This column needs a couple of ablative disclaimer paragraphs before I start making my point. I know brevity is the soul of wit, but it’s also a good way to end up misunderstood and dragged into a pointless flamewar.
First off, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is really good. I enthusiastically endorse it. I’m going to criticize it here, but I want to stress that most of these criticisms are pretty academic. The story is fine, and I’m not offended by anything they’re doing here. It’s just that I think developer Eidos Montreal missed an opportunity to tell a smarter, more cohesive story.
Secondly, the no politics rule is still in effect. I’m going to be dropping some politically-charged buzzwords in here. SJW. Black Lives Matter. Right-wing talk radio. But note that we’re not actually talking about these groups. Or the people who belong to them. Or the people who oppose them. I’m just acknowledging that these groups exist in the real world without discussing, advocating, or critiquing their positions. I encourage you to do the same. In fact, I insist. Wouldn’t you rather talk about videogames than argue about politics?
With that out of the way, I want to back up a couple of weeks and talk about the pre-release controversy. This is not because I love controversy and can’t get enough of it. It’s actually the opposite. I hate controversy, and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to have a calm discussion now that the game is out and tempers have cooled.
The controversy was over this image:
A protest where someone is holding a sign saying “AUGS LiVE MATTERS”, or possibly, “AUGS LiVEs MATTERS”.
Which is of course a reference to Black Lives Matter, which is an ongoing controversy / movement / news story we have going on in the United States. The ad managed to annoy people on both sides of the debate, both pro-BLM and anti-BLM. The first because they didn’t like seeing the slogan of their important movement appropriated for a videogame that very likely wasn’t going to give the topic a serious treatment, and the other because they didn’t want a game to spend its runtime sanctimoniously shoving someone else’s opinion in their face. And I agree with both groups: I’ve been on both sides of this problem. I’ve had works of fiction annoy me in exactly these ways.
Social Issues In Fiction
Controversies like this usually lead to a wrong-headed protest, followed by an equally wrong-headed rebuttal:
Ann: Hey! Keep your [social issue] out of my works of science fiction!
Bob: Pfft. Hey, science fiction has tackled stuff like this in the past, like this episode of Original Star Trek:
Bob is right that fiction CAN be used to talk about Important Issues, but he’s overlooking the fact that this was an absolutely terrible episode of Trek. This ham-fisted episode is to political discussion what the Gorn Fight is to physical combat: Clumsy, cringe-worthy, and unintentionally hilarious.
But Ann is also wrong, because science fiction is a great place for talking about Important Social Issues And Stuff. It’s just that we usually only notice it when it’s really bad. I’ve been describing the whole thing as “too on-the-nose”. I get the impression the idiom isn’t nearly as clear as I thought, so let me explain what I mean when I accuse something of being excessively on-the-nose:
Let’s say you’re writing a sci-fi story and you’ve got some race of Blue People. Let’s call them the Smarms. And you’ve decided that the Smarms are going to be the victims of racism in your universe, and that part of the story will feature their struggle against oppression. So far, I approve. It will give your setting a dash of verisimilitude and oppression makes for good drama.
But let’s also say you’re a complete hack writer, so you create a leader character for the Smarm named Marvin Luther Kang, who shouts “I HAVE A DREAM!” as a catchphrase. That is the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say “too on-the-nose”. The problem isn’t that you’ve put a Social Issue into your story. The problem is that you’re an appallingly bad writer and your story is going to drive people crazy. The Smarm and their struggle are no longer a bit of worldbuilding flavor and a chance to explore the forces that create and sustain hatred between disparate groups. Instead, they’re going to be viewed as an explicit allegory for the Civil Rights movement in the middle of the last century.
Explicitly labeling your issues and characters like this shows an insulting lack of faith in the intelligence of the audience. You’re basically saying, “I think you’re too stupid to get this so I had to spell it out for you.” It ignores the fact that analyzing stories and searching for meaning is a big part of why we consume stories in the first place. Instead of allowing the audience to think for themselves, you’re telling them what you want them to think. That’s like telling the audience they should like a character and find them interesting instead of making the character interesting and likable. You’re refusing to perform your central duty as an author.
