How Deus Ex: Human Evolution Fails in its Storytelling, Part 1

Deus Ex: Human Revolution begins with a terrific premise, a richly developed world, and intriguing themes.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution ends with none of its plot threads resolved, nonsensical conspiracies, and trite sermonizing.

When I began the game, I marveled at its world-building, its intelligence, and the questions it raised about technology, ethics, and the price of progress.

When I ended the game, I marveled at how the cliches had consumed the narrative, how base and moronic the story had become, and how the questions had given way to indictments and ham-fisted moralization.

So it is not a consistent game, to say the least. The question, therefore, is not “Is this a good game?” but rather, “Do the good parts of the game outweigh the bad parts enough to even the keel?”

But first some prefatory comments. This is not a full review of the game. The gameplay is quite fun, the stealth is first rate, and the production values are as excellent as you would expect from a AAA franchise title. The voice work and music is particularly noteworthy for being phenomenal. Nevertheless, I’m not concerned with those aspects of the game. My chief interest is the story, including the characters, the narrative, and the world and setting. Others may praise the game for its blending of shooting and RPG elements, its graphics and art design, and how it feels like a genuine PC game and not merely a port of a console game, but those are not my fields. My spheres are story, narrative, theme, idea. These are the things I care about most when I play a game, which is why I gravitate toward games like Braid, Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, and Valkyria Chronicles, and why I spurn games like Halo, Gears of War, and Call of Duty. For me, a great story can save mediocre or even downright bad gameplay (Silent Hill 2, I’m looking at you), but good gameplay can rarely salvage an abysmal story.

Second, this review is going to contain spoilers. I realize the game is still fairly new, and not everyone has played it or finished it yet, but my chief goal with this editorial is to examine the narrative and plot of the game, and I cannot effectively do that if I have to dance around plot points and shroud everything in vague descriptions. I’m going to spoil every aspect of this game in the name of literary criticism. Ye be warned.

Part 1: The Early Hours, Promise and Promises

The game begins with an introductory section, in which we are introduced to the world of the game. The year is 2027, and the newest wave of advanced consumer technology is human augmentation: robotic and cybernetic prostheses that are more powerful and capable than actual human body parts. Unlike current generation prosthetics, which are generally inferior to the limbs or organs they replace, the “augs,” as they are called, are superior to their organic counterparts. Legs run faster and don’t grow tired, arms are stronger and can house tools within their shells (firearms, bladed weapons, etc.), eyes can see through walls and can convey information in a visual heads-up display, lungs can filter toxic gas, the list goes on. In effect, augs allow people to surpass their inborn limits and become something akin to superhuman.

This power, of course, comes with a cost. For one, the augs are full replacements, not attachments or enhancements of the organic counterparts. If you want augmented arms, it’s going to cost you your real arms. You want augmented eyes? Out come your real ones, and you’ll never get them back. That is one cost. The other cost is that the organic body does not automatically assimilate the augs. The science is never fully explained, but the gist is that the cybernetic connections that allow the brain to control the augs are not perfect and somewhat invasive, and as a result the body’s antibodies tend to attack the connections and can, if left unchecked, cause the body to reject the augs outright. To counter this, augmented people are prescribed a drug called neuropozine. This drug is required to make the body accept the augmentations, which means that an augmented person must take the drug for the rest of his or her life or risk the body rejecting the augs and severing the neuro-connections. The game notes that neuropozine is highly addictive, but what that actually means is left unclear. Is the drug in and of itself addictive, or is it merely a term of art to describe how augmented people must have the drug to continue to function (literally)?

In any case, this is the situation that the game presents, and along with this the game presents its first Big Idea question and intriguing ethical dilemma: Would you augment yourself? Would you, in the name of becoming better, stronger, faster, and more powerful than you could ever be on your own, sacrifice part of your body permanently and commit yourself to taking an addictive and dangerous drug for the rest of your life? Would you take the risk of losing access to neuropozine and potentially losing the use of your augmentations? In short, would you be willing to make that kind of choice in the name of advancement and personal “evolution”?

