Note: I've also made another contribution to The Editing Room. My thoughts on Rise of the Planet of the Apes can be read here. Also, next week the annual Eurogamer Expo will commence, and I'm going to be there in three different capacities: a journalist, a visitor, and a volunteer. These may overlap at times.
The Deus Ex: Human Revolution Short Script (and I have to use the qualifier "short" lightly here) is one of the toughest and most gratifying scripts I've written. I consider it to be a wonderful game that comes down to the best kind of fan fiction Deus Ex could ever hope to get. I'm not sure whether it would have fared as well had it been a new IP, as the countless references to its progenitor add a flavour that immensely intensifies the overall experience. As a result, I find it nearly impossible to look at Human Revolution without Deus Ex as a touchstone. This post will therefore make a lot of comparisons between all games in the Deus Ex series. And just like the Short Script, it's quite lengthy, which is why I'm going to have to subdivide it.
How Human Revolution improves on Deus Ex
When playing Human Revolution, it quickly becomes clear that Eidos Montréal have a profound love and respect for the original Deus Ex. Luckily, that didn’t make them squeamish about tinkering with the main formula. From both a gameplay and a story perspective, Human Revolution addresses some of Deus Ex' flaws and makes some improvements of its own. To list but a few from the gameplay side:
- Hacking in Deus Ex amounts to no more than watching a progress bar, and reading all mails on a hacked computer often means repeating this process several times over as it keeps running out. Deus Ex: HR alleviates this tension by front-loading it into a surprisingly enjoyable minigame.
- Stealth in Deus Ex relies heavily on hilariously nearsighted enemies who often can't see the player standing three feet away. Deus Ex: HR includes a cover mechanic that allows for the same situational awareness without the allowance for exposure (the enemies are still somewhat nearsighted though).
- Moving a body in Deus Ex is impossible when it's carrying supplies and the player's inventory is full. Deus Ex: HR offers a handy tap-or-hold key function to choose between looting a body and moving it.
The same corrective approach is maintained from a story perspective. As pointed out in this article, the original Deus Ex "scratches at legitimate and real political concerns about power, media, class, technology, and choice, [but] fails to do what great science fiction does best: address head-on the core problems of contemporary society". Human Revolution reduces its scope to a singular emphasis on the theme of transhumanism through augmentation technology, and in doing so, burrows to its core rather than merely scratching at it. Transhumanism permeates everything, albeit in a very polarised fashion. For instance, nearly every pedestrian that Jensen addresses responds with their view on augmentation or some issue circling it. This tightens its focus and allows for a more coherent reflection on contemporary society, even if a few parallels are reasonably ostentatious.
While some may argue that this focus isn't tightened as much as it is narrowed, it does close the gap between story and gameplay. It's not often that a unified vision carries a game forward, but Eidos Montréal seems to have started from a strong thematic foundation and developed every aspect of the game from there.
How there is still some consolidation
In this post, I analysed how Invisible War falls short of engaging the player. Human Revolution manages to avoid those pitfalls for the most part, but still shows signs of some consolidation. The biggest indicator is Human Revolution's approach to experience points (XP). Invisible War ditched Deus Ex' XP system and merged its separate skills and augmentations into a single biomod system. Human Revolution brings XP back, but has the player spend it on augmentations. As such, XP in Human Revolution ultimately serves a similar function as Invisible War's biomods: the acquisition of character-specific abilities (more so because XP is also available as a collectible in the form of Praxis Kits). But players do have to type in keycodes and passwords themselves, which is more awesome than it should be.
This consolidation also occurs on a narrative level in Human Revolution's endgame. The different endings available to the player are communicated to him in a single room where a button press will yield the desired ending. Eliza Cassan even pops up to explain in great detail to what exact circumstances each ending will lead. Conversely, the endgame in Deus Ex consists of the entire Area 51 level, and JC Denton is only gradually familiarised with the available endings throughout the flow of that level. This allows for much more elbow room when it comes to giving those endings some narrative gravity. For instance, if the player starts performing actions that lead into one ending, supporters of other endings will attempt to discourage him (listen to the Infolink messages here, here, and here). Human Revolution's tactic of a final decision room precludes this.
