Sunday, September 4, 2011
Deus Ex is something of a cult classic computer game. It's eleven years old, and still being replayed and fondly remembered. That's because it's one of the few games that has real meat on its cyberpunk-stealth-shooter gameplay bones.
Deus Ex is about the collapse of the post-war social and political system, which had already started when it came out eleven years ago. In some ways, it was eerily prescient: terrorists had blown up a major New York landmark triggering a global war on terror, governmental power had been sidelined or co-opted by corporate power, the divide between rich and poor had grown ever deeper, and technology was on the skin, and under it. If Deus Ex was a novel or a movie, it would be somewhere up there with Neuromancer or Blade Runner. It had a sequel which sort of flopped, critically and in the marketplace. For good reason.
Another sequel just came out, called Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It's been very well received. I think the critics are wrong. Human Revolution is as badly flawed as Invisible War was. This time, not because of the gameplay, but because of the content. Deus Ex, the original, was a radical, subversive, thought-provoking game. Human Revolution is a profoundly conservative one.
On the surface, both games follow the same template. You take the role of a cybernetically augmented super-soldier working for a powerful organization, to uncover a conspiracy of global reach as well as buried secrets about your own past. Ultimately you get to make a choice that determines the future of humanity. There's only one really significant difference in the main story arc: in Deus Ex, you discover about halfway through that the organization you're working for isn't all it appears, and go rogue. In Human Revolution, you remain a loyal toady right up to the very final scene past the last boss battle.
That makes all the difference.
Both games are, on the surface, about choosing between competing political visions. There's the reactionary choice—going back to the system that was breaking down even in the year 2000, of stability and relative prosperity built on lies and shadowy forces pulling the strings behind the scenes. There's the anarchist choice, of smashing these organs of power, and allowing whatever emerges to emerge. There's the transhumanist choice, of opting for a technological revolution that would profoundly change what it means to be human. And in Human Revolution, there's also a nihilist choice, although it's bizarrely presented as something altogether different.
The difference is that in Deus Ex, the advocates of each of these visions were allowed a genuine voice. You fought against each of them, and with each of them. You met genuinely sympathetic characters from each of them, and genuine villains. While it was pretty clear where the sympathies of the writers lay, they made an honest effort at seeing things from the other points of view. The Silhoutte are not mindless fanatics. The world offered by the Illuminati really is a kinder and gentler one, for most people. And the utopian choice is a real leap into the unknown. This made the story meaningful. While—like in any more or less linear game—you were being told a story, you were not being told what to make of that story. That choice was left up to you, and clicking that final button after the final boss fight was not an empty thing.
In Human Revolution, only one of the choices is presented by a sympathetic character. All of your friends work for him, and believe in him and his mission. All through the game, in the various scripted conversations with other people, you defend his interests and his ideas. The other choices are presented by horrific villains, oleaginous, opportunistic politicians, or war veterans so badly traumatized they can't think straight. In Deus Ex, corporate and political power had merged into the unholy monstrosity that is UNATCO, the agency you start out working with. In Human Revolution, the character representing governmental power is opposed to corporate power, seeking to stifle its creativite power by, horror of horrors, 'regulation.'
Deus Ex, the original, invited you to question the status quo. Deus Ex: Human Revolution invites you to support it. The two games are similar only on the surface. In terms of message and intent, they could not be more different.