The Treachery of Labels
It’s like one of those political cartoons that clumsily slaps names on everything. Some people on your exact political wavelength will enjoy having their own opinions patronizingly reflected back at them, and everyone else is going to react with either boredom or resentment because you haven’t said anything to challenge them. Simply shouting “My opinion is true!” isn’t a persuasive argument.
It also constrains you as an author. Say you decide you want to add some character foibles to make Marvin Luther Kang more interesting. Maybe you decide he’s got an out-of-control sweet tooth and he loves shitty puns. But then some people will think you’re taking a swipe at the historical Martin Luther King Jr. If the struggle of the Smarms doesn’t map 1:1 to the struggle of black Americans during the civil rights movement, then people of all political stripes are going to take offense. They’ll assume your work is either revisionist, libelous, or ignorant. You can’t slap labels on everything and then ask people to ignore the labels when it’s convenient.
Furthermore, using current events can greatly reduce the expiration date of your story. If you make up your own movements and factions, they can outlive the real-world groups on which they’re based. If I have a story set ten years in the future and there’s a protest group called “Youth Rise!” then that sounds vaguely plausible. But if I call them Occupy Wall Street, then the reference will seem dated the moment OWS stops being a big deal.
But worst of all, when you engage in explicit allegory you’re giving up the most liberating tool an author has at their disposal, which is the ability to allow people to see other perspectives by tearing the labels off of things. If everything isn’t explicitly mapped out in terms of political teams, then people entering your world won’t automatically identify with “their side”. To wit: A member of Greenpeace will probably be more open to a story where environmentalists are the bad guys if you don’t stupidly name the bad guys Greenpeace.
Without labels, people will have to build their own interpretation based on the events in your story. Maybe Smarms represent American Colonists. Or Native Americans. Or Picts. Or Germanic Tribes in the time of the Roman Empire. Bedouins. American Frontiersmen. Aborigines. Aleutians. European immigrants to America in the early 20th century. It could be any of these. The reader doesn’t know and you don’t have to impose a specific interpretation onto them. This means the reader will need to think about your story. They might even comfortably identify with a group that is ideologically different from their own. It might not change their opinion, but it will give them a sense of empathy and understanding that they didn’t have before.
“But Shamus, what if the reader doesn’t get the lesson I’m trying to teach them?”
Yeah. I don’t think you’re actually interested in writing fiction. If you’re just using aliens and zap guns as a sugar-coating on a bunch of heavy-handed moralizing, then you’re not going to change anyone’s mind. You’re just going to make shitty fiction.
Tossing in a sign that says “AUGS LIVE MATTERS” is – aside from being a grammatical train-wreck – a promise that some people will expect you to keep.
Subtle as a Sledgehammer
And no, this isn’t a problem limited just to the marketing campaign. In fact, within the gameworld there’s an even worse instance of ham-fisted labeling. If you stop to watch television in the game, you might run into a news interview where some angry blowhard says something to the effect of, “Only SJW’s support aug rights.” This clumsily maps current-day politics to the world of augments. Instead of letting you think for yourself, the writer is telling you what you’d think based on your current politics. This takes a topic of fascinating complexity and nuance and reduces it to an argument you’ve probably read a thousand times before.
Distilling the “aug debate” of this game down to “SJW’s” is a gross disservice to the entire topic. You could justify people from all walks of life and all political backgrounds ending up on either side of the issue:
- Maybe second amendment people would be furiously pro-aug, since they might see having weaponized limbs a natural extension of their right to bear arms. Or maybe they would be anti-aug, because – unlike a firearm – you can’t democratize power by handing someone an augmented limb; they have to chop off part of themselves to use it.
- Maybe environmentalists would tend towards anti-aug, since the carbon footprint of an augmented person would be massive compared to a natural human. The infrastructure to care for that much technology would be tremendous. Or maybe they would be attracted to the idea of making people run (at least partly) on electricity that could come from renewable sources.
- Maybe there would be a huge class dimension to the whole debate. Imagine a healthy rich person that throws away their good limbs for chrome-plated ones. Some people would see this as a disgusting waste of a healthy body and an ostentatious display of wealth. Or maybe employers would only want to hire augmented workers for low-skill jobs, thus forcing the poor to “mutilate” themselves with unsightly, unwanted augs just so they could hold a steady job.
