Rise/Fall 13

But now, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our pot­ter;
we are all the work of your hand.
~Isaiah 64:8

One of the most evoca­tive analo­gies for human change in the Hebrew scrip­tures is found in Isaiah, the oft-sung pas­sage por­tray­ing the deity as crafts­man and His peo­ple as clay. It must have been, and still is, an inti­mate image for Abraham’s descen­dants — that a divin­i­ty might tug upon our very selves, shap­ing us into beau­ti­ful, last­ing forms is flat­ter­ing, and it inspires feel­ings of safe­ty and hope that hear­ken back to the story of cre­ation, when Adam was fash­ioned from the earth. But it also clear­ly rel­e­gates the human body to a sub­ject role; the clay has no power to influ­ence its own cre­ation. Of course, since Darwin, we have known that evo­lu­tion is a con­ser­v­a­tive, ran­dom process that oper­ates (if it can be said to oper­ate) toward the goal of repli­ca­tion, and is cer­tain­ly not the pur­pose­ful artist that the author of Isaiah imag­ined.  But this image still had weight, since we were sub­jects in the con­tin­u­al re-creation of the human race, not agents. But now, that too is chang­ing. This image becomes less and less applic­a­ble as we con­sis­tent­ly gain greater abil­i­ty to become our own crafts­men. Now we can mold our­selves and mold oth­ers, and the promise of fur­ther influ­ence over the body gleams on the hori­zon.

Of course, just because we can does­n’t mean that we should. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is trans­fixed on the tran­shu­man shift that begins even now, and exam­ines many of the boons and pit­falls that com­mand over the flesh might entail. The nar­ra­tive begins in a time when aug­men­ta­tion of the body has become stan­dard fare, if not com­mon­place, but soci­ety has­n’t yet accli­mat­ed to the change yet, either. Augments are still very much attached to issues of class in Human Revolution’s imag­ined future, and so the play­er gains insight into how this tech­nol­o­gy might gen­er­ate soci­etal ills even as it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly enhances indi­vid­u­als.

Human Revolution is smart in its approach; it puts the play­er in the role of an indi­vid­ual that was aug­ment­ed out of neces­si­ty, not out of choice, and this frees the play­er to explore the issue through a char­ac­ter that, like any nat­u­ral­ly evolved crea­ture, did­n’t ask to be what he has become. As the nar­ra­tive plays out, Human Revolution treats Adam Jensen as a micro­cosm with­in which the explore the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy. One of the best, and most sub­tle, meth­ods it uses is con­scious­ly draw­ing on two opposed myths — the Icarus myth and the Adam and Eve myth — to exam­ine whether tran­shu­man­ism will be remem­bered as a Fall, or as a Rise from old lim­i­ta­tions.

The Fall

Human Revolution starts in the office of an unnamed busi­ness­man, who stands before a stat­ue of a winged man (the first instance of the Icarus motif) in a tower over­look­ing a sky­line and then turns to con­verse with a host of face­less, name­less indi­vid­u­als speak­ing via voice mod­u­lat­ed path­ways about a broad con­spir­a­cy appar­ent­ly affect­ing a wide pop­u­la­tion and which will run through the rest of the game. What has this cabal wor­ried is the new dis­cov­ery that Megan Reed, a sci­en­tist of Sarif Industries, is poised to reveal the very next day in Washington. The scene then shifts to a news broad­cast of Eliza Cassan, who is report­ing on anti-augmentation pro­test­ers who are protest­ing (in advance) the news that Megan Reed intends to share with Congress, that she has found a way to make aug­men­ta­tions “avail­able to all.” The scene pans back to encom­pass Dr. Reed her­self and the new head of secu­ri­ty of Sarif Industries, Adam Jensen, who is the play­er’s avatar. There are a few moments of con­text; the play­er can eas­i­ly pick up that Jensen and Reed have an inti­mate his­to­ry, but then the nar­ra­tive plows along and Sarif calls Adam up to see him.

The game then places the play­er in Jensen’s shoes, and he, like the play­er, is new to the flur­ry of work at Sarif Industries. What’s more, it’s clear that he has doubts about the ends of the research being done at the com­pa­ny. Reed accus­es him of over-thinking things; she insists that “The work we’re doing is good. We’re help­ing peo­ple over­come their phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions.” Adam coun­ters by point­ing out all the Department of Defense con­tracts that Sarif Industries has run­ning, and while Reed insists that they also work with teach­ers, doc­tors, and con­struc­tion work­ers, the play­er is then treat­ed to a demon­stra­tion of the Typhoon weapon sys­tem, a 360 degree radius attack sys­tem that lev­els every­thing around the indi­vid­ual deploy­ing it. Reed con­tex­tu­al­izes it as a sort of “deal with the devil,” in that the defense con­tracts keep Sarif Industries afloat and helps fund tech­nol­o­gy that helps peo­ple, such as neur­al enhance­ments that helps one think faster and react quick­er. There’s then a def­i­nite con­fir­ma­tion that Megan and Adam have a roman­tic past, but then they sep­a­rate so that Adam can con­tin­ue on to speak with Sarif. As for Sarif, he’s aglow with the new break­through that they’re going to reveal tomor­row, and the play­er gets a glimpse of just how con­vinc­ing Sarif can be. He specif­i­cal­ly claims that they are in no way tam­per­ing with the nat­ur­al order; instead, Megan sim­ply unlocked what was already there inside human DNA, thus allow­ing for a safer method than what tech­nol­o­gy that’s already preva­lent on the mar­ket allows for.

