The Invisible Hand with Elbow Knives: Choice in ‘Human Revolution’

Human Revolution

In Yahtzee’s (now kind of old) Extra Punctuation article on Deus Ex Human Revolution, he stumbles across an interesting point about the game’s upgrade system whilst trying to prove how much better the original is;

“Watch me blow your mind as I accurately describe the character most of you played in Human Revolution: a bloke who started out with the intention of doing a stealthy run but had to start carrying proper guns after a few hairy moments, who by the end of the game was also an expert hacker with very good arm strength and the ability to jump over buses.”

That’s certainly what happened to my Adam “Mush Mouth” Jensen. But I feel like the quote above, rather than being a damning criticism of Human Revolution, is one of its biggest achievements.

One of Human Revolution’s main thematic concerns is the pressure on people to augment themselves. A stock trader is trapped by her debt because she needed augs to keep up with her peers. Sex workers are pressured to get augments to better serve customers who’ve acquired a taste for cyborg lovin’. Augs have altered everything from sports to sex and not necessarily for the better.

So in the midst of all this talk of conflict over augmentations, class, pressure and dependency on anti rejection drugs; what sense would it make to allow the player to run wild with augmentations – becoming a night-visioned frogman with corrosive breath and a specialization in pastry cheffery? Not much if you ask me. (Which you didn’t.)

Complete freedom would be at odds with the story that Deus Ex Human Revolution is trying to tell. Instead, the game gives us the illusion of choice – all the while gently prodding us in its desired direction.

Jensen wearily protests against the bevy of clearly awesome ways that he can ‘improve himself’ – but the pull of augmentations proves irresistible both to him and the player. “If you want to jump down that hole, you’re going to need the Icarus Parachute” says Human Revolution. “If you want to see what’s on the other side of that door, you’re going to need these hacking augs” … “Can’t get up there without this”  “Can’t walk over that without these” etc etc etc. I’ll avoid using the critical term that dare not speak its name but there’s a clear conflict between what Adam wants and what the game… or the game world wants to happen to Adam.

Human Revolution asks you to pick a play style but occasionally challenges your ‘code’. My (practically vegan) Jensen didn’t stand much of a chance in a straight on firefight because his skills included Familiarity with Outlook Express  and Letting off a Smell that Made People Like Him. So When Belltower mercs brought snipers, heavy machine guns and angry stomping robots to what I thought was an elbow-knife fight; I had no choice but to splash out on the Typhoon system… I system that both Jensen and I had been against from the start of the game (admittedly for different reasons.)

Similarly, for a different Jensen – a beefed up rocket-launching, wall punching badass Jensen – the prospect of sneaking through a gang hideout would gently push him towards sticking a metallic claw into his pocket for the cloaking system.

The game that claimed to be all about choice turned out to have Hobson’s fingerprints all over it. But in a time when games are nickel and dime-ing players with new control schemes, peripherals and ‘optional’ content, it’s a rather fitting idea to be playing with. This magnificent Rock Paper Shotgun Article explains it rather well.

And outside of the games industry, one could argue that Human Revolution has even more relevance. In the UK, David Cameron stands accused of “privatizing the NHS by stealth” under the guise of offering patients ‘more choice’ – it’s not hard to imagine Cameron’s face mooning at me from a talking kiosk as I dither over whether or not I should fix that ‘lung’ I’ve been having trouble with for a month or two.

Human Revolution may not offer the intoxicating freedom of the original game, but it does offer a more thematically consistent brand of player choice that’s just as rewarding.

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