Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
The politics of today, tomorrow
Human Revolution, Deus Ex's most recent offering, was predominantly a game about hope. Adam Jensen, enigmatic protagonist, found himself coming to terms with mechanical augmentations applied to his body and engaging with that most striking of cyberpunk questions: what does it mean to be human in an increasingly mechanised, digital world? Most of the answers were optimistic regarding cross-pollination between humans and machines.
How times change. Events at the end of Human Revolution saw the cyborg dream come crashing down and the populace begin to treat augmented Homo sapiens with fear and suspicion. The Renaissance was over; a world of division was born.
It's this that Deus Ex: Mankind Divided takes as its narrative entry point, the game seeking to explore the tensions that arise when one social group exists in sharp friction to another. If Human Revolution was a game of optimism, Mankind Divided is one of pessimism. With 'pure' humans fearful of anything that is remotely different to them, the world is ripe for propaganda and evocative, nebulous lies to be used as a means for those with dreams of power to win hearts and minds and, eventually, take control of a newly unstable world.
"It's definitely got a darker, more
pessimistic perspective," explains Mary DeMarle, NBarrative Director. "Realistically, when you have an event that the whole world is caught up in, no-one is paying critical attention to the messages being broadcast until later. By the time people are ready to handle the real information there has already been such a mass of disinformation that people are afraid of the new world they're in. That triggers people to get caught up in the paranoia and the conspiracy theories and view the whole world in that way."
This is a world of apartheid, where the augmented are increasingly forced into ghettos and restricted from engaging with the rest of society. Jean-Francoise Dugas, Game Director, explains that inspiration for how much of this segregation is depicted revolves around what was occurring in the United States of the '50s and '60s with tensions between the black and white populations of the country. Perhaps even more powerfully, however, many of the tones that emit themselves from what we've played of the game are similar to political events happening in the present day.
The rise of Donald Trump in the US and the increasing power of farright and left parties across Europe, combined with the threat of global terrorism, the racism it spawns and the way certain parties seek to bend and enhance subsequent policies to suit their own agendas, mirrors many of the themes commented upon in Mankind Divided. Perhaps unwilling to stake a claim at Deus Ex being a political commentary on our present world, Dugas diplomatically states that such events merely "represent a bit of a weird coincidence in that there are similarities with what we're doing."
Political themes and ideologies are not the only similarity Mankind Divided shares with our present reality. Augmentations themselves are becoming increasingly common and sophisticated, from artificial organs to entire limb replacements that are connected to our nervous systems to allow us to control them using our brains. This is a doubleedged sword for a game set in the future: on one side it helps ground the player in the experience by making connections between real and fictional worlds, but can it also make it more difficult to surprise and wow the player?
"That's a really interesting question. We did so much research
on Human Revolution, a game that took four years to make, and by the time we'd finished the game some of those things that we'd been predicting were already starting to happen," explains DeMarle.
"What surprised us then was how quickly these technologies were coming into being. And, again, the same kind of thing is happening with Mankind Divided. I don't know if that makes it more surprising to challenge the player, although I am also reminded of William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, when he said that he didn't want to deal with cyberpunk anymore because the world has caught up to it."
Dugas continues the point by explaining that the term 'cyberpunk' is simply a quirk of language, a word used out of familiarity more so than it provides an accurate description of what is trying to be achieved in Mankind Divided. He prefers to centre his description of his game's genre around the word "anticipation". "With the essence of the game we're trying to look at the future of tomorrow," Dugas elaborates.
"We're looking at where the technology of today is going to go. We're looking to anticipate what's going to happen with the technologies we've got now. Yes, Deus Ex is still cyberpunk in some respects, but we're looking at the world of today just as much as what it might be tomorrow. Cyberpunk is all about that, too, but for me this is more about anticipation."
Given that he has already been through the process of adjusting and learning how to use his augmentations, Jensen starts the
DEUS EX IS STILL CYBERPUNK IN SOME RESPECTS, BUT WE'RE LOOKING AT THE WORLD OF TODAY JUST AS MUCH AS WHAT IT MIGHT BE TOMORROW
story here as a far more powerful entity then he did during the opening of Human Revolution. His mechanical adaptations gift him greater strength and speed, while active camouflage allows him to cloak himself for short periods of time and his digital components mean he can interact with computer systems to a degree that would otherwise be impossible.
An opening sequence set in Dubai introduces us to the wider narrative, re-establishes Jensen in the leading role and offers a structured environment in which to learn, or relearn if you're a returning Deus Ex player, what these augmentations are capable of. The Dubai sequence takes around 45 minutes to conquer, after which time you're thrown into the game 'proper' and beset with all of the freedom of action, choice and consequence that we've come to expect from this franchise. The incorporation of what is, from a gameplay perspective if not a narrative one, a tutorial is necessary here in order to not have players feel overwhelmed with Adam Jensen's myriad abilities.
"We worked hard to deliver a certain pace to the opening level," says Dugas. "Our goal was to make sure that players could, within the game, become acquainted with the new mechanics and/or ones that they've forgotten from Human Revolution.
"In Dubai we're teaching you things, but at the same time we didn't want to show you everything. It's tempting to put everything in the first level, but you realise that it can become overwhelming and the pacing suffers because of that. We had discussions about how much we should put into that early section without reaching that overwhelming point. It's always a struggle to get that pacing right, which is one of the reasons that Dubai isn't as open as other parts of the game."
Dubai is one of two sections that we've played, the other set within the brutalism-inspired architecture of the fictional Golem City district of Mankind Divided's vision of Prague. Golem City is a reference to the myth of the Golem of Prague, a protector envisaged by the city's 16th century Jewish community to keep them safe from anti-Semites of the Holy Roman Empire. The district is home to an augmented population, its design
used to subtlety hint at the mindset of its inhabitants. Architectural angles are sharp and unwavering, simultaneously lacking ambiguity and leaving nothing up to interpretation. They depict clearly and unsympathetically the fear that exists within the augmented community regarding how they're going to be treated and discriminated against moving forward. The same black and gold visual palette that was used in Human Revolution to mimic the kind of aspiration and progress these colours portray in Renaisannceera paintings are also used here, albeit in a more muted, desaturated manner that references the fading of augments in society. These kinds of continuation of theme, both visual and ideological, are going to be recognised by those that paid sharp attention to, and sought to interpret, the messages behind Human Revolution. However, the design team is adamant that Mankind Divided can be enjoyed by newcomers to the series. It's difficult to disagree with the sentiment given just how much of this offering seems to successfully tap into worries and concerns of the present day and, more aptly, how today's decisions are going to impact our lives tomorrow. Jensen's personal motivation and quest might not mean as much to you if you've not played through the previous game, but the world that he inhabits says much about us as a society today.
That, at least, is the potential on offer here. It's difficult to make accurate judgements on a game that promises to consume tens of hours after experiencing just a tiny fraction of that, but what can't be questioned is the intent to create something that is philosophically and ideologically meaningful within the context of our present existence and how we're currently wrangling with the problems thrown up by increasing technological capacity. If Mankind Divided can offer a new perspective on these issues then it will have succeeded in securing a place among the most hallowed cyberpunk anticipation messages of our time. Augmented fingers crossed.
IT'S TEMPTING TO PUT EVERYTHING IN THE FIRST LEVEL, BUT YOU REALISE THAT IT CAN BECOME OVERWHELMING AND SUFFERS
A game within a game. How very Inception *insert horn here* No point corner peaking if your gun is showing, Mr Jensen
In the future, suppositories are much, much larger This robotic foe sure can't what's being thrown at it...