This is the per­fect way to intro­duce the game. It quick­ly estab­lish­es the set­ting, attrib­ut­es voic­es to the sides of the debate that will be explored in the nar­ra­tive, illu­mi­nates the themes of the work, and begins to char­ac­ter­ize Jensen. The nar­ra­tive kicks into action dur­ing the meet­ing with Sarif; an assault begins on Megan’s lab, and Adam rush­es down to inves­ti­gate and do what he can. Jensen engages or avoids the armed men mur­der­ing their way through the labs, and in the process catch­es sight of a few heavily-augmented sol­diers. One turns invis­i­ble; anoth­er is essen­tial­ly a walk­ing tank; and the last of them grabs Jensen and throws him through a wall, and does­n’t stop his assault until he has pul­ver­ized Jensen’s limbs and organs, and final­ly puts a bul­let through Jensen’s skull. And Jensen? Jensen is help­less dur­ing these pro­ceed­ings; against this sin­gle aug­ment­ed sol­dier, Jensen, a tough, trained, for­mer SWAT mem­ber, is utter­ly inef­fec­tive. You can see this scene here, and also the scene I talk about in the next para­graph.

We are then treat­ed to a won­der­ful cut-scene that inter­spers­es slightly-stylized, ele­gant dia­grams of the mod­i­fi­ca­tions being done to Adam’s body and inti­mate, ultra-precise images of var­i­ous aug­men­ta­tions being installed with scenes from Adam’s mem­o­ry, specif­i­cal­ly of Adam mak­ing love to Megan. We hear her voice, say­ing, “I love you,” and whis­per­ing Adam’s name. This is a bril­liant scene for a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent rea­sons. First, the soft orange and yel­low hues that are so promi­nent in the cut-scene imply warmth (and indeed, the tight focus of many of the shots are near­ly womb-like; they are less clin­i­cal and more inti­mate), but also nos­tal­gia; it is this mix­ture of life begin­ning and life past. Second, we are get­ting a glimpse at what makes Adam tick. In his near-death state, his mem­o­ries are of lov­ing Megan Reed, and this glimpse at his moti­va­tions and desires coin­cide with our inti­mate glimpse of Jensen’s body. Finally, the images of this re-birth are mixed in with images of what Jensen is los­ing. The mem­o­ries of mak­ing love to Megan are phys­i­cal mem­o­ries, so tight­ly wound in with the body that he is los­ing now and for­ev­er. And so the play­er receives this dis­so­nant clash of ideas that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly show us who Adam is and who Adam is becom­ing; what Adam is gain­ing and what Adam has lost; death and re-birth. It effec­tive­ly estab­lish­es the ten­sion at the core of the game: what does it mean to be human? What are the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of what Adam has become? What does Adam rep­re­sent?

New Man

The rest of the game takes place six months after this rebirth, as Adam attempts to con­tex­tu­al­ize and dis­cov­er the truth behind both his own “death” and the mur­der of the woman he loved, let alone the many, many oth­ers that died in the attack. The play­er only ever knows him as an aug­ment­ed indi­vid­ual from that point on. Most of his body is mechan­i­cal now; the game wastes no time in giv­ing the play­er a glimpse of Jensen’s sleek new body, which is designed to look as “human” as pos­si­ble in mus­cu­la­ture and form (in notable con­trast to near­ly all of the other aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als he encoun­ters). Even before we see the changes beneath Jensen’s cloth­ing, we expe­ri­ence the inside of Jensen’s head; where before the play­er had a clean, vacant view of the world, now there is a HUD over­laid, keep­ing track of Jensen’s vitals and offer­ing assis­tance in obser­va­tion and com­bat. Most of Human Revolution is set in first per­son, but occa­sion­al­ly the cam­era pans out onto Adam, usu­al­ly when he is doing some­thing intense­ly phys­i­cal, when Jensen him­self would be espe­cial­ly aware of his new body. Two notable exam­ples occur when Jensen engages in phys­i­cal com­bat with an oppo­nent, or takes cover in a fire­fight.

The changes to Jensen’s body are incred­i­bly ben­e­fi­cial for the actions the play­er is expect­ed to per­form, but it isn’t long before Human Revolution asks the play­er to think about Jensen’s new body.

