‘I prefer to think of myself as Daedalus, watching helplessly as his son crashes into the sea.’
I was helplessly engrossed by this title when it was first released. I had that rare sense that I was embarking on something special, and that I would remember it for a long time to come. I was not wrong – seven years and numerous repeat play-throughs later, I am still engrossed by the world of the game. Its treatment of space, atmosphere and agency remain unparalleled. I would hesitate to say that the game approaches art in a meaningful way – there are far too many cut scenes (short films used as exposition tools) and the inanity of the whole affair sometimes threatens to detract from the incredible world building this game achieves.
But what a world it is. Set in 2027, it is the dawn of a new epoch, driven by mechanical human augmentation. The conditions are perfect for a new Renaissance – one where humans have reignited the promise of their destiny. We know that it cannot last, however – this title is a prequel to the massively influential Deus Ex (2000). In that game, human augmentation is not mechanical, is is driven by nanotechnology, and a virus has cut through huge swaths of the population, leading to conditions that could be described as dystopic. The original title is much less coy about its references to the Illuminati and the prevailing conspiracy theories of the day. That sheen of the new millennium is hard to shake, and its story has aged terribly, even if its design remains influential. Human Revolution is a little more guarded, and at least tries to pretend that its reason for being is not so blithely tin foil.
But while it lasts, this new world has the future in the palm of its hand. Yes, systemic inequality is more entrenched than ever, and the corporate behemoths have expanded to the point where their power is megalithic – they are the new nations. All of it might seem a little unfeasible, but the developers were somewhat backed into a corner by the previous title, which set this age of technological miracle in concrete. When they were first developing the canon, they gave mechanical augmentation twenty years to develop, which did not seem out of the question at the time. But we must lend near-future titles such as these a little space to breathe. Things change, and the pace of development is not assured for any technology, especially when people have become so ritualistically obsessed with their phones. Money goes where money is, and at the moment it is charting a particularly vacuous course.
You play in the first person, following the narrative of Adam Jensen, in whose boots you will stand, sit, run and fight for the duration of the title. A disgraced SWAT agent, Jensen has taken up the post of chief of security for Sarif Industries, and is in the midst of preparations for an upcoming summit in Washington. Sarif is headquartered in the newly revitalized city of Detroit, and an effective prologue sequence takes you through the halls of the science laboratories on the eve of his departure. But the lab is attacked, Jensen is critically wounded, and the scientists who run Sarif’s various programmes are all kidnapped. Securing their recovery forms the nexus for the whole game’s events.
Sarif has a choice to make – and that choice is to rebuild Adam without his permission, or let him die, and employ a new attack dog. He decides to rebuild Jensen from the ground up. The mere fact that Sarif makes this choice is indicative of a warmer, more personal relationship than most fictional CEO’s have with their heads of security. It is a change of perspective that is not really exploited in many narrative spaces. Until the plot slightly loses its mind later on in the game, we are led to believe in the premise with total authority. It’s a wonderful first few hours, not lest thanks to the introductory titles, which, whilst not interactive, can be excused; it is a montage of Adam’s total physical reconstruction, set to the tune of some phenomenal music.
The game is essentially a series of individual vignettes, each branching out from your home in Detroit, which you can explore in great detail. The city itself is not particularly big, and neither are the branching areas that you visit. You are given a dense space to interact with, not a broad one; and the greatest consequence of this choice is that the city, and each of the other spaces you visit, are enormously reactive. It is not a simulation by the dictionary definition of the word, but the developers manage to convince the player that they are inhabiting a small part of a wider metropolis, and that is no small feat. Intelligent construction like this presents the player with a significant obstacle – nothing is so obvious that a single tour could reveal all the game’s secrets – and overcoming the tangled, beautifully designed space is a journey in the truest sense.
Even though Human Revolution does not possess a brilliant story, it at least knows the strength of the spaces within, and endeavors to show as much of the world as possible in the various scenarios. Returning to this game, I am constantly struck by how much I am willing to forgive, simply for the privilege of spending time in its constructed spaces, its soundscape, and in amongst its colours and quandaries. That is a rare sort of title.
Human Revolution also deserves credit for its other great strength – and particularly ironic, considering what I have said about the narrative – that its characters are hugely likeable. They are superbly well drawn, with voice performances from the lead actors and supporting players that imbue each and every character with depth, history and compassion. By the end of the experience you will not only remember their names, but also understand why they react the way they do, and how they might continue to live when the events are concluded. It is such a shame, then, that the events are so middling. Yes, unlike a great many titles in this realm, Human Revolution is actually structured properly, and is clear and easy to follow. There is even a clear sense of ontological possibility – everything that happens makes sense.
But this is not a game about the whole patchwork of the universe, which the narrative eventually tries to span. This is a game about the power of a single bullet, and the effect of a slight decision. Consequentially, it is the tiny details which are most impactful. Every computer can be interacted with, books and posters are littered everywhere. The weapons and the food and the pharmaceuticals are all made by separate companies, and no effort is spared in the construction of their logos, or the designs of the products themselves. Even in the future, a fridge will probably just look like a fridge, and a pill bottle like a pill bottle. The corridors of the lower rent apartments are every bit as simplistic and grungy as they are today, and those of the wealthy are accordingly resplendent.
