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Objectivist Video Game Reviews - Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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Deus Ex: Human Revoltion is a Cyberpunk Shooter/Role Playing Game hybrid developed by Eidos Montreal. The Deus Ex series has always been known for alluding to philosophical concepts in its narratives, but Human Revolution is the most blatant about doing so.

Human Revolution focuses on the ethics of Transhumanism, also called "participant evolution" or a situation where humans use science and technology to enhance human capabilities and/or mitigate potential biological flaws (for instance, the use of gene therapies to cure diseases in utero). Human Revolution's world is built around the conflict between those that support Transhumanism (which, in this game's universe, is practiced through cybernetic enhancement) and those that oppose it.

Human Revolution's appearance is not pure Cyberpunk. Rather, it is a hybrid of Cyberpunk and Renaissance, with pro-Transhumanist characters being associated with the Renaissance look and neutral or anti-Transhumanist characters being typically Cyberpunk. This only serves to emphasize how utterly critical the philosophical conflict is to the game.

Before commencing this review, lets look at the moral issues raised by the plot and how they are discussed in the real world.

Fundamentally speaking, discussion of the ethics of Transhumanism comes from one of two basic stances; Prometheanism and Anti-Prometheanism (these are my own terms). The former supports Transhumanism and the latter opposes it. Overwhelmingly, however, most discussion of Transhumanism comes from an Anti-Promethean perspective.

Anti-Prometheanism is fundamentally a sense of ethical skepticism (or often ethical condemnation) towards Transhumanism itself. This is a stronger stance than simply worrying about the chance these technologies may be defective at first; this is a stance against the essential aim of the Transhumanist movement.

The central aim of the Transhumanist movement is the augmentation of human capacities and the mitigation of the flaws in human biology. An Anti-Promethean believes that to augment human capacities or mitigate the imperfections in human biology is to go against nature.

As stated before, the majority of philosophical discussion of Biotech and similar transhumanist efforts comes from an Anti-Promethean perspective. The reasons for this are not hard to trace. Anti-Prometheanism as we know it can be found in both Ancient Greece and in the Christian religion (since Christianity was Hellenized, we can't cleanly point out if any tradition was the dominant contributor to this attitude).

Some Objectivists may reflexively defend the Hellenic philosophers, but this would be a mistake. Aristotle was indeed a Greek, but so was Plato. Additionally, Greek mythology gives us the concepts of "Hubris-Nemesis," and the legend of Icarus. But the clearest case of Anti-Prometheanism is (naturally) in the myth of Prometheus.

Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver pecked out daily for the crime of allowing humans to raise themselves up to the level of the Gods. Hubris-Nemesis is a similar concept; where an attempt by a human to raise themselves up to godlike status is punished with death. Icarus attempted to gain the ability of flight; he unsurprisingly died. The common denominator is the belief that greatness, strength and ability is unnatural for man and reserved to the Gods.

This sense of life is visible in countless Hellenic artworks. Oedipus Rex shows that any attempt by man to shape their own fate and defy the Gods is punished with tragedy. Of course, some Objectivists may point to the more "heroic" works of Greek culture such as the Illiad of Homer, but it should be noted that the heroes of the Illiad are either semi-Divine or Kings (appointed by divine providence to rule). And in the case of the semi-Divine Achilles, he dies because someone targets his vulnerable humanity (his heel).

In other words, greatness is ultimately derivative of divinity in some way or another and it is unnatural for humans to possess it. For human beings to aspire to greatness is to "play God" and thus offend the Gods and invite their wrath.

Unsurprisingly, this attitude shows up in some Greek philosophy. Plato, after all, denied anything on this world can ever approach the ideal. In short, the reflexive defense of the Hellenics that some Objectivists might make is based on a highly unrepresentative sample of Greek philosophy (Aristotle and nothing else), without looking at Greek religion or art. This should not be taken as arguing that the Hellenics have nothing of value to offer; Aristotle was a Greek too. But Hellas-Worship based on a small and eclectic slice of information about ancient Greece is uninformed. But I digress.

