Saturday, 28 January 2012

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Hotly anticipated by fans of the seminal original Deus Ex: Human Revolution has garnered generally favourable reviews from critics and players alike. In particular, the title has captured attention for its philosophical and allegorical aspects. What do the controversial mechanical body augmentations at the centre of the game’s narrative represent? Abortion? Universal Healthcare? Racism? Here is the first of many spoilers in this review: they don’t represent anything because the game is an incoherent, half-finished mess.

The game’s plot attempts to concern itself with the moral, social and political ramifications of the widespread availability of mechanical implants and augmentations which grant the recipient superhuman abilities. The player character, Adam Jensen, is stuffed full of these augmentations after he is mortally wounded in a mysterious attack on his place of work., and gains the power to punch through walls, go invisible, run really fast, jump really high, shoot perfectly straight and be really charming in conversation even though he dresses like he’s about to ambush you into a conversation about the lasting influence of the Trigun series on contemporary anime.

At least initially the game sets up some interesting ideas. The introductory credit sequence shows Jensen undergoing augmentation surgery and one of the closing shots shows us the inside of his chest cavity illuminated with circuitry and corporate logos. Reference is made in some of the readable books that litter the environment to special augmented-only sporting events and their popularity relative to their vanilla counterparts. Outside the corporate skyscraper that serves as your main staging ground throughout the game, we are told that there are demonstrations, and later riots, taking place as tensions rise in the public debate over augmentations.

When the game attempts to enter this debate, however, all these interesting ideas vanish. The voices presented in favour of augmentations are corporate types like your boss David Sarif who believe that augmentations have the ability to “unlock mankind’s potential” and are unequivocally A Good Thing. The cautious middle ground is represented by a slimeball political lobbyist William Taggart, who you might also recognise as Senator Robert Kelly from the X-Men franchise. He believes that augmentations are dangerous and should be heavily regulated by the government. He is presented as the moderate voice of the extreme and unruly anti-augmentation mob which is only ever glimpsed in full-on lynching mode.

The concerns, goals and composition of the anti-augmentation movement are never clearly defined. Painted in broad strokes as a sort fundamentalist, religious movement (which religion is never addressed), championed by a conspiratorial talk radio host who is clearly patterned after Alex Jones, the movement would appear to be conceptualised as akin to today’s right-wing American Christian militia movements, with placards and signs linked the anti-augmentation movement explicitly referencing anti-abortion and segregationist slogans. In presentation, however, the protesters are clearly intended to resemble the punks and anarchists typically associated with the activist left, sporting mohawks and ragged clothes. This incongruity is never explored or explained and similarly the substance of the anti-augmentation movement’s position is never fleshed out. Even when characters mention a lack of augmentation for the poor and the advantages this provides to the rich, the game shows no awareness of the impact of class divisions in social struggles. Having created an explicitly political space, the game then proceeds to avoid engaging with matters of political ideology at all, leaving the anti-augmentation crowd as a violent, amorphous mob.

Meanwhile, Taggart, the “moderate” voice in favour of government regulation is presented as unpleasant and manipulative. In their first encounter, Taggart attempts to provoke an aggressive from Jensen by needling him about the attack which left Jensen requiring extensive augmentation to survive. Although he is shown to be genuine in his beliefs that augmentation technology needs to be regulated to ensure the safety of humanity, he is never portrayed as likable or trust worthy. It is eventually revealed that his assistant was involved, without Taggart’s knowledge, in organising the attack on Sarif Industries and kidnapping Jensen’s former lover.

By contrast not matter how duplicious or manipulative Sarif is revealed to have been, his warm, paternal relationship with Jensen is never compromised. He is consistently presented as an idealist, committed to unlocking humanity’s full potential at any cost. He even overtly rebuffs the overtures of the Illuminati to bring him into their fold.

It is clear from the way these key players are presented who we are supposed to identify with and where our sympathies are intended to lie. Given the suspicion that the original Deus Ex had for corporations and power elites, this change of tone could not be more jarring or concerning. Where Deus Ex championed social and individual freedom, Human Revolution is enamoured with technology and the myth of the friendly corporation.

