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Pip And Alice Chat: What Is Deus Ex Anyway?

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With Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] coming out on Tuesday (read our review), Pip comes to Alice with an important request.

Pip: ALICE!

Alice: Hullo there, old chum! What’s cracking?

Pip: The internet under the strain of all the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided reviews popping out of their embargo wombs, through the various CMS birth canals and into the digital world, I should think. On a related note, I have a question…

Alice: You evidently already know where babies come from, so what can I help you with?

Pip: Alice, I don’t get Deus Ex. Explain to me Deus Ex.

Alice: And this isn’t a ha-ha-hilarious misunderstanding of how ‘Deus Ex’ is pronounced – some ‘do sex’ japery?

Pip: Alice, is something on *your* mind? I mean, your side of the conversation has been pretty… focused.

Alice: So anyway, it’s the future and some people are part-robot!

Pip: Okay, shall we start with which parts? I mean, is this limbs or kidneys or heads or more internal stuff like really fancy pacemakers?

Alice: Any. All. Bit of this, bit of that. Deus Ex is mostly interested in heavily-modded people, futuristic security guards and secret agents and soldiers. Partially because CYBERPUNK but also because it’s probably more exciting to play someone with cyberarms than someone able to process booze really efficiently. Ah, jeez, the specifics get tricky.

So! Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the one coming out on Tuesday, is the sequel to a prequel to a game which had a sequel. People love the game, like the prequel, and write hyperbolic comments about the sequel. The prequel-sequel, dunno, we’ll see. But the point is, they all have differently fancy cybermen.

Pip: You mentioned modding, but mostly it seems to be military-themed or hacker-themed. Could you get a mod that makes you a different colour or gives you a tail or puts a Teasmade in your leg or something? Something, y’know, genuinely useful as opposed to fighty.

Alice: I love the idea of the Teasmade leg. Your thigh pops open like Robocop’s. Do cool tricks spinning the teacup.

Anyway, in the cyberfuture, people will have all sorts of augmentations. Most regular people (who you don’t meet often) have regular things like new limbs, new eyes – the promise of medical advancements. Deus Ex is interested in when people go beyond human, gain abilities we’ve never had, and become… who knows! The prequels are more low-tech, asking “Am I still a man if I have sunglasses attached to my cyberskull?”, while the first game wondered “Am I still a man if I merge my consciousness with an IRC chatbot and upload ourself to the Internet?”

Pip: There was an art exhibition about transhumanism at the Wellcome Center. I think it was called Superhuman and it was exploring the idea of human enhancement and our relationship to that. It was really interesting – and something I’ve encountered in art because there are a whole bunch of artists who engage with those ideas. Does Deus Ex do interesting things on that front?

Alice: It has some really cool-looking cybernetic limbs and bodies and things? Ah, I don’t know, it’s competent but rarely truly thought-provoking. It’s enjoyable cyberpunk slush. Even the first game, which waxes philosophical the most by far, is… it’s thoughtful but not inspirational unless you’re new to these ideas. Mankind Divided seems to be taking the tack that augmented people are seen as less than human, as tools to be owned and used – subhuman, not superhuman. Deus Ex (as a series) asks “What is it to be transhuman?” without having much to say about what it is to be human in the first place. Oh god, I’m dreading the comments.

Pip: If I remember the research I did for an interview correctly, there was an event which prompted that antipathy, wasn’t there?

Alice: At the end of Human Revolution, someone trips a backdoor switch in augmentations that causes all augmented people to hallucinate, flip out, and get a touch violent. He was trying to show everyone the dangers of augmentation, y’see, and show the dangers of trusting technology before the Illuminati could do worse with the backdoor. The actual Illuminati. Like in the memes, Pip. But yes, all augmented people flip out, and society ends up segregating them and… from this point, I don’t know, I haven’t played it yet.

Gosh, I don’t even know where to begin with half of this. The problem is, the original Deus Ex and its sequel Invisible War were made by different people with different ideas, so speaking about the series as a continuum is tricky when the two don’t quite align. In theory, the prequels are leading into the events of Deus Ex but its focus and interests – not to mention its world – aren’t quite the same. Which is fine! I’m fine with that. I don’t demand perfect timelines, I can accept this is fiction, but when you want me to explain Deus Ex… do you want to know what the old men like (the electronic old men running the world – that’s a meme, Pip #memes) or what Generation Bing are into? I can explain this very poorly with a comparison of trenchcoats and sunglasses.

