Here is that Gamasutra article I mentioned. Anyways, transcript:
Let me start by saying that Deus Ex has always held a special place in my heart. The original was a seminal game for me that I still cherish to this day. The second game was the first ever episode of Errant Signal I ever produced. The third game was the first ever season of Spoiler Warning I was ever on. So it has been, in one way or another, kind of a big deal for me. It’s also a series that has never really been given a fair shot on this show, with both Invisible War and Human Revolution getting episodes back when the tone was more yuck-yuck joke reviews than more meaningful criticism. So I was really looking forward to giving this game a fresh, proper critical look.
But I’m not sure I can. When I went to my notes and started outlining my script I realized it was basically just Human Revolution… again. Mechanically the game hits all the same notes: It’s surprisingly faithful to the original game’s emphasis on player choice and problem solving but is constrained by modern development costs and design conventions. That is to say: instead of solving big problems with tons of approaches and optional objectives like infiltrating Liberty Island or finding the heart of Area 51, Mankind Divided asks you to go from A to B through a level but lets you pick from a few paths as you go. It feels like the original design edict of “levels need to be problems to solve, but not puzzles” has been boiled down to “levels need to be completable through stealth, exploration, and combat.” The original Deus Ex leaned hard into emergent design as part of the immersive sim aesthetic, and that’s been chopped down and deemphasized across the board here. While Mankind Divided can sometimes can surprise you with the amount you can skip or avoid compared to other shooters, its levels are also constrained enough that they often feel like repeatedly choosing whether to hack a door or find a vent, shoot a guy or hack a door, find a vent or shoot a guy, over and over. I’d almost argue it’s less of an immersive sim in the Deus Ex/System Shock/Bioshock vein, than a Metal Gear Solid style action-stealth narrative game. They even have a sort of VR-missions side game built right in. Seriously, Mankind Divided owes more to Hideo Kojima than it does to Harvey Smith in terms of design; this is way closer to Metal Gear Solid 5 than it is to Dishonored.
Perhaps the biggest mechanical change from Human Revolution is structural, introducing a pseudo-open world hub in a way that’s reminiscent of this year’s Mirror’s Edge. Prague is a city broken into chunks that serves up a bunch of optional quests, exploration driven mini-gameplay chunks like sneaking into an apartment, and most of the exposition and plot. It ends up bifurcating the gameplay – most of the game’s dialog and role playing happen in the open world while the away missions focus on the action-stealth stuff almost exclusively. And for Deus Ex, a game that was all about your choices reverberating throughout and emergent gameplay that had systems crashing into each other in interesting ways, it makes both bits of the gameplay ring more hollow – your style of completing away missions and the paths you take through levels mean very little to the story outside of a curt recognition of lethal or nonlethal, and your roleplaying choices don’t really change how you have to approach the action – you don’t start a level in a compromised or more advantageous position because of your dialog options or anything like that. You do occasionally get to choose between conflicting missions, which is neat, but there’s not really any consequence to any of it. It doesn’t impact the story, you just pick which mission to do and the NPC you didn’t help and will never see again gets mad over the radio. So yeah, generally choices don’t really impact the story and the story doesn’t really impact the gameplay. The end result is that gameplay is modal – heck, you literally have an action outfit and a role playing outfit – and again, that leans Mankind Divided away from immersive sim design goals. But ultimately it’s probably the closest analogue to Deus Ex you could hope for in modern times short of human revolution. As a modern echo of Deus Ex’s design methodology it plays fine. If you liked Eidos Montreal’s last approach to this material you’ll probably like this, but it’s definitely tracking away from what made a lot of people love the original.
Mechanics aside, though, Mankind Divided has trouble separating itself from Human Revolution’s thematic problems, running into more or less the same issues. The key difference is that instead of augmentations standing in for pretty much any issue it’s a divided society that stands in for pretty much any issue. The game’s a jumble of references to Black Lives Matter, apartheid, Jim Crow laws, immigration issues, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, but it has no interest in examining any of those weighty and worthy concepts in depth. Like Human Revolution, it is about a ton of stuff in fits and spurts, but by refusing to engage its own themes it’s ultimately about nothing. It’s a vapid, airy game that wants you to think it has stuff on its mind when it actually has very little to say. And I didn’t really want to write that piece again. I already wrote it about Human Revolution. The only difference would be that this one would have fewer jokes. So I thought that maybe this time instead of just complaining that Deus Ex doesn’t say anything, I’ll try to look it how it fails to say anything. How, precisely, does Deus Ex manage to manage to present this surface level illusion of depth but ultimately convey so very little?
