The summer after my junior year of college, I received a research fellowship to begin work for a senior thesis. I was a history major, but I didn’t really know what historians did. I’d been asked to read many, many, books over the past three years, so I assumed that professional historians just read even more books until they divined something new to say about what had really happened.
I walked into the archive at the New York Public Library, telling them about my fellowship and filling out all the relevant paperwork. Then the archivist asked me what I actually needed to look at. I had no idea what to tell him, so I fumbled to the first collection I could find and requested some boxes, spending the next five days flipping through a man’s professional correspondences while spinning terrified fantasies of the departmental honors committee eviscerating me the coming fall semester. Finally, I emailed my thesis adviser for help.
“Part of me wants to take a Nike-like approach (‘Just Do It.’),” she wrote back, “but here’s where you start.” She then posed a series of questions for me to consider. “What’s the story? What is the archive telling you? Which of the things that brought you there in the first place are starting to take shape in the archive?” Finally, she told me, “just learn the world that you are studying. How do they talk? What do they care about? What do they wear? Who are the leaders/followers?”
I am writing about the frustrating and administrative details of my academic career because of the divergent reactions I’ve read since the release of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The game, released this past August, was often praised for being a return-to-form for a series that produced what is, for many fans, the best game ever created. Despite its many glitches, critics lauded its novel approach to storytelling, leading to a critical backlash accusing the game of horrible voice-acting, stiff and outdated facial animation, and a preposterous collection of plotlines that fail to cohere into a meaningful story.
As for my review, I was supposed to submit this article weeks ago when I was spending every free moment of the day (and often fighting sleep at night) crawling through vents and scaling rooftops to get to my next objective. But I fell victim to one of the fatal game-crashing errors. Square Enix did not resolve this bug with a relevant patch until long after that breathless, momentary deadline in game reviewing when my opinion is somehow supposed to tell people whether this game is worth their time and money.
All of the nooks and crannies of Human Revolution’s moments of stunning and not-so-stunning gameplay have been analyzed in enough detail already that they don’t bear repeating. Yes, the game is wonderful to play. Its fatal errors infuriated me because of how stellar the rest of the experience is. Yes, the sudden shifts from first to third-person were disorienting. Yes, the boss fights are frustratingly incongruent with the rest of the gameplay, to the point where I am forced to admit I lowered the difficulty to the easiest level because my stealth-augmented Adam Jensen had no way to defend himself against these sudden onslaughts. These fit so poorly into the pace and nature, not to mention the design, of the game that I was oddly relieved to find out that their production had been outsourced to another developer. And, yes, there are moments of peculiar cultural insensitivity, the place of which in the game is questionable (why does Jensen have to accuse someone of running a “shylock scam?”).
So what makes this game worth playing after all these nearly fatal flaws?
When I walked into the New York Public Library Archives, I was handed boxes of dried-out bits of paper. They contained hand-written notes, scribbled medical records, doodles scrawled on napkins from hospital trays, frantic letters between scientists and journalists. If sifting through these documents is “research,” then I realized that the historian is only partly a researcher. Just as importantly, my adviser was trying to tell me, was to learn to be a storyteller, to find and craft the narrative that lies beneath all of these penstrokes and personal details.
There are two stories in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. One is at the surface of the game, and it combines myriad elements of science fiction, noir, crime thrillers, and bits and pieces of almost every conspiracy theory imaginable. There are moments that feel overblown and hammy, but that is also its charm. The game seems to admit how ridiculous it can sound when Jensen reacts to his friend and pilot describing a side-quest to him: “Christ, Malik, this is starting to sound like a bad spy movie.” After all, part of what mystified fans of the original Deus Ex, as my friend who replays the game several times a year told me, is how it somehow pulls off a story full of game-changing twists and technobabble so well.
Human Revolution does this by telling another story entirely, one that you have to tell yourself. It’s the larger narrative of the Deus Ex universe that lies hidden behind all the locked computer screens and PDAs you have to scrounge for. You witness it when walking through the run-down streets of Detroit on the way to speak to your boss atop a pristine corporate office building. It makes you wince and grit your teeth (as Jensen seems to be doing the entire game) when you catch the thuggish and impoverished harvesters—men made out of composite bits of stolen or scavenged augments—admiring the handiwork that rebuilt your Jensen. “Very nice,” they cluck, and you back away slowly, wondering when they’re going to turn the large rifles they finger restlessly on you.
This is a gritty, frightening sort of science fiction far removed from wondrously pristine space operas like Star Wars or Mass Effect. It feels more real than the run-down world of Blade Runner. If anything, it reminds me Samuel Delaney’s writing: a thoughtful, expansive, and wonderfully meandering exploration through contemporary urban space as it is changed by the introduction of new technologies and economies. You feel the bitter irony and injustice of this world whenever you uncover another email from a scientist or politician heralding the utopian promise of mankind’s new inventions, only to see the world around you continue to fester.
Deus Ex is a game that can be played many different ways, and perhaps this open-ended approach is what keeps this dormant, ambient narrative more hidden than it ought to. But part of any gameplay experience that makes it fascinating and unique is how persuasive your actions feel in the game. Without player interaction compelling forward movement, games are never fully realized. Human Revolution’s story seems unsure at points precisely because of how interactive it is—it is the same disembodied documents, shreds of evidence that lay like puzzle pieces before the confused and aspiring historian. It is both tremendously frustrating and profoundly liberating that the game does not put all the pieces together for us.