This dilemma is where the game shines. It is a compelling question, with no clearly ethical or morally correct answer. It touches on the larger theme of human/technology intermingling as the next stage in evolution, and whether we as a species should use advancing technology to take our evolution into our own hands. And if we choose to do so, what will become of the people who do not choose to evolve with us? In the game there is significant civil unrest throughout the world, as people who can’t, or won’t, augment themselves protest the technology because it leaves them behind and puts them at a disadvantage. There is socio-political movement attempting to impose severe regulations on augmentations in order to slow the march of progress and prevent normal people from falling behind too quickly, and another movement devoted to seeing augmentation outlawed altogether as a perversion of the human form.

Not all of this is revealed in the opening minutes, but these are the themes and questions that the game presents in its opening act. The protagonist character, Adam Jensen, is employed by Sarif Industries, one of the world leaders in augmentation technology. The game begins with a terrorist attack on Sarif, in which Adam’s fiancee Megan is killed, and Adam himself is severely wounded. Wavering on the edge of death, Adam’s boss, David Sarif (founder/controller of Sarif Industries) unilaterally decides to save Adam’s life by augmenting Adam. Adam loses his arms, his legs, his eyes, and likely many of his internal organs. His lungs are augmented, as is his brain. None of this was done with his consent.
Though the game never delves into this, the ethical questions of this setup is itself worth considering. In a world with augmentation technology, would it be ethical for a doctor to augment someone if it meant saving his or her life? This question is especially tricky given the neuropozine addiction issue. A doctor might save someone’s life, but if that person can’t afford neuropozine or becomes too addicted to it, was that ultimately good for the person?

Adam seems to handle the situation well, given the circumstances. He is not happy about what has been done to him, but his drive to avenge Megan’s death and discover who attacked Sarif imbues him with a purpose that guides his actions in these early stages of the game. He is obsessed with finding the terrorists and figuring out why they attacked and killed dozens of Sarif scientists.

After an introductory mission, in which Adam has to diffuse a hostage situation in a Sarif factory taken over by anti-augmentation zealots, the player is cut loose in a large exploration-type zone. This is Detroit, 2027, and in this arena we finally see how the world has changed with this new technology. Augmentations are commonplace; several people have visible augmentations. But likewise there is a pervasive anti-augmentation sentiment. Many of the civilians you talk to comment on Adam’s augmentations, some questioning his decision to get them and some openly disparaging them. Nearby there is a place called the LIMB Clinic, which is a business devoted to providing affordable, economical augmentations for people who cannot afford the more advanced models. The clinic also serves as a neuropozine dispensary. The local gangs seem to have taken to augmentation quite readily.

The missions in this section of the game reveal even more about this Brave New World. Gangs have used augmentations as the next stage in escalation against rivals and the police. One of your co-workers at Sarif has been stealing neuropozine in order to give it out to poor people who need it. The police do not use augmentation. One of the more interesting developments is that FEMA has become a major player in American politics, and has also become more militaristic. The culmination of this Act is the discovery of a FEMA detention center (a concentration camp) hidden below a Detroit neighborhood. The terrorists who attacked Sarif apparently used the FEMA facility both to stage the attack and as a fallback position afterward. Unfortunately for Adam, it does not appear that FEMA was directly involved, and the organization is too powerful to try to bully or pressure for information.

We also learn a little bit about Adam himself in this section, but everything we learn leads to more questions. Adam was a cop, but left the force after refusing an order to shoot an unarmed suspect. The police doctored the record to make Adam look insubordinate, and claim that Adam was dismissed for his conduct. David Sarif also took a particular interest in Adam before hiring him, and the information David uncovered is most perplexing. Adam was adopted by his current parents, and the identities and whereabouts of his birth parents are unknown. Does this relate to Sarif, or the terrorists? We are left to speculate at this point, which is a good thing, since the actual answer is far less interesting than we’d imagine.

Well, that went on for far longer than I expected. But I think it is important to stress that this first Act is really, really good. It presents Big Ideas, asks interesting questions about technology and humanity and evolution, and it presents a believable world shows the potential ramifications of this kind of technology. Keep all these things in mind for next time, when we leave the mean streets of Detroit for the sky cities of China, and dive into Act 2 of the game, where we slowly, but surely, realize that the narrative train is about to careen off the rails.

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