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Rise and Fall in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions

Deus Ex: Human Revolution consciously draws on two opposed myths - the Icarus myth and the Adam and Eve myth - to examine whether transhumanism will generate a Fall or a Rise.

This article was initially posted on The Ontological Geek.

But now, O LORD, you are our Father; 
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
~Isaiah 64:8

One of the most evocative analogies for human change in the Hebrew scriptures is found in Isaiah, the oft-sung passage portraying the deity as craftsman and His people as clay. It must have been, and still is, an intimate image for Abraham’s descendants – that a divinity might tug upon our very selves, shaping us into beautiful, lasting forms is flattering, and it inspires feelings of safety and hope that hearken back to the story of creation, when Adam was fashioned from the earth. But it also clearly relegates the human body to a subject role; the clay has no power to influence its own creation. Of course, since Darwin, we have known that evolution is a conservative, random process that operates (if it can be said to operate) toward the goal of replication, and is certainly not the purposeful artist that the author of Isaiah imagined.  But this image still had weight, since we were subjects in the continual re-creation of the human race, not agents. But now, that too is changing. This image becomes less and less applicable as we consistently gain greater ability to become our own craftsmen. Now we can mold ourselves and mold others, and the promise of further influence over the body gleams on the horizon.

Of course, just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is transfixed on the transhuman shift that begins even now, and examines many of the boons and pitfalls that command over the flesh might entail. The narrative begins in a time when augmentation of the body has become standard fare, if not commonplace, but society hasn’t yet acclimated to the change yet, either. Augments are still very much attached to issues of class in Human Revolution’s imagined future, and so the player gains insight into how this technology might generate societal ills even as it simultaneously enhances individuals.

Human Revolution is smart in its approach; it puts the player in the role of an individual that was augmented out of necessity, not out of choice, and this frees the player to explore the issue through a character that, like any naturally evolved creature, didn’t ask to be what he has become. As the narrative plays out, Human Revolution treats Adam Jensen as a microcosm within which the explore the ramifications of augmentation technology. One of the best, and most subtle, methods it uses is consciously drawing on two opposed myths – the Icarus myth and the Adam and Eve myth – to examine whether transhumanism will be remembered as a Fall, or as a Rise from old limitations.

The Fall

Human Revolution starts in the office of an unnamed businessman, who stands before a statue of a winged man (the first instance of the Icarus motif) in a tower overlooking a skyline and then turns to converse with a host of faceless, nameless individuals speaking via voice modulated pathways about a broad conspiracy apparently affecting a wide population and which will run through the rest of the game. What has this cabal worried is the new discovery that Megan Reed, a scientist of Sarif Industries, is poised to reveal the very next day in Washington. The scene then shifts to a news broadcast of Eliza Cassan, who is reporting on anti-augmentation protesters who are protesting (in advance) the news that Megan Reed intends to share with Congress, that she has found a way to make augmentations “available to all.” The scene pans back to encompass Dr. Reed herself and the new head of security of Sarif Industries, Adam Jensen, who is the player’s avatar. There are a few moments of context; the player can easily pick up that Jensen and Reed have an intimate history, but then the narrative plows along and Sarif calls Adam up to see him.

The game then places the player in Jensen’s shoes, and he, like the player, is new to the flurry of work at Sarif Industries. What’s more, it’s clear that he has doubts about the ends of the research being done at the company. Reed accuses him of over-thinking things; she insists that “The work we’re doing is good. We’re helping people overcome their physical limitations.” Adam counters by pointing out all the Department of Defense contracts that Sarif Industries has running, and while Reed insists that they also work with teachers, doctors, and construction workers, the player is then treated to a demonstration of the Typhoon weapon system, a 360 degree radius attack system that levels everything around the individual deploying it. Reed contextualizes it as a sort of “deal with the devil,” in that the defense contracts keep Sarif Industries afloat and helps fund technology that helps people, such as neural enhancements that helps one think faster and react quicker. There’s then a definite confirmation that Megan and Adam have a romantic past, but then they separate so that Adam can continue on to speak with Sarif. As for Sarif, he’s aglow with the new breakthrough that they’re going to reveal tomorrow, and the player gets a glimpse of just how convincing Sarif can be. He specifically claims that they are in no way tampering with the natural order; instead, Megan simply unlocked what was already there inside human DNA, thus allowing for a safer method than what technology that’s already prevalent on the market allows for.