The second historical root of Anti-Prometheanism is quite clearly the Christian tradition. The concept of Original Sin placed human frailty, flaws and weakness at the very heart of human nature; thus casting vice as authentically human and virtue as beyond humanity. Hence the sayings "to err is human" and "I'm only human."

The myth of the Fall of Man again had human desire for knowledge, specifically the desire for the knowledge of good and evil, as the root of defiance against the Divine. Again, we see the assumption that to attempt to grow great is a transgression deserving punishment; for greatness is for God alone and we mere mortals need to learn our place. Indeed, the Serpent told Adam and Eve that God only forbade them the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil because if they were to eat the fruit, they would be equal to God.

The Tower of Babylon was the same myth; man attempts to build a tower that would reach the heavens (i.e. to achieve something that symbolically raised us to God's level). God, outraged at human arrogance, punished humanity by destroying the tower and making different groups speak different languages to make it impossible for people to collaborate on such a monumental task ever again.

Just like in the Greek Myths, it is a moral crime for man to aspire to greatness; if we attempt to raise ourselves to the level of the Gods then we must be punished, for greatness is reserved for the Divine.

The Christian narrative has, as its centerpiece, the concept of Salvation; that only via the torture-death of Jesus can the flaws of human nature be cured. Jesus was essentially a Demi-God in this mythology and only the sacrifice of the Divine is sufficient to truly atone for human sinfulness. No amount of lowly human blood would have worked.

As a sidenote, it is truly offensive that the Catholic Church (not necessarily all Catholics, but the Ecclesiarchy) use the "human dignity" argument against Prometheanism when their entire theology is based on the debasement of humanity. Even when the Catholic Church argues that humanity does have dignity, they locate the source of that dignity in the immortal soul and/or the belief that man is made in God's image; just like with the Hellenics, dignity is derived from the Divine.

The Catholic Church has made more than one contribution to this anti-Promethean tradition. The concept of Natural Law (based on an idea borrowed by St. Thomas Aquinas from Aristotle) is one of the most powerful arguments used to perpetuate the idea that greatness is unnatural for humanity. Natural Law essentially argues that all elements of nature have divinely-ordained purposes or "natural functions" determined by God. Something is "good" when it serves said function. Ultimately, the view of the natural order as something divinely-ordained leads naturally to the attitude that to "interfere with" the natural order is to defy the will of God. As a result, the human condition as it currently stands is thus seen as sacred; to improve it is to defy the will of God.

The Catholic Church also promotes anti-Prometheanism in another way; by upholding the sufferring of Jesus as the most authentically human experience (by bearing the consequence for human sin). Thus, sufferring is seen as more authentically human than joy and elation and pleasure.

Irrespective, the overall effect of both the Hellenic and Christian traditions has ultimately been to sunder "humanity" and "greatness" from each other. Humanity is not worthy of greatness and our "natural" place is one of humility and lowliness. Greatness is super-human; a Platonic ideal and a facet of the divine. For us to attempt to rise to that level is to rebel against nature and invite the wrath of the Gods.

Where does Anti-Prometheanism come from? I'd argue it emerges from a response to the Fact of Alienation. Humans are unique amongst the natural order in that we possess self-awareness; a rational consciousness. The unique nature of human beings is a very primal fact which is responded to in three different ways. The first is Affirmation, which is "yes, we're different, and its a fact and thus amoral." The second is Denial, which is to simply claim our consciousness is but an illusion and we are no different to any other animal. The third response is Damnation, which concurs with human uniqueness but sees this as pathological; a product of some sort of transgression against God or the Gods (Christianity, the Hellenics) or "nature" (radical environmentalism) or both (Natural Law Catholicism). For more on this, see (Alienation, The Human Condition and Cognitive Development).

It is this Anti-Promethean attitude which forms the basic intellectual mileu within which discussion of Transhumanism takes place. Its antipode is Prometheanism. Prometheanism has always been the minority position; clear advocacy of its foundation only emerged with the Enlightenment and its conception of humans as rational beings capable of advancing their condition. Objectivism, unsurprisingly, advocates Prometheanism.