Pip: Well, given it seems so fractured, maybe just tell me what it is that you like about it so much and we can go from there.

Alice: I like the idea of Deus Ex. The promise of Deus Ex. The possibilities. It was a game and a world where it wasn’t initially clear quite how anything worked. It’s part first-person shooter, part stealth game, and part RPG. But parts which looked like shooty sections might be stealthable. Or you could find ways to skip one challenge by listening in on a conversation or chatting to the right person. It put these things in an RPG-ish world with plenty of nonessential activities, people, and secrets – none of which would be signposted with a quest marker. It’s probably quite boring if you don’t think about your options and charge straight through. But pay a little attention, be curious, and remember the rules of its world, and you might end up finding a tidy little power-up or, say, defrosting a cryogenically-frozen former Illuminati leader for a chat. One problem with Human Revolution is that its world is too small and it’s too concerned with helping you find the cool stuff – you too rarely feel you’ve managed to find something really special.

Pip: The thing about being able to find different ways to do things and feel cool seems to be a big part of what people were so excited about when it came to Metal Gear Solid V. In a world where that now exists, does Deus Ex still have the same pull, or have I missed something crucial about the differences between the games?

Alice: Metal Gear Solid V is an interesting comparison! It does have a lot of surprising things to discover, bizarre and delightful interactions between weapons, items, and AI. The dream of Deus Ex – and I’m honestly not sure it has ever lived up to it – is of similar ideas also extending to your exploration of the world and even personalities’ reactions to what you do. The funny thing is, while MGS V does have all these delightful systems interacting in surprising ways, a lot of the dream of Deus Ex comes from a few scripted responses. Have your cyberman pop into the ladies’ lavs and your boss will scold you later. Poke around someone’s flat out of curiosity and you might find a secret section to grab a neat-o weapon and discover, earlier than ‘planned’, that they’re a right wrong’un. It’s good! But I do get a bit confused when people talk about the infinite possibility of Deus Ex as if half those options don’t involve stacking crates to reach a window or sneaking around to swipe a key. Perhaps the problem is that Human Revolution only offers – and I’m tossing off a number out of thin air – three solutions all signposted when Deus Ex’s four might take some poking around. Or maybe it’s that it is still built on old systems at heart, and they can feel overly familiar for seasoned players. What surprised me in the year 2000 is the expected bare minimum now.

The more I think about it, the more I like the MGS V comparison. It’s updated an old, old game with new surprising interactions. Go sledding in your cardboard box. Make your horse poo in the road so vehicles spin out on it. Roll around in water to clean yourself and feel refreshed. Hide in an outhouse and play a tape of poopy noises to make suspicious guards shove off. I’m not suggesting those as features to be included directly into Deus Ex, obvs – it’s the idea of something old and adding new layers of entirely ignorable systems to create new surprises. Maybe the problem with new Deus Ex is not that it’s too little like old Deus Ex – it’s too much like it.

Sorry, what was the question again? Cyberglasses, yeah? Cool, cool. I own two pairs of mirrorshades, you know.

Pip: So what’s the difference between someone who has augmentations and someone who doesn’t? Like, that meme about not asking for this seems to imply that it’s a thing that can be forced on you. Is that universally true or do some people opt in for upgrades in the Deus Ex-iverse? Or did some evil corporation decide that the main guy’s arms were boring and that he should have lasers and blades and a Teasmade? I’ve played enough Netrunner to know the latter might be a thing that happens.

Alice: Ah! That’s an easy one. Adam Jensen got shot real bad by some naughty men and his boss saw it was a convenient opportunity to cut his body off and turn him into a robit. Adam is a magic lab baby who’s been tinkered with to magically accept augmentations without nasty rejection issues, see. He doesn’t know that but his boss does. So when Adam gets mashed up, hey, his boss turns him into a killbot to: 1) see if it works; 2) hunt the bad men. But Adam never asked for this, yeah? Memes.

Pip: Why isn’t that a prosecutable offence? I feel like if you go in for life-saving surgery and come out as a killbot the legal system ought to have something to say.

Alice: Mate, I’d be stoked if I went in for appendicitis and when I woke up the doctor said “Good news: we saved you from exploding bits by giving you knifearms.” Just think of the convenience when e.g. trying to cut a cake at a picnic.

Pip: I feel like you didn’t learn anything from the documentary, Edward Scissorhands.

Alice: Sure I did: how to make Winona Ryder love me.

