More Deus Ex: Design and the Path of the Augmented

In Video Games on August 25, 2011 at 4:34 pm


I’ll split the difference between editing the first post and adding little tid-bits here and there. There’s certainly quite a bit to talk about, even at the glacial pace through which I progress through the game and I find myself taking it just slow enough to soak in the atmosphere. Reading emails, thumbing through e-books, pouring over e-newspapers and overhearing fascinating bits of dialog — that’s all Deus Ex, through and through.

And boy do I mean glacial. Of the game’s proffered idiosyncratic difficulty levels — Tell Me a Story, Give Me Some Action and (drumroll) Give Me Deus Ex — I of course chose the hardest one, which means more planning and more retrying. While I’m sure more augmentations later on might change this, but early in the game, and at this difficulty level, it’s a black tie affair (and by black tie, I mean stealth is utterly required to live). A few shots and the way-augmented Jensen goes down so the best way to take care of baddies is one at a time or not at all. I also imagine they’re spotting me easier, making the whole thing feel much more high stakes and really, really forcing me to be methodical rather than just assuming I can wing it if things go south (I can’t).

So, minor spoilers ahead. Some of this has been retreaded in every discussion about the game as it takes place during the prologue, but some bits are afterwards and I wouldn’t want to anger anyone. This covers up to the police station in the first chapter (Detroit).

The purpose of the prologue is obviously to titillate. Hints are dropped regarding Sarif Industries’ precarious political situation, the cut throat nature of the augmentation industry and how dependent they are on the goodwill of their governmental and military contracts. So things are good and bad for SI. High risk. Things are changing.

Adam Jensen is an ex-SWAT commander that left the force over a debacle in Mexicantown, apparently involving the directive (and execution) to take out a fifteen year old perp, albeit an augmented one. As it’s remarked that the police have moved from “protect and serve” to “protect and serve the corporate interest,” the whole affair leaves a sour taste in Jensen’s mouth and he resigns, only to take up as the chief of security at SI. In the intervening two years, he becomes romantically involved with one of the project leads, the bona-fide augment genius Megan, who in the game’s introduction tells us that she is on to something big, something revolutionary. Fields of science will be founded on this discovery, industries will rise, the world will quake: big stuff. This is short lived, however, as an attack by some heavily-augmented and extremely skilled mercenaries take out her labs and research, severely wounding Jensen in the process. Flash forward six months and he’s been rebuilt and is slowly getting used to his augmentations and the idea that he had little say in the matter. Is he angry at his lack of agency in this, or in that some mercenary group forced this hand? That’s for the player to decide. But so far it’s a slick, cyberpunk world that’s slowing falling into dystopia with what little hope there is being hotly contested by nearly every party.

Established so far is quite a bit of intrigue. The glory days of SI are seemingly behind it, with ever-mounting public and governmental scrutiny tolling it’s death knell. This is reflected in the city itself: as one would imagine, the biggest augmentation firm with huge government contracts coming to Detroit would likely be hailed as a great thing by the locals, but obviously things didn’t work out and many promises weren’t kept. What they did instead is polarize the city along social, economic and political lines as the divisive, expensive nature of augmentations divvied up the populace into “haves” and “have nots.” Some are poor because they have augmentations, some are poor and should have augmentations, some can’t stand the sight of an aug. It’s a complex place.

What is also being drip-fed to the player are elements that become absolutely vital to the future of Deus Ex. While the progression of implants is seen in each game — cybernetic “mechanical” implants in HR, nano-augmentation in the original and bio-mods in Invisible War — the most startling revelation is that genetics are the key to the whole thing. Some people get along well, even great, with implants, while most others reject them without constant doses of neuropozine (n-po on the streets), which helps in a supposed build up of glial tissue around augmentations.

It should be noted that normal anti-rejection drugs for organ transplants are immunosuppressants; it’s theorized that n-po is a form of local anti-coagulant. Bleeding, apparently, continues in the implanted area, causing the body to try to “heal” it and thus creates scar tissue as a normal mechanism in the healing process. Except, this doesn’t make sense: glial tissue is part of the central nervous system, and its scar-tissue components (astrocytes) only deal with damage to the central nervous system. Not something you’d see building up due to bleeding around an implant location. The idea that you’d need some type of anti-rejection drug for implants makes sense, but the explanation is full of wonky medical science. Especially given the next part.

