The Human Future Remains Unchosen: An Exegesis of Deus Ex: Human Revolution

By Kyle Munkittrick | September 1, 2011 12:32 pm

Progress is not guaranteed. Be it moral, technological, scientific, or social, there is no reason to assume human civilization marches forever forward in step with time. Understood this way, we can realize that progress is a choice and something we as a species will to happen through the concatenation of our decisions.

Or we can fail to choose, fail to act, and yet, that failure is itself a choice and an action from which consequences follow. There is a reason From Chance to Choice is one of the most essential texts on the bioethics of enhancement – it implies that our continued evolution will hinge upon our decision as to whether or not we want the ability to choose our evolutionary path. We must choose to have a choice.

To be specific, our current generation faces the very real possibility of being asked to decide if human enhancement via technological augmentation and genetic engineering is something we want to pursue. A question already moving beyond the abstract realm of bioethics and making its way into popular culture. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (hereafter DX:HR), prequel to the cyberpunk video game masterpiece Deus Ex, asks the player to take part in answering that question.

DX:HR is that rare video game that offers genuine choice. Some great games, like Mass Effect and Bioshock, allow (or famously disallow) certain choices that, in turn, reflect on the player’s moral compass. DX:HR gives the player the chance to fully explore his or her philosophy and guiding ethic regarding human enhancement and cybernetic augmentation. Choices in DX:HR don’t just ask, are you good or evil, but what do you believe?

Often, what makes a great piece of art is not the message it delivers, but the questions it demands we ask of ourselves. DX:HR, is not a great piece of art, but it aspires to be one. And in some places, it comes damn close by asking us: As humanity moves forward, what do we leave behind?

What follows is not a review but an exegesis of DX:HR and the trials of the main character, Adam Jensen. From behind his switch-blade sunglasses, we see that the future of the human race and of enhancement is not a yes or no question. Instead, we’re forced to face the bleak possibility that there is no right answer and no one to blame.

*Spoilers* from here on out.

The plot of DX:HR can be summarized thusly: Adam Jensen, chief of security for Sarif Industries, a major augmentations manufacturer, is all-but-killed in an attack on one of Sarif’s warehouse. In the attack, Sarif’s chief scientist, Megan Reed, is kidnapped, along with other researchers. Jensen is saved at the cost of his becoming heavily augmented; he is a cybernetic Lazarus. He pursues Dr. Reed’s kidnappers at the behest of the head of Sarif Industries, David Sarif. Jensen quickly uncovers a conspiracy theory with ties to an Illuminati shadow government attempting to use Dr. Reed and her breakthroughs in human augmentation for subliminal social control. As he progresses, Jensen encounters rogue military units, enhancement critics and protestors, and a host of regular people just trying to survive in an augmented world.

Astoundingly, the plot blames no one for this technology’s misuse beyond the Illuminati themselves. The technology gets to remain neutral. Even corporations are given even-handed treatment. More important, when you reach the end of the game, there is no single “end.” There is a selection among endings among which you must choose. In weighing this decision, the-player-as-Jensen is confronted with five avatars who represent the ethics of transhumanism. DX:HR leans heavily on Greek myth, as did the original, so I leverage that here to set these characters in context.

  1. Hugh Darrow, inventor of augmentation. Darrow’s right leg is damaged and he must walk with a cane, as his own innovation is rejected by his body, so he cannot be augmented. Darrow views himself like Daedalus watching his creation, augmented humanity, fall like Icarus downward in a flaming spiral after flying to close to the sun. He is the paradox of the innovative status quo. Only the present can create the future, but to let the future flourish, the present must allow itself to become the past.
  2. David Sarif, mass producer of augmentations and champion of transhumanism. Sarif recognizes that progress has costs, often calculated in human lives, but argues the utilitarian benefits for future generations far outweigh the harm current generations or certain individuals will suffer. For Sarif, no one person, no set of myopic morals, can stand in the way of where humanity must go. Sarif is Prometheus, a Titan and a thief, stealing augmented fire for humanity.
  3. William Taggart, leader of the anti-augmentation movement, Humanity Front. That Taggart shares his last name with an Objectivist hero is curious enough, but his arguments against augmentation come out of a desire for the very thing one might presume transhumanism is trying to achieve: a human future. Taggart is a champion of natural law, a representative of the gods. Humans are limited not out of oppression but protection – to exceed is not evolution, but extinction.
  4. Eliza, a self-aware AI construct half-ECHELON, half-spin doctor, that crafts media output into a single subtle message. She tells the public what its opinion is. She is Mercury, Athena, and the Oracle in one – offering information, wisdom, and prophecy. And though her countenance is Apollonian, her option for the world is Dionysian: release the brakes and drop the reigns.
  5. Adam Jensen himself. Jensen dreams of himself as Icarus. As the player, one chooses to save those who are merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, or to exercise your newfound power with extreme prejudice. At no point does Jensen betray an opinion about his augmentations that is not in sync with a decision made by the player, including basic dialog response selections.  Jensen forces the player, forces you, to confront your own transhumanist leanings – your own opinions expressed through the choices you make as Jensen will unsettle you.

