The tentpole videogame is having a crisis of character, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided might be its herald.
This massive RPG, shipping Tuesday for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, seems divided on its purpose. Its developers clearly wanted to craft a grim, politically relevant tale while fulfilling their financial mandate to create a fun, open-ended videogame equivalent of a summer popcorn superhero movie that will sell millions of copies and not rock the boat too much.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a political tragedy, a paranoiac thriller, a ruthless shooter, and a thrilling stealth simulator. It tries to do what the original Deus Ex did so splendidly by offering a vision of freedom to the player, letting them shape the game into whatever they most want to play. But despite many of the individual parts succeeding, I don’t know if it gets the balancing act right. Ultimately, like big-budget videogaming itself, I’m not sure Deus Ex knows what it is anymore.
Crisis on Infinite Gameworlds
Over the past decade, through global recession and the increasing cost of creating videogames that make use of the most advanced hardware, mass market games have become the purview of increasingly fewer and fewer publishers and developers. These are the parties with the most money and the most employees–Activision, Electronic Arts, or Deus Ex maker Square Enix–and the products they make are becoming increasingly homogenous. They’re violent, they’re straightforward, and they try to appeal to the broadest demographics possible, which is often a convenient code for catering to young, white men. They also strive to be apolitical, without any “deeper meaning,” the sort of games about which executives and PR managers can shrug away any controversy.
It’s not clear how much longer those attitudes are going to remain tenable. The availability and sheer volume of online discourse has made discussions around the political meanings of game stories and mechanics more visible and more heated, while the rise of independent games has illustrated what many of us have been saying all along: that games are and always have been a potent, but largely untapped, medium for nuanced expression. The sentiment that games are, and should be allowed to be, political is one that is burrowing its way deeper and deeper into the industry. And as some independent creators move to working with those major corporations, and as their beliefs and attitudes infect the waters, it’s a sentiment that is only going to move upward through the echelons of the industry as time goes forward.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is an unambiguously political game. Look at the marketing materials: Set in a future where mechanical augmentations like bionic limbs and brain interfaces have stratified humanity, the marketing for the new Deus Ex has taken the form of mockumentary footage and fake news reports that detail protests, oppression, and the slogans of a fictional grassroots movement. The slogans pull from modern political rhetoric in a way so blatant it’s impossible to imagine that it’s unintentional: “Mechanical apartheid.” “Aug Lives Matter.”
Now look at the response. Many voices in gaming criticized the campaign, pointing out that these were the markers of real-world repression, mostly against people of color, being used for marketing. Replying to such criticisms, Eidos and Square took two opposing tacks. On one end stood game’s art director, Jonathan Jacques-Belletete, who went on the record in 2015 to say that “it’s a form of art,” and “I think we own it.” In other words: of course it’s political, because it’s supposed to be.
Contrast that with the response of Andre Vu, Deus Ex‘s brand director, who called the resemblance to Black Lives Matter “an unfortunate coincidence,” and the echoing sentiment from an early Square Enix press release insisting that the game’s depiction was “neutral.”
I find it hard not to read this as a conflict between those who control the brand and those who make the game.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is interested in power, in the ways a fictional form of oppression intersects with real ones, and about the way oppression works in general. It’s critical of violence, but even more critical of power brokers who play marginalized groups against each other for their own gain. It is, without a doubt, a political tentpole videogame. But like I said, a political tentpole videogame is, within the current market, a contradiction in terms: a violation of the mission statement of such games, which is to make as much money as possible and cater comfortably to the core demographic who would prefer their games entertain and not challenge.
Forget It, Jake, It’s Golem City
Mankind Divided tries to do both. It takes place in a world in the midst of crisis. In the mid-21st century, the human race has become divided into two strata: those with augmentations, and those without. The early game tries and usually succeeds to draw a delicate line here: Augmentation is not intended to necessarily stand in for any one matrix of oppression or form of prejudice; instead, the game attempts to weave it into extrapolated forms of existing social crises.
Augmentation is a technological divide turned biological, one that intersects with race and class. It was offered by tech barons as a new means of human evolution, but now that public opinion has turned against the technology, those same barons have turned against it as well, and the augmented have become second-class citizens. The augmented are both hated and feared.
Playing as Adam Jensen, the heavily augmented ex-cop from the previous installment who’s taken a job with an Interpol-run anti-terror agency, you are living that contradiction. Traveling through Prague, the game’s hub city, to investigate a bombing, you are regularly stopped by cops at checkpoints. Often, you can sense the hate radiating off of the armored police, the abiding sense that they’d be more than happy to beat the crap out of you. But they can’t. You’re faster, stronger, and smarter than they are due to the machines inside of you. So they let you pass, gruffly, looking for an excuse to shoot you in the back. The augmented, in this way, are a threat that many want to find a way to get rid of once and for all. Many in this world see the augmented as weapons, bombs waiting to go off.
It’s a grim world. Early in the game, you infiltrate Golem City, a heavily guarded ghetto built to house the augmented in the Czech Republic whose paperwork didn’t look quite right. It’s a cruel place, a wasteland of spare parts and wires transformed into a slum. When you arrive, you encounter an augmented black woman, handing out what limited medicine she can find. She warns you about the police.
“Where I come from, cops are supposed to be good guys,” Jensen says.
“What planet is that?” she shoots back. Moments like this are the pinnacle of the game’s political representation. Immediately after, it offers you control, a chance to respond as your ideal Jensen would: sympathize or scold, offer to help or wander away. As you travel deeper into Golem City, you can redress some of the injustice of the legalized brutality here, or you can take advantage of it. Or you can just keep moving. This is what Mankind Divided wants to be: a game that uses its freedom of choice to reinforce and solidify a meditation on the politics of power and police brutality.
But then the larger plot kicks back into gear, the one where Jensen is in Golem City to track down a hint about a terrorist plot. This is where you’re escorted away from the squalor and into a sprawling enemy fortress, into a freeform espionage simulator. There are choices here, too, but they lack weight. Shoot or sneak, hack or climb up the side of the building, whatever you please, but it doesn’t really matter. It never connects back to anything the game might be trying to say.
Here’s the problem: Jensen is a superhero cop in a story that suggests that good cops might not exist. While pointing out the terror of armed intervention, it insists that you can intervene better, that you can make the choices that no one else can make. You, somehow, are outside the systems and power structures of the world. You, alone, are free. And as the game dips deeper into that vision, as the political thriller plot at its center moves forward faster and faster, the nuance of its political setting gets left behind. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided can’t hold on to its outrage at the same time as it leads you up its upgrade tree.
In the end, its attempt at telling a meaningful political fable can’t fit in alongside Mankind Divided‘s slavish devotion to the standard arc of the tentpole action game. The stakes get higher, the labyrinths of sneaking or shooting get more complicated, but the narrative loses its coherence in the process. It dooms itself to becoming a brainless action story with little thematic resolution, exactly the thing it seems to be reacting against at first.
I truly believe that Deus Ex: Mankind Divided wants to be a political tentpole videogame. It just won’t let itself. It’s a metonym for big-budget gaming as a whole. These games, after all, are changing. In an increasingly broad and complex marketplace, they’re going to have to. And with those changes, there are going to be teams who want to use their platforms to tell authentically complex stories, to create games that aren’t afraid to believe things.
Mankind Divided is a messy and ultimate broken step in that direction. But I sincerely doubt it’ll be the last.