In an early con­ver­sa­tion with Jensen’s pilot, Jensen is asked what he thinks about his new aug­ments; it’s a pow­er­ful moment for the play­er, who has just fin­ished up his or her first mis­sion and is prob­a­bly a lit­tle giddy, hav­ing just received the first chance to upgrade Jensen’s aug­ments (my Jensen had just become capa­ble of becom­ing invis­i­ble, and I was itch­ing to try it out). But then Faridah asks Jensen how he’s cop­ing, and the play­er is given a cou­ple of options, includ­ing a rather angry response that reminds the play­er that this new body was forced on Jensen, no mat­ter how nec­es­sary or pow­er­ful the aug­ments were. This sen­ti­ment is dri­ven home to the play­er when they return to Jensen’s home; no mat­ter how the play­er had Jensen answer, a shat­tered mir­ror in the bath­room shows that Jensen has most def­i­nite­ly had trou­ble cop­ing with the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of his fail­ure.

It was a fas­ci­nat­ing dis­cov­ery, one that I can’t recall hav­ing with any other game. When Faridah asked how Jensen was, I answered that he was fine; his body had just come in handy. It had saved lives, in fact, and it seemed silly to begrudge it when it was so help­ful and had accom­plished so much good. But when I saw the mir­ror, I real­ized that Jensen (the Jensen that exist­ed between my choic­es and the char­ac­ter that the game pre­sent­ed) was lying, per­haps even to him­self. The arti­fi­cial body must serve as an ever-present reminder of what Jensen has lost. In a later scene, Jensen might admit that “Every time I touch some­thing I won­der — just for a sec­ond, every time — if what I’m feel­ing is real.” Jensen’s fail­ure and loss is total­ly embod­ied; Human Revolution is nuanced in that as it pro­vides the play­er with astound­ing, fun abil­i­ties, it reminds that the cost is Jensen’s peace of mind.

Jensen serves as the pro­to­type “New Human” for the play­er, and his own strug­gles with his iden­ti­ty is mir­rored in the wider soci­ety. Jensen’s stance on what he has been made into is ulti­mate­ly up to the play­er, but he can be por­trayed as angry and bit­ter, cold and detached, or as most­ly recov­ered and warm­ing to the ben­e­fits of his aug­ments. Society con­tains those voic­es and more, and they are por­trayed in the midst of anti-aug riot­ing in Detroit, in the broth­els of Hengsha, in the lit­er­al tow­ers of aug­men­tat­ed cor­po­rate exec­u­tives and in gangs that har­vest aug­ment­ed limbs from the liv­ing and the dead. Humanity is on a brink; there are those who are opti­mistic and excit­ed about the poten­tial of aug­men­ta­tion, but there are many who express fear at the obso­let­ing effect of aug­men­ta­tion, since aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als are bet­ter than non-augmented indi­vid­u­als in a phys­i­cal, vis­i­ble way, and at what some might say is a per­ver­sion of the sacred, nat­ur­al body.

Law is still in the process of defin­ing the role that aug­men­ta­tions will play out on a glob­al scale, and the play­er receives the rea­soned extremes of the argu­ment about the imple­men­ta­tion of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy via Jensen’s dis­cus­sions with David Sarif, who is both Jensen’s employ­er and the man who foist­ed the suite of aug­men­ta­tions onto Jensen’s dying body, and Bill Taggert, an anti-augmentation lob­by­ist whose wife was killed by a man suf­fer­ing from augmentation-related ill­ness. Sarif speaks con­vinc­ing­ly of an unreg­u­lat­ed future for aug­men­ta­tions; he por­trays him­self unflinch­ing­ly as a pio­neer explor­ing and widen­ing the bound­aries of human capa­bil­i­ties. Sarif is a vision­ary fig­ure, and fits the bill quite well. He total­ly believes in the cor­rect­ness of his posi­tion, even as he acknowl­edges its occa­sion­al unfor­tu­nate down­side, a “bro­ken egg” here or there. He is no saint, ask­ing Jensen to break the law on mul­ti­ple occa­sions, but he is a true believ­er. Taggart stands oppo­site, and acts in a con­sid­er­ably more oppo­si­tion­al role through­out most of the game, but he is an explic­it­ly polit­i­cal foe. One of the best scenes in the game has Jensen con­fronting Taggart in front of a live tele­vi­sion audi­ence over the involve­ment of one of his orga­ni­za­tion’s impor­tant mem­bers in a mas­sive kid­nap­ping job. Taggart always aims at Jensen, claim­ing that the trau­ma of loss and then aug­men­ta­tion has made him unsta­ble; it’s a tense, won­der­ful scene, but most­ly por­trays Taggart as savvy politi­cian. Taggart’s more nuanced argu­ments are hint­ed at via e‑books found in the game (and com­piled for your ben­e­fit here).

Between the poles of these two men, the play­er and Jensen nav­i­gate whether the promise of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy is worth the cost in human lives and, poten­tial­ly, the human spir­it. Having estab­lished that, let’s move into an inves­ti­ga­tion of the two cho­sen myths.

