Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has been announced. Adam and Graham decided to activate their social augs and discuss their reasons for being united in excitement for Adam Jensen's return.
Graham: Adam, Adam, get this. I have… great Deus Expectations. The title for this (potentially regular?) feature is already paying dividends.
Adam: Oh lord, give me the augmented strength to bear this load.
Who’d have thought it? One big ol’ Human Revolution and then the whole of Mankind is Divided. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into post-colon text but I’m pleased that there’s a sense of continuity there, small thing though it may be. While it’s fair to say that Deus Ex is mostly a game about vents, I love a bit of post-human pondering and even though he’s another in the gaming’s grand cast of slightly cross bearded men, I quite enjoyed being Adam Jensen for a while.
Makes a pleasant change from being Adam Smith at any rate. I am completely incapable of killing a man with my elbow-blades. Some might suggest that I don’t even HAVE elbow-blades.
I’d also look extraordinarily silly if I tried to pull off the Jensen look. What do you think about it all? Glad to have Deus Ex back? Glad to have Jensen back? Glad to see mankind divided?
Graham: You've cannily raised the first reason I'm excited, which is...
Adam Jensen and his timeline is back.
Graham: I am a fan of cyberpunk generally, despite never having read any of the canonical works, but the original Deus Ex seemed to have as much awkward silliness in its fictional makeup as it did intriguing conspiracies and futuretech. By rewinding the clock and making a prequel, Human Revolution seemed to hit a sweet spot, picking out a time that was more familiar, when the wilder aspects of the fiction hadn't yet happened, when augments were still mechanical and invasive, and the underlying ethical or metaphysical quandaries were most pronounced.
Also, for all his gravel-voiced Batmanism, I cared about Adam Jensen and the people in his life. He isn't a Great Character by any stretch, but he seems more humane and 100% less douchebaggy than almost any other action game protagonist. I hope Sarif and Pritchard and Malik are back too, but either way I'm glad to once again step into Jensen's cybernetically-enhanced jumpshoes.
Adam: They’re referred to as Boot Sectors...or somesuch. The important thing is that they have around forty thousand terabytes of data in their soles. And poor Jensen might not even have a soul at all! Can a machine-man have a soul, Graham? That’s one of the questions the game probably won’t answer.
Cyberpunk is odd. I love it and I have experienced all of the canonical works - Inspector Gadget, Pinocchio, Gulliver’s Travels - but, as that list of texts suggests, it can all be a bit nineties. That’s the period it tends to remind me of at any rate, most likely because that’s when I first started reading sci-fi and then the Matrix happened and there’s a link between Keanu’s coat and cybereverything that I’ve never been able to shake.
I agree that the earlier setting of Human Revolution is more interesting. Partly it’s that I, rather disconcertingly, prefer the invasiveness of the augmentations - the sacrifice that comes along with any benefits is so much more jarring when it’s written on the body so clearly. And there’s plenty of space for all kinds of interesting ideas relating to body horror, prejudice, homo superior.
Did you enjoy the actual plot in Human Revolution? I loved the setting but I can’t honestly say I remember the story in any great detail - although the same is true of the original game. I tend to switch off a bit when organisations start punching one another.
Graham: I did enjoy the plot, and I can link that handily to the second reason I'm excited about Mankind Divided...
Human Revolution's core creative team is also back.
Graham: It's commonplace for action games and RPGs to litter their world with snippets of fiction, but it's less commonplace for me to bother reading any of it. Human Revolution is one of the few that made me care and in the three times I've played it, I've jacked myself with social augs, picked through every conversation, hacked every computer and read every email. That's partly good design - I know that conversations and emails will have a mechanical benefit, offering me either bonus items or non-lethal methods of progression - but it's partly good writing as well.
Significantly, most of the stories you uncover by exploring the fiction have very little to do with corporations or conspiracies. Instead, it's all very human: Jensen's former colleague who is racked with guilt due to a mission gone wrong; your current colleague who is in over his head in illegally smuggling drugs out to the poor; Josie Thorpe and her husband whose emails let you explore their relationship on your way to saving one, the other or both. Every meeting with Sarif is about proxy soldiers and ghosts fighting in the shadows (as per excellent trailer - dat music, bro), but the broader world is made to feel real by having regular people in it. That makes me glad that Mary DeMarle, the previous game's narrative designer, is back again.
Similarly, Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, Human Revolution's art director (and the model for Adam Jensen's face) is also back. I'm thrilled by that because HR has some bold, strange artistic choices in its world design. It's easy to hear cyberpunk and think Blade Runner and steaming city vents, and Deus Ex has plenty of that, but it also has gold everywhere and triangles and fabulous ceilings and techno-renaissance clothing where everyone wears enormous ruffs for some reason. While any element of a game's design is always a team effort, I've followed Belletête's Tumblr for a couple of years now and it'd be difficult not to see his influence on Human Revolution or to presume that will continue through Mankind Divided - whether it's more triangular architecture or more fabulous ceiling designs.
Adam: Agreed on all fronts. I spent a lot of time picking my way through the smaller stories and some of the visual design is superb. And that brings me to a new point and another reason to be excited...
