk about how the Illuminati will select the best and brightest to lead for us).

The only problem is that they don’t really make sense within the larger scope of the series. Generally speaking, when a game has multiple endings, the developer will choose one that is “canon” for the sequel: in Warcraft II, the Alliance won, regardless of how well you did on your Horde campaign. Invisible War took a rather more clever approach, stating that every ending happened but to lesser degrees than shown (for instance, there was a minor dark age rather than the full-blown global shutdown of that particular ending).

I’ve never played a prequel with multiple endings before, and now I see why: there’s just no clean way to do it. Two of HR’s endings are outright incongruous with Deus Ex; The third works IF certain events happen in the 25 years following, and the fourth fits in pretty snugly. Which is weird: when picking the ending I did, I do so conscious of the fact that it was already non-canon.

The Surprise Influence

I was recently at the Game Archive of the University of Michigan, a nifty little gaming center/library place that I’ll probably write an entry on later. While I was there, I overheard a conversation between someone playing Human Revolution and a gaming-friend of his unfamiliar with it. A portion went like this:

Viewer: I’ve never seen such an open-world first-person-shooter before.

Player: Me neither. It has a lot in common with Assassin’s Creed.

Viewer: I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed, but I can see what you mean.

The player was half-right. They’re both big-budget, open-world games with a focus on stealth, and there aren’t a lot of other games in that category. But Assassin’s Creed certainly isn’t the chief influence: as one would hope, the original Deus Ex is.

Yet as I played through the game, I realized that Human Revolution has almost as much in common with Metal Gear Solid 4 as it did with its namesake. The “feel” of the cover/gunplay system is remarkably similar, and they share a number of key thematic issues, namely increasingly powerful PMCs and the increased ease of informational and technological control of the human mind. Adam Jensen even shares a lot with Solid Snake, right down to the gravelly voice. And then there’s the aforementioned endings.

It’s hard to say whether this is a case of Eidos Montreal drawing inspiration from Kojima’s 2008 magnum opus or simply having the same ideas at the same time; despite coming out three years later, Human Revolution actually started preproduction in 2007, so there’s a good chance that it’s mostly the latter. I guess it’s not that surprising. Ten years ago, Metal Gear Solid and Deus Ex were the only commercial games to overtly tackle contemporary political issues. Ten years later…they’re still the only two series doing it (Call of Duty is far too popcorn to really count, though certain segments of the first Modern Warfare come close). I can’t help but be disappointed by this, but two is better than zero.

There May Be More…

…but that’s all you’ll hear from me. Despite my nitpickings, Human Revolution’s narrative was more thought-provoking than any I’ve played in years. With Kojima retired from Metal Gear and indie political games yet to break into the mainstream, Human Revolution may be the last we’ll see of this sort of “critical gaming” we’ll see for a while. But I hope its success will encourage more developers to take the risk of grounding their sci-fi in our own shades-of-grey reality.

Article by Dylan

Dylan Holmes is a 20-something from Seattle. By day he works as public librarian; by night he tries to balance voracious media consumption with some modicum of a social life. His accomplishments include being the author of one book (A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games); inventing numerous Arnold Palmer variants; and being able to balance on an exercise ball indefinitely. His failures are too numerous to list.

4 Comments


  1. As a minor nitpick, I’d suggest avoiding acronyms if you can write them out. I had to google both DLC and PMC (even if I could figure out DLC from the context).

    Otherwise, good analysis. Interesting that you say the game presents a good argument for both sides of the debate – I haven’t played the game, but I seem to recall people saying that the transhumanist side is pretty much a no-brainer. Though that might just be due to the transhumanist circles I hang out in…

    1. Yeah, that’s probably more your circles, though as I said there is definitely a pro-transhumanist bias (you can argue that this is a “reality bias,” of course, but there it is). It’s not so much that it presents great ARGUMENTS against transhumanism, so much as it shows its potential negative effects (namely, exaggerating already wide class gaps) and makes some powerful, if not always rational, “emotional” arguments. But it’s solid science fiction, so it sort of implicitly devalues those.

      I’d definitely recommend playing it before you read too much more on it – a lot of the fun is in having expectations upended.

  2. Have you ever read The Watchmen?
    I supposed you could watch the film, but even as long as the film is, theirs still tons of information left out of it.
    At one point in the game I was thinking the story was pretty similar. In fact I like to think I chose the “Rorschach Ending.”

    1. Read it multiple times (and, honestly, kind of hate the film – I could write a pretty lengthy essay on the ways I feel they botched the adaptation). Favorite book of mine. Yeah, there is definitely that same conundrum – choosing the greater good vs I’M NOT LETTING HIM GET AWAY WITH IT.

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