“I do not know how to fix a cyborg.” This was my first thought in response to the idea of moving in with my best friend. What the hell was I supposed to do about Thompson if his parts broke some Friday night when we were stoned and throwing computer monitors off of a roof in Harlem? My worries gave way to wonder, though. The way his body worked was amazing.
He developed Type-1 diabetes at the tail end of the 20th century. Had he been born a couple centuries back, biology would have taken care of things the moment his pancreas stopped producing enough insulin. An electronic pump, a miraculous little machine, could do the work his pancreas couldn’t and keep him alive. Barring a few problems here and there, Thompson’s machine proved reliable. (The greatest threat to the external pump wasn’t malfunction but a house cat deciding to gnaw through tubing while he slept.) It served its purpose: to work right and let him go about being human.
Adam Jensen, the lead character of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, has a whole lot more than an artificial pancreas. He’s almost entirely machine, but any transhuman existential shakes should be laid to rest by the time you reach the game’s end. His mechanical body, like the insulin pump, only serves to let him go about being human. It lets him act on human impulses, particularly compassion, in ways he otherwise couldn’t.
Human Revolution takes place in 2027, right at the moment when biotechnology jumps from simply filling in for faulty body parts to supplanting them entirely with superior replacements. Tired of wearing glasses? Get your old-fashioned eyes made of water replaced with Sarif Industries’ telescoping, network-connected devices that can see through walls and give you the heart rate of the person standing on the other side. Football injury? No reason to rehab the knee when a new leg will let you run faster.
When the game opens, the transhumanism movement is still young and meeting with resistance from both naturalists and basic science; people are worried about losing their humanity and augmentation early-adopters have to deal with implants that are rejected by the human body. Adam Jensen, however, is exceptional. When his body is nearly destroyed while working as the head of security for Sarif, the company steps in and outfits him with a new one that makes Darth Vader look like a shambling fax machine. He becomes the physical embodiment of both the world’s spiritual and political crises: Is he still a person when he’s got freaking swords inside his arms?
As you get further in the game, Jensen finds kits that let him augment his body even further. You get to choose how he changes. When you’re infiltrating a police station to collect information, it might be better to have implants that make Jensen more persuasive in conversation or that let him more efficiently hack into computer systems. When you’re fighting terrorists, it might be better to have a torso that works like a claymore mine, blowing shrapnel at aggressors surrounding you. No matter the choice, Jensen’s body drifts further and further away from the one he was born with.
On the surface, it seems like both Jensen and the player are becoming more machine-like. No matter what strategy you choose, each upgrade serves to make you more efficient and give you an increasing number of direct routes to your goals. It’s those goals and the cybernetically powered methods to achieve them, though, that show just how human Jensen can be with his mechanical bod. When those aforementioned terrorists take hostages in a factory, Jensen can engage in an almost impossibly ethical approach to conflict resolution. A highly trained body can sneak around armed guards quietly, but Jensen’s upgrades can literally make him silent so no one has to die. Real lawmen and negotiators sometimes have to make painful sacrifices to preserve life, but if you’ve upgraded Jensen’s body a certain way, it never needs to be a necessity. When he finds hostages strapped onto a bomb, he doesn’t have to choose between letting a criminal get away and saving lives. With the right upgrades, he can hack into the bomb and convince the terrorist leader to walk away.
Later when he reaches Shanghai, Jensen can disregard his handlers’ directives and use his body to go out of his way to help a friend. Faridah Malik, Jensen’s buddy and helicopter pilot, had a loved one go missing in the city. The game doesn’t require you to pursue Malik’s friend or expose her killer once you discover she’s been murdered, but there’s a moment of deep satisfaction when Jensen hacks the television screen in front of a mob-operated night club and plays the killer’s confession for the public to see. If he couldn’t break into these machines, endure horrific beatings, and see forensic evidence that might be missed by a whole team of investigators with regular eyes, he never could have done it. Jensen might think that his self pity and ennui are the only human parts he has left, but we, as players, find the profound new ways his body lets him connect with people.
These acts of empathy and concern for human life are a choice of the player as much as they are Jensen’s in the story. Part of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s appeal is how it lets you make a variety of choices, including the option to always go with violence as your solution. Jensen can just as easily stab thugs with the swords implanted in his arms as he can subdue and spare them. Those implants that let him better sense someone’s state of mind in conversation can also be used to intimidate and threaten them into doing what he wants. Sociopathy, cruelty, and avarice are equal in their humanity to mercy and compassion, though. Even if Adam Jensen turns into a murderer in your hands, those cybernetic replacements just let him better indulge in our basest impulses. That he still has the capacity for good and evil drives home the revelation lying inside Deus Ex: Our bodies aren’t what make us human. They just let us be human, whatever they’re made out of.
Previously in the Bodies series:
- Fairies dancing on the screen: 4 classic video game sprites, reviewed
- The Binding Of Isaac uses body horror to tell a story of abuse and empowerment
- In Shadow Of The Colossus, you bond with giants before you slay them