So, lets return to the game. Does DXHR's plotline support either side? What does it say about the debate on Transhumanism?

Before I analyze the game's philosophical content, I shall provide a review of the game itself.

In brief, Human Revolution is probably the best game of the year and definetly one of the best games I have ever played.

The game casts you as Adam Jensen, chief of security for Sarif Industries; a biotechnology firm specializing in producing Augmentations (cybernetic enhancements). Your girlfriend is Megan Reed, head of research and just about to go to Washington and reveal that she's made a monumental breakthrough that could make Augmentation far cheaper and thus avaliable to a huge number of people.

The lab is then attacked by a group of Black-Ops soldiers who (surprise!) kill Megan as well as her entire team and leave Jensen for dead.

In order to save Jensen's life, CEO David Sarif has him augmented. Talk about great medical benefits.

The game then concerns Jensen's hunt for those that killed Megan and left him for dead and follows him as he goes from Detroit to China to Montreal and various other locations around the world.

Gameplay-wise, the game continues the Deus Ex tradition of combining first person shooter gameplay with deep Role Playing Game elements (specifically, characters can customize their augmentations and the world has a strong element of choice and consequence). However, a very strong stealth element exists in this game; whilst the previous games could all be played via stealth, none of them had such a strong stealth component. In essence, one could quite accurately describe the gameplay as Deus Ex meets Metal Gear Solid. Overall, the gameplay is satisfying and complex. Hacking is stronger in this game than any previous Deus Ex; a strategic and surprisingly tense minigame is required to perform a hack.

So, whilst this game is satisfyingly in the tradition of Deus Ex, it also has its own very distinct identity.

This identity is further maintained by the unique visual style of the game. The classic Cyberpunk film Blade Runner created a distinctive look through a combination of Cyberpunk and Art Deco style; Human Revolution does the same using a mix of Cyberpunk and Rennaisance. The combination works surprisingly well; whilst some characters look a bit silly (Zhao Yun Ru, for instance), the overall look is remarkably well-done. The visual design of this game really is amazing.

There are clear Blade Runner homages; Adam Jensen's rennaisance apartment filled with heaps of old stuff is not unlike Deckard's Frank Lloyd Wright place. Even the lighting is reminiscent; shafts of light filtering in from the outside truly look stunning.

The Deus Ex series has always prided itself on allowing players to handle things their own way; want to play it like a shooter? Fine! Want to play it like a stealth game? Fine! Want to be a computer hacking junkie? Fine! Any combination of any of this? Absolutely fine! DXHR delivers; all situations can be resolved in multiple ways from convincing others to help you, avoiding enemies, crawling through air ducts, hacking security and using it to take down the guards, or just taking your sniper rifle up to the nearest belltower. The player is allowed to make their own choices as to how they want to handle the game. This flexibility is truly welcome.

Special mention must be made of the soundtrack; its a brilliant mix of orchestral and synthetic sounds. Moving, dramatic, operatic themes will stick in your head long after you've finished the game.

That said, I do have some criticisms;

First, the game almost feels too fast-paced. You don't spend as much time in the "hub" cities as I would have liked, and also there are really only two hub cities in the whole game (Detroit and Hengsha Island). Whilst other levels do take place in other cities, I'd have liked more opportunity to enjoy the downtime and wander around the cityscapes and soaking up the atmosphere. Too often is the player basically being taken from one mission to another without opportunity to chill out and marinate in the atmosphere. Admittedly, even with this unfortunate fact, the game is quite long, but still I would have preferred a bit more downtime and length. An additional hub city would be fantastic. Maybe DLC could bring us one.

Second, the inclusion of boss fights in the game feels.... amiss. Only one of the boss fights has non-combat solutions; this flies in the face of the typical Deus Ex mentality.

Third, some elements in the plot don't entirely work. For instance, in order to create a sufficient "final boss" fight, the game had to literally bring in a last-minute plot element, almost a Villain Ex Machina. This is a cruel irony considering that the original game's title of Deus Ex was intended as a pun on how most video games at the time had terrible writing and tended to resolve their plots with a Deus Ex Machina. An additional problem concerns the final post-credits "surprise" cutscene; wherein which a specific character acts in a way that seems to be a massive derailment of previously-established characterization (although it could possibly be interpreted another way). Finally, whilst the game has multiple different endings, only one of these endings (one I would not take) seems easy to reconcile with continuity.

