Deus Ex: Human Revolution has the mixed honor of being one of those games whose virtues outweigh its faults. Despite some questionable pacing, overpowered abilities (cloak), useless abilities (more energy cells), and very ‘video game-y’ narrative elements, the experience feels right. Stealth is both challenging and transparent, the themes of human augmentation are interesting, and the persuasion dialogues make you feel like you’re talking to a real human being. It works.
What I find particularly interesting is the sheer confidence with which the game presents its setting and the issues surrounding it. Detroit, despite being only a few street blocks of explorable space, is a wonderful fit to the issues of human augmentation. One one end, we have the image of an industrial city, once crippled by the collapse of its automotive economy, reborn by the efforts of an idealist entrepreneur; the metaphor of revitalizing the city mirrors Sarif’s dream of revitalizing humanity itself. On the other end, the streets and alleys of Detroit are filled with the evidence of its death: gangs, homeless, and people forced into unemployment by a system that treats the unaugmented as lesser beings.
It became clear, walking through the city and hearing its people talk, that the developers of Human Revolution truly knew what they wanted to make their game about. It wasn’t just about the story of Deus Ex – it was about the story of our own society and what kind of road lies ahead for us in the future. The game’s epilogues made this abundantly clear, breaking the fourth wall of the game engine’s digital representations and displaying a mosaic of images, photographs, video from our own world. Human Revolution takes the dirt and urban sprawl of Cyberpunk and asks its own question about where we, as a society, may be headed.
And then, there is the other story. You know, the one about conspiracies and the Illuminati and a dastardly plot to control the world. And that’s fine. I enjoy a good ol’ dastardly plot to control the world, but the results here are decidedly mixed. Half the story seen by our protagonist, Adam Jensen, works just fine, but is much less interesting than everything else that surrounds it; it’s a trail of breadcrumbs marking the path where you’ll see some very nice sights independent of that trail of crumbs. The other half relies on tired clichés we’ve all seen over and over and over again because, y’know, videogames.
Which brings us to the most irrelevant plot twist ever. Late in the game, Adam infiltrates a secret base in Singapore to rescue his ex-girlfriend, Megan Reed, from the hands of those who captured her many months prior. Finding Megan is important to the future of Sarif Industries because only she and her team (also kidnapped) have the secrets that will free augmentation technology from the expensive but necessary crutch of the drug Neuropozene. Their research can both grant a more independent life for augmented people and insure the future of Sarif Industries.
And when Adam finally reaches Megan, she tells him the shocking truth: the entirety of her research is based on Adam’s genetic code. Adam Jensen is the progenitor for the future of the augmented population.
Now, even if you didn’t deduce this fact from the very first mention of “Patient X” in the first three minutes of the game, this revelation has a problem: it doesn’t matter. It has no impact on the story. It is the most irrelevant plot twist ever.
Adam Jensen is a character of the present. He barely survives an attack. He becomes an augmented man. He uncovers a conspiracy. He is defined by what he does. The history he has with Megan and SWAT flesh out his character, but these elements of his past have no bearing on either the big social questions of augmentation or the story of a shadowy organization trying to exert control over the population of augments. The knowledge of his true origins from White Helix Labs and the nature of his DNA doesn’t change Adam as a character, nor does it impact events in the future; it is a conspiracy isolated from the other conspiracies. Remove this piece of information, and the story doesn’t change. Adam doesn’t change. It has no function.
I suspect that this plot element exists for a sole reason: to call back to the original Deus Ex. While most games simply need to be good, Human Revolution sat in an uncomfortable position. It couldn’t just be good: it had to be worthy of the name Deus Ex. And it is. But the worst parts are when the game shoehorns in these callback elements from the first game, rather than having them support the design. Deus Ex had an AI? Human Revolution has an AI. Deus Ex had a protagonist “J.C.” who functions as a messianic savior to modern society? Human Revolution has a protagonist “Adam” who functions (not really) as forefather to a new form of augmented humanity. The parallels are there, but their purpose is lost.