On page two: a new Dawn (graphics engine), and why Deus Ex matters to us. Plus, a question for readers.
New engine and promise of a reactive world.
Adam: If I have one criticism of the art direction, it’s that the bolder choices were sometimes stuck on the surface. Pokey city hubs and a general lack of scale. You make a really good point about the fashion, with the ruffs and whatnot - to me, that’s one of the marks of a good sci-fi setting. Fashion is unpredictable and illogical. I’m sure somebody somewhere will claim that trends are predictable and I’d love to read their blog, but the odd touches that are clearly familiar to the characters, that pass without comment even though they’re remarkable to us, can go a long way toward convincing me that there’s something happening off-camera.
Like a whole world is lurking out there and these little cultural artefacts are evidence of that.
Architecture is another part of that. I’d love to see how some extra power in the engine room can push the surface feeling of the world onto new designs - scale is so important when trying to communicate future-places, I think. Think of the sprawl of Bladerunner’s Los Angeles seen from above. Even Half Life 2’s Citadel, which makes City 17 seem more like a place than the surroundings to me.
Human Revolution felt like the Neighbourhood Watch sometimes. I want to see how those triangles translate when the canvas increases in size. The Dawn Engine that Mankind Divided will almost certainly be using is based on Glacier 2 but Eidos Montreal haven’t just been talking about More Polygons, they’ve been talking about how the “entity system” built into Glacier allows them to give more control to designers, working with pre-existing building blocks to play with different behaviours. That’s exciting.
Graham: Not to mention Adam Jensen's hair.
I'm always suspicious of claims about game engines, because you never know how much is spin and how much will actually have a practical impact upon the eventual game. Often, I don't think the designers know how much work their ambition will take to realise. But I like what we're hearing so far though because it suggests an understanding of what makes Deus Ex special: that these games are more than just shooters with a lick of gold-and-black cyberpunk paint, but world's that offer us choice and consequence in our approach to every part of them, story and level design included. That's what made the original Deus Ex a classic, and what Human Revolution did an uncommonly good job of replicating, consolidating, in some ways improving upon. I feel like Eidos Montreal have proven they 'get' Deus Ex, in a way that they seemingly didn't with Thief.
Which I guess begs the question, why does Deus Ex matter to you? Does it? Should it?
Why Deus Ex matters to us.
Adam: I bought Invisible War on day one because I wanted to be a robot-man so much that it hurt.
Deus Ex is an odd game in my personal history. I never adored it in the same way that I adored Thief, and I don’t feel particularly invested in its fiction or characters. Maybe that’s because they didn’t feel novel in the way that Thief did - I think it’s fair to say that the medieval-industrial of The Dark Project was a mutation of typical fantasy and historical settings rather than a riff on them. Deus Ex always felt like a riff.
But the brilliance of the cyberpunk setting, and Ion Storm’s particular interpretation of it, was in its suitability for the systems and philosophies of immersive sim style gaming. What better way to make it clear that players can approach situations however they see fit than by making their avatar into a human Swiss Army knife? Strip away the narrative and all of the aesthetics, and you have something that is the perfect foundation for this particular kind of game.
In that sense, Thief was the game about limitations and Deus Ex was the game about improvisation, freedom and expression. The setting is almost an accidental consequence of that; a suitable fit rather than a foundation. When I spoke to Warren Spector about the Good Old Days he said cyberpunk and D&D were the settings for games back then because that’s what people expected. You find your design philosophy and plug it into a theme that fits the fashion of the time and the perceived audience.
Cyberpunk plays well with infiltration, conspiracy and freedom of approach. Another Spector line from that interview that underpins the whole thing: “Any time you tell the player how to play, you’ve lost me.” Get that in yer Mankind Divided.
So, yeah, Deus Ex matters to me!
Graham: I have a touch of imposter syndrome, because the truth is that I didn't play Deus Ex when it was released. I didn't play it until a decade later, by which point I found its aging AI and interface a struggle to overcome. I've never played Invisible War at all.
But I love Human Revolution. To some, it'll always be a lesser interpretation of the same ideas, but I think it's the better game in every possible way, even if it's not so historically significant.
So to me, Deus Ex matters more due to the ideas it popularised, both in game design - freedom and expression, as you say - but in the values that every game journalist I've ever known seemed to take from it. Every time you hear someone rail against QTEs or cutscenes, you can probably bet that person is a Deus Ex fan. Every time you hear someone laud the immersive sim and celebrate games that support multiple playthroughs, there's a good chance their love for that kind of design began with Deus Ex. For a game that didn't do these ideas first, and which was commercially unsuccessful compared to some of its peers, it's had a heck of a legacy.
I hope Mankind Divided lives up to it and am hopeful that it can.
Also yes I would like to be a robot-man who drinks whiskey and has sunglasses embedded in his forehead.
Adam: As do I. Robot-men together.
What do you want to see from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided? What characters do you want to return; what storylines do you want to see continued; what features do you hope are improved? (How cross are you that Graham thinks Human Revolution is better than Deus Ex? :p) Let us know in the comments below and we'll perhaps gather the responses together into their own feature.