Dissecting Deus Ex: Missing the Human in Human Revolution

No High Scores

I finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution Sunday night, which makes me the last “critic” on the planet to have done so and the rep on the game is pretty spot on: It’s an, at times, amazing piece of work that loses momentum through a bog standard final third of the game that then runs right off the rails with an outright miserable ending. By the time all is said and done I didn’t really know what was happening anymore, nor did I care to find out, and when the ultimate choice is laid before me I couldn’t have cared less what choice I made.

This is the point where I point out that, if I don’t like a game, I’m not going to write this much about it. I like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. A lot. I also think it’s a game that merits discussion; one loaded with dissenting opinions. So let’s get it rolling here by talking about the boss battles and how the ending lets down the promise of some of the principle characters. I’ve got another post drafted on the actual ending itself, but this is long enough that I don’t want to jam it in here. I’ll get that up int he next couple days.

Important: I’m not going out of my way to avoid spoilers in this one, so if you read past the break, keep that in mind…

First, let’s just dispense with the boss battles. They’re bad. We learned this week some of the reasons for that, thanks to an RPS report that reveals the game’s big boss battles were farmed out to a third-party studio whose expertise is shooters and not so much the sort of variable gameplay for which the series (and most of this game) is known. Ignorance of the game’s core design is a pretty miserable excuse for a component of the game that integrates so badly with the rest of it, but it’s not all that surprising. No matter the industry, there’s a reason that content producers would rather you not see how the sausage is made. I work for a technology publishing company. I edit large tomes on the latest and greatest in tech using a dated Windows XP laptop. I still have to print figures for the production end (print as in kill trees) and I do so using a decade old version of ACDSee. It’s just how it goes sometimes. So, yeah, the bosses in Deus Ex sucked and they don’t gel with the surrounding game. You already know that. Let’s move on.

The ending. The reason it doesn’t work has nothing to do with the boss battles, but the same problems afflicting those battles do afflict the ending. The game simply loses its way. The entire last level has almost nothing whatsoever to do with all the work you did in getting there. In my estimation, here’s the biggest reason why: Deux Ex sets up the expectation with the early and middle parts of the game that it’s about people. Yes, there’s this massive debate over human augmentation and the ethics thereof, but the weight of this story is about your history with Dr. Megan Reed and just what really happened to her; your adversarial, but ultimately respect-building, relationship with Frank Pritchard; the interplay between you and your boss, David Serif, never quite knowing what his motives are or how much you should trust him. Ths is a game where your “allies” are more interesting than your adversaries in that you’re never really sure that they are your allies. You’ll spend the entire game wondering just who it is that’s going to turn on you and why. The villains you spend your time defeating level after level are largely forgettable and are there to give you something actiony to do while the plot unfolds. Boss battles aside, I’m okay with that. The idea of having your allies anchor the story could have been used to excellent effect so long as the game doesn’t forget these people exist.

So it goes and does exactly that.

Let’s go through the three principles the game makes the center of Jensen’s universe: Dr. Megan Reed (basically the mother, life-bringer of human augmentation), Frank Pritchard (Jesnen’s foil; you don’t like each other, but have to work together throughout the game), and David Sarif (the great orchestrator of Jensen’s world).

Dr. Megan Reed
No High Scores
After spending almost all of the game in a frantic search for the truth behind Megan Reed’s “murder,” I finally discover that she’s still alive and being held at a secret location. I move heaven and earth to reach her and find out that she’s willingly complicit (to an extent) in a plan to make implanted augmentations remotely accessible. Basically, wittingly or no (and evidence points to the latter), she’s made it possible to enable an augmentation kill switch. This has undesirable elements that are reminiscent of about a billion tired X-Men plots in which genetic mutation is magically disabled, but we’ll ignore that. At least with tech there’s an argument to be made such a thing is plausible, even if it strains credibility to think the very concept of a kill switch wouldn’t be one of the top three topics of public and private debate.

Upon being confronted with what her work is being used for, Reed expresses horror at the prospect. She’s been handed Pandora’s Box and blithely opened the lid. As you speed towards the climax, this revelation is rife with potential. How does someone like Reed, a woman bent on discovery and “advancement” of human potential, react to her work being used to destroy the future of augmentation? Who the hell knows. After you spend virtually the entire game in search of the truth about Megan Reed, when you finally find her it’s like, “Oh, well we’ll have to settle this later. Gotta go. Crisis awaits. People in trouble. Up, up and away!” And after that, she exits stage left, not to be heard from again until a post credits audio-only scene in which it’s revealed she’s gone to work for Bob Page, the big bad of the original game. (Admittedly, that’s a nice touch, although it also means her character has learned absolutely nothing from her experiences.)

Frank Pritchard
No High Scores
As much as Megan Reed’s story is only two-thirds baked, the total lack of effort to explore Frank Pritchard’s story is the one that really irritates me. There’s this great dynamic between Jensen and Pritchard. Jensen is chief of security for Sarif Industries, but really his expertise is as the blood and bone security guy. Pritchard is the cyber-security chief. It makes perfect sense that these two guys, who both are in charge of keeping the company secure, would butt heads time and time again.

The obviously strained relationship between them is right there from the game’s starting gun and the game gives you plenty of reason not to like Pritchard. As it becomes clear that there were cracks in Pritchard’s end of the security spectrum, the game begs you to believe that it’s Pritchard you should keep one eye on at all times. As the game progresses you learn that it’s not Pritchard who left a secret backdoor into the company’s systems. In fact, only in the two of you working together do you discover that Sarif opened the hole. You need Pritchard and he needs you. At the point where this becomes clear you can see the ice start to thaw a bit, and it keeps doing so as you progress further, but that’s the full extent of it. Wonderful.

