By Neil Merrett
“Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors. But today we kneel only to truth…”
– Kahlil Gibran, artist and poet
“I once thought I could save the world, now look at it.”
-Adam Jensen, Videogame character and secret agent
Deus Ex: Mankind Divded on Playstation 4 – released 2016, Eidos Montreal
Warning: there are some minor spoilers ahead for the game.
Everything is knowable in the world of Deux Ex: Mankind Divided, at least until the game’s next sequel arrives at some anticipated future date.
The small group of shadowy figures that control our lives and imprison us can be discovered in the game. Their ultimate aims to distort our world view via corrupt media channels can be exposed, and prejudices can be quelled before they are inflamed into the murder and segregation of entire peoples. Who wouldn’t want all that?
On a less revolutionary level, every locked door and computer system can be coaxed or blown open, opponents can be bought or even persuaded should your robotically enhanced charisma be enough, and sometimes a player can even convince themselves they might make a passable ninja-like secret agent in real life.
For the most part, the experience is exhilarating, whether solving a legitimately tense murder mystery or hacking one’s way into seemingly impregnable bank vaults, even if this occasionally means having to hide under desks when trying to avoid detection calamitously leads to storms of bullets coming your way.
It is perhaps a natural extension of the pragmatic world of the first Deus Ex, which was released on PC 16 years ago. The game gave the player a huge amount of control of how they navigated a world of shadowy, ambiguous individuals with unknown purposes.
In its latest iteration, you navigate a futuristic Prague full of insincere, populist politicians, hard pressed minorities and corrupt authorities, every flat you break or shoot your way into exposes a little more of the conspiracy around you, hidden in vaults, laptops or futuristic pagers.
As a breaking in and hacking simulator, the game could do for principled burglary and corporate espionage what Tony Hawks Pro-Skater did for skateboarding and lucrative breakneck sports.
So addictive is the world of hacking, sneaking and breaking and entering, that locked doors and obscure air vents and rooftops in the real world around us will never be the same again. Who knows what secrets they hide, and what the most boring looking offices or flats contain. what new world orders could hacking into a seemingly innocuous second floor flat bring down?
There are few buildings you can’t sneak in without purpose to uncover the game’s overarching mystery, where the corrupt and vested interests of the few rich and privileged among us unduly influence how the global population think and act on a daily basis.
Despite its almost infinite choices for how you play, and the occasionally grey moral dilemmas that the player may be forced to take – do you bring down corporate corruption or choose instead to prevent the mass suicides of would be terrorists? – there is only one outcome and truth in the game.
The principled underground media, believing only in the power of the fourth estate are interested only in the unvarnished truth without individual prejudice or politics, while the single mainstream global media seeks to create or circumvent reality to unduly influence society to the whims of a cabal of elitists.
It is all so neat and fun that the player may find themselves wanting to uncover every locked laptop and storage locker to bring down the artifice that underpins all the game world’s ills.
There is certainly very real world elements and concerns behind the game’s plot, whereby a player can engage the world in a number of ways to achieve the single objective to ultimately expose all our faults and evils, which are the result of a carefully plotted plan, rather than the competing interests of billions of chaotic individuals.
It is a seductive and romantic proposition, helped by allowing the player to gain the ability to throw fridges at corrupt officials and semi-robotic terrorists, the game allows the player for most of the game to go at the majority of it villains with clear intent of purpose – especially if playing as a pacifist. Truly no one need die in the game.
Yet does the simplicity of this romantic conspiracy behind the game, at times, serve to break the foundations of the open world Square Enix have tried to develop?
Our reality is not simply dominated by one corporation, media outlet, or government, but by a vast number of voices, figures and groups that we as individuals have to choose to believe or ignore.
But if modern politics has taught us anything, it is that one person’s out-of-touch elite is another’s revolutionaries.
What can appear to be a unique and hugely popular breakfast cereal cafe for some much needed levity for under pressure city dwellers, can at the same time be the very symbol of inequality and a disenfranchised populace. Both interpretations are arguably valid.
It’s a mess to be sure, even with the choice, of regular, soy or chocolate milk.
It is this convoluted mess of characters and interests, media organisations and national interests that gives us the anger, rage and possible hope that the actions we take as individuals in life may lead to a more palatable, or as last passable society to exist in. Not every news story, or corporate office will lead us to some grand conspiracy or single truth about our existence, sometimes our actions and anger are just futile.
Society’s problems are not always signposted in a way that we can deal with and confront. Sometimes terrible things happen not because of Machiavellian manipulation, but the vested interests that are the result of the everyday hopes, fears and prejudices of billions of individuals.
That a simple conspiracy undermines our collective existence is a cornerstone of the Deus Ex series, which has for the sake of its developers required clear goals to allow for the wealth of ways a player fights or sneaks through the game.
Yet the first Deus Ex, with its similarly large selection of treacherous and mysterious characters, ultimately gave the player a choice with the knowledge acquired through the game of how it should all end. With the nefarious Illuminati brought down before the player, what would you choose to replace it with?
Might you opt to become one with the internet itself, overseeing the world and reshaping it in your own image, or instead, side with the game’s conspirators to continue their control of the earth, fighting to influence them, while being influenced from within.
Finally, and most drastically, it was possible for players, perhaps naive in their youth or weary in the middle ages, to simply opt to shut down all the world’s communications and technology, thrusting the earth into a new dark age, but free of a shadowy manipulation.
Individuals reliant on themselves, what could be so bad about that?
The tyranny of democracy and choice perhaps, but 16 years after it was first released, how would you choose to “save” the world?
No wonder the simple conspiracy seems so romantic.
Much easier to stop six all powerful arseholes in a room, then change the ways of billions of us the world over.