Deus Ex: Human Revolution
In my Bioshock Infinite review, I wrote about how important it is that a story-driven game is cohesive in all of its individual elements. The music needs to fit the theme and mood of the story. The visual design needs to tell a story on its own, so that you can infer things about the world without being told (show, don’t tell). The gameplay needs to have some element linking it to the narrative in order to make you feel like you’re actually impacting the world. On top of all that, the story itself needs to engage you enough so that you form your own opinions about the various story beats. It’s a difficult feat to accomplish, and no game this generation accomplished it as well as Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Human Revolution builds a world that’s absolutely believable. One of the core concepts behind writing science fiction is that you take things recognizable in the modern world and tweak them just enough that they seem foreign and, sometimes, fantastical. In this sense, the visual design behind Human Revolution is a resounding success. The guns are recognizable as guns, yet have little visual quirks or high-tech attachments that seem very plausible. Clothing style has changed and the style of clothes worn by more privileged people is somewhat inspired by history and is pretty silly (which can be said about every decade). Architecture is familiar yet foreign, and the hard edges and angles of buildings and interiors follow the same design principles as the guns and clothing. While I’m not going to sit here and say the future of Human Revolution is absolutely going to be our world in 20 years, it’s convincing enough that it could be. And more importantly, everything you see in the game looks like it belongs in that future or that it’s a product of that future.
Aesthetics aren’t everything though. Human Revolution is ultimately a game about the role of technology in human society. Appropriately, the technology in the game is mostly believable. How long will it be before some company applies the features of something like Google Glass to a contact lens or artificial eye? How long until someone who’s lost a limb can replace it with a fully functional and mechanical replacement? Technology like this is already out there, being worked on. Human Revolution simply takes it a step further, into “what if” territory, for the sake of telling a story and creating a fun game to play.
Smartly, the game that you get to play isn’t just about messing around with crazy technology, either. Human Revolution forces you to get off the neutral player sidelines and formulate your own opinion about the ethics of transhumanism. If you play the game honestly (as opposed to deciding beforehand to play it a specific way), the ending you choose and how you treat the characters you encounter very likely reflects your actual opinion on the concepts that it presents to you. You may choose to go lethal after a particular story bit angers you or perhaps you’ll start sneaking around more when you’re confused and want to avoid hostile contact until you have more information.
The inclusion of “conversation boss fights” forces you to read a character and talk him out of or into something as best as you can. I’ve seen people complain that Adam Jenson is a bit bland, but those people seem to be missing the point. It’s the same reason Commander Shepard is bland; the character is there for you to paint with your own opinions on the situations encountered. Ultimately, the popularly lamented ending of Human Revolution doesn’t exist to bring closure to the character of Adam Jenson, seeing as he’s more of a projection of you than a character with a story to tell. The ending of the game is really just the point where you have to reflect back on the arguments given for and against the game’s primary dilemma and decide once and for all what your opinion on the matter is. It’s actually a little cathartic, as the stance you decide on ends up pushing the world in that direction. When these arguments eventually come up in the real world, your or my opinion likely won’t be so impactful.
Regardless, my point is that the ending isn’t as disappointing as people like to say. Human Revolution is a game about the journey and how you conduct yourself over the course of that journey. To make the comparison a second time, it’s not unlike Mass Effect. Mass Effect isn’t so much about where you arrive but how you arrive there. Human Revolution is the same sort of deal.
Of course, Human Revolution isn’t one of my favorite games from this generation just because of the themes and setting. It’s simply a joy to play. The takedowns (both lethal and nonlethal) are visceral and satisfying. The sneaking mechanics give you all the tools you need to feel like the ultimate covert operative while the variety of weapons and upgrades provide you with plenty of options for “going loud.” The hacking minigame fits the game’s cyberpunk universe and the upgrade system allows you a wide variety of options, so much so that it can be difficult to pick which upgrade you want next. The options available to you are impressive; even now, on my fourth playthrough, I’m still finding routes through areas that I didn’t know existed.
Human Revolution is so memorable and successful because it understands the world it takes place in. It knows what is and isn’t plausible in its own universe and as a result, it’s very easy to become wrapped up in the game’s atmosphere. Furthermore, it serves as proof that not every sci-fi game needs to be a set piece-laden explosion fest. While certainly full of action, the drama and tension in Human Revolution is much more cerebral. It shows us that talented and dedicated developers can take a game concept that’s older and hasn’t been iterated on successfully in several years and turn it into something refreshing and fun (a trait shared by the recent Xcom: Enemy Unknown). Like any game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution has flaws, but it powers through them with the sheer will of its overall vision. And here’s to games that have a well-realized and cohesive vision.