Deus Ex: Mankind Divided released recently and unsurprisingly, I have been spending some time with it. Admittedly, it’s hard to find enough time for it between being sick, playing Legion, replaying the Dragon Age series, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead, and Paradox’s oeuvre, but I’ve managed to fit it in here and there. Anyway, my existential crisis over the inexorable progression of time is not the subject of this post. Rather, I want to talk about the presentation of oppression in Mankind Divided. Spoilers for the ending of Human Revolution will of necessity be front and center, so you may wish to stop here if you’ve yet to find out how that game ends.
So, Mankind Divided sees you return to the role of Adam Jensen, and he is as gruff and handsome as ever. What has changed rather dramatically is his status as an augmented person, and indeed that of all augmented people, in the world two years following the events of Human Revolution. Whilst that game presented a fairly shiny vision of the potential of augmentation, MD deals heavily with the fallout of ‘The Incident’, an event at the climax of HR which saw every augmented person on the planet, with only one or two exceptions, forced into an insane berserker rage. The casualties of The Incident are said to be in the millions or, according to one trailer, 50 million. Your very first mission, in addition, is in an abandoned hotel which was under construction with the aid of many industrial augs. The game wastes no time in impressing upon you that there were lasting consequences, and indeed those consequences form the core part of the game’s plot, at least as far as I’ve got.
Once you return home to Adam’s apartment, in Prague, you soon see this in an unabashedly upfront manner. Prague is presented as a place which had previously heavily encouraged augmented employment, development, and The game’s designers had no qualms about making this a central concern of their game, and are not shy about using some fairly heavy-handed means to display it. Augs are subject to constant harassment and surveillance. You live in a ghetto, essentially, and this is evident from the many signs of poverty, the beggers, people suffering from Neuropozyne withdrawal (’Pozy’ being a drug most augs need to prevent rejection; Adam is an apparently unique exception), and heavy police presence. The cops themselves are militarized, with their least heavy units looking like particularly tough SWAT members and only going up from there. They’re also almost completely disinterested in crimes committed against augs and turn a blind eye to anything up to and including someone impersonating a cop in order to run an extortion racket by demanding they buy forged papers at ridiculous costs. And this is the nice place, for augs with papers or sufficient resources to get forgeries; those who can’t or run afoul of the state police get shipped to the REAL ghetto, Golem City, which makes Prague itself look like a haven.
The game does not spare Adam most of these indignities. In fact it is entirely ready to push them into the player’s face. You will be stopped by police who will demand to show your papers. People will whisper “clank” as you walk past. You are expected to ride the subway in segregated aug-only carriages, and doing otherwise will get you look of fear, resentment, and disgust, as well as a stern dressing down from a cop when you exit. You get shit from your colleagues in Task Force 29 (A predecessor of UNATCO) who do respect your abilities, but aren’t that keen on your augmented nature. Alongside commonplace graffiti condemning augs, plenty of stores have signs that say “Naturals Only” or “Augmented Use Rear Entrance”, and you’ll hear customers complain about your presence and ask why the police are letting you go there, at least during daylight hours, should you ignore those. You also on occasion run into a person who will offer an apology for the way augs are being treated, which was genuinely a little touching the first time it happened.
This does not go unanswered, with the Augmented Rights Coalition attempting to push back against this oppression. Inevitably, when terrorist attacks take place, ARC is the prime suspect and it quickly becomes clear that many people responsible for investigating the matter have made up their minds before any evidence is in. So, another parallel to the real world.
One area in which the game succeeds, in my eyes, is in creating a sense of helplessness. You can in principle whip out some guns and start laying waste to these prejudiced assholes, but on the higher difficulties at least (Sidenote: the top difficulty is called “I Never Asked For This”) this is often going to lead to a quick death for you. In order to actually progress through the game you more or less have to suffer these slings and arrows in silence. It’s… effecting. In real life I have nothing that is obvious to a stranger which marks me as an ‘other’, so I have the privilege of passing as a member of the empowered in almost every way; white, male, cis, etc.. Mankind Divided is a surprisingly affecting look at the other side of that, one where even with the fantastic strengths and skills of Adam Jensen, there’s not a lot to be done about the state of the world.
So the game is not subtle, and it earned some ire by using phrases such as “Mechanical apartheid” and “Aug Lives Matter”. And perhaps the most important failing is that the Aug Incident was real, and wreaked tremendous devastation across the entire world, so the parallels between in-game and real-world minority movements and issues of oppression runs into some problems. But, with that said, the game is not just trying to use current affairs to sell itself. This is a genuine attempt to explore, or at the very least highlight, real issues. The extent to which the game succeeds is entirely up for debate, and I am not trying to herald it as some kind of eye-opening watershed that will change the real world. I don’t propose that the game can really let me know what it’s like to be, say, a young black man in America today. Even if it was perfectly able to do so I always have the luxury of turning it off, after all. Still, it does create at least a facsimile of the sheer frustration that comes from being part of a disfavored minority, and the sense of helplessness that comes from being forced to silently suffer all these indignities.
I have been filling this post with caveats about how important or impactful this might be. As I said, I don’t think this is some kind of world-changing media product. I do, however, think it was made with sincerely good intentions, and if we ever are going to get a meaningful number of games that provoke thought or say things about the world, we need games like Mankind Divided to push and explore how to do that. That is after all at least part of the job of creative works as a whole. Even if limited and imperfect, it’s a step in the right direction, and I do respect that and encourage people to engage with it.