A long awaited revolution

December 21, 2011, Author: Jesper Hauerslev

2011 has been another amazing year for gaming with plenty of memorable moments. We’ve said a tearful farewell to Ezio Auditore, gave Makarov what he deserved and got Nathan Drake back together with Elena. We’ve indulged in Modern Warfare on the Battlefields hovered in Limbo, shouted at dragons and our fingers have hovered over clues and corpses. We have seen great technical innovation, been told amazing stories. Yet, in the midst of all this it is easy to overlook how one game in particular could spark a revolution that goes beyond technology, gameplay or story and could make next year even more amazing. No, it’s not L.A. Noire. Try again. I’ll give you a hint; the clue is in the title.

While you think about that for a second, let me ask you another question: What does it actually take to start a revolution? Looking back at the history of the world, revolutions have often been the inevitable result of a disproportionate balance of power, wealth, justice or ideologies. That’s how the American Revolution in 1763 came about, the French Revolution in 1789 and the Red October Revolution in 1917. Born out of social and economical disparity, these revolutions saw the ruling classes overthrown, the old ways washed away and the political landscape of the country, some times even the world, changed forever. This is still happening today. Just look at Egypt and Libya.

Had it not been for the American Revolution of 1763, the United States would have remained a British colony

While these revolutions were fought for the power to rule the society of men, others have been fought to rule the minds of men. Europe in the 14th century was the setting of just such a revolution, when the Church tried to fend of the impact of a new trend known as “science”. This period was known as the Renaissance and was a time of great scientific discovery and advancement in the fields of physics, philosophy and medicine among others.

As a result, people started looking at the world in a new light and man’s role within it. Some even started questioning mans relationship with God, which naturally put them at odds with the Church and the established society of old. This ultimately led to the Reformation, where the Protestants split from the Catholic Church, ushering in a dark period of religious war that would forever change the religious and political landscape of Europe.

Fast forward a few hundred years and revolutions of the mind continue to be fought, although the battlefields have changed somewhat. Blogs, tweets and Facebook updates have joined the frontlines standing shoulder to shoulder with traditional media, like radio, newspapers and TV to inform, shape, shift and sometimes even change your opinion about what is happening in the world. Art, movies, literature and music have also had their important parts to play and still do, yet games have been strangely absent from the revolutionary battlefield.

It may seem strange to talk about games in the context of opinion-forming mechanisms. This is in part due to games as a medium still being in their infancy. However, it is slowly starting to take its first baby steps towards becoming a much more powerful platform of expression. Just look at  Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

As you move through the neo-noir of Deus Ex’s bleak future you might see nothing more then a great action-game that lets you play in more or less any way you want, but, start to peel back the outer layers of gunplay and silent takedowns and you will find something far more interesting.

A heart in a bag
As mentioned in our review, one of the many reasons why Deus Ex stands out is because it has something to say. The story about augmentation and the notion of “transhumanism” might still be a work of science-fiction but it is also fore-shadowing the debate of an issue that will undoubtedly be on the ethical and political agenda in the near future. The fusion of human and technology is already happening, as in recent years we have seen many examples of just how far down the rabbit hole we’ve already tumbled.

In August this year, a story hit the newspapers about Matthew Green, a loving father and husband, who suffered from heart-disease and was waiting for a donor. To buy him extra time, doctors removed parts of his own heart and replaced it with an artificial one, powered by a pump that Matthew has to carry with him in a backpack. The operation went so well that he was allowed home shortly after the operation. While not a substitute for a real heart, it has bought the Matthew valuable time while waiting for a donor.

This kind if operation, amazing as it is, is actually just one of hundreds of similar operations carried out around the world, but Matthew is one of the first to actually be allowed home with, quite literally, his heart in bag. This entire procedure would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. In fact, if you’ve watched Paul Verhoven’s Robocop from 1987 and you might recall a mock-ad where a doctor tries to sell you “the latest in human hearts from Jensen and Yamaha! You pick the heart. Extensive warranty and financing and remember: we care!”.

This situation is now very much close to reality, so if we can go from mock-ads in action-movies to the real deal in just 24 years, what on Earth won’t we be able to achieve (or indeed destroy!) in the next 24?

Matthew Green with his wife and son.

Indeed, part of the marketing-campaign for Deus Ex: Human Revolution seems partly inspired by Robocop’s “Choose your heart” ads as mock-ads for Sariff Industries started popping up on YouTube in the build-up to the game’s release. In these ads, people talk about how much their lives have improved thanks to augmentations and everything is even neatly tied off with a link to the official website for Sariff Industries, which was later “hacked” by the pro-humanists of Purity First, showing the other side of the coin: the violent clashes, the big business behind it all and the addictions to Neuropozyne; the drug that you have to take for the rest of your life so your body doesn’t reject your augmentations.

