Archive for Deus Ex Human Revolution

Go Go Technological Singularity: Gadget and the Transcendent Man

Posted in criticism, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2013 by drayfish

Adam Jensen closeup

IMAGE: Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Square Enix)

Last week one of my tedious rants – an exploration of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its uncomfortably anachronistic depiction of race – was inflicted upon the kind people of Medium Difficulty.  I will therefore save the internet the burden of having me spout off at length twice.  Instead I thought I would just offer a little supplementary material that I was unable (for reasons of time) to include in the original piece.*

Because sure, Deus Ex is a striking vision of a dystopic future, mired in complex debates over the boundaries of human life in an encroaching digital age of technological augmentation and advancement… but it is by no means the only text that has tackled this thorny issue, using it to muddy the very definitions of what it means to be human.  No doubt your mind immediately leaps to Blade Runner, or The Matrix, or the Tin Woodsman from Wizard of Oz; but no, I am talking about an even more haunting vision of technological advancement run amok, a man whose never ending battle against evil is eclipsed only by his unceasing quest to once again recognise himself amongst the detritus of machinery that delineates the confines of his digitised corporeal prison.  A noir detective whose darkest mystery is himself:

Inspector Gadget.

Inspector Gadget up close

IMAGE: Inspector Gadget (DIC Entertainment)

I loved Inspector Gadget.  After all, how could you not?  How could anybody disparage a text that is so openly a precursor to every cyberpunk question of synthetic selfhood?  Was Gadget just circuitry?  Was he still man?  Where did the delineation between the two lie anymore?  Was he more program than personality?  The harbinger of the gates of simulacra and simulation being thrown wide open…?  Adam Jensen**, Ghost in the Shell, the Robo-esty of Robocops, the ‘Gadget’ preceded them all, and brought a steely resolve to a question of autonomy that daily must have gnawed at his very centre of his being. 

And speaking of his centre of being: where exactly was his brain if there was a retractable helicopter in his head?

In contrast, like Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes, or Joker to the Batman, Dr. Claw was obviously the shadow-self to Gadget’s heroism and world view.  Obviously a representation of all that irascible human angst and emotion that Gadget had left behind in his upgrade to uber status, Dr. Claw was primal.  He was id.  A mass of loathing and desire, stewing irresolvably in a swirl of seething emotional turmoil: stroking Madcat affectionately; slamming his gloved fist down in rage; laughing hysterically in sorrow…  He was so insatiably fixated on Gadget (always vowing there would be a ‘Next time!’; never able to just let it go, man), that he represents all those obsessive compulsions that drive the biological human at their most base, subconscious level.

Indeed, maybe we never saw his face because if we had it would have ultimately been Gadget’s own face staring back at us – all of the emotional undercurrent and self-reflective baggage that Gadget had thought himself to have transcended made manifest in an antisocial, antithetical ‘other’.  Gadget the machine, at war with ‘Gadget’ the psyche, in an endless struggle for identity-dominance, taking control of the ‘world’ that is his psyche.

…I’d also like to question where he got his doctorate, because I’m not sure he has the most exhaustive research methodology.

Yes, Inspector Gadget delighted and chilled my very soul – a synthetic Prometheus, tolling the inevitable transcendence of all biology in our obstinate pursuit of godhood.

Also, as I think back on it now, I probably had a crush on Penny.

Inspector Gadget helicopter head

IMAGE: Inspector Gadget (DIC Entertainment)

* This is what is called ‘a weak comic set-up’, or ‘lie’.

** I swear I found this after writing this nonsense: Critical Miss.

*** Whoa.  Did I just blow your mind?  No?  Dammit.

[An earlier, even less-coherent version of this ‘critique’ was inflicted upon the good people of AWTR]

Deus Ex: Human Revolution: A bold new future… mired in the past

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , on November 16, 2012 by drayfish

Deus Ex: Human Revolution concept art (Square Enix)

Going in I had heard rumour that there was an uncomfortable, anachronistic moment in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  I was vague on the details, but had a faint recollection – from out of the mists of those early weeks after the game’s release – that a number of players had expressed discomfort with one minor aspect of the game.  I even remembered hearing that this mysterious element was considered by some to be a blemish on the otherwise elegantly realised vision of the future that developers Eidos Montreal had sculpted.  But to be honest, whatever that imperfection was, I wasn’t seeing it.

