clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Deus Ex taught me to be a real-life cyborg

New, 13 comments

It may not be obvious, but the human body has very clear mechanical upgrade slots.

I didn't start thinking about this until I got my second recreational body implant — an NFC chip — roughly a year ago. I already had a magnet in one finger, and the chip fit well in the webbing between my thumb and forefinger. Once I did it, though, I realized I'd just exhausted the two most accessible places I was unquestionably okay stuffing with random technology. And that I had just put something in my body that was absolutely, inexorably going to become obsolete. I try to keep one hand purely organic, and not everywhere has enough meat to pad out an implant. I can't put phone-readable chips too close together. As new generations of biohacking devices appear, I'm going to be either opening up more slots or picking between biomedical tracking and enhanced information storage.

If you've been following video game sites recently, or managed to catch yesterday's trailer for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, this might be starting to sound familiar.

Merging with machines is a calculated gamble against human progress

The original 2000 Deus Ex was my first real introduction to both role-playing games and bionic implants. For the unfamiliar, it's the first in a series of conspiracy-heavy, cyberpunk games that span three generations of bionic human beings. Its protagonist is full of "nano-augmentations" that give him a cloaking system, healing abilities, and other preternatural powers. The catch is that he can't have all of them. There are limited slots for each body part, and each upgrade device forces players to choose between two possible augmentations. As soon as you pick one, the device disappears, and the other is often locked off forever. Frustrating as it could be, this reflected an important idea in Deus Ex: that deciding to merge with machines isn't just a philosophical problem, it's a calculated gamble against technological progress. There are different waves of augmentations, from nanites to near-future mechanical implants (which are sort of like mine, except that you can punch through walls instead of picking up paperclips.) And older cyborgs are extremely insecure about being the PalmPilot to your protagonist's shiny new iPhone.

I'm not exactly a PalmPilot. My implants are replaceable, depending on my pain tolerance. But the game's slightly tragic intergenerational conflict has done a lot to shape how I think about them. I don't just age, I have an upgrade cycle: I occasionally look at new magnets and storage chips the way other people look at anti-wrinkle creams. Sometimes it's exciting. Unlike my flesh, biohacker gadgets are just getting newer, better, and simpler. Sometimes it's dread-inducing. Besides the chip and magnet, I've got a medical implant that gets periodically replaced. Whenever the deadline rolls up, it's a reminder that a single company controls whether my body does what I want it to, a problem that plenty of Deus Ex characters have had to grapple with.

I don't just age, I have an upgrade cycle

Deus Ex asks what happens when people decide to tie themselves to machines. Unlike some of its characters, I don't worry about losing my humanity or selling myself to a sinister cabal. (I also don't get to turn invisible or secrete small fragmentation grenades.) But most of us are fundamentally dependent on technology, whether it's glasses, electrical grids, or life-saving medication. Beyond that, most of us like the ways that it can make us better. "Cyborgs," even ones with silly and sort of useless powers, just don't get to pretend that we're still in some imagined state of nature. The tradeoffs and limitations of technology, like its constantly encroaching obsolescence, are embedded right under our skin.

Unfortunately, after the first game, the Deus Ex series has never quite lived up to its potential. An under-appreciated sequel tried an interesting power-swapping option, but by the third major release — the prequel Human Revolution — there were almost no gameplay tradeoffs at all. It's especially strange because Human Revolution is theoretically far more ambivalent about augmentations, attempting to raise questions about class and corporate power. It was just never able to reconcile these critiques with the essential awesomeness of having wrist blades and sonar. There's still hope for the upcoming Mankind Divided. But all the stuff in the trailer — segregation, the Illuminati, fancy particle effects — is just background. There's enough mileage in exploring the fear and wonder of mechanized bodies to fill a whole game.