Well for one, it knows what symbols are but doesn’t know what they mean or how to use them. The whole Adam Jensen is Icarus-slash-maybe-an-angel thing is perhaps the best example of this. They’ve been using this iconography over and over again for the past two games. You see it alluded to in the Icarus augmentation, the title song from the previous game, in their little montage at the beginning of the game, and all over their advertising. And it doesn’t really make sense. Like, how is Adam Jensen an Icarian figure? Icarus was full of pride and hubris and it led him to try to achieve impossible things which lead to his downfall. Adam Jensen, famously, never asked for this and by the end of the game always gets his man. Not really an Icarus-y failing. You could argue that Adam Jensen is a stand-in for humanity writ-large, I suppose, but that doesn’t really work either – mankind didn’t reach for transcendence and then fall, they just sort of got… well, divided. If anyone was striving for more than they could realistically achieve it was the illuminati, who had the whole “let’s control human evolution thing” blow up in their faces a bit. But if that’s the case Adam Jensen is perhaps the worst person to use as a symbol of their hubris, so why is he the one in all these pictures and not Manderly?
Worse, the original Deus Ex already used a reference to Icarus, and it did it correctly. First the Illuminati developed an AI called Daedalus, which is named after the father of Icarus in Greek myth. Then the Daedalus AI went rogue and escaped onto the internet, and the Illuminati built a replacement based on the original tech but with more constraints and named it Icarus, so… yeah, the Icarus AI was the son of the Daedalus AI. That tracks with the myth. Later, when Icarus and Daedalus combined they made Helios, an AI named after the god of the sun which is kind of important to the whole Icarus story. Helios was the AI that was key to Bob Page’s ascent to digital godhood beyond even the Illuminati’s control, but that ascent was thwarted by JC Denton. So there hey, there you go – in his hubris Bob Page tried to fly too close to the sun and got burned. The AIs track with Bob Page’s Icarian myth. It’s not exactly deep or profound symbolism, but it works, it makes sense. That’s how you make an allusion.
And if you don’t know how to use symbols you’re going to be in big trouble when your game is a giant science fiction allegory, which is why the augs-as-subclass thing never really resonates. It’s not just that the game doesn’t establish which particular minority they’re supposedly an analogue for; there’s nothing wrong with looking at oppression as a generalized concept. But to do that, you need to look at oppression, really get inside of the systems that drive it – this is a game, after all – and put forth something that looks at those systems. Instead the game systems are… well, pretty much exclusively action stealth RPG fare. The only real oppression mechanic is getting hassled in the street but being immune from local police prosecution. Really, Mankind Divided uses barks and overheard conversations to do most of the thematic heavy lifting, leaving both the main plot and core gameplay free to be conspiracy action fun. This was also the case in Human Revolution, and I think it’s the core reason these games are so devoid of meaning. Like, look at the way NPCs in Mankind Divided call augs “clanks.” The slur generates texture to the universe, but not meaning. It shows that there’s animosity against augmented people, but because we can’t react to a bark and we don’t see Jensen or anyone else react either we don’t get a sense of severity or context or hurt, just – this guy calls augs names. Worse, by condensing most thematic exploration to overheard blurbs in passing you end up with shallow exaggeration to quickly convey points of view on a topic. So NPCs tend to come off as either bleeding hearts with in full support of augs or actual genocidal racist sociopaths. And all of this is just floating around the background with very little comment as you do ninja spy stuff. The legislation driving the plot of the whole game, Human Restoration Act, is less about the philosophical discussion of forced apartheid and more about giving all players a macguffin to chase. Mankind Divided isn’t interested in digging into what causes oppression or what happens to the oppressed so much as it is interested in using the idea of a split, oppression-ready society for a cool setting for its action stealth adventure.