Fourth, one specific plot element (which I shall not name) was simply too obviously foreshadowed. I had predicted it long before it was explicitly disclosed, and even worse this element has recurred in every Deus Ex game.

That said, I can't help but congratulate Deus Ex Human Revolution for being an excellent game overall. So far, I'd probably say its my favorite of the series and I'd award it a 9/10.

Now, onto the philosophical analysis!

Cyberpunk as a genre is not typically friendly to Objectivist themes. Cyberpunk typically shows all businesses as Kill Puppies Inc., modern society as inherently self-destructive, human beings as inevitably corrupt, and (possibly most malevolently) technology as the root of it all. Technology is, in Cyberpunk, a tool by which the powerful oppress everyone else. A typical theme in Cyberpunk is that technology inherently results in some people ruling others; not merely that technology can be used to rule others but that it will be used to do so. Marxist fears about the human self becoming no more than a commodity, Environmentalist fears about the destruction of all pleasant natural spaces, and all of these complaints and their associated philosophical attitudes, infest the genre and have since its inception.

Lets couple that with the fact the game was developed in Montreal; French and French-speaking cultures aren't always the most hospitable towards Enlightenment ideals.

As such, I was prepared to hear the game go on endlessly about "Augmentations are Teh Evulz! They allow Teh Corporayshuns to enslave us all! The only solution is to go back to Teh Cavez where their evul technology can't hurt us like it raped Teh Earth Motherz!!!"

And guess what? My prejudice was proven wrong.

On multiple levels, DXHR abandons typical Cyberpunk themes. The game's plot instead presents a remarkably sophisticated and Objectivist/Libertarian/Free-Market-compatible critique of Corporatism that touches on the concepts of Regulatory Capture, "The Alliance of the Baptists and the Bootleggers," and other related concepts.

Even more astounding is how the portrayal of three phenomena, unregulated markets, the State, and technological development, is completely reversed from typical Cyberpunk. Typical Cyberpunk sees technological development and unregulated markets as engines of inequality and perpetuation of class privelige, and the State as a puppet of powerful corporations. The underlying attitude is; "if only the State were stronger, markets were more tightly controlled, and technological development more 'socially responsible,' then we could all be equal!"

DXHR completely inverts this attitude.

At the beginning of the game, we learn that Dr. Megan Reed's breakthrough could make Augmentation avaliable to everyone; in the world of DXHR, Augmentation uses cybernetics. However, the body's natural immune system rejects impants, forcing Augmented people to use an exhorbitantly-priced drug known as Neuropozyne. Reed's breakthrough would end the necessity of Neuropozyne and thus significantly reduce the price of Augmentation.

In other words, technological advancement doesn't perpetuate the underclass, but allows them to lift themselves up far more easily than before. Technology generates, rather than ameliorates, social mobility.

In the real world, Cyberpunk's grim predictions of technology-fuelled Feudalism failed to come to pass for exactly the same reason; technological progress made ever-increasing amounts of technology cheaper for everybody. These new technologies, such as the internet, created more business opportunities and lowered the barriers for market entry; it was hotbeds of innovative venture-capital-based firms like Silicon Valley that thrived, and lumbering Zaibatsu corporate behemoths (such as IBM and even Microsoft) that consistently missed opportunities to do so.

Unregulated markets are typically blamed for all that goes wrong in Cyberpunk (and in far too much real-world economics, even when the market criticized is anything but unregulated (see Finance and Healthcare, both of which were extensively controlled and regulated even pre-GFC)). An unregulated market is, according to Cyberpunk, inevitably going to create impoverished underclasses and work to the advantage of the elites. But not in DXHR.

