Human Revolution: a game that asks a question
This article contains spoilers for Deux Ex: Human Revolution, right through to the end of the game.
What would happen if development of technology for enhancing the human body vastly accelerated over the next 15 years?
If you want to know what Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about, it's that question.
Now this might sound obvious, but I chose my words quite carefully: the game is about that question. You see, Call of Duty occasionally wants you to think about the nature of war, but it's about shooting bad guys in the head. Dragon Age Origins raises some interesting moral dilemmas along the way but it's about telling an epic fantasy story. Dragon Age 2 has a comparatively poor story that is structurally all over the place, but that's okay because Dragon Age 2 is about the characters involved in those story fragments and how they react and relate to Hawke. The GTA games have a story but they're about exploring a huge and reactive open world.
Adam Jenson: character or cipher?Human Revolution isn't about story, character or even gameplay. It's about that single question. And every other element of the game, for better or worse, is in the service of addressing that question. Think about all the major characters in Human Revolution: Adam Jensen, Megan Reed, David Sarif, Frank Pritchard, Bill Taggart and Hugh Darrow. Now try and think of details about those characters that we learn in the game that aren't directly related to the human augmentation issue. Difficult, isn't it? Does Sarif have a family? What was Taggart's upbringing like? We don't know and we never find out, because they aren't real characters. Taggart and Sarif in particular are there to embody concepts and arguments on either side of the augmentation debate. In fact, they can't be developed as characters as to do so would spoil the purity of those ideas. If Taggart were anti-augmentation because his child was killed by an augmented man then his viewpoint could be dismissed as just an emotional reaction. Likewise if Sarif's motivation for pushing augmentation forwards was to develop a way to save his wife from a terminal disease then something would be lost. We'd gain far more interesting, deep and sympathetic characters, but lose that dispassionate objective embodiment of each side of the argument. The game does not want to give us any other reason to like or dislike these two characters beyond their scientific philosophy. Even when we finally learn a little about Jensen's background and upbringing, it's only there to explain why he has such a big part to play in the whole augmentation issue.
It's the first time, as far as I'm aware, that a game has taken this question-based approach. Planescape: Torment came close with "what can change the nature of a man?" but even that game was more about story and character than the philosophy behind it. Bioshock was an interesting exploration of Randian objectivism but it was hidden well enough that 90% of players would never have known. But this sort of philosophical, question-driven approach is not uncommon elsewhere in fiction. It crops up often in sci-fi literature. Everyone has heard of Isaac Asimov, and arguably his most famous work is his Robot series. And when people talk about that, they don't talk about them the stories having amazing plots or brilliant characters, but about his three laws of robotics. He invented a rules system for robots then pushed and pulled at it through various narratives to see what happened. It takes that single idea and asks "what would happen?"
Planescape: Torment is the only other game that comes close to the question-driven approach, albeit with a far more philosophical bentJensen himself is something of a blank slate, which isn't uncommon for videogame protagonists: it makes it easier for the player to project him or herself onto him. But the game doesn't really give you a chance to develop Jensen's personality or even take sides. In a few places early on you're asked how you feel about your augmentations but those choices have no real effect and quickly dissipate. And while you have wonderful and complex branching dialogues with characters, they're presented (almost literally if using the social augment) as battles: you have an objective - generally to convince a character of something - and you have to choose the right responses to reach that goal. You're not choosing a response because that's what you think but you're choosing a response because you think it will get the required reaction from whoever you are talking to.
Oddly enough, the one choice you do get to make as Jensen is who lives and who dies. Do you take a lethal or non-lethal route through the game? It seems to be a strange hangover from the first game and a little out of place. But it's equally interesting that you're forced to kill the boss characters, purely because one of the main arguments of the anti-augmentation groups is that augmentations change people, make them less than human and turn them into killers. If you play through the game as the most augmented man on the planet and don't kill a single person... well it undermines that point a little. If I were feeling generous I'd say that forcing you to kill the boss characters helps mitigate that a little bit, though the game fails to capitalise on it to the point that it feels more like a happy accident.
One of the few choices to be made is how lethal Jensen is in his approachThe game offers few other chances to truly develop Jensen as a character. Indeed, if someone were observing me playing the game, the one trait of Jensen that would stand out above all others would be his pathological desire to hack every single computer he sees and read everyone's email, even when he has far more important things to be doing. Oddly enough the game calls you on it the first time you do it in the prologue, then it's never mentioned again. Indeed, you'll often read things in the emails that reveal major plot points ahead of time, but Jensen doesn't even comment on them and even seems a little surprised when he 'discovers' them in later cut-scenes. It's almost like the emails and eBooks were speaking directly to the player and bypassing Jensen entirely, which is an issue we'll pick up on again later.