- Maybe people into body traditional mods (tattoos, piercings, etc) would embrace augments as a new form of bodily expression. (Check out my day-glow pink leg with tiger stripes!) Or maybe they would see it as crass and impersonal, like taking down an oil painting to hang a mass-produced junk-pop poster from Wal-Mart.
- Maybe criminals would be attracted to having augmented limbs that can’t leave behind fingerprints or forensic evidence at a crime scene. Maybe this would give augments a seedy vibe. Or maybe the high price of augments would make them seem like a status symbol similar to sports cars.
- Maybe augmented people would speak out against movies that “glamorize and fetishize” augmented body parts. They’re tired of reminding people that – despite what you might see in the movies – having a robo-arm does not transform your entire body into a tireless machine. They’re tired of being regarded as human forklifts, and they’re always having to explain that most augmented limbs are actually just human-equivalent prosthetics and not car-smashing pistons filled with firearms and buzzsaws. Or maybe augmented people would complain that they’re under-represented in media.
But no. “Only SJW’s support aug rights.”
In the Original Deus Ex…
We can compare this to how the original Deus Ex did it. For starters, Deus Ex: Original Flavor had a far more over-the-top tone. It had literal black stealth helicopters, Area 51 aliens, spooky nameless government Men in Black, a government-controlled plague, and Chinese gangs fighting over a high-tech laser sword. It was bonkers. It wasn’t demanding that we take it too seriously, and it certainly wasn’t tapping into the mainstream debates of the day. Instead, it was working on the fringe.
In the late 90’s you’d sometimes get conspiracy theorists who would call in to the conservative talk radio shows, talking about how President Clinton was hatching a plan to declare martial law through some loophole in FEMA and take control of the government rather than leave office in 2000. Deus Ex didn’t co-opt an existing right-wing group to feature in their game. They took the FEMA angle, changed it up, and then created a new group – the NSF – to represent these ideas. And then they made the NSF (plot twist!) the good guys and had you ally with them! Because the game wasn’t trying to moralize, it was trying to spin wild conspiracy theories into an unpredictable cyberpunk thriller.
But despite the outlandish tone, the game took some time to explore some ideas and sneak a few clever bits into the margins. Leo Gold – the terrorist leader at the end of the first mission – has a bunch of thoughts on how government has changed in the last century, and it turns out to be a more persuasive pitch for conspiracy theories than the stuff actual conspiracy theorists usually come up with. The Morpheus AI has some pretty fun things to say about how the supposed purpose of God would be fulfilled by a machine capable of omnipresent surveillance. At the end of the game Deus Ex asked you a question about how humanity itself ought to be governed, and it did so without slapping Democrat / Republican / Anarchist / Socialist / Whateverist labels on everything. It didn’t ask you what group you identify with, it asked you what you thought. And then it let you act on that choice without judgement.
Mankind Divided does exactly the opposite. It has a self-serious, grounded tone that demands to be taken seriously. Then it brings up all of this heavy-handed and ill-fitting racism imagery. I could maybe accept this brute-force labeling of sides if the game was at least willing to say something about either transhumanism, racism, government power, or any of the other half-dozen ideas it’s half-assing. But after drawing explicit and ill-fitting parallels between augs and race, the game doesn’t follow up and discuss any of them the way Leo Gold and Morpheus did.
Within the world of Mankind Divided, augmented people are objectively more powerful than a normal person in the physical sense. Two years ago – at the climax of the last game – all augmented people went crazy and attacked innocent people at randomAnd somehow, not each other. It’s the old question of “Why don’t supposedly mindless zombies try to eat each other?”. This explains why people in Mankind Divided hate and fear augs, but it does so by ruining all of the racism imagery they’re using here. Being afraid of powerful people who killed thousands or possibly millions worldwide for reasons that aren’t fully understood is fundamentally different than hating someone because they’re a different color from you. This would be fine if the story was willing to portray or talk about this difference, but it isn’t. People hate augs for The Incident, but people who hate augs are portrayed as mindless brutish bigots.
