‘Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’ Is About the Wars We Fight at Home
Eidos takes on social justice and class war
by MATTHEW GAULT
Two years ago it was paradise. Today it’s a nightmare.
Workers never finished the lavish Dubai hotel and its ruins spiral on the Arab League’s man-made beach like the bones of some leviathan that washed ashore to die in the sun.
Two years ago, during The Incident, the augmented construction workers building the place went insane and flew into a rage, using their buzzsaws to rip apart everyone around them.
No one cleaned up the place after The Incident. Corpses litter the crumbling construction site. The desiccated skeletons of indentured workers who bought their fancy construction augments on loan from mega-corporations rest next to the bodies of the unaugmented they tore apart in a blind fury.
Adam Jensen steps over the corpses, doing his best not to disturb the dead. He isn’t here for them. He works for Interpol and he’s here to stop an arms deal. An old merc named Shepard is here to unload a crate of military grade augmentations — super-powered limbs that can turn a human being into a walking tank.
If the sale goes through, the augments could upset the delicate balance of power in a world already on the brink of collapse.
This is the world of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. It’s 2029 and the augmented — once seen as the next step in human evolution — are hated, feared and persecuted. Developer Eidos crafted a great game here, but more than that, they’ve managed to make something rare — a big-budget video game that works as smart and interesting social commentary.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the latest entry in the long-running and critically acclaimed Deus Ex series. It’s the fourth game in the series and the first in years to feel even remotely close to the original game.
The world of Deus Ex is a cyberpunk dystopia in the vein of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. In the early 2020s, tech companies developed augmentations — cybernetic implants to improve the human condition. The blind could suddenly see, the legless could walk and the handless could touch.
One catch — the human body isn’t meant to take on so much metal and carbon fiber. To keep their bodies from rejecting the implants and extensions the augmented require constant injections of a drug called Neuropozyne.
Tech companies made billions, turned Detroit into a new Silicon Valley of augmentation manufacturing and people began to augment themselves, not just to make up for deficiencies but to improve their lives.
But everything went to Hell during The Aug Incident in 2027. At the end of the previous Deus Ex, a madman managed to take control of the augmented population. It’s a convoluted story, but the bad guy managed to force the augmented of the world to attack everyone in their vicinity.
Fifty million people died in one day. The augmented who survived came out of their murderous fugue state to learn they’d killed friends and loved ones. Now, two years on, the billion-dollar tech companies have collapsed, the world treats the augmented like second-class citizens and Neuropozyne is in short supply.
Mega-corporations and the literal Illuminati vie for control of the world while augmented activists agitate for basic human rights and terrorists on both sides use murder and fear to keep the populace on edge. It’s a horrifying, prescient and well-rendered setting.
The story follows Adam Jensen, the trench-coat-wearing, gravely-voiced protagonist of the previous entry. Jensen is a typical generic video-game protagonist. He looks as if he walked off the set of The Matrix, he’s more powerful than any of the other characters and his sunglasses are grafted onto his face. Literally.
But dark and brooding generic video game protagonists aren’t the reason people play Deus Ex. This game is about exploring a semi-open cyberpunk world and unraveling labyrinthine conspiracies with a rich combination of stealth, trickery and brutal combat. On that front, Mankind Divided delivers.
The level design is incredible, allowing players a wide range of options for tackling an objective. Want to creep through a warehouse murdering every gun-toting gangster you see with the flick of a nanoblade? Do it. Want to avoid it all together and sneak through the vents until you reach your objective? Go for it. Want to hack a gun turret then carry it around like a horrifying aug-tank? Yeah, you can do that, too.
The gameplay is great but Mankind Divided’s story and setting set it apart from other big-budget video games. The Deus Ex series is about conspiracies — and conspiracies make for great video-game plots.
The baroque and labyrinthine leaps of logic required to believe in a group such as the Illuminati makes perfect fodder for the kinds of stories a video game tells and the way they tell them. It works well for Mankind Divided, whoes bizarre main campaign plays out like a convoluted Alex Jones nightmare.
The real draw of Mankind Divided is the social commentary. In this world, the augmented are second-class citizens. Cops harass them. They live in ghettos designed to separate them from the normal population. The United Nations is talking about putting them on a permanent registry.
I’m not going to draw direct parallels between any of the social issues going on in society now, but publisher SquareEnix and developer Eidos certainly have. Games critics and bloggers took shots at both in the months leading up to the game’s release for exploiting the Black Lives Matter movement and South African apartheid.
In the game’s promotional material and the game itself, augmented protesters wear t-shirts and carry signs that read “Aug Lives Matters.” Some of the game’s literature calls the segmentation of augmented humans a mechanical apartheid.
It’s strong language that raises the hackles and makes people uncomfortable. Good. That’s what art should do. It should challenge assumptions, start conversations and even, maybe, change people’s mind. Eidos decided to use the language of a current social movement to create an emotional shortcut to its fictional social ill.
There’s an argument for that being a cheap tactic — but it’s certainly effective. It made reviewers, gamers and bloggers uncomfortable, which means Eidos is doing something right. What I find stranger is that many who have reviewed the game feel the social commentary falls flat.
They’ve argued that aug lives don’t matter because augs are dangerous. The Aug Incident happened and the persecuted people are, in fact, more powerful than normal humans. But not so fast. Adam Jensen, the player character, is certainly a murder-machine, but he’s the exception, not the rule.
Many people with augmentations got them to replace lost limbs, damaged eyes or broken body parts. It’s not just legs to make you run faster and arms to make you throw farther. People augmented their hearts and lungs to negate the effects of degenerative diseases. Construction workers took out loans for augmented limbs to remain competitive in their field. The terminally ill got augs to save their lives.
Two years ago, the world saw them as men and women on the bleeding edge of human advancement. Now they’re pariahs. Worse, they’re all addicted to Neuropozyne. If they don’t have it, their bodies will reject their augmentations and they’ll die. The drug is hard to come by now that the tech sector has collapsed. The drug’s user base often doesn’t have the cash to pay for the expensive treatment.
On top of that, the augs carry the shame and pain of The Aug Incident. Fifty million people died and they weren’t all normal. Aug turned on aug, too. Friends killed friends. Family slew family. The psychological trauma of waking up with your plastic hands covered in your wife’s blood must be immense.
But it’s okay to treat them like shit because they can jump higher than normal humans. It’s okay to herd them into camps and separate them from society because there’s a chance they’re dangerous. People are dangerous. Period. And making them feel like they’re the other doesn’t make them less so.
Mankind Divided understands that.