Sunday, 5 July 2015

State of the Art

[Spoilers for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Minor edits 06.12.15.]

As far as trailers go, the new Deus Ex trailer didn't do a whole lot for me. At first glance, the concept—what they're doing with the transhumanism theme this time around—seemed a bit weak, a little hackneyed, not tying everything together with the usual panache. This left the weapons fetishism and violent broody superhero thing and I wasn't really feeling it.

That stuff wasn't really the appeal of the original Deus Ex, where your arsenal felt more like a toolbox and protagonist JC Denton was an endearing deadpan goofball in a world of emergent weirdness. Its story was by turns interesting and nerdy and daft, and it was hard to tell how intentional were most of the game's best parts.

Wing of Icarus: corporate art outside Sarif Industries

The most recent Deus Ex game, Human Revolution, swept away most of these lovable embarrassments and gave us an incredibly stylish game with similar freedoms but very different strengths. The forthcoming game is a direct successor to this version of Deus Ex, and I recognised many of its hallmarks in the new trailer. So I found myself wandering back to that game to see if I could rediscover the appeal.

It didn't take long. More than anything, Human Revolution feels great. It has this solid but smooth, ceramic sense of reality, where it feels really good to sneak around in a whisper of trenchcoat, to softly slide open electronic security panels, to punch someone. It has a low-key, somewhat corporate night-time feel, usually sleek rather than bleak, but even its grungier areas have a handsome, smoky atmosphere. You can almost feel the warm air from the vents as you explore the city hubs, calmed by the ambient hum.

Everything in this world is beautifully designed, from clothes to architecture, furniture to billboards, vehicles to weaponry, even shop fronts—it all feels very tailored. The game renders both corporate spaces and military products lovingly. Major characters dress in neo-Renaissance couture, as if they all receive unique custom outfits from the same boutique fashion designer. Even bodies seem like discarded shop mannequins.

David Sarif's office

Yellow is a colour that can sometimes feel seedy, but by and large the gold sheen to everything works quite differently from the blue and grey of the first two games. If the original Deus Ex conspired with its ugly low-bit graphics and general lack of art direction to feel cold and shabby, Human Revolution’s warm look and feel whispers into your ear that it’s a high quality product, with an art direction that, like expensive fashion, is just a little more conspicuous than it needs to be.

Storywise, Human Revolution is not only about transhumanism, but the dream of transhumanism as sold to us by corporations who would try to control it. I think the story tends to be at its strongest when exploring how transhumanism intersects with capitalist reality in this way, rather than using augmentation to prop up loose metaphors for civil rights, liberty, fear and/or oppression.

One chilling idea is neuropozyne dependency, where augmented individuals require drugs to prevent their cybernetic enhancements from being rejected by their bodies. The problem is that these drugs are expensive, heavily controlled by the organisations that manufacture them, which leads to desperate circumstances and some creepy power dynamics.

Sarif Industries billboard - close-up of a cybernetic eye

But the game's relationship to these corporations isn't entirely antagonistic, even as we learn of the horrors behind their bright, enticing visions. One of the more interesting characters is David Sarif, the arguably well-intentioned CEO who serves as poster boy for the shiny corporate vision of transhumanism. He saves your character's life but simultaneously blithely turns him into corporate property and militarised attack dog, rhetorising as he takes liberties.

Sarif is like a few people I've met in real life: idealistic 'big picture' business types who aren't necessarily bad people but whose corporate thinking has become ingrained in their personalities like a metal head implant. You're never sure if you're connecting to something real or if the radio waves have taken over and some other signal is speechifying through them.

But Sarif is more compelling than, say, the straightforwardly power-hungry Zhou Run Yu, CEO of rival company Tai Yong Medical and standard cyberpunk villain. As, initially, your ally and your patron and the source of your cyborg superpowers, Sarif feels much closer in spirit to the game’s own uncertain, ambivalent paradigm.

Adam Jensen and David Sarif talk

That paradigm is fixed in place by Adam Jensen himself, the stylish cyborg protagonist who serves as Sarif's head of security. As couture military object bristling with designer augmentations, Jensen embodies, and arguably fetishises, a very specific and Sarif-like idea of transhumanism.

