Music Past The Red Line-‘Icarus’ from Deus Ex: Human Revolution

 

The prequel to Deus Ex, one of the most formative computer games of the last twenty years, Human Revolution is a story which starts on the cusp of a manufactured singularity. Cybernetic augmentation is about to become widespread and you play Adam Jenson, the chief of security at Sarif Industries, the leading firm in the field. Then, as is always the case, things go wrong. An attack slaughters Sarif’s lab staff, cripples Jenson and leaves his girlfriend, Dr Megan Reed, missing, presumed dead. Six months later, with new prosthetic arms and a massively enhanced body, Jenson is called back to investigate another incident which leads him, and you, down the rabbit hole. It’s a fantastic game, incredibly in depth and nuanced with multiple paths through the action and is a more than a worthy addition to the Deus Ex canon. It’s also got a staggeringly good soundtrack, the stand out from which is arguably, the theme, Icarus.

The symbology of the title is obvious but dig a little deeper and this is a piece of music which doesn’t just cover the transition from flesh to metal, human to transhuman, it embodies it. Starting with that ominous low tone and the middle-Eastern vocal line, we immediately get a sense of humanity, fragile, old and approaching the end of it’s run. The electronic melody that comes in over the top of that, the voice still there but buried, is the second half of the equation. The machine is here and as the melody is picked up and modified by musical instruments, the vocal falls to a counterpoint and then all but disappears. Even as it does so, the melody is building and building, the brave new world of Sarif Industries described in precise, aesthetic, cold notes.

The vocal comes back and it’s still buried, still struggling to be heard until suddenly, it breaks through. The electronica falls back, becoming a driving, urgent background to the vocals as the percussion hits and the music builds and builds a second time until it breaks and breaks hard. The ominous strings, partially electronic, backed by a choir become something different. Human and machine aren’t separate anymore, wrapped around one another in a womb made of double helixes and gears, something dreadful slouching towards Jerusalem, it’s hour come round at last.

Or, just maybe, something wonderful. The closing electronic refrain is driving and ominous certainly but it’s unified. The birth pangs of the singularity have faded to be replaced by something which is both human and machine and somehow not quite either. There’s at least unity at the end of the piece, but that unity is cautious, hard won and implies more control in the hands of the amchines than humanity. It’s a nicely ambiguous to end the piece of music, and open the game on, embodying the central conflict of Adam Jenson’s life with elegance; who do you choose? Human? Machine? Both? Neither? How do you stay human in a world where the definition has become like quicksilver, fragile, easily changed? This is all embodied in the soundtrack as a whole but this piece in particular, a three minute mission statement that lays the tone of the game out before you’ve even started. Icarus is flying, and it’s up to you whether his wings burn through or not.

More information on Deus Ex: Human Revolution can be found here.

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