How Deus Ex: Human Revolution Fails in its Storytelling, Part 2

Last time we ended on a high point, with DXHR presenting deep and complex questions about the ethical limits of human augmentation and the use of technology as the next step in human evolution. We saw the streets of Detroit and what a world with augmentation would look like, both the good and the bad. We met Adam Jensen, a man who has had augmentation thrust upon him in order to save his life, and whose past is one big question mark. We tracked down the terrorists who attacked Sarif Industries to their temporary base in an underground FEMA concentration camp. And it is at that point that we pick up the story once again: our very first boss battle.

Now, much digital ink has already been spilled about the disasters that are DXHR boss battles, but I want to touch on them as well from a narrative standpoint rather than merely as a mechanical one. I will say that I agree with the general consensus: the boss battles are abysmal because, in a game that prides itself on choice and multiple gameplay styles, these sections restrict all gameplay down the that of a basic shooter. You and a boss are locked in a room, and you have to shoot the boss until he/she dies. Put all your points into hacking and stealth? Too bad, we hope you have a big gun in your inventory, or a lot of bullets for your dinky pistol. Did you focus on takedowns and non-lethal measures? Too bad, if you try a takedown the boss will get free damage on you. Oh, and once you defeat them you kill them in cutscenes, so the choice of lethal or non-lethal force is stripped from you for these specific instances as well.

So the gameplay during these events is terrible. But what about the story elements? Well, the idea of killing the bosses is itself problematic. I am willing to believe that Adam, the character presented in the cutscenes, would willingly kill people: he is an ex-cop, and these are the people who orchestrated the attack that killed his finacee, killed dozens of other co-workers and scientists, and left him in such a condition that he requires cybernetic intervention to live. It is reasonable for his character to exact such harsh revenge, or “justice” if you want to think of it that way, so that is not in and of itself toxic to the story. (As an aside, I would prefer an option to use lethal or non-lethal force to finish off the bosses, but I cannot fault the game designers for deciding that it is better narratively for him to kill them.)

Rather, the problem is that these bosses are nonexistent characters. There are three of them: a big burly man with a machine gun arm, a woman with geometric shapes for shoulder-pads, and a more agile man whose entire body appears to be artificial. What are the names of these characters? I can only tell you one: the burly man is named Barrett, and I know that because they say it five minutes before you fight him and it’s an obvious reference to Final Fantasy VII. The other two? I have absolutely no idea what their names are, what the back-stories of any of the three are, what their personal motivations are, or why these three in particular are the ones who led the attack on Sarif. They are “characters” of necessity, who exist solely to be Big Bads that the player has to defeat to progress to the next part of the game. This is storytelling failure of the highest degree. I could readily forgive, and I imagine other players could forgive as well, the atrocious design of the boss fights, if there was any shred of emotional or narrative significance to them. I did not feel like I was exacting justice or revenge when I defeated these bosses. I felt relief that I was done with that part of the game and could get back to the real story. That is a fundamental failure on several levels: gameplay, narrative, character, design, and the list goes on.

But that’s enough of that. Let’s get on with the actual story. With his dying breath, Barrett tells Adam that if he wants answers, he should go to Heng Sha (SP??), a city in China. Adam, never one to doubt the last words of someone he just killed as an act of revenge, runs back to Sarif and tells him everything. It is at this point that a new plot point is introduced. Apparently David Sarif, the founder of the company, created a back door into the company’s security system, and has been streaming through it all of the company’s research data to an unknown third party. When Adam confronts Sarif about this, Sarif’s response is basically, “Don’t worry about it, it’s none of your business. Go to Heng Sha and investigate!” Which is what Adam promptly does.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I cannot remember the major plot elements of the Heng Sha section. A review of the Wikipedia article on DXHR tells me that Adam discovers that a hacker in the city used a human proxy to infiltrate and disengage Sarif Industries’s security network during the terrorist attack, and that, after locating the hacker, Adam learns that the attack was orchestrated by the CEO of Tae Yung Medical, the current world leader in human augmentation and a direct competitor to Sarif. The truth is that this is the part of the game where the main plot derails and starts to develop into aa full blown disaster. However, the game is saved during this section due to its more interesting side missions.

The most thought-provoking of which is something I expected to occur in the world presented, and I was glad the game had the nerve to do this. One of the businesses that you can break into and plunder during your exploration is a brothel, and while rummaging through all the rooms and stealing everything not bolted down, you encounter a scuffle between the owner of the establishment and one of the working girls. When the owner leaves, the woman informs you that the owner and his goons have kidnapped one of the newer girls, and they intend to augment her against her will, get her addicted to neuropozine, and use that addiction and the augmentations to keep her tied to the brothel for the rest of her life.

Obviously, this is a parallel to drugs, and the known practice of pimps addicting their girls to drugs as a way to keep the girls under their control. Nevertheless, this is, as I see it, more serious than drugs, and raises serious questions about the consequences of the ubiquity of augmentation and the dissemination of advanced technology into all corners of society. By no means do I belittle or minimize something as traumatic or terrible as being forced to become addicted to drugs and work as a prostitute, but we can at least say that someone in that position can, with proper rehabilitation and professional help, emerge from such an ordeal at least physically sound. But in the situation presented in the game, that is not possible. If a girl is augmented, she’s stuck being augmented forever. There is no removing the augmentations and reattaching her old organic body parts. Even if she escapes the brothel or the pimps, she’ll still be augmented, and she’ll still be addicted to neuropozine for the rest of her life. N o matter how much she may want to go back to the way things were, she’ll never be able to, because she’ll always be augmented.

