As the newest Deus Ex game, Mankind Divided, approaches its release date Eidos and Square- Enix are pushing anticipation by releasing game-art as well as game-inspired art. These art pieces highlight the social realities of the Deus Ex universe, a narrative based in technocratic class struggle. Edited pictures of modern cities with futuristic details added show us New Material architecture, outlaw tech slums, Disparity between the two, augmented protesters and protest art. These highlight the plight of the times,around which the game is based, when a conspiratorial plot led to horror, as a new cybernetic upgrade caused augmented individuals around the world to attack the people around them in a single horrifying moment of lost control. Countries everywhere respond by immediately turning against cybernetic augmentation and lashing out against their Augmented Citizens. Class differences are heightened as ghettos and police states are formed,, families are separated, and “Augs” mistreated. Fear, suspicion, and hatred target this morally innocent group, and only the game’s player character, Adam Jensen, has first hand knowledge of their inculpability and the drive to take down the oligarchical conspiracy responsible.
Amongst all this, a protest sign held by a mechanical arm reads “Aug Lives Matter”, added by an artist to one of these promotional pictures. Many have called this detail pastiche, mishandled, a move too far. As a white person, my ethical response is to listen to those voices from the affected communities, as I cannot dictate what is and is not harmful to their members. Because I love this franchise (full disclosure), I cannot defend what within it does not stand with the property’s core themes and narrative momentum. More about that in a sec. The publishers have so far not taken a legible stance; attempting to suggest that a writer had put the phrase together ignorant of the Black Lives Matter movement, which I suppose is possible but unlikely. More likely, the core meaning of the phrase, that an oppressed people have value unrecognized by the society they live in, carried from the movement to the fiction, via mental association of the creator. A creator who need not have been aware from where they got that association in order to make it.. While we can’t be certain what the creators’ intention was, the negative effect has been called out. Black Lives Matter advocates who also watch video game news felt this addition took something from the the movement and gave it to the game.
Which is why, in my mind, this is most certainly some manner of failure, especially comparing this detail against the other details of the the game. Should you do that, by the way, look out for the phrase “All Human Lives Matter” on other in-game posters, possibly competing with the “Augs Lives matter” phrase, or possibly written by the same fictional authors. Such details have me convinced that these inclusions were made in awareness of the outside movement, so I hope the publisher can talk to the writers of the game soon. For the fans and observers, I believe it is very important clarify our message, to make sure others know that we are not “offended that this game stole a key phrase from the movement”, instead we are reacting to the poor quality of the connection. A connection which the publisher is denying exists.
As I’ve hinted at before, I would not be surprised at all if the writers meant to connect the movement to the game, Deus Ex has a long tradition of teaching players about real life injustices. Though the non-fictional Business Plot of 1934 is not widely known of, it is included in the original Deus Ex game from 2000 as inspiration for the narrative’s class warfare. The most recent game, Human Revolution, tied its conflict into the Occupy Wall Street movement, reflecting the rhetoric from both sides in their game. The writers went even further, detailing player character Adam Jensen’s backstory as a ex-SWAT from detroit who was drummed out when he refused to shoot a 15 year old kid armed with augmentations, hinted to be Latino. Another SWAT team member did take the shot as ordered, killing the kid. That police officer is presented in the game as emotionally affected by the shooting and deeply guilty, but equally defensive.If the player chooses to be an open ear for that officer…and then hold him accountable for his decision, that character admits fault and rewards your prying by giving you easier access to a mission goal. In fact, each of the Deus EX games have police officer-like characters who are given many choices and chances to meet challenges with non-lethal force and often empathetic discussions. For the Player Characters of both the original Deus Ex and Human Revolution, choosing non-lethal force draws you further into conflict with aristocratic manipulators.
Deus Ex seeks to address injustice and oppression, and if this detail fails that attempt, I have no problem calling it out. But I do urge others to not deprive themselves of the experience of the upcoming game, as the writing continues to attempt to highlight very real oppression. In the same gameplay video where I saw the “All Human Lives Matter” poster, I also saw the main character, an augmented white male, go through multiple encounters with Czech police NPCs. I saw that these NPC’s varied wildly in how they treated this player character, depending on how quickly and carefully he was able to present his credentials. Those officers who see your high government position are polite but remote, and others vary from from acting suspicious to repugnant. Adam Jensen’s gameplay includes segregation, violence, corruption, and distrust for being Augmented. I believe the writers are attempting to connect players with a very real experience. ‘Aug Lives Matter” may be a failed attempt to point at the reality of that experience. But we have yet to play the game, we do not know how else the game attempts to highlight these issues.
I think the game is right to try, Science Fiction is ultimately a social genre, in that it speaks of humanity’s relationship with our tools, our environment, and with each other. Science Fiction is a soapbox through which authors warn us of the future, point to what occurs now, and espouse personal and often controversial takes on human nature. The earliest modern Science Fiction, Frankenstein, successfully communicated the very human desire to be seen as human. It is no surprise that the sub-genre of Dystopian fiction came out of Science-Fiction, and why so many Dystopian writers warn us of societies in which people are disconnected from each other.. It was the Original Deus Ex’s attempt to connect American social injustices, empathetic moral choices, class, and poverty to a first person shooter and role playing video game that drew me into its story. Human Revolution made similar connections, and I believe this upcoming game, Mankind Divided, will not break from this pattern.
I write this not to defend a game I have already purchased from accusations of racism. A mishandling of an issue was pointed out, I believe we should accept that, talk about possible improvements, move on together. This doesn’t have to be a controversy (I’m looking at you, Eidos/Square-Enix) but a discourse between creators and fans on how to get the game “right”. Such conversations have already occurred around Overwatch, and a reasonable solution was found. It all depends on how we have that conversation, as I also believe there are those who will capitalize on this controversy, calling it an attempt to “edit for the sake of Political Correctness” the content of video games. They might even delight at the idea of anyone who would feel advocated for by Black Lives Matter also turning away from Deus Ex and video games. Well screw that, video games are an ideal medium for Social Justice stories and video games and Social Justice have been joined at the hip, since 2000, if not earlier.