This is no more true anywhere in the game than in Hengsha, a new Chinese city built on an island at the mouth of the Yangtze river near Shanghai. The city is two-tiered, with a massive platform looming large over the slums of the groundlings. Alleys between buildings are connected by wires, and the faces of the windows almost reach out and touch the other. The boundaries that separate one life to the next are as inexplicable as the layout of the city itself, and just as murky. Lights and signs flicker and dance, entreating and enticing, giving the streets a glimmer of the world that exists for a select few, and certainly not those who dwell among the alleys and the strewn rubbish. Much like those who live on the lower level, once the novelty has worn off, you forget to look up, and are always surprised to remember that a more brilliant life is taking place high up, far above the scum.
As a near-future setting, it is among the most egregious, but the game is so desperately assured in its design that, far from being absolutely maniac and unfeasible, it becomes a true joy to explore and to invest in. Much like the very real, extremely insane Kowloon Walled City, from which the Hengsha setting almost certainly drew a great deal of inspiration, this panoply of warrens is a perfect showcase for the density of the game’s design. And it arrives at a perfect moment in the narrative, when things need to shift meaningfully for the player to remain engaged into the future.
As the game changes course, you are suddenly led into an environment of greater complexity, and with a great deal more vertical space. All of a sudden, the encounters that take place outside are approachable from far more angles, and the nooks and crannies of alternate approach are strewn with greater frequency. As the tone of the narrative changes, so does the environment, and the unraveling of this world accompanies a requisite physical shift. Hengsha is a dark and dirty place. It is not possible to believe that its residents lead good lives. And yet the game chooses not to turn them into pariahs. As you visit their apartments (by stealth, of course) you are afforded a slim window into their lives. These people carry on despite, even the people who live in the pod-dormitory complex; and the setting is all the stronger for it.
The transmission of agency is varied and open ended in Human Revolution. For all the beautiful spaces to navigate, it wouldn’t mean much if you weren’t able to do anything in them. Thankfully, you can. After Jensen’s reconstruction, Sarif not only saves his life, but turns him into a veritable Superman. Not the invincible Superman, mind you – Jensen can still only take a small number of bullets before he is killed. I would recommend playing on the hardest difficulty to feel the full weight of this. Instead of a scythe to cut through grass, Jensen is more like a scalpel, and used correctly, can effect damage on a scale far beyond his numbers. Jensen’s arms and legs are prosthetic, his eyes are mechanical; he has additional lung capacity and strengthened joints and tendons.
The game’s canon relies on the idea that these implants are gradually rejected by the body over time, requiring a drug to curtail the effects of this process. In practice, it means that you are only given access to your abilities over time, and cannot play through the game with every single one activated. You’ll have to choose how you want to navigate this world, and it usually comes down to a complex choice on the spectrum between stealth and bombast.
The great pleasure of this design philosophy is that you can play through the whole game without killing anyone. Jensen can perform a close-quarters move to down any of his enemies, which can be either lethal or non lethal. The knock-out option is actually completely silent, which encourages stealthy players to try their hand at the additional challenge of killing no-one. In a medium notorious for its genocidal mania, the fact that this option is even available is almost revolutionary in and of itself. You could do the same in the original Deus Ex, of course, and a few other games have since tried their hand. Dishonored (2012) comes to mind, where a skilled enough player can disgrace someone instead of having to assassinate them.
The liberty with which it is possible to navigate these spaces, and the sheer power of being in the world conjoins character and space in a symbiosis that is impossible to sever. The title is new and fresh after all these years, and even after all the separate play-throughs. No other medium is changeable in this way. Although a book or a film might change with the passage of experience and time, the literal circumstances do not shift. With interactive entertainment, the world is a different place every time you set foot in it. And with a world this malleable, it is more true in Human Revolution than almost anywhere else.
If the story that the game was trying to tell was not so grandiose, and did not try to capture such a broad range of issues plaguing this society, it might be a better experience, possibly close to perfect. Game developers often struggle with the nature of their medium, and with storytelling in particular. I cannot imagine that the process of writing for a game is treated with the same reverence as screenwriting, and a level of collaboration on a project with this many moving parts is probably hard to muster. But the spaces are so well designed, the atmosphere is so piercing, and the actors reading the text are so accomplished – if they only let the pieces of Human Revolution speak for themselves, instead of tangling the narrative in a mess of transmission, the player would be left with a far stronger experience.
As it stands, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a testament in part, and the things for which we can be thankful are numerous indeed. I have already told you that I adore it, and my negative comments are not denigrating, they are hopeful. The colossus of the future looms large in the life of every single person who lives in this world. The small stories that emerge from the emails on the computers, the graffiti on the walls or the placement of objects in a room turn ordinary window dressing into a diorama of the real. That is an achievement that belongs to great and fine creative artists.
No other medium can let us be in a place like this, and spend time there in a manner so unselfconscious. Space gives us access to a whole dimension of human life; one that is largely missing from the various other media. In the interactive world, space is character, and the lesson of a work like this is that, far be it for the developer to tell you what the space means, if you let the player wander, they will find what they will; and if you have designed your world with the care of a craftsman, they may even find a work of art. In the meantime, we must suffer the slings and arrows of our various fortunes, endure the tropes of science fiction, and the puerile constraints of budget and marketing, and hope someone figures it out.
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