The game firmly stamps its colours to the mast when you finally find Megan. Up to this point, it's possible to interpret the game as something of a love story. Jensen is driven by his desire to find out what happened to the woman he loved, and then when he discovers she's still alive, to find and rescue her, even though she had rejected him. And they finally meet. At this point, the obvious story-beat is a tearful reunion where she tells him that she always loved him and she's so sorry about what happened and the two embrace before Jensen heads off on the final part of his mission.
Not so much.
They meet, Jensen accuses her of collaborating with the enemy before heading off to clean up her mess. It's a jarring kick in the face to anyone that was expecting any sort of happy resolution for the couple, but it also firmly establishes that this is not what the game is about.
It's not just the characters that serve this over-arching question. In a wonderfully neat piece of design, the whole character progression system is directly tied to the human augmentation issue. If you really wanted to you could take a pretty hard-line anti-aug stance and not activate any augments beyond the ones you get to start with. It would, of course, make the game near impossible to finish. It's a choice no player would make (outside of an interesting experiment) but by ostensibly offering that choice the game makes you complicit in the further augmentation of Jensen.
The progression system in Human Revolution makes the player complicit Jensen's augmentationThe world and the plot itself equally fall in to line. Go wondering around Detroit in the first part of the game and you can talk to everyone on the street. It's a huge open-world style playground. And everyone you talk to will give you their opinion on human augmentation. You'll walk past someone and they'll be talking on their phone to someone about human augmentation. There are adverts on billboards for fictional human augmentation companies. Augmentation is the only thing anyone in all of Detroit is talking about. It's ridiculous, but at the same time, brilliant. It eschews realism entirely but instead allows the game to throw all these different opinions about the issue at you. Even the subquests you undertake that aren't related to the main storyline are most commonly vignettes on, yep, human augmentation. Hunting down the rogue augmented soldier or trying to save a prostitute from being augmented against her will. The main plot itself is actually fairly simple: it doesn't exactly twist and turn but instead plots a straight trajectory towards the ending.
And then there's that ending.
Four choices, four buttons, it's the most contrived way of doing "multiple endings" possible. And yet, it makes sense to me. The game falls down a bit by trying to key you in slightly on the consequences of Jensen's choice. Which is misleading, as you're not making Jensen's choice, you're making your choice. The game is once again speaking directly to you. The stark presentation makes the moment all the more striking. The game is saying: "Okay, we've spent the last thirty hours or so guiding you through this world of human augmentation, we've given you the pros and cons of each side, now what do you think?" I spent a good ten minutes sat there thinking. And then I made a choice, in my head. That was the end of the game for me. I learned what I thought about a moral issue that, while fictional, still reflects hugely on the real world. And in that moment I learned something about myself. Not something amazing or huge, but something, which is infinitely more than any other game has ever managed. Of course, then I pressed the button and there's a voice-over and no, we don't learn about the in-game consequences of what I did. Many have criticised the game for omitting that, but for me that would have been the worst thing that the developers could possibly have done. Because it's either going to tell me "hey, well done, that was a good choice, look at all these people who ended up happy" or "oops, you chose this and world nearly got destroyed" and that would be awful because it's making a value judgement on the decision I made. And an arbitrary one at that. The universe of Deus Ex isn't real, and the consequences of my choice would not be inevitable and intractable, they'd be consequences picked by the developers who imposed their opinions on my choice. Given the even-handed approach the game takes to both sides of the argument, that would have been the ultimate betrayal.
Human Revolution's method of determining which ending you saw infuriated some playersLikewise, the idea some have mooted that the endings you can choose from should have been narrowed down based on choices that should have been offered earlier in the game would ruin the purity of it. The game presents the arguments, then asks you to choose. It purposefully avoids asking you to take sides earlier on as you'd inevitably be making Jensen's choice of the best thing to do in that situation. By waiting until the very end and offering you four stark and clear choices the game is able to make it an almost purely philosophical choice, without the baggage of worrying about consequences.
It's not perfect. The endings get muddled by the fact that one involves killing hundreds of innocent people and another involves siding with a guy who powers computers with young girls. It's a game that's messy around the edges but it's a game that actually has a clear and visible core purpose in mind. It's a game that feels like it's been constructed around this desire to challenge the player philosophically, rather than just adding in 'morality' as yet another game system.
It's a different approach to creating a game.