Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Fails humanly, all too humanly

So, I very recently finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution and felt like putting out a few words about my experience of it. This will, disappointingly, not be a fantastically detailed analysis of epic proportions but I will summarize and touch on a few core issues that come to mind while I write this.

Deus Ex- Human RevolutionSome history:

I played Deus Ex first in its exceptional demo version in the early 2000s and instantly loved it and its then-unrivaled sense of discovery and complexity. It was, and probably still is, a good example of a world that evolves progressively through visual changes in the cities of the game and in how character relations are always temporary, as one never truly trusts anyone. If I remember right, I finished the complete game in the mid 2000s, along with the much reviled Deus Ex: Invisible War, which I however found a decent game at the time. When/if I have the time I would love to redo both games which I have on Steam, but less of the time needed to complete them to any extent.

To mimic GameCritics, I would also like to upfront specify my gaming conditions and some meta-information that may be relevant. Total gametime was estimated at 15-18 hours (realtime) from start to completion and I played on a 2011 Macbook Pro on high settings hooked to a 30” Cinema Display and Xbox 360 game controller. Difficulty settings were mostly medium, except for boss fights where I tuned the difficulty down. The game’s title will be shortened to DXHR in this text.

Deus Ex- Human Revolution - mac

As I could see on a friend’s Facebook comments, I saw a tendency to think more about the game details as such, rather than looking at DXHR as a successor to a game (because most do not count DX2 as a proper game, there cannot be a series as such) rich in cultural capital and important for the general growth of video/computer games as a mature medium in its own right. This focus on the “gameness” is troubling, not just because it de-emphasizes factors that convey the bulk of the ethical core that DXHR builds on, but also since this alternate focus does not acknowledge the world in which the game takes place but rather the (classical) mazes through which one makes progress.

Also looking at the greater media context in which DXHR lives and is currently in, it is easy to get the feeling that this may yet be another game that has fallen victim to a trend of injecting non-existing meta-content into the game via marketing ploys and viral/propaganda materials. Ars Electronica wrote about how this has affected Gears of War 3, and you may be interested in drawing comparisons with DXHR (which has 14 pre-launch trailers on GameTrailers, a series of comics dedicated to it and a general media campaign that has pumped tons of material out for over a year). The trailers point to a fascinating and broad background which unfortunately feels hollow and strangely binary when actually experienced. Were the video editors simply more skilled than the game designers? Looking at two of the possible endings, I think so. But somewhere shit hit the fan and things simply got out of hand – the meta-contents, that is everything outside of the game and what it conveys via its mechanics, started to mean less than the marketing machinery. Propaganda and ultimately believing in ones own lies seems like an ironic way for the DX franchise to end up.

Deus Ex Human RevolutionDXHR is, as a game, fairly attuned to the genre expectations placed on it and offers few surprises as a pure play system. I did not find the game particularly boring as such, and there is certainly great tension when applying a stealthy approach to the game. It instantly gets really tough and the mood is well-executed for the tempo in which the game paces itself. However, I want to point out that there is a fundamental flaw in the ways in which players usually play these games: because mistakes are expected in high-risk situations like sneaking into an enemy compound, the game takes little if no regard for how the temporal flow gets cut up and is interjected with loading and reloading the same segments over and over again. This is not the place and time for a more solid, broad critique how games and gamers must grow up to accept a variable gradient between failure and progress.

Heavy Rain has some real bearing on this aspect but DXHR is just as uninterested as triple A games and their developers usually seem to be in everything that involves non-binary dichotomies. In short, my approach is that I do whatever I need to do in order to survive, even if playing with “unfair” and brutal tactics. Unfair may be a stretch because the AI is so stupid that they do not even exit rooms, hence headshotting them from a distance with a pistol is usually my approach. Combat is equally stiff and harsh as it was in the other two Deus Ex games. If this is good or bad I do not know, but playing it for the action seems a bad choice.

Many of my favorite games use an ascetic, survivalist system at its core. Limited inventory, the need for planned action and a certain outlook on honing skills and equipment make these games have interesting things to say about how we use tools and strategies to solve problems. For the duration of the game, I seldom spared any guards, opting for a takedown solution combined with some sneaking but mostly hacking and counter-tactics.

All the game I kept upgrading the first pistol I received and then being less selective with the larger armaments needed for any specific missions. The portrayal of violence in DXHR is problematic because it feels unattached to a clearly implied framework of both narrative backdrops and ethical beliefs that should be superimposed on my play-style. There was simply nothing hindering me from slaughtering the masses of punks in the Detroit inner city areas or the Harvesters of Lower Hengsha (until I became friends with their boss and the smoldering remains of their crew were magically brought back to life effectively erasing any tracks of my relentless path getting there – imagine how powerless my ally would have been were the foot soldiers not respawned!). Compare this to the original Deus Ex in which the activity of killing became problematic for many as soon as players left the first area (Liberty Island) and got hints that allegiances and goals may not be what they seem. It did a better job in giving possibilities to BELIEVE AND WORK FOR somebody other than whoever got to be your initial employer. This is instant fail for DXHR.

