Also published at AiPT!
“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
I may not share Tolkien’s sentiment – one of my favorite writings of his is Leaf by Niggle, the only pure allegory he’d ever written – but I do find Mankind Divided’s allegorical underpinnings the chief fault in what is otherwise one of the best games this year, its authors’ painfully plain purpose precluding any possibility of applicability beyond their obvious intent. And while Deus Ex: Mankind Divided may not be an allegory per se, it is far more allegorical than its predecessor, Human Revolution.
Both fit squarely in the sub-genre of cyberpunk, inheriting all of the trapping of classic works like Blade Runner, Robocop, Ghost in the Shell, and Shadowrun. Like those predecessors which inspired it, the Deus Ex franchise presents a world in which multinational mega-corporations wield greater influence than governments over global events and individual lives alike; a world where technology has advanced in areas of artificial intelligence and cybernetics even as society has correspondingly declined in areas of economic security and civil liberties; a world in which only a hard-boiled detective straight out of film noir is the closest society has to a knight in shining armor, coming not to save the day but rather only to survive the night.
And yet, despite sharing all the tropes of this same subgenre, it is with respect to their top level genre that Human Revolution and Mankind Divided fully diverge. The former was pure Speculative Fiction. It anticipated which technologies would be emerging in the immediate future, and imagined the broad spectrum of reactions society would have to such upheavals. It posited that some like David Sarif would promote cybernetics as a step -forward for human evolution, one which the species as a whole should eagerly embrace. Others, such as William Taggart, tempered society’s optimism for technological salvation with calls for caution, arguing for government regulation to keep pace with the technological innovation. Hugh Darrow and others like him were in the minority for demonizing self-directed human evolution via augmentations as evil in itself, but nevertheless represented an opinion many individuals would genuinely hold. Having discussed exactly this issue at my Futurology Society, my Philosophical Society, and other similar venues, I’ve heard the same breadth of opinions expressed in real life as in Human Revolution.
Contra Mankind Divided, which casts “Augs” not actually as individuals with advanced prosthetics, but as a thin allegory for various minorities. “Augs Lives Matter” is among the first works of graffiti the Adam Jensen comes across as he makes his way throughout Prague. Augs are segregated from the rest of the population, forced to live in ghettos, sit at the back of the train, and at some locales enter the building through a separate entrance. I was surprised not to find separate bathrooms and water fountains to boot. Every “Natural” human is at best biased against Augs and at worst openly discriminatory of or predatory upon the Augmented. The few who speak in opposition to forcibly rounding up and deporting Augs to a veritable concentration camp are labelled Social Justice Warriors.
As should be obvious from the above, Mankind Divided wears its politics on its sleeve. It utilizes the fiction of Deus Ex and the tropes of the cyberpunk genre not to continue the themes and narrative of Human Revolution so much as to comment on the grievance culture and identity politics which have dominated the discourse of the last three years. Moreover, it is far more willing to delineate for the player which viewpoints are virtuous and which are villainous. Gold was the dominant color visually in Human Revolution, but grey was the dominant color thematically, every decision put before Jensen individually and the world at large lacking a clear cut answer. For all its layers of intrigue and conspiracies, Mankind Divided is more black and white. All Augs are perfect pacifists; the only terrorists actually among their ranks prove part of a plot by the Illuminati.
Meanwhile, the local and state police in Prague are all – with the single exception of one incompetent detective mere months from retirement – such unapologetic assholes that one encounter with them would have Dick Wolf rapping “Fuck the Police.” Among the official orders these cops eagerly carry out, included are “…it’s better to be decisive than hesitant. If you have the slightest doubt, treat the individual in front of you as a threat,” and “[men force to take leave after highly publicized events] are exactly the kinds of officers you want for the task at hand. They are battle-tested and know how to handle a crowd.” Players not aiming at a pacifist play through will shed few tears over shedding much blood during the martial law portion of the game.
If there is one significant divide between the politics of Mankind Divided and those of Black Lives Matter or Third Wave Feminism it is the latter’s assertion that all social ills are structural and systemic, while the former posits a Great Men theory of history. According to Deus Ex, mankind is divided only because a shadowy cabal of billionaire business moguls and prominent politicians are advancing an agenda that profits off such social divisions. And while the power wielded by the Illuminati renders them a seemingly insurmountable adversary, Jensen’s goals of exposing their machinations are actually far more concrete and achievable than those of real world revolutionists on college campuses and in minority neighborhoods.
The fact that Mankind Divided is more binary in its political presentation than Human Revolution is not necessarily a defect. Eidos had a statement to make, and it did so effectively, placing the player in a position to share the experiences of and empathize with certain segments of the population. And while my own politics are far from those of the “pro-police, hard-on-crime” types and the self-branded “social justice warriors” alike, I can at the least applaud Eidos for delivering on behalf of the latter among the most articulate arguments for their position. Rather, the only problematic aspect of politicizing Deus Ex is in losing the verisimilitude of the world which they’d created for the sake of an apologue.
Moreover, Mankind Divided commits the same sin as the X-Men franchise. In creating an allegorical outgroup whom mankind fears and hates, they confusingly create a minority population which is undeniably cool. Far fewer people would feel mutants or Augs are abominations than would envy their advantages. Who wouldn’t want Xavier’s telepathy or Jensen’s Smart Vision? And while I’d not willingly amputate my limbs for carbon-fiber replacements, I’d trust a respected brain surgeon to implant a C.A.S.I.E. social enhancer (safer than my current solution of alcohol as a social lubricant). Furthermore, like in X-Men, prejudice against the allegorical minority population seems to replace – if not outright cure – all other forms of bigotry. Apparently, augmentation cures not only paraplegia, but racism as well.
If the game is guilty of a second sin, it’s that of Pokémon. Just as it’s impossible to travel the Kanto or Kalos regions and have a single conversation about any subject other than cock-fighting with kaiju, so too is it impossible to traverse Prague without every bark, every newspaper, every broadcast or radio program, every side quest or side character or point of interests, every aspect of the world which Eidos has constructed, all revolving utterly around human augmentation. Such was certainly the focus in Human Revolution, but it was never so singularly-focused as Mankind Divided.
Prague’s other problem is its size and scale. Every environment in Human Revolution was in essence a puzzle for the player to solve. While there were multiple means of solving such puzzles, the true je ne sais quoi of Deus Ex is in deducing the optimal path of progression in any given area; to converse, explore, hack, and sneak around its virtual amusement park until you’re sure that you’ve been to every attraction and rode on every ride. The “fauxpen world” environments of Human Revolution were the perfect size for such, but the truly open world hub of Prague renders the player agoraphobic by its scale, despite being smaller than Velen in The Witcher or midtown Manhattan in The Division. The pervasive sense that some nook or cranny may have gone unexplored paralyzes the player from progressing the narrative, engendering in even non-obsessive compulsive players an anxiety not seen in similar open world designs (thus why this review is so belated).
All of which is to say that Mankind Divided is not the masterpiece which Human Revolution was, but in no way does it suggest that it is anything short of excellent. Mankind Divided is something of a step back both in terms of storytelling (less speculative and more allegorical) and gameplay (too large a playground to truly play in), but such is only a small step back from one of the best titles of the previous console generation. Any fan of the former going in with tempered expectations will entirely enjoy this entry and eagerly anticipate afterwards Adam Jensen’s next adventure.