The police are soulless stormtroopers who are just looking for an excuse to mow down augsActually, there is ONE non-“aug-hater” cop in the city that you can meet in a sidequest. And she HAS to be that way for the quest to work. That’s not nuance, that’s convenience.. None of the augs seem conflicted about their robo-parts. I never saw any normies hanging signs in support of augs, making it seem like hatred of augs was universal. Most augs you meet are downtrodden minorities living in ghettos.
It labels the sides, but the labels don’t really fit or make sense. And then the game doesn’t bother to ask you what you think, because it’s too busy telling you what to think.
Deus Ex was a game that pretended to be stupid, but occasionally said clever things. Mankind Divided pretends to be clever, but in the end it has basically nothing to say.
Transhumanism is a better cyberpunk topic than racism
Even ignoring all the clumsy labels, I think the racism angle is a bad fit for this world. Aside from the obvious problem that “augmented” is not a race, and the Aug Incident muddles any possible racial discussion, the topic is much too black-and-white for a game supposedly about conspiracy theories and paranoia. It’s not like the game is going to pull a second act plot twist and reveal the hateful thuggish bigots were right all along. It’s hard to have uncertainty when the moral compass of the game is a giant flashing arrow pointing to a neon sign that says “RACISM IS BAD, YO”.
A much better topic would be to play around with the tensions and fears of the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the past couple of centuries, because these dovetail so nicely with the possibilities of transhumanism, which seems to have replaced “conspiracy theories” as the dominant flavor of the franchise. During the industrial revolution, many people saw their jobs and even their entire line of work going extinct. We suddenly didn’t need a blacksmith in every village, or someone to light the lanterns around town, or people to shovel horse shit out of the streets, or people to shovel coal into steam engines. We didn’t need nine out of every ten people to be farmers. Eight of those farmers needed to go bust, sell the farm, and move to the city so they could learn to do something else. People were watching themselves become obsolete, along with their knowledge, their family business, and their entire way of life.
It was a frustrating time. It was a scary time. We ended up better for it in the long run, but in the day it was a dark, miserable slog of uncertainty and poverty. Those people didn’t know their hardship would lead to a fantastic world of comfort, safety, and leisure. All they knew was that they were suddenly poor and useless.
Imagine Deus Ex as a story set in that kind of transition. That entire concept has almost unlimited potential to be re-worked and re-imagined in a world where augmented people are objectively more useful than organic free-range humans.
Mankind Divided is Still a Good Game
Like I said earlier, Mankind Divided is still a fantastic game and nothing I’ve said about should be taken as a condemnation of it. But it could have been a little less patronizing and a lot smarter if it just trusted in the player to be able to think for themselves. “AUGS LIVE MATTERS” was good for creating cheap temporary controversyYes I realize this column is part of that problem. but it comes at the expense of those little moments of brilliance that made the original Deus Ex so memorable and worth talking about 16 years later.
One final disclaimer: I’m serious about not arguing about politics here. I know I may have pushed some of your buttons somewhere in the previous 3,000 words of rambling. Maybe you’re really into (or opposed to) one of the various groups I mentioned in passing. I tried to be gentle and fair. Sorry if I angered you, but I hope you’ll let it slide and not feel the need to jump down to the comments and anger a bunch of OTHER people. Just play it cool.
 And somehow, not each other. It’s the old question of “Why don’t supposedly mindless zombies try to eat each other?”
 Actually, there is ONE non-“aug-hater” cop in the city that you can meet in a sidequest. And she HAS to be that way for the quest to work. That’s not nuance, that’s convenience.
 Yes I realize this column is part of that problem.
The true story of three strange days in 1989, when the last months of my adolescence ran out and the first few sparks of adulthood appeared.
The Brilliance of Mass Effect
What is "Domino Worldbuilding" and how did it help to make Mass Effect one of the most interesting settings in modern RPGs?
The Best of 2018
I called 2018 "The Year of Good News". Here is a list of the games I thought were interesting or worth talking about that year.
Who Broke the In-Game Economy?
Why are RPG economies so bad? Why are shopkeepers so mercenary, why are the prices so crazy, and why do you always end up a gazillionaire by the end of the game? Can't we just have a sensible balanced economy?
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.