I believe it is crucial in a game that tries to make ethical decisions overt to not lead by the hand because that would be counter-productive. Spaces and their traversal along with the characters inhabiting them must be connected to the player or else they (the instances of embodied society and diverging goals) will leave the player in a vacuum-packed state of hermetically clean individualist actionability. What you do you then cannot do for anyone except yourself – which in the context of DXHR’s greater over-arching theme of societal and technological change – is plain stupid.

The original Deus Ex, as I remember it (which means nothing I am afraid, but bear with me) was less concerned with the structuring into levels that happens more in this recent installation. A self-contained level may in theory be a more experimental sector that can grow and work as an independent area of possibilities when detached from the looser hub-based city areas. I do however never see examples of applied positive use of this and find the in-betweens, if one may call them such, less compelling in DXHR: mere sewers connecting a few over-ground “goodie” spots from the general passageways instead of being believable passages between undisclosed, but yet, relevant experiences/areas. Except for a few highlights, the level design is not something I feel was very strong, although set décor and execution is often of much higher quality. The problem is that the repetitious use of locales should not be a hindrance in a game like this: it should be akin to the familiarity of one’s own local streets, a few quadrants of known space where things may happen unplanned and unexpectedly. It should invite exploration into unsafer areas.

Being very brief here, I will also say something about the ethics, or lack thereof, in DXHR. It may be smart to separate morals from ethics by measures of certainty and dogma that apply to them. Morals are then solid truths such as right vs wrong, just as game mechanics are moralistic in different (often not explicit) ways, while ethics would be those decisions – both overt and covert inquisitive phenomena – that may not even result in direct results (action). An ethical game will take stances to make the player question the actions asked of him/her, the system that provides these and then also the representation itself. Often the common-place look at games as ethical systems stop at a moralistic view of the representation. In my playthrough I have no strong memories of any obvious ethical dilemma whatsoever, which is highly problematic in a game such as DXHR, to the extent that the game might as well be exactly whichever other carbon copy clone of a contemporary first person shooter out there today. As an aside I skipped many of the FMV sequences because I found them tasteless and poorly executed, relics of times past. If this has impacted my understanding of something, then so may it be. In any case, FMV should not be a transporter of ethical experiences – in a game, those choices must be made on a continual basis.

Nietzsche writes, in “Human, All Too Human”:

“When men determine between moral and immoral, good and evil, the basic opposition is not ‘egoism” and “selflessness,’ but rather adherence to a tradition or law, and release from it. The origin of the tradition makes no difference, at least concerning good and evil, or an immanent categorical imperative; but is rather above all for the purpose of maintaining a community, a people.” Because the game’s subtitle is Human Revolution and a fairly obvious parallel to the Icarus myth was drawn in an early trailer, I must say I am disappointed with how the game only gives one very clear thematic indicator of how society at large is having trouble accepting the augmentations that permeate the game (the riots in Detroit). In my mind’s eye I see a grander version of this game, where there was less reliance on tropes from action-stealth games, and more focus on the compelling promises of the persuasion dialog system. I imagine more vivid realizations of the social struggle and debate, with more focus also on the gray areas involved in research for such a revolutionary project.

Overall the theme, and especially the gradient values between mild and extreme augmentation do not seem to be explored all that much. While much of the player’s choices of augmentations involve invisible and non-obtrusive effects (hacking more complex targets, being able to breathe poison gas) it seems hostilities surround “godlike” or immoral changes (faster, stronger, more durable). Also here, only one clear indicator exists of how this technology may be counter-productive (being hijacked by unknown forces). If augmentations and the issues that surround bio-ethics at large should be addressed, it cannot be in a simple black and white model (The Clash comes to mind with a slightly changed line – “Should it stay or should it go?”). DXHR does not allow itself to complicate matters.

In the end, the general scenario is this: You are head of security at a company that makes augmentations, shit goes down and you investigate, fairly standard plot twists occur all the while as every NPC talks but never actually enacts situations based around possible problems with augs, so mostly you are sent to simple tasks and exploration never uncovers anything more exotic than hackable terminals and meager ammunition deposits. As the game progresses the drama is raised via bosses and lead characters while the actual game does extremely little to make the player sense changes in the cityscapes he/she roams. Finally an extremely simplified ending is provided. All is answered, but no real questions were ever really put on the table. It’s all a mess, really, as narrative and reason for immersive gaming goes.

In conclusion, I find DXHR to be a game that faithfully reincarnates a similar mood and feel of the older games, along with a fairly accurate new model of how the games would work in a contemporary versioning. The problems are therefore more glaring, as DXHR reveals itself handicapped in creating a mature context that questions the medium itself as its older brother did, as well as Half-Life 2 and Bioshock clearly have done as well. I want to say that its failings are not those that relate to broken, childish hypes and promises, but to issues that are children of poor design and less visionary outlook on the game-work. For me, then, DXHR goes in much the same category that other recent sequels fall into (including Bioshock 2 and Crysis 2): the gang of games that somehow stopped seeing what they did well and spent most of their time doing what many more out there do much better.