I remember playing Deus Ex for hours and hours when I was a teenager. Set in a dystopianish future where cybernetic augmentations are common and a new world government is not only pulling the strings but having it’s own strings pulled, it’s an astonishing game for several reasons, not the least of which is choice. From the moment you arrive at the first mission you can opt to go lethal or non lethal and your actions from that point on shape the game. If you’re a heavy handed blunderbuss of an operative the thuggish cyborgs will like you and the humans will detest you. If you’re a careful, sneaky ninja then the cyborgs will have no time for you and the humans will respect you, that sort of thing. For the first time in computer gaming, I’d encountered consequence, free will, choice, and that came to a head at the end of the game where the character, and by proxy, you, are faced with a choice; install a benign dictator, usher in the singularity or EMP pulse the planet back to the stone age.
I chose the EMP pulse. I was, to be fair eighteen and the idea of a simpler life (Simpler in this instance being one where girls might actually notice me) had a lot of appeal. Plus I was all about sticking it to the man back then. Every inch of my six foot one inch white, middle class, over educated self. I was the most anti-establishment truth seeing alt kid in my whole entire bedroom. Plus it looked great.
Fast forward a couple of decades and several bedrooms later, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution wrapped up last night. A prequel to the original, it’s an elegantly designed piece of morally ambiguous techno-thriller, putting you in charge of Adam Jenson, the head of Security at Sarif Industries. Sarif is the leading light in augmentation technology and Adam’s former girlfriend, Doctor Meghan Reed, is a star in the making. Until she’s kidnapped, her lab is destroyed and Adam is hideously injured, forcing him to undergo massive involuntary cybernetic augmentation. Back on the case, he’s assigned to defend Sarif from the never ending waves of pro-human attacks, discover who was behind the attack and avenge Meghan’s death. Or at least that’s how it starts out…
What follows is forty plus hours of classic cyberpunk noir, which warms my R. Talsorian and Blade Runner-loving soul to the very core. The game takes you across the world, a world drenched in a beautiful, opulent pallet of black and gold, and everywhere you go you learn a little more and are given more opportunities to give in to violence or take the long way around. At one point, you’re asked to deal with a former soldier refusing to stop harassing an augmentation clinic. Make one choice and you fight him to the death. Make another and you accept his position, get a verbal promise that he’ll stop harassing people and leave him be. Your footsteps aren’t erased when you move past a room or a level, they echo down through the entire game, to a room at the bottom of the sea and four buttons, and four versions of the truth.
By this time the world has gone to hell, every augmentation with a certain chip going wild and driving the user feral. Each button turns off the signal but each button also comes with the implicit support of an agenda attached to it. The first is Darrow’s, the scientist who developed the augmentation technology and who feels humanity can’t be trusted with it. His button is his confession, unvarnished, untidy, imperfect, but he may have a point.
The second belongs to David Sarif, your character’s employer. Sarif’s button frames the terrorists who’ve plagued you the entire game for the apocalyptic events and in doing so implicitly shifts public opinion towards the corporations. They helped in our hour of need so surely a little extra surgical research is a small price to pay? Sarif’s button is both idealistic and pragmatic, a selfless industrialist, wanting to change the world the way his staff have already designed it to be. An elegantly tailored, inclusive future, albeit one with a price tag.
The third button belongs to Taggart, the head of the human terrorists and Illuminati puppet. The Deus Ex games have never been backwards about their conspiracy theory routes and the Illuminati are primary antagonists here, although, Taggart argues, they needn’t be. His button, his version of the truth, places the blame on the corporations and leads down a road which sees the Illuminati regain control of governments and lead humanity gently by the hand, where Sarif would let it run ahead, down the path to tomorrow. Safety in authority balanced with abdication of choice and free will. As an aside, as an English viewer, it was darkly funny to see Jenson’s line about how the Illuminati’s leaders can’t be that bad playing out over footage of Tony Blair, the Prime Minister who infamously took England to war over information that was bad at best and falsified at worst.
The fourth button is set away from the others. There’s no agenda attached to it either, just the brutal appeal of something history almost never includes: an ending. You press this button and the Panchaea facility you’re in, a vertical tunnel down to the ocean bed, is crushed by the sea. Darrow’s agenda dies, as does Sarif’s and Taggart’s. And so do you.
Humanity is forced to make up it’s own mind what happened.
The truth, an enlightened capitalist utopia, an enlightened individualistic utopia or death. You’re the God in the Participant, the Deus Ex Lusor. Which do you choose? Which can you choose?
This idea, that there’s no answer that’s ever right enough, is what these games revolve around and it fascinates me. Each ending leads to a cut scene with subtle differences, both in the visuals and the dialogue and each ending leaves you asking whether the others are better. As you enter the room with the buttons, another character says ‘It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here’ and they’re both right and not quite right enough. This is the end of the old world, the world that led to this point. But it’s the start of the next one too, a world which will either be a benign dictatorship, a capitalist utopia, a willfully luddite move away from science or whatever can be pieced together from the wreckage. Every answer is right. Every answer is wrong. The very idea of you deciding history with a button push is wrong, and yet there you, in the form of Adam Jenson, stand, with the world at your fingertip. Absolute power, in every form imaginable, in the hands of the last person in the world to expect it.
We watched all four endings, debated at length whether or not the suicide ending would be the best option, to bury these three men and their broken ideals once and for all. In the end, we opted for Sarif’s version of the future, where corporations had near free reign to experiment on humans and perfect augmentation technology. There would be problems, there would be deaths, but none of them would be at our hands, and that was enough. We talked it over and Marguerite, who was playing the game whilst I was an unusually fanboyish spectator, chose. The future we went for was messy, untidy, imperfect. But then again, aren’t they all? Deus Ex Lusor, for better or for worse
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