Icarus — Rise, then Fall

The core of the Icarus myth is Daedalus’ and Icarus’ attempt­ed escape from Crete via wings that Daedalus fash­ions for him­self and his son. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too low or too high, but Icarus, either out of ambi­tion or the joy of free­dom, does­n’t lis­ten; he flies far too high, and the sun melts the wax of his wings, and so he plum­mets into the sea and drowns. The myth inter­acts with the themes of ambi­tion and power, and shares the same sort of struc­ture that is com­mon to the “Playing God” sci­ence fic­tion trope. Its main dra­mat­ic beats are a rise from impris­on­ment, but too far a rise, so that it ends in a sud­den fall. If Human Revolution is “read” as an Icarus anal­o­gy, then tran­shu­man­ism, espe­cial­ly aug­men­ta­tion, are the wings. All of human­i­ty acts as Icarus, but again, Jensen serves as rep­re­sen­ta­tive to human­i­ty in Human Revolution. But what exact­ly does “soar­ing too high” trans­late into, and what fall is feared?

Well, the flight of Icarus is eas­i­ly trans­lat­ed into the sheer capa­bil­i­ty of aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als. Human Revolution express­es this most clear­ly through the game­play. As Jensen unlocks more and more of the poten­tial of his aug­ment­ed body, he quick­ly becomes capa­ble of sneak­ing through or assault­ing heav­i­ly defend­ed instal­la­tions, or hack­ing any com­put­er in less than a minute. With very lit­tle effort, Jensen can become excep­tion­al­ly social­ly adept, obser­vant, and able to emit mood-altering pheromones, mak­ing him a very per­sua­sive indi­vid­ual. Jensen is sim­ply bet­ter. This is true through­out the game, except in the instance of boss fights against the three mem­bers of Belltower’s “Tyrants” unit, the heav­i­ly aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als that Jensen sees in the last min­utes of his healthy, unaug­ment­ed life. In fact, there’s a real rever­sal of role every time Jensen enters close com­bat. Even trained sol­diers don’t stand a chance against him; with a sin­gle press of the but­ton, the play­er can mur­der or sub­due one (or even two) oppo­nents in a recre­ation of Jensen’s own “death.” Jensen has become just as unstop­pable because he was so bru­tal­ly ruined.

The boss fights are uni­ver­sal­ly con­sid­ered one of Human Revolution’s few fail­ings. They are so dif­fer­ent in form and con­tent that it feels like you’ve start­ed play­ing a dif­fer­ent (and worse) game; they were even designed by an out­side com­pa­ny. All the skills that you’ve been devel­op­ing sim­ply don’t hold true in these boss fights, and the play­er sud­den­ly finds them­selves up against an oppo­nent that will glad­ly eat their bul­lets and which they can­not avoid or talk their way through. If any­thing, this just under­scores how “nor­mal” the aver­age sol­dier that Jensen leaves bleed­ing or uncon­scious in his wake is, and how much of an impact these hyper-augmented sol­diers could have in a mil­i­tary envi­ron­ment. The three times that Jensen fights a foe that is as heav­i­ly aug­ment­ed as he, all the rules change.

It’s also worth not­ing that all two of the three boss fights are against oppo­nents with sig­nif­i­cant­ly less ele­gant chas­sis than Jensen’s; I bring it up because the mat­ter of design is impor­tant to the Icarus myth, and because Jensen’s advance through the ranks of the Tyrants is as much an aes­thet­ic move as a mil­i­tary one.

The first boss, Lawrence Barrett, is clear­ly suf­fer­ing from aug­men­ta­tion rejec­tion (in the skin where the metal ends on his jaw), and his com­plex­ion has start­ed to turn metal­lic. Moreover, the build is unnat­u­ral­ly heavy, with flanges and other defen­sive instal­la­tions, and one of his arms actu­al­ly hous­es a gun, mak­ing Barrett impos­ing, but cer­tain­ly not beau­ti­ful:

The sec­ond boss, Yelena Fedorova, has less obvi­ous defor­mi­ty, but her chas­sis is vague­ly non-human; the sharp edges of the torso are unap­peal­ing, and the scale of the body isn’t quite anatom­i­cal­ly right. It does­n’t show here, but her legs bend the other way as well, cre­at­ing a rather unset­tling effect:

The bod­ies of these first two boss­es are clear­ly unnat­ur­al. There is less fusion of form, so their limbs feel like addi­tions rather than part of the body, and they can­not be mis­tak­en for “nat­ur­al” humans, even with cloth­ing on.

The third boss, Jaron Namir, has a body that is clear­ly based on human mus­cu­la­ture. Only two-toed feet and an espe­cial­ly thin torso break from the nat­ur­al build:

While this bio-mimesis inspired body is very human in form, it still feels unfin­ished, since there is a star­tling lack of skin. Compare to the body of Jensen:

Jensen’s aug­ments are matte black and smooth like skin, but clear­ly have def­i­n­i­tion. What’s more, they have not replaced all of his body so much as fused with it, and the end result is that it feels nat­ur­al, and fin­ished. With each new boss, it’s as if we see the next design rung up the lad­der of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy, and Jensen’s tri­umph over his oppo­nents cham­pi­ons his nat­u­ral­is­tic aug­ments over their unnat­ur­al bod­ies. Jensen is at the apex of aug­ment­ed design — his aes­thet­ic is clean, smooth and inte­grat­ed, and in form he can pass as human.