Here I stood, having finally set aside the time to sink into the game (over a year after everyone else had watched the final credits roll), moving around that wonderfully sombre, burnished gold space, stunned by the whole game’s noir-inflected cyberpunk aesthetic, utterly thrilled with the rich potential of narrative and game-play that stretched out before me.   But still, nagging at the back of my mind like some glitch in the Matrix, I wondered: what on earth had people been complaining about?

Was it Jensen’s voice?

Sure, it was probably a little too Clint-Eastwood’s-Man-With-No-Name from the Fistful of Dollars trilogy.  …Indeed, if you swapped out the poncho and replaced it with a pair of Swiss-Army-Cylon-Arms they would be virtually identical.  ‘I didn’t ask for this…’, Jensen would rasp around a chewed up cigar, his voice crunching like a handful of gravel.

Was it the unnecessary, slightly obnoxious sunglasses?

I mean, okay, fine – a little pretentious.  But hey: people can have sensitive eyes.  Even at midnight.  In Detroit.  In a dark alley.  Hiding under a box.  …And maybe getting completely-shot-to-death and rebuilt by the clandestine machinations of a corporate overlord can result in scratched corneas?  Robocop went with a visor too, after all.  Who am I to judge?

Surely it couldn’t be the cityscape…

I mean, yes, maybe the streets of a future American metropolis are a little barren of moving cars.  And all pedestrian activity does seem to be rooted in redundant behavioural loops.  That same couple has been arguing about that same traffic accident for quite some time now.  That hotel cleaner has been loitering in place for days, and he clearly didn’t bring a magazine to read or anything.  And sure – I hear it – a lot of voices and dialogues are getting rehashed…

But come on.

A grumbling monorail glides overhead.  Police officers patrol ominously, seemingly poised for the ideological riots that might break out at any moment.  Street punks that appear to have wandered out of Michael Jackson’s Bad video clip, by way of Philip K. Dick, pepper the back alleys, warming the night air with the glow of their cigarettes.  No, if there was some weird aberration in this glistening techno salad it had completely passed me by; for a projected, fantastical environment, Deus Ex’s dystopian vision felt wonderfully familiar and alien all at once.

Indeed, this had to be some of the most beautiful, absorbing art direction I’ve ever seen in a videogame – that honeyed techno conflagration of society; that worn in, decayed futurism; characters nonchalantly sporting or debating upgrades and optics and augs.  Walking around this world, watching though Jensen’s gold-tinged visual display, you feel like a mosquito suspended in amber: the relic of an age that has passed, watching a new society swirl into view just beyond the confines of your screen.  I could almost feel the pistons and pressurising fluids pumping through my appendages; tingled with the hum of nanotech under my skin; was even a little worried about what that discoloured rain might be doing to my swishy leather coat…

‘Well, sheeyit!  If it ain’t the Cap’n, hisself!’

What the – ?

‘Mister Sarif done fixed you up good, ain’t he?  Give you a new set of glasses an’ everythin’!  Damn…’

In my usual borderline OCD game-play style I had been clicking away on every container and NPC in sight – and apparently the speaker was the middle aged homeless woman in front of me, her hands at that very moment plunged into a garbage can.

…And hey: I’m not judging.  I had just been fishing through that same canister in the hopes of finding stray consumables.  (Speaking of which, why does Jensen – a man working for the wealthiest company on the globe – need to scrounge for discarded candy bars?  Is there seriously no expense account for the one guy you got covering your multibillion dollar global enterprise?!  Anyway…)

Her name was Letitia.  An African American woman dressed in a dishevelled pull-over, with cool grey eyes and no discernible augmentations – she looked like any other figure huddled away from the chill of the streets.  But her voice

I wish that I were exaggerating how overwrought her dialogue and its delivery was, but there is literally no way to overemphasise her inflected intonation.*  Unless Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel was yet to make a surprise appearance as a higher level boss battle, her speech (unlike any other figure, including the other homeless people that peppered this level) remains by far the most flamboyant caricature I had stumbled across in game.