Pip: Fine. But going back to Adam, “I never asked for this” seems like such a petulant response. Like, “I DIDN’T ASK TO BE BORN”. It’s not horror and it’s not excitement, just kind of childishly annoyed at the way life’s going.

Alice: It is strange that they’re trying to play up his human side when it’s so dull. Adam Jensen’s mostly motivated in the first game by getting revenge and finding his girlfriend, and he goes on and on. JC Denton, the cyberman from the original Deus Ex, is also a bit short but he’s in it for truth, justice, and the toppling of global conspiracies. Adam accidentally stumbles across conspiracy because his former girlfriend won’t return his calls. Cyberpunk protagonists do tend to be a bit flat, blank no-nonsense sorts who reflect their world for our enlightenment, but yeah, the trailers do go overboard with his monologuing.

Pip: Oh! JC Denton was on my list of things to ask about. Is he Adam Jensen’s dad or something?

Alice: Possibly the other way around! Jensen’s in the prequels. But yeah, I’m not big into the lore guff that’s doubtless in tie-in novels and ARGs, but I think Adam’s genetics are part of the template for cloning JC and his ‘brother’. They’re tube babies (also secretly!) who become test subjects for the first generation of nanotechnology augmentations, people who can be far more powerful and don’t suffer the stigma of e.g. roboarms. That’s a probable shocking plot that’s been choreographed since about ten seconds into Human Revolution. Anyway! JC and his brother work for a futuristic intelligence agency, superspies who discover that they’re not tools of The Man but THE MAN – the Illuminati and all their pals. The original game is way more into ’90s X-Files style conspiracy – it visits Area 51 and all. Yes, you can meet one of those gangly moon-eyed ‘grey’ fellas. No, it is not friendly.

Pip: So it’s maybe more like that guy and the other guy from Star Wars? You know the guy?

Alice: Jean-Luc Picard?

Pip: No! Not him, I know him. The other guy. Green. Has a gun. Jetpack. Clone.

Alice: KHAAAAAAAN!

Pip: I hate you. Boba Fett. That is who I meant.

Alice: Please, do explain. This is only 50% petulance on my part.

Pip: Oh, I just meant that he might be the clone of the other guy which seemed relevant to Denton/Jensen potential parentage. But anyway, going back to this here Deus Ex franchise, this new game seems to focus on the fractious relationship between augs and non-augs. Leaving aside highly questionable marketing tactics, is that an interesting subject area for the Deus Ex-iverse given you’ve said it doesn’t really have much to say on being human thus far?

Alice: Ugh! I don’t know. Maybe. It could be. Or it could be really ham-handed social allegory. The original Deus Ex was more interested in rebellion, revolt, what it means to govern and be governed, about power and freedom and all that – it was all quite fun in a rambling conspiracy theory way. It’s like listening in on first-year philosophy students in the pub. Mankind Divided seems to be drawing comparisons between augmentation and race, class, sexuality… it has Things To Say about The Issues. That could be promising but it could be proper rubbish. At least the worst Deus Ex could be was wanky.

Pip: That seems fair. Okay, so I have two more questions. One is: if I haven’t played Deus Ex or Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Deus Ex GO or Deus Ex: The Musical, do you think I’ll miss crucial stuff for Mankind Divided? Games try to be accessible as standalone products but this feels like one which might benefit from you having a history with the franchise.

Alice: Nah! If you ever suspect you’re missing something from another game, simply think: “it was a conspiracy.” That’s it! That’ll cover everything. Who’s this mysterious figure dropping hints? Conspiracy. Why did this happen? Conspiracy. Who got Adam Jensen’s dick? Conspiracy.

Pip: Got it. Okay. My last question is: why didn’t he augment himself out of having a Beppe beard? Or just… I dunno – when I see pictures of he seems so sleazy.

Alice: Deus Ex is a throwback: Beppe beards are still cool in the ’90s ’20s retro cyberfuture. Besides, how else is he going to woo cyberTiffany? With her cyberarms, she can pull a clean pint of Guinness in 7.2 seconds. (The Cyberqueen Vic has an angular 3D printing of Victoria’s head on the bar, obvs.)

Pip: Oooh! Is it time for a pint? I mean a cyberpint? We could knock off and go investigate some conspiracies down the cyberlocal!

Alice: Dear cybergod, please let me wake up with a cyberliver.

Pip: Cyberbottoms up, Alice!

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Alice O'Connor

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When not writing news, Alice may be found in the sea.

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