But -and you new this was coming- after some face-to-face time in the early game, you never actually see Pritchard again. He never takes a physical hand in anything you do. Even upon returning to Detroit the game comes up with reasons to keep the two of you interacting indirectly. So, instead of this great sort of buddy cop dynamic (think Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon), your relationship with Pritchard is always restricted to him chirping in your ear at various points. The ice thaws, but there’s never any sort of resolution. Neither applies lessons learned about each other to really work together to resolve crises or answer questions. He’s just there, a little nicer to you in the end than he was at the beginning. And after your final confrontation he’s out of the game completely. Given that he’s your ever-present watchdog, who knows where you are and what you’re doing at almost all times, what kind of sense does it make that as you make the game’s ultimate choice that he has nothing to say at all?

Speaking of having Pritchard constantly in your ear, as a godlike narrator, I think it’s past time to say what’s been evident for awhile now: This mechanic -the guy or gal chirping quest goals in your ear or taunting you as you progress- is getting tired. It was wonderful in the System Shock games. It’s been used to marvelous effect in games ever since, but now it feels like every single game exploits the technique. It’s time to do something new here, folks. (I’m really excited that Bioshock: Infinite looks like it’ll put your primary ally, Elizabeth, right next to you through much of the experience, instead of just being a voice in your head.)

David Sarif
No High Scores
Now we come to the big cheese. David Sarif, founder of Sarif Industries. The man who wants everybody to live the thrill and excitement of human augmentation (as long as they can pay). From the very outset the game wants you to like Sarif, but it doesn’t want you to trust him. The guy owns one of the most powerful companies in the world, and if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that people in a position of power, especially those who control a mega international corporation, are not to be trusted. They will lie, steal, manipulate, and cheat, if it means a healthy bottom line. So, I think it’s a nice play, that David Sarif, while no angel, is more or less who he seems to be. He’s a businessman, yes, but he’s also a True Believer where human augmentation is concerned. He’ll do business with the military because that’s where the money is, and he’ll play Jensen every which way he can to further his goals (because Jensen is the embodiment of augmentation’s potential), but he’s not inherently evil. There’s no mustache-twirling, “I will conquer the world,” agenda for Sarif. He’s just a guy doing what he does best. But as expertly as the game leaves you guessing what the man’s motives really are, almost all the way to the end, like with Reed and Pritchard, it never actually goes anywhere with it. In fact, it’s possible to not have any interaction with Sarif whatsoever through the entire last third of the game, which is what happened to me.

You see, if there’s one thing the game teaches you about playing it, if there’s a place you need to go to do a quest, it’ll be marked on your map. Yeah, there are a couple of instances where you’re sort of “lost” and have to find your way, but it’s pretty rare. There are primary and secondary objectives and they’re distinctly marked on your HUD. So on the last level, when I’m trying to put a stop to some weird machine thingy that’s making augs crazy and probably going to do something else bad, and I learn that anti-aug advocate William Taggart, Sarif, and others are holed up in a secured location, hoping for rescue, I figured the way would be pointed out on my HUD.

As I did throughout, I followed the quest marker, snuck past a load of crazy zombie people, and when I got there I found an elevator down with a “Yes” and “No” prompt about continuing down the elevator. Now, the game was good enough to warn me I couldn’t come back, but it didn’t say, “Go down here and you can’t rescue Sarif and Taggart.” Alarm bells where ringing for me here as I should have know this would e the case, but no, I decided the secured computer room they were in must be down the elevator shaft -it’s where the quest marker was directing me, after all- so down I went. Yeah, not so much.

Whatever your final interaction with Sarif is remains a mystery to me. Yeah, you can argue that’s my fault for just moving forward instead of exploring a little, but at this point I was just trying to finish the game. I had already tuned out almost completely on the decaying plot threads and I wasn’t in the mood to sneak past the aug zombies a couple more times in order to backtrack and find the secret room I missed. Feel free to blame the player there, but I blame the game for giving improper direction and sapping dry my motivation to continue.

That’s not the worst part, though. No, the worst part is that when you reach the end game, if you haven’t talked to Sarif and Taggart, two of the four options you have for the end game are taken off the table. I’ll come back to that in the next Dissecting post. For now I’ll just sum up and say that, for how my game played out, my last direct interaction with Sarif goes all the way back, I think, to before my second trip to Hengsha. Basically, to the beginning of the game’s third act. Blame me for that if you like, but it flat out shouldn’t be possible, so long as he’s still alive and a player in the story (which he is), for Sarif to so completely drop off the radar for the entire last third of the game. That’s a waste.

Obviously, there are many more characters and parts to the equation and some of them (Darrow, in particular) I’ll get into in the next post. To my mind, however, these are the big three. They’re the ones that play a role from the game’s opening minutes all the way through the experience. They are more real in this game than any of the particular antagonists that sort of float around the the periphery. They’re the ones that try to guide and focus Jensen and who Jensen must decide whether or not to trust. It’s a missed opportunity that, where Adam Jensen is concerned, there are no resolutions for any of them.

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Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor, with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and is a 20-year publishing veteran as an editor of books on consumer tech and professional development for educators. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd was a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets from 1997-2015. Follow him on Twitter @toddsfoolery.

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