This is the perfect way to introduce the game. It quickly establishes the setting, attributes voices to the sides of the debate that will be explored in the narrative, illuminates the themes of the work, and begins to characterize Jensen. The narrative kicks into action during the meeting with Sarif; an assault begins on Megan’s lab, and Adam rushes down to investigate and do what he can. Jensen engages or avoids the armed men murdering their way through the labs, and in the process catches sight of a few heavily-augmented soldiers. One turns invisible; another is essentially a walking tank; and the last of them grabs Jensen and throws him through a wall, and doesn’t stop his assault until he has pulverized Jensen’s limbs and organs, and finally puts a bullet through Jensen’s skull. And Jensen? Jensen is helpless during these proceedings; against this single augmented soldier, Jensen, a tough, trained, former SWAT member, is utterly ineffective. You can see this scene here, and also the scene I talk about in the next paragraph.

We are then treated to a wonderful cut-scene that intersperses slightly-stylized, elegant diagrams of the modifications being done to Adam’s body and intimate, ultra-precise images of various augmentations being installed with scenes from Adam’s memory, specifically of Adam making love to Megan. We hear her voice, saying, “I love you,” and whispering Adam’s name. This is a brilliant scene for a couple of different reasons. First, the soft orange and yellow hues that are so prominent in the cut-scene imply warmth (and indeed, the tight focus of many of the shots are nearly womb-like; they are less clinical and more intimate), but also nostalgia; it is this mixture of life beginning and life past. Second, we are getting a glimpse at what makes Adam tick. In his near-death state, his memories are of loving Megan Reed, and this glimpse at his motivations and desires coincide with our intimate glimpse of Jensen’s body. Finally, the images of this re-birth are mixed in with images of what Jensen is losing. The memories of making love to Megan are physical memories, so tightly wound in with the body that he is losing now and forever. And so the player receives this dissonant clash of ideas that simultaneously show us who Adam is and who Adam is becoming; what Adam is gaining and what Adam has lost; death and re-birth. It effectively establishes the tension at the core of the game: what does it mean to be human? What are the ramifications of what Adam has become? What does Adam represent?

New Man

The rest of the game takes place six months after this rebirth, as Adam attempts to contextualize and discover the truth behind both his own “death” and the murder of the woman he loved, let alone the many, many others that died in the attack. The player only ever knows him as an augmented individual from that point on. Most of his body is mechanical now; the game wastes no time in giving the player a glimpse of Jensen’s sleek new body, which is designed to look as “human” as possible in musculature and form (in notable contrast to nearly all of the other augmented individuals he encounters). Even before we see the changes beneath Jensen’s clothing, we experience the inside of Jensen’s head; where before the player had a clean, vacant view of the world, now there is a HUD overlaid, keeping track of Jensen’s vitals and offering assistance in observation and combat. Most of Human Revolution is set in first person, but occasionally the camera pans out onto Adam, usually when he is doing something intensely physical, when Jensen himself would be especially aware of his new body. Two notable examples occur when Jensen engages in physical combat with an opponent, or takes cover in a firefight.

The changes to Jensen’s body are incredibly beneficial for the actions the player is expected to perform, but it isn’t long before Human Revolution asks the player to think about Jensen’s new body.

In an early conversation with Jensen’s pilot, Jensen is asked what he thinks about his new augments; it’s a powerful moment for the player, who has just finished up his or her first mission and is probably a little giddy, having just received the first chance to upgrade Jensen’s augments (my Jensen had just become capable of becoming invisible, and I was itching to try it out). But then Faridah asks Jensen how he’s coping, and the player is given a couple of options, including a rather angry response that reminds the player that this new body was forced on Jensen, no matter how necessary or powerful the augments were. This sentiment is driven home to the player when they return to Jensen’s home; no matter how the player had Jensen answer, a shattered mirror in the bathroom shows that Jensen has most definitely had trouble coping with the ramifications of his failure.

It was a fascinating discovery, one that I can’t recall having with any other game. When Faridah asked how Jensen was, I answered that he was fine; his body had just come in handy. It had saved lives, in fact, and it seemed silly to begrudge it when it was so helpful and had accomplished so much good. But when I saw the mirror, I realized that Jensen (the Jensen that existed between my choices and the character that the game presented) was lying, perhaps even to himself. The artificial body must serve as an ever-present reminder of what Jensen has lost. In a later scene, Jensen might admit that “Every time I touch something I wonder – just for a second, every time – if what I’m feeling is real.” Jensen’s failure and loss is totally embodied; Human Revolution is nuanced in that as it provides the player with astounding, fun abilities, it reminds that the cost is Jensen’s peace of mind.

