Published on September 25th, 2012 | by David Chandler11
The Body Electric: Augmenting the Digital Self in Deus Ex: Human Revolution
As I’m typing this, I have a machine strapped to my wrist that constantly ticks to remind me to make efficient use of my time. I’ve a pair of headphones stuck in my ears that transmit electrical information from my computer directly to an organ that helps me process noise. Snugly in my pocket is a device that with a click of a button keeps me in touch with people hundreds of miles away. Like everyone else who visits this site and reads this post, I am a cyborg. We all are, and we have been for quite some time. It’s not so much a value judgment as it is a simple truth that we rely on machines to improve our conditions. Naturally, video games fit into our ever-changing relationship with technology, offering us promises of digital worlds and augmented realities; which is why I find it strange that so few make the effort to acknowledge explicitly the complexity of the body’s physical connection to technological objects.
The first game I ever encountered that did so was Deus Ex for the PC. I played it on a dinosaur of a PC that had no business trying to run the software. I was, nevertheless, hooked by the freedom the game afforded and determined to complete it, annoying lag be damned. I slogged my way through to the end, and, though the game sputtered and crashed, I still remember it fondly as one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Needless to say, I was more than happy when I first saw the trailer for the latest entry in the series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Though the game released over a year ago, I still find myself thinking about it in terms of its thematic and mechanical material. The story of Human Revolution is a good one, if nothing remarkable. Part Blade Runner, part Neuromancer, part The Matrix, and a host of other science fiction tropes and standards, the game’s narrative never strays too far into unfamiliar territory. The neo-noir setting and hard-boiled detective structure has the player directing Adam Jensen, the game’s protagonist, along a trail of political and corporate intrigue involving tension between radical activists who oppose cybernetic enhancement and the companies that provide these machines and services.
While the its narrative provides the impetus for exploring its fully-realized world, the character customization is the game’s main draw. The premise is simple: augment your character with robotic technologies to make him stronger, smarter, faster. It’s easy to see the appeal. Tweaking a character with certain cybernetic enhancements allows the game to cater to different play styles, be they stealth, shooting, hacking, etc. As I built my character, however, improving Jensen’s body to reach humanity’s evolutionary zenith, I could not help but notice how comfortable and familiar this mechanic felt. Whereas the narrative wanted to reveal to the player the horrors inherent to fusing organic flesh and bone with cold steel and silicon, the player’s choice in how he/she manipulates Jensen’s body is an issue of pragmatism–not morality, as the game’s narrative would have the player expect.
This disconnect between narrative and game mechanics (the technical term is “ludonarrative dissonance”) reveals an accidental truth about the theme of the game: a fusion of organic flesh and blood with cold steel and silicon no longer carries with it the horror it would have when H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, or even later writers like Isaac Asimov and William Gibson put pen to paper. In this way, Human Revolution is not a frightening vision of the future. Instead it’s a look askance at our current dependence on and obsession with technology.
Here enters the game’s true relationship with the doctrine of transhumanism, the philosophical/cultural school of thought concerned with liberating humanity from its biological limitations via technological innovation. The game never judges the player for manipulating Jensen’s biology. For instance, instead of forcing the player to witness Jensen’s augmentation or allowing him/her to play through some type of painful, surgical process to earn the advantages cybernetic enhancements provide, Human Revolution presents an augmentation menu that is clean and streamlined. The build-a-badass structure remains satisfying, but there are broader implications to consider when we think about augmentation of a digital character in a digital environment. The game provides the player with a transhumanist playground, a limited space wherein the player can experiment with cybernetic enhancements with very few in-game consequences. Adam Jensen’s cyborg subjectivity frees him from the constraints of normal human biology, and, for a brief time, the player steps into the cyber shoes of a bio-mechanical organism, free to explore a cyberpunk sandbox.
As with most games, however, opening up a world often reveals what you cannot do just as often as it reveals what is possible; herein lies the meta-aspect of the game. When I control Adam Jensen, I can’t help but wonder why he cannot leap higher even after I’ve fully upgraded his legs. I get frustrated when my on-screen character can’t stealthily kill an enemy without losing an entire bar of energy. I try to leap over barricades that exist solely for the purpose of providing invisible walls and limiting player interaction with the environment. I, like a good transhumanist, demand more from my digital body.
It is only a small step from realizing that the game character is bound by limitations written in the game’s architecture to see its reflection in our own bodies. After all, Adam Jensen gets to perform more awesome actions than the player’s flesh and blood will ever allow, and that is where the game’s transhumanist agenda lies. When we interact with a digital space that makes us realize our own organic limitations, we realize that the connection we have to the machine that makes gaming possible contains more than a sandbox. For Human Revolution, the core idea of augmentation serves as a metaphor for our collective fascination for manipulating digital environments in ways that allow us to re-think what it is to be human, and the limitations that entails.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is hardly the only example of character augmentation in digital environments (we have been building digital characters since the earliest RPG days), nor is it the best game in terms of its overall quality. The game has numerous glitches, some genuinely boring side missions, and boss fights so horrendously antithetical to the core concept of player freedom that designer Francois Lapikas publicly apologized for them. It is, however, one of the most straightforward with its commentary on the inherent transhuman activity of playing a game. We power on machines because that box of plastic and electricity is our only access point to a transhuman space. We connect the machine to a controller and a controller to ourselves to manipulate with ease and efficiency characters made entirely of pixels. We press buttons, move mouses, and turn analog sticks with our simian, primitive paws because without these devices we are ill-equipped to interact with digital environments.
And after I finish this sentence, I will shut down my computer, take the head phones out of my ears, remove the ticking timepiece from my wrist, and set the alarm that wakes me up after a few hours of powered-down sleep, hopefully accompanied by dreams of electric sheep–a cyborg activity if I’ve ever heard of one.