It would be reductive to call Adam Jensen mere wish fulfilment or power fantasy, as empathy plays a role in the way we relate to him and the world around him. Through a dense story and its characters, we're given plenty of opportunities to care about and to grapple with the social and political realities of Jensen's world.

But through Jensen, our cyborg-granted freedoms and fantasies are always centred and valued above all else, and often in a way that seems to encourage us to view him, and the game, like one of Sarif Industries' own luxury products, a high-end technology, like investing in a flashy car as much as a character or story.

Skinless mannequins revealing human musculature

At the very start of the game, during an introductory tour of Sarif Industries, we're walked past a lab test of the Typhoon Explosive System, a weapon that fires tiny steel balls at enemies within a blast radius. Even as Adam and Megan chatter about the ethics of Sarif Industries taking on military contract work, this demonstration is clearly meant to entice us with the promise of forthcoming gameplay possibilities. Both of these things are intentional, but typical of this game, it seems somewhat oblivious to the bias of its own sales pitch.

If Jensen's militarised nature, or his capacity for violence, could ever be said to reveal something of the true, ugly and oppressive nature of corporations like Sarif Industries, and of their ideas of technology and transhumanism, so too is this violence always made somewhat glossy and corporate, like a tech demonstration, forever proudly exhibiting Sarif's cyborg product line.

In the world of the game more generally, gritty dystopia is often less about exploring social and political realities than an excuse for acting out our military cyborg fantasies, giving us a crapshoot playground for all our fun toys. In some ways, it's a vision of the world that would play right into the sales pitch of any military contractor.

Adam Jensen slices the throat of an enemy

The original Deus Ex didn't shy away from fun and potential violence either, and toyed often with the player's inevitable temptation to kill and cause mayhem. In a sense, for all it strove for choice and consequence, it was savviest about framing this around player behaviour and the fact that our inclination would always be to test the limits of the game and probe it for possibilities. Where these impulsive exploitations met earnest attempts at worldbuilding, the result could be equal parts morbid, quaint and absurd, but that's what made it so curiously engaging.

It was never sexy, though. In HR, which tones down the chaos and ups the cool factor, the urge to aestheticise is a double-edged sword. It's one thing to take pleasure in good design and indulgent visual metaphor, but where it becomes fetishism is in the packaging of the whole fantasy—what exactly it glamorises through its aestheticism; what it so keenly wants us to find desirable. The Mankind Divided trailer seems to push things further in this regard, blending stylish brutality with ACRONYM commercial and some spiel about 'embracing what you've become'.

You're meant to decide for yourself whether or not you buy into the Sarif worldview—how much is just hubris and propaganda. HR treats the rhetoric of its Renaissance with some irony, enough to generate critique, but in some ways, in the face of everything you are as Jensen, it seems too theoretical. The game never wholly balances the heavier wish-fulfilment side of its equation, and is deeply invested in the 'define yourself' philosophy based around shiny material upgrades.

Geometric art in Zhou Run Yu's penthouse

The first time I played Human Revolution, comparing it to the original, the image that came to mind was that of a shop window—such lush environmental detail, but so much of it essentially sealed off from us, carefully staged and not for interaction.

But the shop window is an apt metaphor in another way. For a game that wants to explore critically the dream of transhumanism, as filtered through the often pernicious rhetoric of consumerism, it doesn't always seem to know which side of the window it's on. It's a game that seems suspended in its own amber glass.

[Update 09.15: since this went up, Mankind Divided's marketing and merchandise have continued to blur the line between Sarif Industries and Eidos Montreal. They're now selling couture cyber-Renaissance clothing and invite you to 'make your own choice and embrace what you've become' by augmenting your preorder. Though more brazen as blatant marketing, this is all just an extension or amplification of what the last game itself at times did implicitly: unironically endorsing the kind of consumer rhetoric it was supposed to be exploring critically, inviting you to view the game above all as a tailored luxury product, and encouraging you to define yourself by what you buy.]

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