Jensen serves as the prototype “New Human” for the player, and his own struggles with his identity is mirrored in the wider society. Jensen’s stance on what he has been made into is ultimately up to the player, but he can be portrayed as angry and bitter, cold and detached, or as mostly recovered and warming to the benefits of his augments. Society contains those voices and more, and they are portrayed in the midst of anti-aug rioting in Detroit, in the brothels of Hengsha, in the literal towers of augmentated corporate executives and in gangs that harvest augmented limbs from the living and the dead. Humanity is on a brink; there are those who are optimistic and excited about the potential of augmentation, but there are many who express fear at the obsoleting effect of augmentation, since augmented individuals are better than non-augmented individuals in a physical, visible way, and at what some might say is a perversion of the sacred, natural body.

Law is still in the process of defining the role that augmentations will play out on a global scale, and the player receives the reasoned extremes of the argument about the implementation of augmentation technology via Jensen’s discussions with David Sarif, who is both Jensen’s employer and the man who foisted the suite of augmentations onto Jensen’s dying body, and Bill Taggert, an anti-augmentation lobbyist whose wife was killed by a man suffering from augmentation-related illness. Sarif speaks convincingly of an unregulated future for augmentations; he portrays himself unflinchingly as a pioneer exploring and widening the boundaries of human capabilities. Sarif is a visionary figure, and fits the bill quite well. He totally believes in the correctness of his position, even as he acknowledges its occasional unfortunate downside, a “broken egg” here or there. He is no saint, asking Jensen to break the law on multiple occasions, but he is a true believer. Taggart stands opposite, and acts in a considerably more oppositional role throughout most of the game, but he is an explicitly political foe. One of the best scenes in the game has Jensen confronting Taggart in front of a live television audience over the involvement of one of his organization’s important members in a massive kidnapping job. Taggart always aims at Jensen, claiming that the trauma of loss and then augmentation has made him unstable; it’s a tense, wonderful scene, but mostly portrays Taggart as savvy politician. Taggart’s more nuanced arguments are hinted at via e-books found in the game (and compiled for your benefit here).

Between the poles of these two men, the player and Jensen navigate whether the promise of augmentation technology is worth the cost in human lives and, potentially, the human spirit. Having established that, let’s move into an investigation of the two chosen myths.

Icarus – Rise, then Fall

The core of the Icarus myth is Daedalus’ and Icarus’ attempted escape from Crete via wings that Daedalus fashions for himself and his son. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too low or too high, but Icarus, either out of ambition or the joy of freedom, doesn’t listen; he flies far too high, and the sun melts the wax of his wings, and so he plummets into the sea and drowns. The myth interacts with the themes of ambition and power, and shares the same sort of structure that is common to the “Playing God” science fiction trope. Its main dramatic beats are a rise from imprisonment, but too far a rise, so that it ends in a sudden fall. If Human Revolution is “read” as an Icarus analogy, then transhumanism, especially augmentation, are the wings. All of humanity acts as Icarus, but again, Jensen serves as representative to humanity in Human Revolution. But what exactly does “soaring too high” translate into, and what fall is feared?

Well, the flight of Icarus is easily translated into the sheer capability of augmented individuals. Human Revolution expresses this most clearly through the gameplay. As Jensen unlocks more and more of the potential of his augmented body, he quickly becomes capable of sneaking through or assaulting heavily defended installations, or hacking any computer in less than a minute. With very little effort, Jensen can become exceptionally socially adept, observant, and able to emit mood-altering pheromones, making him a very persuasive individual. Jensen is simply better. This is true throughout the game, except in the instance of boss fights against the three members of Belltower’s “Tyrants” unit, the heavily augmented individuals that Jensen sees in the last minutes of his healthy, unaugmented life. In fact, there’s a real reversal of role every time Jensen enters close combat. Even trained soldiers don’t stand a chance against him; with a single press of the button, the player can murder or subdue one (or even two) opponents in a recreation of Jensen’s own “death.” Jensen has become just as unstoppable because he was so brutally ruined.

The boss fights are universally considered one of Human Revolution’s few failings. They are so different in form and content that it feels like you’ve started playing a different (and worse) game; they were even designed by an outside company. All the skills that you’ve been developing simply don’t hold true in these boss fights, and the player suddenly finds themselves up against an opponent that will gladly eat their bullets and which they cannot avoid or talk their way through. If anything, this just underscores how “normal” the average soldier that Jensen leaves bleeding or unconscious in his wake is, and how much of an impact these hyper-augmented soldiers could have in a military environment. The three times that Jensen fights a foe that is as heavily augmented as he, all the rules change.