In the Icarus nar­ra­tive, the design­er of the wings is not the ambi­tious char­ac­ter; in fact, Daedalus urges cau­tion. It is Icarus that pur­sues greater heights, and Icarus that falls. In Human Revolution, David Sarif is the most ambi­tious char­ac­ter, and he acts as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the parts of human­i­ty that also pur­sue the full poten­tial of aug­men­ta­tion. Nearly every encounter with Sarif sees him reit­er­ate his vision of an improved human­i­ty, a pas­sion he no doubt received from the father-figure in his life. That role is filled by Sarif’s men­tor, Hugh Darrow, cre­ator of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy, who fills the role of mourn­ing father quite well.

Just as Jensen uncov­ers the Illuminati’s plot to con­trol all mechanically-augmented indi­vid­u­als, Darrow acti­vates an alter­na­tive sig­nal that dri­ves most aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als into a hallucination-fueled mur­der­ous fren­zy. He does this not as an evil mas­ter­mind, but because he seeks to prove the dan­gers of aug­men­ta­tion to human­i­ty. Like any phil­an­thropist, Darrow hoped that his tech­nol­o­gy would grow to help peo­ple, includ­ing him­self, but the inverse of his dreams were real­ized. Instead, his genet­ics made aug­men­ta­tion impos­si­ble for him, and the Illuminati and oth­ers had fash­ioned aug­men­ta­tion into a means of con­trol over the poor­er and weak­er. Now dis­il­lu­sioned, Darrow want­ed to break human­i­ty’s enchant­ment with the tech­nol­o­gy that he made, and fash­ioned an atroc­i­ty to that end. Darrow sees his “child” soar­ing high­er much faster than he had hoped, and fears what will hap­pen, so he does some­thing that Daedalus could not: he engi­neers a less-fatal fall to cause human­i­ty to cast off its wings. It’s worth check­ing out the con­ver­sa­tion that Jensen has with Darrow at the end-game; it’s one of the best scenes in Human Revolution, and cap­tures a lot of the themes of the game.

As an Icarus tale, Human Revolution steps in right before the fatal fall. Humanity’s future rela­tion­ship with aug­men­ta­tion is uncer­tain, and so it is unclear whether aug­men­ta­tion will keep human­i­ty fly­ing, or whether it will just enable human­i­ty to plum­met from even greater heights. Darrow would cut off the wings to keep us safe, while Sarif push­es us toward the heav­ens, and Taggart urges cau­tion.

Adam and Eve — Fall, then Rise

The moniker of the avatar char­ac­ter, Adam, is a clear nod to the clas­si­cal Christian cre­ation myth, and it bears a few clear signs of fit­ting. Mythical Adam was the first man, and Human Revolution’s Adam sim­i­lar­ly acts as the source of a “New Human.” What is inter­est­ing is that this new peo­ple will not spring from Adam’s loins (at least, not pri­mar­i­ly), and Adam does not offer a gen­e­sis of new life; instead, Adam offers a solu­tion to a prob­lem in the lives of those who have already become “New Humans.” Specifically, aug­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als face prob­lems with rejec­tion of arti­fi­cial limbs and organs, a total­ly plau­si­ble bio­log­i­cal response to what essen­tial­ly amounts to an alien, non-self enti­ty. White blood cells are sure to hate that new spring-laden steel leg, regard­less of its util­i­ty. One of the cen­tral objects of worry in future Detroit is the lim­it­ed avail­abil­i­ty of the drug Neuropozyne, which stops the even­tu­al build-up of glial tis­sue around aug­men­ta­tions. Adam, how­ev­er, does­n’t seem to need the drug; he suf­fers no ill effects from his aug­men­ta­tions.

This is because the source of the dis­cov­ery that result­ed in the attack that starts off the nar­ra­tive is Adam’s DNA, which does all the things list­ed here (Subject X is Adam Jensen). Even the lan­guage in that entry (from in-game) begins to depict Subject X as a new being, total­ly match­ing the tran­shu­man­ist ideal and expressed in the nat­ur­al aes­thet­ic of Adam’s new body. The ner­vous sys­tem and the aug­ments become indis­tin­guish­able, since Adam’s biol­o­gy strength­ens rather than degrades the con­nec­tion with aug­ments. What was once two become one. Adam rep­re­sents a new level of fusion between tech­nol­o­gy and human­i­ty, a total incor­po­ra­tion of the machine into flesh. As such, he fits the role that his name opens. Adam is not only capa­ble of expe­ri­enc­ing this sym­bio­sis him­self, but also con­tains what is nec­es­sary to bring the rest of human­i­ty into a sim­i­lar sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship with aug­men­ta­tions.