And that, I think, is the core of why Mankind Divided – and big triple-A games in general – struggle to be about very much. Big budget games are pleasurable power fantasies about being a cool dude or lady first and foremost, and about pretty much anything else as a secondary consideration. The Icarus stuff gets to stay because, well, it makes Jensen that much cooler and that much more pleasurable to use as an avatar for a while. This mentality makes dealing with real world issues extraordinarily hard because you can never drop the power fantasy angle. Every action needs to be fun and empowering and rewarding. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be intellectually stimulating, but the intellectual stimulation has to be worked in around having a player centered manshoots. Symbols can’t perform their symbolic duty if it interferes with play. Human Revolution was about augmentations, yet we never got to experience a single downside of them – they didn’t cost Jensen anything, he doesn’t need Neuropozene to deal with them, he says they took forever to get used to but we never see that – just that he’s a super human more or less out the gate, and they’re used to make us super cool murder machines but still accaptable to look at in public unlike those bad guy augmentations. In a game about the pros and cons of augmentation, it should be a red flag that we never got to see any of the cons for ourselves. Mankind Divided is about a majority oppressing a minority, but we never really felt the brunt of that – our papers always checked out, no one at work was actively hostile to us, police didn’t actually enforce the augs-only line at the metro, we were never forcibly relocated to Golem City as a permanent resident. We are always special, exempt, above it all even as games purport to put you in the middle of things. The “clank” slur is supposed to hurt by reminding augs of their perceived lower place in society, but at what point during Mankind Divided did Jensen – and thus, the player – really feel like they were outcasts? Themes get to exist only insofar as they don’t make us feel sad or frustrated or angry or inconvenience the sense that we’re a super exceptional super hero. Jensen can’t actually be a member of an oppressed underclass that bears the full brunt of the bigotry the game suggests exists because that gets in the way of you being the ultimate supercop badass. Jensen can’t recoil in terror at his augmentations; they can’t be framed like Deus Ex is a body horror game, because those augmentations are the things that make you super cool. So he just sighs, says he never asked for this, and then mopes a bit, but it’s cool, because you’re cool, and you’re Adam Jensen.
And I don’t think there’s ultimately anyone to blame for this. Power fantasies are the core defining aesthetic of most big budget game development. This is why most huge games that want to bring up serious topics end up with that oil-and-water approach used by games like The Last of Us and Max Payne where a simple third person shooter is dressed up with cutscenes in between murder sprees to be about something more. Meanwhile, games that can’t do that like Deus Ex or Fallout just end up paying lip service to serious ideas without meaningfully examining them. It is hard to speak truth to power, or discuss the nature of power, when your game is itself a celebration of unrestrained and unexamined power, and it’s hard to find the value of brotherhood and unity when you’ve spent the past 10 hours killing and knocking out people. Whatever morals the game itself has come from you, they’re a part of your power fantasy. The game doesn’t tell you what it thinks of mandatory relocations of augs to Golem City or Illumanti elites manipulating the world, you get to tell it what you think through Jensen’s dialog choices or mission selection.
This isn’t accidental, either. There was an interview on Gamasutra with Mary DeMarle, the game’s narrative director. In it, she says: ”… because one of the precepts of Deus Ex is, we don’t tell you what to think. You have to make your own decisions. You live it. And we try to present all sides of that issue to you … what we’re trying to do here is tackle deep issues and show the world is shades of grey, and always allow the player to decide, not try to inflict a judgment.” It’s a game that’s about nothing by design, a game that confuses not taking a position for having a nuanced view of the complexity of real issues.
And for the record, a game doesn’t have to be about anything deep or profound. The original Deus Ex was mostly just reheated Men in Black and X-files references, and it only really became political at teh end when it asked you how you believed power should be distribute. And I loved the new DOOM. And DOOM had very little to say about current events or… well, much of anything other than our deep need for catharsis every once in awhile. In fact, it spent much of its run time mocking those who would confer deeper meaning onto it and that was one of its charms. But DOOM doesn’t evoke Greek myths or pretend to have deep symbolism or use culturally charged imagery to evoke Apartheid or Jim Crow or Islamophobia. It doesn’t evoke this illusion of depth. And that’s what make Deus Ex so egregious – it purports to have symbolism, it purports to examine real cultural issues, it purports to be telling a serious story. It’s smarty-person-symbolism-and-politics-stuff as a theme in the way that Destiny uses epic space operatics as a theme, and it’s explored about as deeply.
In a year that has seen the release of The Division I can’t possibly say that Deus Ex is the most offensive or careless in its use of cultural iconography. Indeed, a lot of care was put into making sure it said as little as possible to avoid putting off or offending players. But that puts it in its own class of games, I think – not a tasteless mess like The Division, but a game that aspires to nothing more than intellectual vapidity with a veneer of depth. It’s like opening a theme park that has the Roller Coaster of Class Warfare right next to bumper cars that try to teach you about racism – where you get to choose whether racism is good, of course, because this is a bumper cars that is interested in showing reality as shades of grey and doesn’t want to inflict a judgement. In Mankind Divide the focus is on the fun in a way that doesn’t just do disservice to the topics at hand, but trivializes them in an effort to get the game taken more seriously than it should be. And as enjoyable as it may be to play, and as much of an affinity for the Deus Ex series I have, I do think that warrants some level of contempt.