Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [official site] has a problem, and his name is Adam Jensen. Human Revolution’s returning protagonist has been my single greatest obstacle to enjoying a game I had, frankly, taken it for granted that I would enjoy. I don’t understand why this is his game – other than on a commercial level, of course. In the public eye, the Deus Ex brand is not the DIY route and vaguely philosophical reality-questioning that it might be to an older PC gamer. It’s The One With The Bearded Bloke With The Elbow Swords And The Sunglasses Built Into His Eye Sockets. That’s why Jensen’s back, not because the story DXMD is trying to tell needed him. If anything, he undermines it.
So far, at least. I’m some seven hours into DXMD, much of which has been spent avoiding more of the so far unengaging plot in favour of robbing shops and apartments blind, so I’m entirely open to the idea that the game finds a convincing reason for this to be Jensen’s game later on. The trouble is, his lack of any anchors to his world, and an enduring sense that the character is on a doing-it-for-the-cash reunion tour, is keeping me from wanting to continue. He doesn’t care. Why should I?
Again, I understand the commercial reasons for Jensen’s second act, but his tale is told. I feel like I already know everything there is to know about him, and so am doomed to repetition. Even plot-wise, the guy seems to be going through the motions. Despite having previously ripped his way into the truth of the world and forever altered the fabric of society, he’s working for Interpol now, as if nothing had happened, duffing up some goons, earning bank, returning afterwards to an enormous flat in Prague that, sickeningly, the game deems to be a ‘poor apartment.’
I’ve complained often that Batman games or Spider-Man films always seem to steer directly into Word In Peril / Immensely Personal Vendetta tales, robbing us of the chance to see what a day in the life of a crimefighter is like, making everything too dramatic too fast and leaving us with a poor understanding of what their world and life is really like. In DXMD’s first few hours, I finally get that. This is Adam Jensen on a Tuesday. And it’s boring.
Sure, there are huge firefights or elaborate stealthy-sneaks around crumbling skyscrapers, there’s an explosion at a train station and we’re introduced to a segregated society of augmented and non-augmented humans (presented as the have-nots and the haves respectively), but none of it’s remarkable or intriguing for Jensen. He just keeps on keeping on. Stoic, perhaps, but his gruffness comes across as bored. Hence, I am bored.
He has nothing, this time, to connect him to his world. DXHR introduced him to us with a partner, a father-figure and a best frenemy, and in short order put him through tragedy and horror. We understood his place, what his personal stakes were, even what his core dilemmas are. That’s all resolved now, and, thus far, DXMD has not offered much in the way of replacement.
Spoiler: one thing that has happened is that a Manic Earnest black market cyber-doc has revealed that Jensen has a mysterious set of new, hidden augs of unknown origin, so there’s that, but again Jensen barely seems interested. His overriding interest remains being vaguely impatient with the admittedly extremely annoying doctor, not in the fact that someone’s secretly dicked around with his body. Potentially there are later plot reasons for this: fine, but these are the critical opening hours of the game. Make me care now, not later.
Same goes for the first vestiges of a new core cast, most of whom hang out at the Interpol branch Jensen now works for. Almost all are gruff, most sound as though they’re reading from autocue (Director Jim Miller is a particular culprit here, managing to come across as neither sympathetic ally or desk-thumping, intolerant hard-ass. Just another boring man doing his job), none give me reason to be fond of them.
There’s one woman who seems to be trying to flirt, and vague hints that the oft-betrayed and standoffish Jensen is now pained by the prospect of any relationship. Perhaps it will go somewhere, but thus far she’s been airlifted straight in and then straight out again.
Perhaps this stuff would have come across better if I hadn’t just spent four or five hours doing my own thing. Perhaps DXMD misses a trick by giving me what I usually want, which is a ton of freedom very quickly. I have these huge sections of Prague to explore and, mostly, rob, and I’ve found that irresistible, despite having effectively zero context for the places I’m in.
Hell, even Jensen’s apartment block is huge and packed with all sorts to find and steal. It keeps me busy for ages, without any idea of if who or what I’m robbing means anything. Perhaps the game should have waited just a little longer before letting me go off-piste – but then again, if it hadn’t, I might well have bailed.
The game is frontloaded with ridiculously long cutscenes, over-written and dour, burning my goodwill by the glacially slow second, so a big huge Prague to muck about in didn’t arrive a moment too soon. I just wish it had given me/Jensen a core motivation and dynamic right off the bat. Hell, even Deus Ex 1’s JC Denton, the blankest of blank characters, at least gets an older brother to look up to/vaguely resent, a chatty chum in his earpiece and, very quickly, an intriguing dilemma. The man you’ve been sent to kill claims you’ve been deceived. Who to believe? The fate of the world hinges on this moment.
By contrast, in DXMD we get a few growly soldiers who don’t like Jensen much and eventually the option to save or not save one of them in the middle of a firefight you’re both already involved in. This vital first moral dilemma isn’t a moral dilemma: it’s just asking whether you’re lazy or not. A choice without clear sense of meaning or consequence is no choice at all.
