by Kyt Dotson
With each new generation humanity rises to meet new challenges with technology. As a species we’re not only distinguished from other animals by our ability to cooperate but that our cooperation leads to exponential discoveries and developments in tool-use. In this fashion, humans as a species constantly reinvent themselves not just by harnessing their environments but by enabling their bodies to do more and survive more. The videogame Deus Ex: Human Revolution explores these philosophical concepts by providing a landscape of politics and sophistry as a backdrop for an action-packed plot that propels the player through a complex maze of the thought-provoking sociopolitcs of augmentation.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the third in the line of Deus Ex videogames and is a prequel to all its predecessors.
It cloaks itself in the technology of human augmentation: replacing or upgrading human organs, limbs, organ systems, brain matter with high technology. Essentially, it’s the story of the cyborging or bionic-revolution of the human race. In a word: transhumanism. People who accept augmentations get called by the moniker “Aug” and at times the vulgar argot epithet “Cog.” Augments can make people stronger, more durable, and sometimes even smarter—much like the implants from Gibson stories like Johnny Mnemonic. However, augmentation also comes at a price—it comes with the danger of augment rejection syndrome, which must be controlled with a drug named Neuropozyne, informally Nu-poz. It’s expensive and only produced by one pharmaceutical company.
The main character is Adam Jensen. He’s the head of security of Serif Industries and from the beginning of the game, he’s thrust into an international conspiracy that spans every corner of society—he also suffers a horrible accident that means he gets upgraded into an Aug in a very Captain America or Six Million Dollar Man fashion. This is all important because he becomes the forefront of discovering who attacked the lab at his corporate building and it also makes him the perfect protagonist everyman who came to harbor augmentations by no choice of his own.
The story takes a three pronged approach to how society might handle transhuman technology. None of the philosophies really make that much sense in-of-themselves, but the game allows the player to study them for their moral quandaries as they advance; and there’s a great deal of storytelling to be had in the side quests.
Such as, people who receive even low level augments can suffer from the rejection syndrome and Neuropyzine is expensive and difficult to come by—do you punish the Robin Hood who is stealing small amounts of it from Serif Industries stores in order to give to the poor or turn him in? At one point Jensen finds work with a prostitute who tells the story of black-markets in what amounts to human sex slavery where the pimp forces augments on the girls who work for him in order to get them addicted to Neuropyzine—in the same fashion that in the past he would get them hooked on heroin or cocaine in order to control them.
This dovetails nicely with the problems that many from the Humanity Front have with augmentations: they provide a quick-and-easy path for the not-well-off to get themselves augmented-labor jobs, but then they’re stuck. Since augmented workers are stronger, suffer less injury, and have more endurance than flesh-and-blood workers they’re often looked to in some cities to backbone particular industries. In fact, there’s even an all-Aug workforce project in the game set to help fight Global Climate Change.
Of course, like any Deus Ex game, there’s also a shadowy conspiracy at work on the fringes of society looking for a way to control and direct human evolution. Adam Jensen runs right smack into their machinations as he attempts to unravel his own back story—which is oddly understated when it seems to have direct impact on what’s going on—and also tries to discover exactly what triggered the attack on his labs.
In some ways, the story behind Deus Ex is a bit underwhelming: it fails to answer a lot of the moral questions that it presents and for an interactive game, it doesn’t even give much of an idea of how the players actions would end of affecting the world. It’s certainly speculative cyberpunk with a dash of transhumanism, but it seems to leave the trans out of the humanism when it gets to the climax of the story.
Just like a choose-your-own-adventure, the player gets to pick which faction they like the best and choose the direction they will thrust humanity and how they will embrace or reject augmentations; but that’s where it falls down for the hardcore science fiction reader (and video game player.) It doesn’t take the extra step and actually speculate as to exactly what the decision made could affect the world and why it might affect it that way.
Sure, it’s the end of the game—all the big fights are over, the action fans are tuning out, and it’s time to watch the credits roll—but I could have done for something more grandiose.
Also, the game’s characters felt a little bit naïve. Showing how a technology can be used for evil (even mass destruction) has never been a good deterrent for anyone to stop using it. In the same vein, showing how a technology will draw the human race out of the last era and into a new one won’t cause the entire world to embrace it with wild, reckless abandon. The world isn’t a monoculture that runs on fads—it’s heavily factionalized and divided by a lot of divergent communities and nation-states that self determine their own destiny.
In the end, Deus Ex as a story told felt more interesting for the journey than the destination. A science fiction fan would do well to read everything in the game, run every side-quest, and play every ending to really get their miles worth.