In part of a side-mission that is some­what dif­fi­cult to gain access to, the play­er might dis­cov­er that the peo­ple that Adam thought were his par­ents were not his birth par­ents at all. In fact, the ori­gins of Adam’s life is shroud­ed in mys­tery. Dr. Reed admits to being curi­ous about whether or not Adam’s unique DNA is the result of ran­dom evo­lu­tion, or is a prod­uct of human design; the game offers no clear answers, but due to his unique biol­o­gy and the cir­cum­stances of his child­hood, human design seems the most like­ly answer. At first glance, the age and overuse of the engi­neered man trope might blind the read­er, but the way that Human Revolution employs it makes a great deal of sense. If Jensen is, in fact, the prod­uct of human hands, then even the incep­tion of this new human­i­ty is a self-produced gen­e­sis. He is an Adam fash­ioned not from the dirt, but from the labs of men, and this fits very much with the game’s themes.

Also com­pelling is view­ing Megan Reed as Jensen’s Eve. They were lovers at one point, but again, it’s not Adam’s actu­al chil­dren that form this gen­e­sis. In an inter­est­ing turn, instead of tak­ing Adam’s rib, she mere­ly takes his DNA in order to bring about new “life.” From the per­spec­tive of the Illuminati, as pre­sent­ed at the begin­ning of the game, this dis­cov­ery can­not occur; Megan has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, and in order to keep her from shar­ing that knowl­edge, the Illuminati step in to “exile” her. The Illuminati does have a few traits that resem­ble a Hebraic notion of God. It has the appar­ent best inter­ests of mankind at heart, and knows bet­ter than the indi­vid­ual human what traits to cul­ti­vate. Moreover, it’s absolute­ly inter­est­ed in this “new race,” but it seeks to guide the direc­tion of that growth. At the start of the game, the Illuminati is the human deity watch­ing over the human birth of a new human­i­ty, and is still fash­ion­ing the leash to hang around its neck.

As for Adam, he has already left the prover­bial gar­den by the time the game hits full swing. He has already expe­ri­enced his Fall, and the rest of his action through­out the game is his Rise. The game con­tin­u­al­ly inves­ti­gates what Adam has lost. In the cre­ation myth, there is a trust bro­ken between God and human­i­ty; the Fall shat­ters the world, let­ting in death, but every­thing beyond that moment is a move toward recla­ma­tion of what the Garden con­tained, inter­pret­ed as a pur­suit for life with­out death, par­adise, or a healed rela­tion­ship with the divin­i­ty. Jensen acts this role well; when he dis­cov­ers that Megan is still alive, he does every­thing in his power to find her and heal the “sin” he com­mit­ted in allow­ing her to be taken. But just as he is on the cusp of find­ing her again, Adam has an encounter with Jaron Namir. Upon defeat­ing the mer­ce­nary, his final words for Jensen are: “Men like us… we never get back what we love.” Namir is right; things are hard­ly the same, but the game does­n’t give much time to explore what the future of Jensen’s and Reed’s rela­tion­ship might be. Regardless, there is no ques­tion that Jensen can’t go back to how things were. He has lost his body, and with it he loses the poten­tial of return­ing to igno­rance of his own ori­gins and is ren­dered inca­pable of reclaim­ing his past.

Indeed, as much as Adam might recov­er in the nar­ra­tive, there is no going back to the gar­den, espe­cial­ly by the time Human Revolution has con­clud­ed. Adam’s DNA is enough for him to fill the “Adam” role, but that role is inten­si­fied when, as the game hits its denoue­ment, a huge deci­sion is placed in Adam’s hands. The truth of Darrow’s plan isn’t wide­ly known, and it is up to Adam to decide what mes­sage is broad­cast to the world. He can cham­pi­on Sarif’s visions and inspire the world to explore aug­men­ta­tion to its full, lis­ten to Taggart and encour­age restric­tions on the growth of aug­men­ta­tion tech­nol­o­gy, or ful­fill Darrow’s wish­es and scar human­i­ty’s rela­tion­ship with aug­men­ta­tion. In this action, Adam truly acts as the head of this “new human­i­ty.” He decides what lim­its are placed on it, and he decides whether it should exist at all. He is also given a fourth option: to shirk his role as the Adam of tran­shu­man­i­ty and silence every­body who knows the truth (includ­ing him­self), allow­ing human­i­ty to choose its own path.

Ultimately, Jensen serves as an icon­ic man in Human Revolution, act­ing not only as the play­er’s avatar, but as an avatar of the human race. He is in a posi­tion to decide whether the world should be made in his own image. If the Illuminati play the role of God at the begin­ning of Human Revolution, by the end of it Adam has attained that influ­ence for him­self.