Sure, I’ve already been offered a couple more legitimately dilemma-y dilemmas a few hours on from that, but again the problem is that DXMD has not set out its stall well. I am time-poor, and I have to ask myself whether I want to spend what I do have playing a game that hasn’t given me reason to care about what I’m doing.
This extends into Jensen’s broader role in the world – again, something I expect will be picked up more upon further down the line, but critically seems uninterested in enticing me as yet. Augs are an oppressed people, and here the game none-too-subtly draws parallels to the state-sanctioned racial discrimination of so much of the 20th century. But while most augs are poor and suffering, having random bolted-on tech that makes them miserable outcasts (and never mind that the last game presented Augs as being prone to all kinds of awful health problems), Jensen’s a walking god with the coolest mods in town.
Flip-out skull-shades! Expensive trenchcoats! Lucrative global cop gig! He cannot possibly know their suffering, but more importantly nor does he seem to express any, and as such the game’s clear intention that I should feel empathy for their plight is squandered.
That said, I appreciated the chance to have Jensen flout the anti-Aug rules and stand on the human-only half of the train. It’s a player-driven choice, an actual demonstration of something, of resistance, a homage to the boundlessly brave stand of Rosa Parks.
At least, I think that’s the intention. It’s hard to say for sure, given that Jensen’s body language, expression and silence suggests he’s just popping out to get some milk. It’s more ‘sat in first class cos there were no seats left in standard’ than ‘society is fucked, let’s make it better.’ Plus he doesn’t even face consequences for this, because unlike other Augs, Jensen is special. He waves his Interpol paperwork and gets on with his day, having changed nothing, helped no-one. All he had to suffer was one woman’s grumpy stare.
Adam Jensen: Just There.
More’s coming, I’m sure. I just need to find the will to continue, to see it, even though he doesn’t care and so neither do I. Again, I question why he’s even here. Had this game had us playing someone who actually suffered the persecution that augs did, had a sense of loss and threat around them, I imagine that I’d have been feeling DXMD’s various messages and imperatives more keenly. Instead I’m playing as someone whose story was over, shoehorned into proceedings because, hey, expensive resin statuettes in limited edition game boxsets don’t sell themselves.
I find myself thinking warmly of Deus Ex: Invisible War. A disappointment in its own way, but crucially it let me design my Deus Ex character to some degree – particularly gender and skin tone (was there beard and hairstyle too? I forget). Sure, the plot had specific intentions for me, but it didn’t tell me exactly who I was, what I looked like.
That opened the doors to feeling like I was some avatar of myself in the game, some character of my own creation with their own personality, and not who the game needed me to be. I can direct Jensen’s morality to some degree, but I am doomed to be gruff, goateed, weary Adam Jensen no matter what. He only bends so far. He’s only got so much left to give. I dearly wish I could have designed my own, new augmented spook in DXMD.
Similarly, DXIW knew that the last game’s protagonist story was over. So instead of having us play DX1’s JC Denton again, he was recast in the role of a creepy, even cruel god following his various discoveries and accomplishments in his game’s conclusion. We can argue about the effectiveness of how this was told, sure, but crucially DXIW understood that JC was worn out. Too powerful, too known.
The only way to bring him back would be to reset him, which both undermines everything the player did in DX1 and risks repetition. He can’t pretend not to think that there are conspiracies everywhere anymore, or that augmentations have a suspect history. And yet this is what we have to do with Adam Jensen now.
They could have made him bitter and furious, motivated by outrage, scarred by what had happened to the world as a result of his activities in DXHR (though thus far this has been broadly shrugged off anyway). If he had to come back, there was still the opportunity to make him fresh, a spirit of vengeance rather than just doing it all over again.
Or even to do what the Witcher 3 did with Geralt, which was to make his weariness mean something, and most importantly to sparingly show some soul beneath the true grit. I really don’t know if Jensen has a soul. Does the half-android dream of half-electric sheep?
Adam Jensen: Just There.
So far DXMD all but pretends that what he went through previously didn’t happen, in order that it can be a best-selling do-over of a previous best-seller. But Jensen himself doesn’t have a story left to give, so this cannot be a story about him. Instead it’s the story of the world around him, one he no longer seems to have any meaning within. I’m here mostly for the sneaking and stealing, but to give this a couple of dozen hours, I need meaning too. I hope it comes.
I want to continue. I want to like DXMD much more than I do. I want to reach the point where I feel that I have some personal motivation, no matter how silly (because DX was always silly, really). I hope that happens. And I think it wouldn’t matter so much if, in terms of systems and structure, DXMD wasn’t quite so similar to DXHR, despite the fancy graphics and larger-scale environments.
I love those concepts, the stealth vs action tension, falling down the rabbit hole of hacking and sneaking and stealing, and yeah, finding my way into every locked room in my apartment block has been my strongest motivator so far, but they haven’t yet gone anywhere new. This means that I too am going through the motions, just as Adam Jensen is. Alec Meer: Just There.