Human Revolution’s Failure to be Revolutionary

Rowan Kaiser takes a critical look at Deus Ex: Human Revolution and asks what made the original Deus Ex revolutionary, and looks at the reasons that held Human Revolution back.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution isn't a special game. Don't get me wrong, it's a good game, even a great game. But it's not special, not like the original Deus Ex, not at the level where I expect it to receive any “Best Game Ever” consideration. It's because Human Revolution is a Hollywood adaptation, or at least its AAA game equivalent. The history of film is littered with adaptations and remakes that lose the power of the original. It's rare if not impossible to find popular novels, adapted for the screen, whose fans say “the movie is better!” Or there's the foreign film which loses meaning through translation. This is Human Revolution, a remake of a classic that has the rough edges shaved off for mass, not cult, consumption.

Storyline is the most apparent venue for these changes. The original Deus Ex had a conspiracy, filled with twists, turns, and revelations on its surface, and Human Revolution does include those things as well. But the conspiracy was only part of the story. In a broader sense, Deus Ex was about the need for limitations of power. At the end of the first mission, your character, J.C. Denton, confronts a freedom fighter/terrorist fighting against the United States and United Nations. A long conversation ensues, where Denton attempts to convince the terrorist he's in error, but the “terrorist” has pile of facts and evidence about how and why the government has become correct. They aren't just compelling arguments, on both sides, in the context of the game – Denton will soon switch sides – but they're reasonably compelling arguments outside of the game.

I remember when I played Deus Ex and discussed it online. One person I knew was raving about how it, more than any other game he'd played, espoused “right-wing” philosophy. This confused me, because in the heat of the 2000 presidential campaign, the philosophies discussed by Deus Ex didn't seem to me to be coming from the right and George W. Bush, but they seemed to be coming from the far left, via Ralph Nader. We were both right, of course – Deus Ex offered the kind of anti-authoritarian critique of politics not consistently found in mainstream politics, but common on the supposed fringes of acceptable discourse. But where Deus Ex used a conspiracy storyline to make a larger point about the corrupting nature of centralized power, Human Revolution seems content to use its conspiracy to say nothing more than that evil corporations are evil.

It is not simply at the political level where Human Revolution lacks the personality of its predecessor. The original Deus Ex was special in two ways: its politically charged plot, yes, but also its successful adaptation of Fallout-style RPG character development in a first-person shooter. The Fallout model of character development is that the game facilitated multiple different ways to overcome obstacles – combat, speech, stealth, hacking. If you wanted to play a speedy melee ninja in Deus Ex? You could. Likewise, if you wanted to sneak around most every confrontation, this was also possible. Human Revolution, like both Deus Ex and Invisible War before it, allows this freedom of choice.

But where the new Deus Ex fails is in not making those choices meaningful. Deus Ex and Fallout both did this. When you made one character development choice, it meant you couldn't make another. This was given a direct game mechanic in Deus Ex: you had the chance to improve J.C.'s augmentations from body part to body part at certain intervals, but each improvement was presented as a choice between two options. For example, later in the game you get to improve your stealth system, giving you the opportunity to turn invisible for short periods of time. The choice is between turning invisible to humans or turning invisible to machines. The arm augmentation is a choice between moving heavier objects, or doing more melee damage, and so on.

Human Revolution loses this in favor of an easier general improvement list, to be dealt with at will. Progression through the game gives “Praxis” points which can be spent on any new skill. The choice here isn't whether to improve one thing or the other, and create totally different characters. The choice is which thing gets upgraded first. Human Revolution keeps the idea of RPG elements progression, but by lessening each choice's meaning, it never really moves past the “elements” part into becoming a full-fledged role-playing game like its predecessor.

If there is an analogy for Human Revolution from the film industry cited above, I think it's the 2006 film adaptation of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta comics. Both the original Deus Ex and comic V for Vendetta were flawed, messy masterpieces. Deus Ex had ugly graphics even for the time, terribly artificial intelligence, and pacing issues. V for Vendetta lasted just a bit too long, and had an unwieldy, ambiguous plotline about governmental infighting. But both were also brilliant, in part because of their messiness.

The anti-authoritarianism espoused by both game and comic were especially powerful, particularly in their respective mediums where supporting stable governments and following orders are both considered unquestionably good. Yet there is V, spending an entire issue, possibly the best of the series, giving a speech to a statue of his fickle lover, Lady Anarchy. There is Tracer Tong, arguably the most sympathetic character in Deus Ex, suggesting the destruction of all online communications, saying that the anarchy of the New Dark Age is still preferable to the fascism of governmental dominance over the individual.

These are what's lacking from their adaptations. V's speech is completely excised from the film, and the straightening out of the narrative removes most of the ambiguity. It becomes a simple tale of anti-fascism, with V portrayed as a hero fighting a British Hitler, safe for liberals, conservatives, radicals, and everyone except totalitarian sympathizers. In safety, it loses meaning.

Likewise, Human Revolution feels like the rough edges from Deus Ex have been smoothed out to the point of damaging the end product. The challenge is gone – not challenge in achieving success, but in terms of hard choices or confrontational politics. Human Revolution is a would-be blockbuster, and a fine one at that. But what made the original Deus Ex so intensely fascinating was that it never could have played it safe enough to be a blockbuster. It was too special for that.