Smart games are often a rar­i­ty, and so it is incred­i­bly encour­ag­ing to see a game cre­ative­ly rein­ter­pret icon­ic sto­ries and carry as much rich nar­ra­tive con­tent as Human Revolution does. It does an incred­i­ble job of mak­ing every part of its play­time, even side-missions, work toward inves­ti­gat­ing its core themes and cre­ates an open field for the play­er to decide whether or not human enhance­ment is a future we should seek, and even then caus­es us to think about what we can do to avoid the sometimes-bleak future por­trayed here.

Good on you, Eidos. And as always, I am eager to hear your thoughts, dear read­er.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/

13 thoughts on “Rise/Fall

  • Anne Winters

    Excellent! This is a great piece of writ­ing and is a won­der­ful mix­ture of solid thought and good prose! Well done!

  • Jim

    Good stuff Matthew. I’ve not played the game as yet, but when I do I’ll cer­tain­ly have your read­ing in mind. A cou­ple of things strike me:

    It’s inter­est­ing that you bring up evo­lu­tion at the start of your piece. I’ve some­times won­dered if human beings aren’t com­ing towards the log­i­cal con­clu­sion of evo­lu­tion, not because of some high­er level of advance­ment but sim­ply because evo­lu­tion relies on some­thing being at stake to progress. Simply put, peo­ple aren’t dying as much any more and so an advan­ta­geous gene muta­tion isn’t as like­ly to be passed down through the gen­er­a­tions. Even those of us who are dis­tinct­ly aver­age are per­fect­ly capa­ble of find­ing a mate! The point being that in the long term the devel­op­ment of the human race is like­ly to be man­u­fac­tured con­scious­ly. It’s sort of like reversed Creationism- we rise through evo­lu­tion and then begins the mold­ing with clay. Although for ‘clay’ you might need to read ‘tita­ni­um’!

    I’m also inter­est­ed in the jux­ta­po­si­tion you make towards the end- ‘Jensen serves as an icon­ic man in Human Revolution, act­ing not only as the play­er’s avatar, but as an avatar of the human race’. I love how the play­er and human race are given the same rela­tion­ship to Jensen through this posi­tion­ing, almost giv­ing the play­er the empow­er­ment of rep­re­sent­ing the human race, via Jensen. It’s rather dif­fi­cult to describe, but I think there’s some­thing to be made there in the power of a char­ac­ter as an avatar for both one indi­vid­ual (me) and many (us). I’m start­ing work on a piece about shared expe­ri­ences, gam­ing and nations which may well go into this more deeply. With your per­mis­sion I might well have to steal that line as a quote!

    Wow this is get­ting long. Thanks for the inter­est­ing read!

  • Matthew Schanuel

    Thanks for the com­ment, Jim!

    To your first point, I con­fess that I share your pas­sion and con­clu­sion. I’ve start­ed get­ting into evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy in a big way, it’s such a fas­ci­nat­ing field, and it has become clear to me that a lot of the “old rules” don’t apply any­more. A mul­ti­tude of traits can be seen as advan­ta­geous in the human realm as opposed to the non-human, and, what’s more, we have the poten­tial of mak­ing an envi­ron­ment (phys­i­cal or social) in which non-advantageous traits become advan­ta­geous, to say noth­ing of the fos­ter­ing of traits via genet­ic manip­u­la­tion. It’s such an excit­ing time for our species! I hope it will be a *good* excit­ing.

    I’m eager to see that arti­cle. I’d love to see it when it’s fin­ished! I give you per­mis­sion to quote freely if you promise to send me a link.

  • Andrew

    Having just com­plet­ed the game myself, a piece like this was exact­ly what I was look­ing for. You ele­gant­ly fleshed out thee sym­bol­ism and alle­go­ry at work here.

    You’re read­ing of the boss fights as a some­what sen­si­ble depar­ture from the game as a whole is inter­est­ing. I think we all agree that the game­play in these fights is frus­trat­ing. I played the game on “tell me a story” (a dif­fi­cul­ty moniker I love, by the way) because I knew this con­tra­dic­tion hap­pened and did­n’t want it to damp­en the expe­ri­ence. I sup­pose that if two high­ly aug­ment­ed super sol­diers did meet, pheromones and hand-to-hand being equal, bul­lets and grenades and run­ning would be the obvi­ous resorts. The aug­ments are demi-gods of sorts, Angels and Demons if we want to go Abrahamic, and thus their clash­es are on a dif­fer­ent plane of exis­tence. That being said, how much more sat­is­fy­ing would it be to have the epic dis­cours­es with them in lieu of fight­ing? Backstories for all the aug­ments speak toward some human­i­ty. I found it dis­ap­point­ing I just had to shoot them a bunch.

    But those con­ver­sa­tions, with Sandoval, with Taggert, with Darrow, with Sarif–what a rev­e­la­tion! The cam­era move­ment as Jensen gains ground, the clear but believ­able changes in expres­sion, the clever break­down (with the aug­ment) of per­son­al­i­ty type to help me con­vince them–such smart design. And it has the ambigu­ous fla­vor of the game’s themes. Adam is smart on his own. He has the words to talk to these pow­er­ful men. But choos­ing what to say is made pos­si­ble with his aug­men­ta­tions. Only his tran­shu­man­ism can allow him to pull the world back from the brink of destruc­tion that same tran­shu­man­ism may have caused.