When the game attempts to root the augmentation debate in the language of previous real world social struggles, the game’s political incoherence and infatuation with power elites becomes intolerable. In downtown Detroit, a sign in a restaurant window reads “Augmented People enter through back door” because the debate is like racism and augmented people are the blacks. Further down the street a discarded protest sign reads “I regret my augmentation” because the debate is like the abortion debate and augmented people are like women seeking abortions. Sound bites uttered by unnamed NPCs make reference to employers handing out augmentations and support to workers as perks, because hey it’s like universal healthcare and augmented people are like workers too poor to afford health insurance.

The biggest problem here is that in all of these instances it is conservative, religious, corporate and right-wing interests which have opposed social change, fostered racism, opposed the right of women to choose, and countered moves to introduce universal healthcare. These groups, powerful groups that wield immense social power and privilege, tend to be rich, white, heterosexual and male in some combination.

It is uncomfortable, bordering on offensive, to watch a game which focuses primarily on the experiences of rich, white heterosexual men, who are so privileged that they can afford to enhance their bodies beyond the abilities of other human beings, attempt to tie their experiences to those of real people who have suffered racism, or those who have been abused by anti-abortion activists, whose experiences represent precisely a lack of privilege. In essence, the game takes the aesthetic of the real oppression of real marginalised groups, and attempts to use it to add gravitas to an incomprehensible yarn about cyborgs and whether being a cyborg is fun or not fun, OK or not OK, and in the process creates a world where virtuous power elites are victimised by a cruel and superstitious proletariat.

Predictably then, the game’s representation of marginalised group leaves much to be desired. Square Enix have already been forced to publicly apologise for the inclusion of a black character who is found shucking and jiving and rooting through trash. There has so far been no outcry over a conversation option in China, where you can tell a local that “you all look the same to me”.

The primary female character, Megan Reed is a fantastic scientist at the head of her field. Don’t worry though, not only is she hot but you get to see her O face during the introductory credit sequence. Her and the player character have a romantic past together, but it is implied she is now involved with your boss. Later, her duplicity is expanded as it is revealed that she, somehow, did something with your DNA without your permission and used it to make a medical breakthrough which could potentially save or enhance the lives of millions of people. She begs your forgiveness. You fix her with the stern glare. After the closing credits, it is revealed she goes to work for Bob Page, the arch villain in Deus Ex.

You are also variously betrayed and aided by a holographic female news reader who is used by the the conspirators to deliver biased news coverage of events. As far as Human Revolution is concerned, women cannot be trusted. Also, she has a crush on you.

There are two female antagonists, neither of which does much to improve matters. Zhao is the head of a Chinese medical technology company which specialises in making knock-off copies of American goods. She is a central figure in the conspiracy to replace the computer chips that allow augmented humans to control their mechanical limbs with a compromised version that will allow the Illuminati to take wholesale control of individuals. When you confront her in her private chambers, she can’t keep her hands off you. She is hysterical and pleads innocence. She repeatedly places her hands all over your chest. Mercifully it is because she is using her sexuality to try to distract you, rather than because she has the genuine hots for you but it’s not really much better that again the game presents as a woman as deceptive and treacherous. After cock teasing you for a while, she throws you into a trap and gloats that “men never fail to underestimate women.” When you meet again later on, assuming the player avoided making the obvious mistake of installing one of the compromised biochips, Jensen gets to return the quip, reasserting his masculinity.

Feredova, who is not named directly in the game, is one of the three “Tyrants”; augmented mercenaries who attack you at the beginning of the game and provide the game’s infuriatingly out of place boss fights. Miraculously, she wears an outfit which reveals very little flesh and she is sensibly proportioned. However, her augmented legs make her appear to be walking in stilettos. She literally does not have a voice: she does not speak and is implied to be mute in the comic books which flesh out the game’s backstory. When it comes time for her and Jensen to have their boss fight together, she struts in seductively and chews on her lip in a suggestive fashion. Like Zhao, as a woman, her threat to Jensen is explicitly tied to her sexuality. Notably, of the three Tyrant bosses, Feredova is the only one it is suggested that Jensen might save.