It’s also worth noting that all two of the three boss fights are against opponents with significantly less elegant chassis than Jensen’s; I bring it up because the matter of design is important to the Icarus myth, and because Jensen’s advance through the ranks of the Tyrants is as much an aesthetic move as a military one.

The first boss, Lawrence Barrett, is clearly suffering from augmentation rejection (in the skin where the metal ends on his jaw), and his complexion has started to turn metallic. Moreover, the build is unnaturally heavy, with flanges and other defensive installations, and one of his arms actually houses a gun, making Barrett imposing, but certainly not beautiful:

The second boss, Yelena Fedorova, has less obvious deformity, but her chassis is vaguely non-human; the sharp edges of the torso are unappealing, and the scale of the body isn’t quite anatomically right. It doesn’t show here, but her legs bend the other way as well, creating a rather unsettling effect:

The bodies of these first two bosses are clearly unnatural. There is less fusion of form, so their limbs feel like additions rather than part of the body, and they cannot be mistaken for “natural” humans, even with clothing on.

The third boss, Jaron Namir, has a body that is clearly based on human musculature. Only two-toed feet and an especially thin torso break from the natural build:

While this bio-mimesis inspired body is very human in form, it still feels unfinished, since there is a startling lack of skin. Compare to the body of Jensen:

Jensen’s augments are matte black and smooth like skin, but clearly have definition. What’s more, they have not replaced all of his body so much as fused with it, and the end result is that it feels natural, and finished. With each new boss, it’s as if we see the next design rung up the ladder of augmentation technology, and Jensen’s triumph over his opponents champions his naturalistic augments over their unnatural bodies. Jensen is at the apex of augmented design – his aesthetic is clean, smooth and integrated, and in form he can pass as human.

In the Icarus narrative, the designer of the wings is not the ambitious character; in fact, Daedalus urges caution. It is Icarus that pursues greater heights, and Icarus that falls. In Human Revolution, David Sarif is the most ambitious character, and he acts as a representative for the parts of humanity that also pursue the full potential of augmentation. Nearly every encounter with Sarif sees him reiterate his vision of an improved humanity, a passion he no doubt received from the father-figure in his life. That role is filled by Sarif’s mentor, Hugh Darrow, creator of augmentation technology, who fills the role of mourning father quite well.

Just as Jensen uncovers the Illuminati’s plot to control all mechanically-augmented individuals, Darrow activates an alternative signal that drives most augmented individuals into a hallucination-fueled murderous frenzy. He does this not as an evil mastermind, but because he seeks to prove the dangers of augmentation to humanity. Like any philanthropist, Darrow hoped that his technology would grow to help people, including himself, but the inverse of his dreams were realized. Instead, his genetics made augmentation impossible for him, and the Illuminati and others had fashioned augmentation into a means of control over the poorer and weaker. Now disillusioned, Darrow wanted to break humanity’s enchantment with the technology that he made, and fashioned an atrocity to that end. Darrow sees his “child” soaring higher much faster than he had hoped, and fears what will happen, so he does something that Daedalus could not: he engineers a less-fatal fall to cause humanity to cast off its wings. It’s worth checking out the conversation that Jensen has with Darrow at the end-game; it’s one of the best scenes in Human Revolution, and captures a lot of the themes of the game.

As an Icarus tale, Human Revolution steps in right before the fatal fall. Humanity’s future relationship with augmentation is uncertain, and so it is unclear whether augmentation will keep humanity flying, or whether it will just enable humanity to plummet from even greater heights. Darrow would cut off the wings to keep us safe, while Sarif pushes us toward the heavens, and Taggart urges caution.

Adam and Eve – Fall, then Rise

The moniker of the avatar character, Adam, is a clear nod to the classical Christian creation myth, and it bears a few clear signs of fitting. Mythical Adam was the first man, and Human Revolution’s Adam similarly acts as the source of a “New Human.” What is interesting is that this new people will not spring from Adam’s loins (at least, not primarily), and Adam does not offer a genesis of new life; instead, Adam offers a solution to a problem in the lives of those who have already become “New Humans.” Specifically, augmented individuals face problems with rejection of artificial limbs and organs, a totally plausible biological response to what essentially amounts to an alien, non-self entity. White blood cells are sure to hate that new spring-laden steel leg, regardless of its utility. One of the central objects of worry in future Detroit is the limited availability of the drug Neuropozyne, which stops the eventual build-up of glial tissue around augmentations. Adam, however, doesn’t seem to need the drug; he suffers no ill effects from his augmentations.