All of this is part of the story of Deus Ex and all of this is still science-fiction, but as the story of Matthew Green suggests, the future is closer then you might think. That Deus Ex has labelled itself as “cyber-renaissance” is no co-incidence either because this not only applies to the unique design of its world and characters, but also to the way in which the game and the story positions itself in relation to other games. It’s no longer about firing the biggest gun in your arsenal, it’s also about listening to a message of deeper meaning that the game tries to convey.

Other games have had messages to deliver but few, if any, have achieved the commercial and critical success that Human Revolution has, thereby giving it the strength it needs to make it voice heard. That is why Human Revolution is one of the most interesting games released this year because it does things neither Skyrim, Modern Warfare or Limbo did; it carries a message!

The value of life
The Deus Ex-series has always had something to say about humans and technology and the frailty of humanity itself, in a world hellbent on technological progress whatever the cost. When the first game launched in 2000, it tried to qualify the value of being human by pitting main protagonist, J.C. Denton, against bad guys Gunther Hermann and Anna Navarre. J.C. is the first in a new breed of augs using nano-technology instead of the traditional mechanical augmentations used by Gunther and Anna.

At this point in time, mechanical augmentations are considered old and out-of-date. On top of that, these types of augmentations require constant maintenance, which is expensive, so both Gunther and Anna are constantly out to prove their worth, meaning actual worth right down to the penny, to justify their continued maintenance and therefore existence. They therefore feel threatened by J.C. who is both faster, stronger and more advanced then any one else, so when J.C. is accused of treason, Anna and Gunther are the first to volunteer to hunt him down just like any bad guy would.

However, by taking the time to explore and read the emails going back and forth between Anna, Gunther and various other people, your sympathy actually starts shifting as it becomes painfully clear that they are not fighting to stay alive but also to stay part of a world that no longer wants them or needs them, and sees them as a redundant investment with high-maintenance and low return.

Anna and Gunther (left) confront J.C. (right) over his alleged treason in the first Deus Ex.

You could see this merely as an allegory to the constant competition between the young and the old, which takes place in any workplace and you would be right, but, looking at it in the context of human-augmentation and this conflict takes on a much darker twist. Just imagine being swept aside as a human being, simply because you don’t have the latest model arm or leg-augmentation, being told that you are “too expensive to maintain”.

Sadly, this deeper meaning seems to have been lost on most gamers back in 2000, which is understandable in the context of gaming back then. The year 2000 was the year of Counterstrike, Diablo II and The Sims, and no one was expecting games to be anything else but good wholesome entertainment, maybe with the odd educational value thrown in for good measure. Also, back then, stories like Matthew Green’s were still just science-fiction or the ramblings of mad scientists, so it was hard for people to see stories of human-augmentation as anything more then that.

Perhaps as a result of most people not seeing the deeper underlying messages of Deus Ex, the sequel, Invisible War from 2004, actually had very little to say. Instead, it opted for more character drama and a grey storyline where nothing was black and white anymore. Sadly, because of lack of message it seemed less Deus Ex and more generic cyperpunk-shooter. This is possibly why Invisible War is less regarded then its predecessor, which is a shame as it paints a brutal yet beautiful image of world on the edge of total collapse. A world where all the underlying messages and harsh warnings of yesterday were heard but ignored.

This makes for a gloomy outlook, made even gloomier by a brilliant twist in the storyline that sees the return of J.C. Denton. Depending of your viewpoint, J.C. can actually be perceived as a bit of an antagonist at this point, whose goal may not justify his radical means. In the end, tough choices have to be made and in that respect, Invisible War follows the proud traditions of the series, for there are no happy endings in a Deus Ex-game, only the lesser of evils.

The long, lost audience
We’ve come along way since the start of this millennium. We’ve seen huge advances in technology making games look and feel more real then ever before, but we as gamers have also grown and matured. While some still argue that gaming is only for children, we all know that this is not the case and it never really was. The amount of people playing games is growing and as we grow in numbers, we have come to expect much more of the games we play in terms of quality but also in terms of what they have to say and how they make us feel.

Consoles have moved from teenage bedrooms into the living rooms and your average smartphone now has more processing power then the average hardcore gaming-PC from 2000. Gaming has well and truly arrived for the masses and that means that not everybody is happy with just shooting things. While still a big part of gaming (and long may that be so), some people now play games because they want to be told a great story.

Uncharted would not have become the huge success it is today because neither technology nor the audience was there in 2000.

Games like Uncharted, Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect have proven that games really can tell great stories with great characters and often with all the splendor and drama normally reserved for cinema. Deus Ex: Human Revolution also tells a great story, but it stands out because it also has a message to deliver and a deeper meaning for us to ponder.

Dilemmas, morality and ethics
Not every game will have something to say, nor would I want them to. I enjoy wrecking digital mayhem with a big virtual gun just as much as the next man, but the moments that stay with me long after the smoked has cleared are the ones that made me think beyond what ammo to use or what switch to pull. It is the ones where I’m faced with a dilemma born out of complicated moral issues that will have ethical repercussions no matter what I choose. Deus Ex: Human Revolutions gave me those choices and presented them to me in a way few other games have dared to do, and I hope 2012 will bring me more.