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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided left me obsessing over cyborg oppression

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Transhumanism, wrist blades, and the politics of power

When Eidos Montreal boots up the E3 demo of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a woman is standing on a train platform in the year 2029. A man bumps into her, and she falls to the ground. "Damn clankie," he mutters when he sees her face, traced with lines of chrome.

She and protagonist Adam Jensen, who was unwillingly given life-saving mechanical upgrades in the earlier Human Revolution, pass the station restroom signs: one for "naturals," represented with standard green human figures, and one for "augs," whose red figures have amputated limbs. They present their passports at a checkpoint, where they are greeted with suspicion and improbably large drones. And then — after a terrorist bombing and a sudden leap of scenery — we’re in the ghetto of Golem City, where augmented humans live under "mechanical apartheid."

"Fear becomes the natural human reflex, the fear of differences. We see it all around us, all the time," says Patrick Fortier, gameplay director of Mankind Divided. Since its start in 2000, the Deus Ex series has been known for balancing open-ended gameplay with complex stories about transhumanism, conspiracy theories, and global politics. Its mechanically augmented humans ("mech-augs") have gained new powers at the expense of social acceptability. In Mankind Divided, they’re apparently treated like a cross between lepers, ethnic minorities, and political dissidents.

"Fear becomes the natural human reflex."

But Deus Ex, like many video games, has a strange relationship with power and marginalization. It plays with the aesthetics of oppression, but the game is only fun because your character doesn’t actually experience it — in the demo mission, in fact, he’s hunting down an aug rights activist (and alleged bomber) for an anti-terrorist group. And while Adam was ambivalent of his cyborg conversion in Human Revolution, "he's embracing himself a lot more" in Mankind Divided, says Fortier. "He has no shame or discomfort anymore about who he really is."

Really, how could he? Eidos Montreal is padding the already impressive list of augmentations in Human Revolution — including invisibility and an electromagnetic parachute — with some of the most useful powers from more recent video games. Adam can hack security systems remotely like Batman in the Arkham series. He can teleport like Corvo Attano in Dishonored. His iconic wrist blades are now also javelin guns. If being suspicious of him is bigotry, it’s the sort you reserve for someone who carries an arsenal of weapons and a grappling hook into Starbucks.

Deus Ex is often about achieving complete, panoptic mastery over a place — the more you snoop around, finding every secret passage and eavesdropping on every conversation, the better off you’ll end up. You can kill bosses in the original game by hacking into the right email servers. Even beyond the new abilities, Mankind Divided is trying to play this mastery up in every way.

Deus Ex Mankind Divided

Fortier says that he wants the game to be less linear and guided than its predecessor — perhaps more like the first Deus Ex. In Human Revolution, "you'd get a room, and there would be a certain number of [non-player characters] in it, and it'd be closed off, and you'd fight in there," he says, arranging a phone and a couple of magazines in a line to demonstrate. "And then you'd get out and have a little corridor and then you'd get into another room."

The Deus Ex games tend to emphasize stealth and social graces over combat, but that’s also supposed to be changing. Fortier says the team wants fighting to feel like a more viable and fun choice, which has the secondary effect of opening up some darker possibilities for players — in the demo, Adam seemingly sinks his chance at negotiating with the pacifist activist by killing half the people in his compound, then accusing the man of hypocrisy for wanting to defend himself.

"Apartheid" is a loaded term, and it could easily turn out to be a cheap and simplistic way to lend gravity to the plot. Intentionally or not, though, Mankind Divided seems to get across a clear message: it’s hard to talk about oppression along just one axis.

"A lot of these things, they're just a stone’s throw away."

There are many kinds of mechanical enhancements in Deus Ex, some of which seem far more empowering than others. And Adam is one of many well-off white men who ended up with augmentations — he’s not necessarily in a position to understand the struggles even other weaponized cyborgs face. His backstory is tragic, but you’ve still got the option to play him as an infuriatingly patronizing jerk in Human Revolution. (From the little I’ve seen of Mankind Divided, that does not seem to be changing.) Whether we get to meaningfully explore other characters’ experiences will be another question.

Augmentation isn’t supposed to just be a metaphor in Deus Ex; it’s meant as a semi-plausible extrapolation of our own relationship with technology. "There's not a lot of difference with what we do with these things right now and having them integrated into our bodies, you know? People are holding down the screen like that already all the time right now," says Fortier, gripping his smartphone theatrically beneath his nose. "A lot of these things, they're just a stone’s throw away."

Cyborg stories like Mankind Divided can complicate one of our most common fears about human progress: that those who can get closest to tech (usually the wealthiest) will simply leave the rest behind. Here, it’s the province of both the lackeys of the rich and the desperately poor, both a method of being manipulated — most augs need immunosuppressants to survive — and a way to manipulate others. Technology can ostensibly equal total control. But when it interacts with old power structures, it does so in weird, unpredictable ways — in both real and virtual worlds.