This is because the source of the discovery that resulted in the attack that starts off the narrative is Adam’s DNA, which does all the things listed here (Subject X is Adam Jensen). Even the language in that entry (from in-game) begins to depict Subject X as a new being, totally matching the transhumanist ideal and expressed in the natural aesthetic of Adam’s new body. The nervous system and the augments become indistinguishable, since Adam’s biology strengthens rather than degrades the connection with augments. What was once two become one. Adam represents a new level of fusion between technology and humanity, a total incorporation of the machine into flesh. As such, he fits the role that his name opens. Adam is not only capable of experiencing this symbiosis himself, but also contains what is necessary to bring the rest of humanity into a similar symbiotic relationship with augmentations.

In part of a side-mission that is somewhat difficult to gain access to, the player might discover that the people that Adam thought were his parents were not his birth parents at all. In fact, the origins of Adam’s life is shrouded in mystery. Dr. Reed admits to being curious about whether or not Adam’s unique DNA is the result of random evolution, or is a product of human design; the game offers no clear answers, but due to his unique biology and the circumstances of his childhood, human design seems the most likely answer. At first glance, the age and overuse of the engineered man trope might blind the reader, but the way that Human Revolution employs it makes a great deal of sense. If Jensen is, in fact, the product of human hands, then even the inception of this new humanity is a self-produced genesis. He is an Adam fashioned not from the dirt, but from the labs of men, and this fits very much with the game’s themes.

Also compelling is viewing Megan Reed as Jensen’s Eve. They were lovers at one point, but again, it’s not Adam’s actual children that form this genesis. In an interesting turn, instead of taking Adam’s rib, she merely takes his DNA in order to bring about new “life.” From the perspective of the Illuminati, as presented at the beginning of the game, this discovery cannot occur; Megan has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, and in order to keep her from sharing that knowledge, the Illuminati step in to “exile” her. The Illuminati does have a few traits that resemble a Hebraic notion of God. It has the apparent best interests of mankind at heart, and knows better than the individual human what traits to cultivate. Moreover, it’s absolutely interested in this “new race,” but it seeks to guide the direction of that growth. At the start of the game, the Illuminati is the human deity watching over the human birth of a new humanity, and is still fashioning the leash to hang around its neck.

As for Adam, he has already left the proverbial garden by the time the game hits full swing. He has already experienced his Fall, and the rest of his action throughout the game is his Rise. The game continually investigates what Adam has lost. In the creation myth, there is a trust broken between God and humanity; the Fall shatters the world, letting in death, but everything beyond that moment is a move toward reclamation of what the Garden contained, interpreted as a pursuit for life without death, paradise, or a healed relationship with the divinity. Jensen acts this role well; when he discovers that Megan is still alive, he does everything in his power to find her and heal the “sin” he committed in allowing her to be taken. But just as he is on the cusp of finding her again, Adam has an encounter with Jaron Namir. Upon defeating the mercenary, his final words for Jensen are: “Men like us… we never get back what we love.” Namir is right; things are hardly the same, but the game doesn’t give much time to explore what the future of Jensen’s and Reed’s relationship might be. Regardless, there is no question that Jensen can’t go back to how things were. He has lost his body, and with it he loses the potential of returning to ignorance of his own origins and is rendered incapable of reclaiming his past.

Indeed, as much as Adam might recoverin the narrative, there is no going back to the garden, especially by the time Human Revolution has concluded. Adam’s DNA is enough for him to fill the “Adam” role, but that role is intensified when, as the game hits its denouement, a huge decision is placed in Adam’s hands. The truth of Darrow’s plan isn’t widely known, and it is up to Adam to decide what message is broadcast to the world. He can champion Sarif’s visions and inspire the world to explore augmentation to its full, listen to Taggart and encourage restrictions on the growth of augmentation technology, or fulfill Darrow’s wishes and scar humanity’s relationship with augmentation. In this action, Adam truly acts as the head of this “new humanity.” He decides what limits are placed on it, and he decides whether it should exist at all. He is also given a fourth option: to shirk his role as the Adam of transhumanity and silence everybody who knows the truth (including himself), allowing humanity to choose its own path.

Ultimately, Jensen serves as an iconic man in Human Revolution, acting not only as the player’s avatar, but as an avatar of the human race. He is in a position to decide whether the world should be made in his own image. If the Illuminati play the role of God at the beginning of Human Revolution, by the end of it Adam has attained that influence for himself.

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