This week, Nick Wanserski delivered his review of Square Enix’s latest Deus Ex game, Mankind Divided, which attracted some controversy in the weeks leading up its launch thanks to marketing materials that used the phrase “Augs Lives Matters” in their depiction of a world where cybernetically enhanced humans are treated as an oppressed social group. That phrasing made it into, as Nick called it, the game’s muddied smorgasbord approach to social issues, and its inclusion turned out be a one small part of the game’s larger thematic fumbling. As Nick mentioned in his review, it’s not that Deus Ex is wrong to have attempted tackling such issues—we should encourage such exploration in games—it’s that it could have handled them with more care. Here’s Otakunomike’s take:
I understand the need to connect augs to any kind of minority group but there’s a lot of nuance being missed by Eidos with this. Augs willingly decided to have a procedure done to make them what they are, and there was a little issue of that incident that caused (in Eliza’s repeated parlance) the “biggest loss of life in history.” That’s documented evidence that some kind of concern needs to be directed toward them, as opposed to groups of people being oppressed for being born a different skin color and condemned with racist’s stats about violence that don’t show anything. Past simply co-opting the BLM name, you also have numerous parts of the game in train stations and stores where the city makes a distinction between “naturals” and “augs,” with the augs having far worse conditions. This is a game that’s not subtle about the point it’s trying to make, even as it utterly misunderstands it.
Several commenters weighed in on the trickiness of using science-fiction stories to explore these kinds of issues, including The Space Pope:
The big dilemma with using sci-fi metaphors for social issues, really, is that they can easily become redundant. The X-Men are a good example: At their creation, they were a perfect way to explore prejudice in a medium that was skittish (and under the Comics Code, discouraged) about addressing real-life injustice. The theme of “difference can be both a strength and a weakness” works great as a basis for action-packed superhero adventures and as a reference point for any marginalized individual group. But the Comics Code is gone now, and you can talk about racism or homophobia or whatnot all you want. How do you keep your metaphor relevant when it can walk alongside its literal counterpart?
It sounds like Deus Ex runs into the same problem. “Augs Lives Matters” would be more effective and less questionable if the story took place in a more dramatically different world from our own, where racism as we know it wasn’t also an issue. But instead we’re on our Earth, more or less, and not that far in the future, so the impression it leaves is of just pasting a made-up struggle over a real one, literally changing only one word. That’s not a clever metaphor or insightful twist, it’s just kind of lazy.
Merve thought there was even more to this issue, in Mankind Divided’s case:
I think the problem runs a little deeper than the misappropriation of slogans. (I haven’t yet completed the game, for what it’s worth.) The problem is that the game invites comparisons to real-world struggles rather than presenting its fiction as-is and letting players explore the issues that arise at their leisure, which is what previous games in the series did.
The only correct answer to “Is bigotry okay?” is “Absolutely not.” And so rather than providing a playground for players to explore their views on philosophical and socioeconomic issues, the game provides a simple message: “discrimination=bad.” The nuances, as Nick points out, are in the presentation of that message, not in the message itself.
Put another way by Merlin The Tuna, the possible issue in the case of “Augs Lives Matter” is the very direct real-world connection:
Allegories work best when they engage with their conflicts on their own terms rather than explicitly referencing their real-world counterparts. Consider something like Zootopia, which is entirely about prejudice and institutionalized racism but keeps that focus within the context of its own setting and does so without having one-to-one real-world equivalents. augs Lives Matter (yeesh that grammar) riffs so closely on actual politics that it looks and feels less like an analogy and more like a Family Guy-esque reference for a player to “get” before immediately moving on.
points out that a bigger problem might be the disconnect between how Mankind Divided depicts aug discrimination and how the player, as an augmented person, experiences it—or doesn’t, as the case may be:
For all its toothless allegory, Mankind Divided committed to some stuff—namely, not letting the player off the hook for flaunting Prague’s segregation laws and consistently harassing them until they start using the aug train cars and walking through the aug lines. It’s meant to put across that this is a world with rules that don’t bend to players’ power-fantasy whims. Just because you can go in a place doesn’t mean you should.
The problem is that it’s clever but not brave. Rock Paper Shotgun had an essay complaining about the main character, Adam Jensen, that I think is not particularly great when it comes to its arguments about him as an entity, but the author made a good point about Adam Jensen not being strongly identified with other augs and how that’s a real problem. Other people see him as an aug but he’s special and the empty shirt nature of RPG protagonists means that he’s personally ambivalent to the condition by default (so the player can make decisions in clutch moments).
As a result, there’s a fatal disconnect between what we’re meant to feel about the situation in Prague and how we experience it through Jensen. Any of the game’s points about profiling and police brutality are undercut by the fact that Jensen is never in danger of being arbitrarily detained, deported, or shot by an asshole cop the way that seemingly every other aug is, even when he makes a point of flaunting the law at every turn. The game pulls its punches when it should be following through.
This Sounds Fun
Also this week, Samantha Nelson made her annual check-in from the Gen Con gaming convention and told us all about the new and upcoming board games she got to sample. In her short list alone, two of the games used H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of weird fiction as its aesthetic backbone, and there were plenty more at the show that she didn’t even get to play. Down in the comments, Captain Internet wondered if this whole Lovecraftian thing has gone too far, and offered a compelling design doc for a more accurate Lovecraft game:
I’ve had this at the back of my mind for a while now, but isn’t it time to give the Lovecraft stuff a bit of a rest? I enjoyed the stories well enough when I read them when I was 15 or so, but it seems to me people are now just using “Lovecraftian” to mean “old thing with tentacles in a cave in 1927.”
As much as I enjoyed the stories—“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in particular— they’re quite significantly padded out. Half the time it’s the narrator telling the audience that he can’t describe what he saw or smelled or heard because it was just too horrible, strange, or geometrically/olfactorily/aurally impossible.
If you wanted to make an authentic H.P. Lovecraft game, it’d be this: Players take turns walking blindfolded down a corridor. Other players have a series of scratch ’n’ sniff cards and an electric fan, which they use to both inspire and disorient the person with the blindfold. Playing in the background is this video of all the songs on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica being played at once, and the closer the player gets to the end of the corridor, the louder it gets.
At the end of the game, the winner is the person who goes the longest without mentioning it.
That does it for this week, Gameologians. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!