Perhaps most conspicuous of all, however, is that in a game preoccupied with what are essentially super-powered prosthetics, there is scarcely any discussion of disability. There are only two disabled characters in the game. One is a legless beggar in China who you cannot speak to because he only speaks Mandarin. The other is Hugh Darrow, a conflicted, reclusive genius who invented augmentations but comes to resent them because he has a rare genetic condition which prevents him from being augmented himself. He walks with a brace and cane and his resentment of augmented people leads him to turn them all into zombies.

While it is possible that some of the augmented characters you encounter may have had disabilities before they were augmented, this is never made explicit, despite the fact that these voices could make the most powerful and credible case in favour of augmentation. Conversely, the voices of people with disabilities who feel they should not be expected to conform to the expectations of abled society by becoming augmented could provide not only a rich and provocative counter-argument, but also give the disabled community visibility in the medium in a direct and meaningful way. For a group of people profoundly underrepresented in all media, this represents a particularly egregious missed opportunity.

This is ultimately what should have been at the heart of Human Revolution. The game should have been an exploration of our relationships with our own bodies and how our bodies define us as a species and as communities. This is a traditionally deep subject area and could have provided more than enough themes and conflicts and questions to power a game that was willing to engage with them.

Instead, all these ideas and even the notion of the debate itself gets lost within a game so bereft of its own ideas that it winds up haphazardly aping the motions of the first Deus Ex. The structure of the first half the game will feel suspiciously familiar to fans of the original. You are based in an American urban hub, exploring alleyways and apartments. You then undertake a mission in a large warehouse. Then you fly off to China, where you must deal with Triads who are operating out of a nightclub. Meanwhile more subtle “homages”, from door codes to music leitmotifs, begin to pile up until by the time you are stumbling across eye-rolling references to the infamous soda machine mix up in the first game they have become utterly suffocating.

Even the essence of Deus Ex’s plot is copied over into Human Revolution, and it is this decision which is probably most to blame for Human Revolution’s failure to engage with its own premise. Both games are concerned with the protagonist uncovering a shadowy corporate conspiracy. But where Deus Ex is a game primarily concerned with questions of power and secrecy, Human Revolution is supposedly concerned with the implications of mechanical augmentation for the concept of humanity. As a result, Human Revolution’s plot carries both the game and the player further and further away from the ideas it sets up in its opening. You dart back and forth from China to Detroit trying to find out who blew you up in the introduction and why, but for all the sidequests and emails and ebooks the game never really comes to grips with the debate supposedly at its core.

By the mid-point, the rickety conspiracy story is in full swing and the pros and cons of augmentation are vanishing into the distance. By the end of the game you are off the edge of the map. Anti-augmentation mobs have been replaced by literal hordes of zombies. You wade through them on an artificial island built by Hugh Darrow. He built the island partly to showcase the abilities of augment humans, but also so he could then use it to broadcast a signal which would turn all augmented humans into zombies, ruining the plans of the Illuminati and warning the world about the dangers of augmentation. What?

If there is an elegant way to illustrate the root cause of these myriad failings, it has to be this: Where Deus Ex was peppered with literary allusions and references that advanced its themes and exposed its influence, Human Revolution settles instead for obnoxious quotations from stoner movies and other video games which distract not only from the core themes but also from the very tone of the game.

Deus Ex alluded to literary works such as GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow amongst scores of others. In contrast, Human Revolution bombards the player with ebooks that contain nothing but impenetrable medical jargon about its invented augmentations. During a side quest, a central NPC makes an obvious, jarring reference to The Big Lebowksi. Emails at a secret lab contain a transcript of the health screening briefing from Half Life’s introductory tram ride. Other emails in the same lab, supposedly a site where sinister experiments are carried out on kidnapped augmented individuals, discuss bestiality porn being displayed on one character’s computer in a self-indulgent and florid manner which is entirely inappropriate for the atmosphere the developers are clearly trying to foster. On top of the game’s other failings, this last one really is a show-stopper.

Ultimately, Human Revolution is what happens when you task a development team who are clearly politically illiterate and poorly-read to create a follow up to a game whose success and longevity are at least partially due to the political awareness and literary familiarity of the development team. What you get is a dumb, crass game; a spiritual sequel without the spirit.