From these five we develop a rounded picture of enhancement. For Darrow, it is a breakthrough that will leave many deserving people behind. For Sarif, it is a liberating force, a technology that unbridles humanity. For Taggart, it is a gift of dragon’s teeth that glosses over real problems in the name of technophilia. For Jensen, it is for me, but maybe not for thee. For Eliza, it is the technology that brings not the final order of civilization, but must be unleashed into the dark materials of chaos to rebuild the world – perhaps only by destroying the forces controlling it can augmentation and enhancement really liberate humanity.

At the end of the game, Eliza tells Jensen, “This isn’t the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” The player-as-Jensen finds oneself at the proverbial and literal end of the world in a bunker in Antarctica with a choice posed by Eliza: which human future is best? Eliza is in the place to offer this choice because of her ability to control opinion and information. What you decide through Jensen will happen at the touch of a button. Suddenly human progress is not an uncontrollable force hurtling along under the power of its own momentum. Standing at a nexus of history, one can choose to apply pressure to nudge civilization in one of four directions. No direction is backwards, but each its own version of forward. All horrifying.

There are four options:

  1. Expose the conspiracy, but cripple progress towards human enhancement;
  2. Promote enhancement without reservation, removing the checks of watchdog groups;
  3. Hide the conspiracy, but support watchdog groups and slow enhancement progress to a crawl;
  4. Annihilate the tools of control and take yourself out of the equation. Choose not to choose.

None of these is the “right answer.” You have already beaten the game when this choice arises. And therein lies the glory of DX:HR. There is no happy ending. The game serves as a warning and a rejoinder: the future is coming, but it is built not by servos and fiber optics, but by the decisions of people. As such, the future will arrive broken and corrupt, beleaguered with the venom and stench of those who seek power at the cost of their fellow humans. Good will persist, yet it will be required, as always, to strive and struggle to be seen and heard. But still humanity moves, ever forward.

Thus, DX:HR can be distilled to this single question: Having ruled out utopia, what is the least worst option for our human future?

Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

MORE ABOUT: Deus Ex, Progress

Comments (6)

  1. Damnit!!

    I want to read the rest of this article but I’m still in the middle of crashing my way through the game…must…not…peek…

  2. kirk

    Wm Gibson nailed it when he saw the future arriving through a game console.

  3. Mothammad

    Yeah, tempted but… will read after finishing the game.

  4. Robert Hagedorn

    Is Saint Augustine’s exegesis of the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Genesis correct? Do a search: First Scandal.

  5. ColinC

    I just finished the game last night, and honestly, none of the options comes close to the appropriate response as to what I believe Jensen should have learned. The proper answer, of all the proper answers, would have been to end the signal and then walk away. The reasons why don’t matter, Hugh Darrow proved himself nothing more than a terrorist like any other elite planner out there. The right answer is closest to the option of killing everyone in the facility, but without the killing. Let people find their own answer, their own freedom, and it doesn’t take the killing of anyone.

  6. David

    @ColinC

    I almost agree with you. Definitely the right option is to let humanity make it’s own choices but I see no reason why the truth should not be heard. Personally I see no reason to stop the augmentation of humans so I’d release the truth *then* advocate not to halt progress. Maybe it’d work.

    Thing is, these are not the choices you’re offered. If you don’t broadcast your version of the truth Taggart or Sarif or Darrow will, which is why you’re given the choice to kill them. I found it annoying that I wanted the future of one ending and the methods of another, but sometimes in life you can’t choose the perfect option.

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