Now, at this point, I want to make it very clear that I have no interest in making a statement as to whether I personally think this characterisation is racist.  Having subsequently explored online for an explanation for this curious depiction, I have found many such readings, with a number of interpreters seeing Letitia as a pastiche of every insulting, culturally vilifying stereotype that one would have once heard in the grotesquery of a blackface minstrel show.**  As those interpretations have pointed out, she says ‘pacifics’ instead of ‘specifics; drawls ‘So whatchu wanna know?’; and vacillates in an hysterically inflected patter:

‘Didn’t think I’d see YOU walking this boulevard any time soon, that’s fer sure.  Not afta what happen six months ago.  People said you’s down for the count…’

But, once again, while sadly I think there is a wealth of worthy (indeed necessary) questions to ask about the potentially racial stereotyping of such a character, for the purposes of my discussion here, I will put that loaded issue aside momentarily.  The publishers of the game, Square Enix, when asked for a comment on this peculiar characterisation, responded by saying:

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fictional story which reflects the diversity of the world’s future population by featuring characters of various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. While these characters are meant to portray people living in the year 2027, it has never been our intention to represent any particular ethnic group in a negative light.***

And thankfully there are other African American characters within the game – business people; police officers; scientists – who reflect more varied personalities.  (Although it is sad that in a 21st century text such a qualification even needs to be made.)

Instead, what baffled me more than the fact that my quest-giver recalled those two ‘comic relief’ robot twins Michael Bay loaded into his second Transformers atrocity, was how antithetical this depiction was to the overarching themes of the game’s narrative, both on a practical and conceptual level.

Letitia’s purpose, it appeared, was to be a font of contextualising information – a person from the street; one of Jensen’s old informants from his days as a cop – a figure who might offer the player a fresh perspective upon this unfamiliar new culture.  But rather than presenting a unique glimpse into the world of the haves through the eyes of the have-nots, instead we get a character largely ignorant of the class structure, concerned predominantly with the acquisition of alcohol and spare change.

Indeed, in her third line of dialogue (ironically, in response to the suggestion that that people underestimate Jensen), she replies by begging for money (‘You an’ me both, Capt’n!  You an’ me both!  Uh, you, uh… got any credits you can spare?’); and if the player goes to some effort to deliver her four beers (of the brand that she likes), she eventually responds:

Damn’ Capt’n.  You knows how to warm a girl’s insides!  Here.  You takes this.  I founds it on Brooklyn Court, near the basketball court.  Thought I might hold onto it, ‘case I needed to crawl inside some rainy night.  But maybe you find some use for it instead.’

So while it is nice that Letitia is offering up a cache of goods to Jensen, the literal trade occurring here is the exchange of shelter for alcohol.  She happily forgoes accommodation in order to drink.

This was not the researched, artful dialogue of the corner-hoppers on The Wire; instead it felt rather more like a gauche, naive stereotype:

‘Oh, things ain’t looking good, Capt’n.  People losing their jobs… their homes…  Locking everything theys own inta those, uh, garage-door storage units ’round town, hoping nobody breaks in an’ steals stuff.  Mr. Sarif gonna save us, he better do it soon.’

It’s not even clear that she understands the augmentation debate that festers at the very core of this societal unrest, even referring to Jensen as ‘an adventuring man … fixed wit’ suma them fancy technolimbs Mr. Sarif makes…’

Most strangely of all, however, on the larger thematic scale, falling back on such dated, outmoded caricatures works in complete opposition to subject matter of technological and ideological evolution that this game is trying to explore…  For a narrative fundamentally concerned with blurring the divisions between man and machine, biology and synthetics, suddenly finding oneself face to face with gaming’s version of Mr. Yonioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an ugly fissure in the otherwise finely wrought artifice of the Deus Ex world.

On most every level the game dares the player to move their ideology beyond rigid, old-fashioned modes of thought, to not become mired in conventional or tediously outdated presumption – life, it says, is to no longer be shackled by the biological metronome of a heartbeat; identity and thought cannot be tethered merely to electrical impulses and grey matter; the delineations between humanity and machine, good and evil, advancement and regression, gender and sexuality, all are to be inextricably, immutably blurred…

Except here.

Here, in this one bizarre pocket of dialogue, where two characters are depicted shooting the breeze over the contents of a trash can, all of those notions of diversity and progressivity, that whole sombre dystopian panoply that the designers so skilfully wrought, is momentarily jettisoned, marred by a garishly reductive cliché (whether racist or not) that – like the bottle of Hot Devil Ale Jensen retrieved from another pile of refuse a few streets over – arguably should have remained discarded.

IMAGE: Letitia, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Square Enix)

* Indeed, the snatches of dialogue I am recounting are lifted, unaltered, from the spelling of the game’s own subtitles.  You can see video of the exchange with Letitia here:

** See ‘The Worst Thing About Deus Ex: Human Revolution’ by Evan Narcisse (Time,


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