    I’m real­iz­ing that some of my annoy­ances fit rather well with the nar­ra­tive. Like you said, as you upgrade, hack­ing and sneak­ing and killing become so easy they become bor­ing. Of course they do! Choosing to become super­hu­man makes even mon­u­men­tal tasks sim­ple. The most dif­fi­cult actions are the most human–debate and con­fronta­tion of ideals.

    Thank you for writ­ing such a thought­ful piece on this work. You def­i­nite­ly did it jus­tice.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    Thank you, Andrew! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    And regard­ing boss fights: even on high­er dif­fi­cul­ties, a cou­ple of frag mines result in easy vic­to­ry. Just in case you want to return to it in Deus Ex mode.

  • Karuji

    Hi Matthew.

    Really superb piece. You real­ly did cap­ture the sub­tle nuances that were placed in the game, although I would say some of them were not so sub­tle.

    I real­ly enjoyed your view of the boss fights pre­sent­ed. Whilst I believe that the com­bat itself was flawed, main­ly due to the extreme non-effect non-lethal weapons had. The nar­ra­tive they con­veyed was superb. I would ask if you con­sid­ered the fact that you were forced to kill them as some­thing of note. Personally I found it an excel­lent addi­tion to the point of fight­ing an equal. Since you, as a play­er, lack the free­dom to dis­patch them in nor­mal means; espe­cial­ly when that ‘nor­mal’ was non-lethal.

    I am slight­ly dis­ap­point­ed that you did­n’t go into more depth above the con­ver­sa­tion pieces. To me these were also boss bat­tles. And I view the con­ver­sa­tion with Hugh Darrow as the apex of all the expe­ri­ences in Human Revolution; since it requires the knowl­edge of the trans-humanism and the evil and good of aug­men­ta­tion and sci­ence to be able to talk to the man.

    Finally I have one thing I have to dis­agree with you on. The end­ing of Human Revolution was a sim­ple press this but­ton and receive this end­ing. Eliza was an extreme­ly advanced AI even more so than in the orig­i­nal Deus Ex. She states that she has been inspired by Adam. Personally I would have like it if the design­ers took a page from Bioshock 2. And that the end of the game was decid­ed by your actions in the game. With Eliza mak­ing the choice based on the play­er’s actions.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    Thanks for com­ment­ing, Karuji!

    I should make it clear that this isn’t, ulti­mate­ly, a review of the game. There was sim­ply no place for my own prob­lems with the game; I was expli­cat­ing on the final prod­uct, not wish­ing that it had been some­thing other than it was. :)

    To that end, I cer­tain­ly think that the com­bat boss­es were prob­lem­at­ic, and did­n’t suit the game… even as I play with their non-congruence here in this piece. And as for the end­ing, well, I found it prob­lem­at­ic as well. The mul­ti­ple choice end­ing was­n’t a ter­ri­ble end­ing, but it could have been dressed much more ele­gant­ly, and the choice should have been reward­ed much far­ther beyond what Human Revolution allows for.

  • Kuba

    After read­ing this, play­ing the whole series has def­i­nite­ly jumped up on my list of games to play (of course, actu­al­ly play­ing it might take some time, I just fin­ished Half Life 2 Episode 2 last year). It’s invig­o­rat­ing that a video game would have such a deep story.

    You might be inter­est­ed in read­ing up on the cur­rent events of tran­shu­man­ism and bio­engi­neer­ing if you haven’t already. Here’s an arti­cle detail­ing peo­ple per­form­ing surgery to embed mag­nets in their fin­ger­tips so they can “feel” mag­net­ic fields. Personally, from a met­al­lur­gi­cal view­point, tita­ni­um coat­ings would solve many prob­lems, as it is bio­com­pat­i­ble, and won’t degrade like sil­i­cone coat­ings do. On the down­side, tita­ni­um is expen­sive.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    Thanks for the link, Michael! I am always inter­est­ed in read­ing up on tran­shu­man devel­op­ments.

  • AFH

    Dang it, I need to just find a way to play this game rather than just hear­ing about it.

    Also, when it comes to tran­shu­man­ism, anoth­er venue that explores it is the pen/paper role­play­ing game “Eclipse Phase”. Definitely worth a look regard­ing these things.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    Yeah! I actu­al­ly just played a game of it at PAX East; I men­tioned it in my log!

  • Mark Spears

    I know this is an old thread, but I thought I’d point out that the rea­son why the boss fights seemed so out-of-place com­pared to the rest of the game is because Eidos OUTSOURCED the boss fights to other dev teams to get the game released on time. (They admit­ted that in hind­sight, they should’ve announced a delay in the release date and done it them­selves.)

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