Genetics become very, very important in the augmented world of Deus Ex. It’s what makes JC Denton, his brother Paul and Invisible War‘s Alex so special. It’s what makes the ending of Invisible War work, as one of the options is to massively modify the entirety of humanity to be genetically compatible with augments. So the idea that genetics are somehow responsible for scar tissue not building up or bleeding at implant sites not being an issue …well, it sounds kind of odd to me. Would have made more sense if they just used some kind “neural feedback” excuse that is not present in those with the right genes. But ah well. Genes are still the big issue outside of even social and economic concerns. So really, it truly is a game of “haves” and “have nots,” and an irreconcilable one at this point of their technology.

What’s telling about this is that Megan was not only on to the genetic key, but the way she did so was questionable in some way. Of course, finding this out as Adam Jensen, rebuilt super-augmented security chief of the future that everyone down in the LIMB clinic is surprised to see not in dire need of any neuropozine …well, this becomes slightly more obvious. Would that it be that she (or Sarif himself) didn’t orchestrate the entire attack just to have an excuse to borg up Jensen and prove the hypothesis. But we’ll see.

This is a future where the dream of a trans humanist revolution has been locked away from the majority of humanity by a genetic key. What should have been a benefit for all is a burden to most. What does this mean? As far as commentary is concerned, it does go hand-in-hand with existant concerns regarding splitting the population around this issue. It being more hardwired than economics or elective choice, well, maybe that’s the point. Jensen doesn’t choose to be augmented. We don’t choose our genes. There’s a message in that, somewhere.

  1. That was very insightful. It figures that the developers didn’t really look too deeply into the actual science of “glial tissues” before slapping that label as the “main issue” of the game.

    As for the game itself, though, I felt that it was ironic how, despite all the scattered literature lying about everywhere in the game, I did not find any documents related to the “killing the 15 year old boy in Mexicantown” incident until after I was confronted with the opportunity to argue/convince/berate/console with a fellow ex-SWAT team member about it. Were the players supposed to simply “know” the details of exactly what happened before trying to act (“roleplay”) as if they knew precisely what they were arguing about? Was there a page in the physical paperback manual? Were we supposed to wikipedia search Adam’s character profile?

    It felt like walking into a verbal fight with a complete stranger about something you allegedly did in the past but have absolutely no recollection of. So, naturally, my logical response to nonsensical hostility was to try to calm him down. Apparently, this was the wrong response to take, and had I not quicksaved earlier, I would have been pretty frustrated with figuring out how exactly I was going to get to the morgue without blowing a shotgun sized hole in everyone in the police station.

    Coincidentally, this ties in with the other common complaint of the “boss fights,” where once again, many players found themselves ill-equipped for fighting a walking tank when all they had was a measly stun-gun or dart gun.

    Perhaps (or, most likely) it’s a sign of the times, where time and budget is mostly centered around the visual representation and gameplay, and developers are forced into “funneling” their players down a certain path at certain points because there was simply not enough resources to actually provide players with more choices.

  2. Hey Reiji (are you the same Reiji from the boards years ago? If not, hello anyway), thanks for reading. Most fiction, up to and including medical TV shows, tend to gloss over or ignore pertinent medical and scientific concepts in favor of what works for the plot. They probably reached into a grab bag of medical terminology and game away with “glial” thinking it sounded neater than “neural,” and that physical rejection is easier to depict than neurological rejection.

    Some games do present characters like Jensen, excepting that your choices in dialog actually define the past. HR is not one of these, and I was surprised to find out more about the Mexicantown tragedy practically third hand from the guy who apparently had to take the shot.

    As you’ve stated, this does go aginst the Deus Ex design mythos that should let you analyze and prepare, rather than throwing you feet first into encounters you know nothing about. Along with the boss fights, there is a certain vanity in design (I spent all this time making this boss and making this room so there’s no way we’re going to let them avoid this) that makes this happen, along with the assumption that we’ll intuitively know things that they’ve discussed throughout the dev cycle but remain inobvious in game.

  3. Actually, I just read this article regarding the syndrome described in the game.

    Basically, the center of the augmentation process is the installation of a biochip that acts as a go-between for the brain and the artificial bits; however, in normal humans, this chip is eventually coated in a build-up of glial scars, damaging its ability to coordinate between the human and the augmentations.

    Jensen apparently possesses some genetic trait where his body protects implants by wrapping them in normal neural tissue, thus “disguising” them as part of the normal body and bypassing the glial tissue issue.

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