This harkens back to the questions we encountered in the first half of the game, when we considered the ethical issues inherent in augmentation. We considered willful augmentation, and then augmentation without authorization if done to save a person’s life. Well now we have augmentation that is done against the will of the patient, for illegal purposes. Of course this is an ethically reprehensible act, but the more murky question that arises is: should the government, or some other regulatory body, closely regulate and control augmentations to prevent this kind of abuse of the technology? This is one of the debates that underscores the game, and this is, I think, the best argument to be made for more stringent regulation. It would not outright prevent this kind of horrific abuse, but it would certainly do more to curb such activity than having no such regulations.

Unfortunately, the anti-augmentation movement never seems to address this. Their rhetoric is always about normal people falling behind augmented people, the moral question of taking evolution into our own hands, and so forth. And these are all valid points, but I think they would be served just as well by bringing up the very real danger of criminals abusing augmentations and outright ruining someone’s life forever.

Of course, the game doesn’t really address these ethical issues itself. Everything I’ve just talked about arises out of my own ruminations on the situation as presented. To its credit, the game does present this idea, and the world of the Deus Ex is still deep enough to allow the player to dive into these intellectual questions regarding augmentation without overt prompting by the game. But that does not change the fact that the game handles this whole thing rather poorly. We are shown augmented working girls, but we are never told whether they augmented themselves willingly or it was done to them by force. The woman who sends us on our mission is not augmented and apparently has enough sway in the brothel to outright refuse the procedure. And our solution for saving the girl who is about to be augmented is to go to the storage locker where she is being held, kill the thugs guarding her, and let her go. Then you go to the apartment of the brothel owner and can either kill him or plant drugs on him so he can get busted by the police. Standard video game quest structure, but the game suffers for such a mishandling of one of the truly appalling applications of augmentation technology.

This section of the game ends with an infiltration of Tae Yung Medical, which has been built up to be some kind of evil corporation straight out of a movie from the 80s. The only noteworthy story element during this section is that you learn that the scientists and your fiancee, who were all supposedly killed in the terrorist attack that began the game, are actually still alive and being held by someone. This instills Adam with newfound drive to find Megan and the scientists, and to figure out just who is behind all of this.

When you finally reach the top floor and confront the CEO, she tricks you in a cutscene (so even though you know she’s going to do it you can’t stop it), and then you fight your way to a convenient helipad right next door to the CEO’s office.

And if that sounds anti-climactic, it’s because it is. If you’re hoping for some answers from the CEO, then allow me to crush those hopes. All you learn is that there is some kind of shadow conspiracy, and she’s part of it, and then she tricks you and escapes. This part, I feel, is a terrible wasted opportunity. Several times throughout the game, you participate in a “first person argument” as it were, where Adam confronts a character, and during the course of the argument you make choices as to how to respond to best persuade the other person. There is an augmentation that acts as something of a lie detector, measuring the person’s emotional state and offering suggestions as to how the person will respond to certain tactics. It’s a pretty interesting, and certainly unique, take on the classic dialogue tree, and there is a fair amount of tension in the arguments, since for the most part the game leaves it to you to properly read the other character.

Which is why it’s so deflating that they didn’t use that mechanic here. I would have loved a debate with the Tae Yung CEO, where she tried to feed me false information and confuse the issues, while I, and Adam, try to catch her giving away bits and pieces of information and sniff out the lies.

Instead, what we get is a two minute cutscene, where the player knows she’s lying and about to trick Adam, and then she does, and by the time we gain control again she’s escaped and we’ve got to fight off a squad of armed guards.

The ending of Act 2 of the game takes place at the (apparently) only television station left in the world, because along the way we’ve learned that Eliza, the anchor of the news network, may have information as to the location of Megan and the shadow conspiracy behind it all. But this part has gone on long enough, so I’ll save that, and the utterly awful conclusion, for Part 3.

2 thoughts on “How Deus Ex: Human Revolution Fails in its Storytelling, Part 2”

  1. I know you’re shooting wholes through the narrative, but the cyberpunkishness of it all is damn appealing. I don’t know how long I can hold out on buying the game…

    The part about working gals having augments forced upon them sounds really good. Reminds me of GITS 2 a bit, though in that case the opposite is happening in that humanity is being pushed into the doll bodies.

  2. As you recall, initially I was very positive about the game, and the cyberpunk world that is presented really is well developed and interesting. It’s a strange situation where the world the game creates is amazing and intellectually stimulating, but the actual plot of the game fails to really take advantage of it.

    At this point I was still mostly enjoying myself. To the game’s credit, it nosedives pretty much right at Act Three, so you at least get two thirds of a good game. My problem was that the aforementioned nosedive is so profound, and so utterly misreads the game’s own themes and ideas, that it sort of ruins it all in retrospect.

    But I’ll get to that soon enough.

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