Objectivists especially will be reaching for lube and a box of tissues over the characterization of CEO David Sarif; a non-evil, non-corrupt, sincere businessman that genuinely wants to make Augmentation more accessible (yes; a CEO of a corporation in a Cyberpunk world that is portrayed as good rather than evil!). Sarif is a self-made-man born to an immigrant family, and unlike the vast majority of real-world corporate CEOs, is adamantly against regulation of his industry!

And take a guess who is behind the push for regulation of Augmentation? Whilst I can't reveal exactly who without spoiling the plot, lets just say it fits perfectly with much libertarian analysis of regulation: regulation has a strong tendency to favor established interests, lessen competition, encourage consolidation, and benefit the accumulation of power in smaller and smaller numbers of hands.

And why do these forces want control over Augmentation? Simple; they want a stable society they can control. A society where people get too powerful is one that can resist the jackboot.

In other words, not just technology but unregulated markets are cast as a tool of liberation from oppression, and destabilization of heirarchy rather than reinforcement of it.

Yes, this game was made by French Canadians.

Oh, and the State? Its not a bastion of equality; rather it is yet another arm of Those That Want Control. All fans of Deus Ex probably know this already; its a recurring plot element.

On the streets of the hub cities, people argue for and against Augmentation. The pro-Augs universally defend their position with the Enlightenment values of freedom of choice, human advancement, and equality (equality is an Enlightenment, Classical Liberal value in spite of the Socialists redefining and appropriating the word for their own purposes), whilst the anti-Augs typically resort to mystical arguments or arguments based on the idea that man is too corrupt to hold (Dynamic) power.

In short, this game has evolved beyond Cyberpunk's stale neo-Leftist epic fail at economics and has embraced Schumpeterian Creative Destruction. I'd go so far as to say this game's plot contains the most insightful analysis of Corporatism ever placed in a video game; it clearly differentiates between Corporatism and Free Markets, which is more than I can say for about 95% of the self-labelled left.

The plot also mentions the US government instituting "draconian Federal regulations" and portrays a Homeland Security bureaucracy as yet another incubator for oncoming totalitarianism. How wonderfully topical! These points aren't dwelt upon heavily, but they're mentioned more than enough to make Deus Ex's dark future menacingly plausible.

To be completely fair, it isn't perfect. On occasion, "corporate" is used as a swear word; blank out the fact that Unions are often organized as corporations, not all corporations are inethical, and not all corporations are large and politically connected corporations (although clearly corporations that are unethical, monolithic and rent-seeking do exist, but the point is not all corporate entities fit that description). Additionally, David Sarif mentions that he isn't "in it for the money." Now, to be fair, nor was Howard Roark (he simply enjoyed being an architect and seeing his buildings constructed), but it would've been nice to see an acknowledgement that the profit motive doesn't automatically destroy any human being's moral character and turn them into a psychopath that will prostitute their grandmother to make a buck.

Also, another point with Sarif is that at one point, he says something about how "of course some people will be left behind; that's evolution." This line is actually inconsistent with his character, given his company's efforts (and personal statements) to make Augmentation far cheaper and thus more accessible to all; it seems that the game is attempting to create a bit more moral ambiguity or trying to make the player's choice of ending less simple (all Deus Ex games have an ending sequence where you have to choose which faction (and its associated ideology) you should support; DXHR continues this tradition). Whilst trying to give each 'side' a reasonable case is indeed a good thing to do in a video game about choices, this instance clearly contradicted earlier characterization.

But on balance, this game is remarkably sympathetic towards Enlightenment values and Promethean attitudes towards Transhumanism. Anti-Prometheanism certainly doesn't get a particularly sympathetic hearing in this game. David Sarif is painted with remarkable affection (especially given the typical trappings of the genre) and his sincere Prometheanism is well-detailed.

Given the absolute predominance of anti-Promethean attitudes within today's ethical discussion of Transhumanism, Human Revolution's sincere affection towards Prometheanism is both surprising and welcome. Coupled with its skepticism of State power and intelligent critique of Corporatism which will appeal to Free-Market-oriented mentalities, I think that this is one game which Objectivists will greatly enjoy.

Indeed, I'd go so far to say as this is the most interesting-to-Objectivists video game since BioShock and BioShock 2.

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