How my storyline predictions measured up
I had my own thoughts about how the storyline of Deus Ex: HR would play out. They didn't turn out to be very accurate, but I'd still like to list them here. Most of my predictions were gleaned from the Deus Ex Continuity Bible, a document used to maintain consistency in the game world during that game's development. It details the world of 2052 and the history that led up to it. Eidos Montréal used it as a springboard, as evidenced by this quote from Narrative Designer Mary DeMerle: "Not only have we heard about the Deus Ex bible, it was also required reading before we began work on the story concept for Human Revolution. After reading it, we spent several months filling in some of the blanks in its timeline and history in order to create the characters, companies, cities, and world events that exist in 2027". As such, my predictions stemmed from combining the timeline in the Continuity Bible with the available information from various previews. I present them here:
Human Revolution's overarching narrative thread would focus on the very beginning of the schism between the Illuminati and Majestic 12 (the latter ultimately absorbing the former's power structures sets up the plot of Deus Ex). One passage in the Continuity Bible specifically describes MJ-12 as "the Illuminati's technology and communications [arm]. It doles out technological advances and stores those the world is not yet ready for (or those too powerful to give to potential enemies)". Keeping that in mind, I saw David Sarif and his company as being the most significant front for MJ-12 and the site of their most important research. It would also mean that Sarif indirectly answered to Bob Page. Largely through the Illuminati's stewardship, MJ-12 could exert a considerable level of control over the development of augmentation technology through Neuropozyne. This is actually a similar situation to the one in Deus Ex: just replace augmentations with the Gray Death and Neuropozyne with Ambrosia.
The bible also mentions that MJ-12 was starting work on nanotechnology around the year 2023. They needed a test subject for experimentation and ended up choosing a young Paul Denton because he had "the most suitable physique and genetic makeup for the nano-augmentation project. His immune system was excellent, yet he had no allergic reactions to non-biological foreign materials in his body". This led me to believe that Paul (who was nine years old in 2027) was in fact the "Patient X" that Megan Reed was working on. Her progress on universal augmentation acceptance would then threaten the Illuminati's method of control through Neuropozyne, forcing them to put this development on the back burner.
The first sign of MJ-12's secession would be David Sarif's unwillingness to comply with the Illuminati's directives, in part because he wanted Sarif Industries to helm this discovery, but also because he genuinely desired to make augmentations available to everyone. The attack on his company by a group of mercenaries then becomes a warning from the Illuminati. Sarif knew this and backed off, but hatched a plan of his own that centred around Adam Jensen. Severely wounded in the attack, Sarif arranged for Adam to be mechanically augmented ("I never asked for this"). He specifically went through this trouble because he knew Megan was still alive and the history between Adam and Megan; the former would relentlessly pursue the latter ("I'll never stop looking"). Sarif also uses this opportunity to test out Megan's research on a human subject, and this is the reason that Adam doesn't require any Neuropozyne.
This setup then leads into the game proper. Adam follows a couple of leads and eventually uncovers (part of) the truth. When he confronts Sarif with his discoveries, the latter reveals that a contingency was installed during Adam's augmentation procedures: a killphrase (as with Anna Navarre and Gunther Hermann). Realising that Sarif has leverage over him, Adam is coerced into following his orders and continuing the search for Megan and her team. Now Adam might be more susceptible to other factions who play on the fact that he had two fundamental choices taken away from him. As JC Denton needed Tracer Tong to disable his killswitch, so must Adam seek out help to free him from Sarif's grasp.
Eventually, the ultimate plot twist would be Bob Page's own agenda. While initially siding with Sarif against the Illuminati, his final goal is the one that Deus Ex plays out: becoming a living god. He is already making preparations for that by co-opting MJ-12's work, and the research around Paul Denton and nano-augmentation is a first step to what he requires.
As a whole, this speculative storyline is debunked right out of the gate by Human Revolution's intro sequence. It turns out that Jensen is Patient X, and several sidequests in the game merely allude to the fact that he was one of the genetic experiments in MJ-12's research. Human Revolution never runs with this, and the questions about Jensen's past are never cleared up in full. The main storyline is more important because it has potential to stand on its own. Eidos Montréal cleverly keep the more congruous links to the Deus Ex canon in the background. You can remove all traces of the Illuminati and relegate the conflict to corporations, and the story would still gel.
Oh, and the development studio's love for Deus Ex also seems to include an intense dislike for Invisible War as a corollary. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I didn't encounter a single reference to that game in Human Revolution. I even read that purple was specifically kept off the colour palette, because it's equated too much with Invisible War's art direction. So yeah.