The transhuman
factor

 
Originally published in the Montreal Mirror (Aug 2011) 

Eidos Montreal's Dues Ex: Human Revolution, featuring a technologically enhanced protagonist versus stubbornly all-natural enemies is philosophically profound and thrilling to play

by ERIK LEIJON
The year 2027 may seem an eternity away, but as Eidos Montreal found out in the four years it took them to complete their first game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, even the most outlandish predictions about the not-too-distant future are already in the process of coming true.

If the hypothetical world presented in Human Revolution is to be believed, in 16 years mankind will find itself at a transhumanst crossroads: we'll have begun to embrace cybernetic prosthetics called augmentations, spawning a generation of healthy people willing to amputate their perfectly good body parts in order to improve themselves with mechanical appendages. A disturbing prophecy that could never happen, right?

"We thought it was far-fetched at first," says game director Jean-François Dugas. "But early on, when we were brain-storming---trying to define the world of 2027---we wrote a storyline about an Olympic athlete that wouldn't be allowed to compete because he was augmented and had an unfair advantage. Then a year after we conceptualized it, the Olympic committee was debating whether to let Oscar Pistorious run."

The  very real Pistorious, also known as "the fastest man on no legs," is a South African runner who competes against able-bodied athletes thanks to a pair of flexible prosthetics. Granted, Pistorious didn't willfully lose his real legs, but Dugas can cite cases such as an Austrian man, known only as "Milo," who did elect to have his attached-yet-non-functional hand removed in favour of an artificial one. "What shocked me most in the last four years was, at first I was worried we were pushing it too much, but it's already happening for medical purposes," Dugas says. So how far away are people from doing it in the name of science or art?"

CHOOSE YOUR AUGMENTATION

Mankind's march towards the singularity is the backdrop for PC, XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 first-person role-playing game Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a prequel to 2000's seminal Deus Ex. In terms of storyline, Human Revolution predates the original cult classic by 25 years and downgrades the highly advanced nanotechnical augmentations to more barbaric mechanical ones. No one from Eidos Montreal was involved in the making of the original, although the studio sensibly retained the series' landmark strategic first-person gameplay and cyberpunk theme. Specifically, the Eidos Montreal team calls their man-merging-with-machine motif the cyberpunk renaissance, where proponents of augmentations, including shadowy biotechnology corporation Sarif Industries, adopt an extravagant and colourful visual style reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci and his trailblazing peers. Exhibiting a more militant demeanor are the movements detractors, many of whom belong to the radical organization Purity First, a group that uses disturbing imagery to depict augmented humans as helpless addicts hooked on the drugs that prevent their bodies from rejecting their new limbs.

Human Revolution's world features a staggering amount of detail---down to the near-nanoscopic scales---where everything from the contents of a room to the ruffled sleeves on a character's shirt hides a deeper meaning designed to subtly immerse gamers into this chilling alternate reality. This technique of visual storytelling is designed to allow plyers to explore and make up their own mind on augmentation without feeling like they're being pushed in a certain direction.

"The point of the game is not to make a statement or be moralistic," says Dugas. "This game is about being able to explore a world, to show where humanity might be going and what it might mean, and allow players to make their own decisions as a result."

BLUE-COLLAR HERO

Straddling that line more perilously than anyone is protagonist Adam Jensen. If the game is about players understanding the effect of transhumanism on society, Jensen feels like the one character in Human Revolution who hasn't made up his mind either.

"He's a true blue-collar hero," says lead writer Mary DeMarle. "Adam represents the guy who's trying to do the best job he can, get paid and life his life in peace."

Jensen, a security consultant, begins the game as a regular human, but a would-be fatal accident at Sarif headquarters forces him to accept augmented body parts in order to survive. After his difficult recovery, Jensen is thrust back into the job and players are free to tinker with his body as much as they want, giving him everything from super strength to new eyes, new lungs or even a more stable shooting arm. These new augmentations come in handy for his line of work, as he's often infiltrating bases behind enemy lines where he's severely out numbered and unable to succeed simply by running and shooting. The game is broken down into four main gameplay pillars, so players have to consider combat, stealth, hacking and social/dialogue techniques when trying to achieve their goals. Augmentations neatly fit into each pillar, so it's possible to give Jensen a highly specialized skill set or upgrade him into a more well-rounded character.

"We wanted to offer Jensen as a blank slate," says art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête. "He's really a vessel for all the game's main ideas, and it's up to players to decide how much of a gray area he represents." One thing players won't be able to do is create an all-purpose superman, says Dugas, as there's only enough in-game currency to (called Praxis points) to acquire 70 per cent of Jensen's potential augmentations