There’s this word. Heterotopia.
When I describe this, understand that I’m summarising and simplifying just one concept in a four hundred page book, and that concept turned out to be important enough that a bunch of other people cited it, and then built their own studies off it, and that wound up being like, a thing, and now it’s kind of a field of study. Heterotopian studies.
Okay, now with that disclaimer out of the way, heterotopia. The word was first coined by Michel Foucault in Order Of Things (1971). The word is composed from the Greek, topia, meaning a place, and hetero, meaning different. Something that’s heterogenous is different things mixed, something that’s heterodox is a position opposite or different to the norm, and a heterotopia is a place that’s different. Heterotopias are spaces of otherness. They are places that represent a place, while not being that place.
Foucault gives plenty of examples of heterotopias. The world in a mirror, for example, which may look perfect but is by definition a place you can never go. Bathhouses and temples and hospitals are also heterotopia, though of different kinds. Places of change, places of ritual, places we by definition do not expect to remain. One of the heterotopia you’re most likely to encounter, the one you’re most likely to be in, the one you might be in right now, experiencing this on your phone, are the places that exist between places – zones of transport. Airports, airplanes, train stations, the insides of trains. Liminal spaces.
They’re all spaces that are made to be a bit like a place you’d stay, because you will stay in them for a while, but crucially, aren’t quite right. They adorn themselves with both the trappings of things you’d want – like nice chairs and big windows – but then include with them things that would have no place or purpose if you weren’t travelling through the place. Heterotopias feel weird because they, perhaps unconsciously, make you feel like you don’t belong here, even while they try and make you feel welcome and comfortable. Stay, they say, be comfortable, they say, but not too comfortable, and not for too long.
In the end, these places are for going between, but never staying. They are places you are always, in some way, leaving. You do not set up in an Airport, you do not make a home on a train. The places are made for you but unchanged by you, and want to be similarly unchanged. That is their otherness – they are a part of your life that is trying as hard as it can to be exactly nice enough to not be remembered.
Once upon a time, there was a game called Deus Ex and it was pretty good. It had a smooth engine that used 3d objects and lighting and could render big maps so you could put big things in them, and that let the game step out from the tiny, poky corridors of Quake and Doom before it. With a bigness of space that included skyscrapers and statues and apartment complexes, the story could be just as big. You weren’t running through missions, you were grappling with a story, and Deus Ex wanted to make its story as enormous as it could.
The original Deus Ex is still something I kind of pine for, but when I think of that, in that light, I have to recognise that my memory of Deus Ex is much more about that time of my life. I remember being impressed that it had a story, and that it had an inventory system, that I could avoid fights… but I don’t remember what I spent my upgrades on, or the weapons I used, or how I used the stealth in the game. It felt more technically awesome to me than actually fun.
Part of this memory is was that I had played with the modding tools for Quake. I had tried to make maps and objects like these, of office spaces and my old school. If you’ve ever used those tools you’d understand how amazingly difficult it was to even make something as simple as a working desk. I fancied at the time that I really appreciated how hard it was to make Deus Ex, so I had some greater depth to my awe in the game. So many office spaces, so many cubicles, and none of them completely identical. I was fascinated with the spaces you were supposed to forget.
Those skills never amounted to anything you’d recognise, of course. Nothing I ever made, not really, lasted or stuck around except in my head as lessons in how to do things, finish things, and perhaps too much practice in photoshop. To compare my efforts to those of Ion Storm was positively ridiculous. Yet it did make me think about the spaces I was occupying, the places I moved through, and out of, and it changed me a little.
I think that it’s pretty reasonable of me to accept that the JC Denton era of videogame that I enjoyed is over. Not only is it over, but it’s now markedly worse, because rather than a singular experience of mysteries and unanswerable questions, Deus Ex has died and Become Brand. What was once a game of uncertainty and questioning for answers has now become a long, slow, grinding slog of a franchise, filled with answers and lore.
There are six main Deus Ex games, according to the wikipedia page. Deus Ex, Invisible War, Human Revolution, The Fall, Go, and Mankind Divided. I most recently finished Mankind Divided, which along with every non-Invisible War game has been a prequel to the original Deus Ex.
As a game, Mankind Divided is, well, I did finish it. I did describe it in private as ‘a slightly bad Dishonored 2,’ which I do stand by now. It’s not even that it’s necessarily bad as a game, it’s just that most of my experience skulking and climbing around on duct work and knocking out guards is going to make me think of Dishonored 2, and I liked that a lot. Turns out you can be a pretty mediocre Dishonored 2 and you’ll still be enjoyable enough for me to finish.
It isn’t great. The stealth system is a bit rubbish, considering it’s meant to be one of the game’s features, the upgrade system seems totally unnecessary and mostly about giving you new ways to shooty-bang people, the controls are designed for gamepad and therefore have obvious holes in keyboard control, and the addition of a blink mechanic only furthered my feeling that it’d be a lot better if it was Dishonored 2. That’s on me, though, I thought Bioshock Infinite would have been improved vastly by being Dishonored. Also, the loading times – oh my god, the loading times. Loading was usually a minute or more, of watching Adam Jensen either standing in a train or trudging down a train tunnel. It’s almost zen the way these minutes gave me time to think about the game.
Which was not to the game’s benefit.
When we examine games, it’s easy to examine what games have in them. It’s harder to examine what a game is about. Some games are really deliberately obscure, avoiding telling you what they’re trying to be about because they want you to work it out, they want you to come to it themselves.
Mankind Divided isn’t so gauche as to assume you’ll think about it.
The Adam Jensen Deus Exen, ever since the first two, have had some pretty clear aspirations towards at Relevance. The world it wants to show is a world with problems like ours. The Augmented humans of Mankind Divided are compared directly to modern day axes of oppression – racism most pertinently, but also economic disparity and sexism. With David Cage’s Detroit: Becoming Human in the news, it might seem positively pleasant that Mankind Divided seems a bit less ridiculously hamfisted and incompetent, but make no mistake: Mankind Divided is a work of ninnies too.
Let’s explain one of the most basic and obvious problems when you compare Augs to Anything Else.
- When you compare things, you present ways the things are similar.
- When you’re talking about a fictional group and comparing their struggles to the real-world struggles of a nonfictional group, you are saying that you think those two things are similar.
- If you draw a comparison that makes no sense or that has an obvious flaw, and you don’t draw attention to that, or explain the discrepancy, you’re kind of leaving it implied that you didn’t think of that.
In Deux Ex: Mankind Divided, the comparison between black people and Augs runs into a problem. Some problems. Lots of problems. Lots of problems that we can summarise with one problem. Being black doesn’t mean you have superpowers that make you a super-worker. Being black doesn’t mean you have a chemical dependency that makes economic threats to your wellbeing high priority. Being black also, and especially, doesn’t mean you were personally involved in a global incident two years ago when literally everyone else who was black lashed out violently and unreasonably and killed fifty million people.
Lemme repeat that, the Aug incident that’s the reason everyone’s scared of Augs happened two years ago and it killed twice the population of Texas.
In Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, people fear Augs, want them contained, and want to pass legislation regulating their movement in public places not because people are bigots who don’t recognise the humanity of Augs, but because they all went berserk two years ago and killed fifty million people. To not react to that kind of global public health incident would be pretty unreasonable! Now, you and I may know that hey, that was a unique thing caused by the Illuminati but you can’t legislate based on secrets, and even if it was a unique thing, the fact that it could happen indicates that it could happen again!
This isn’t even a new thing. The X-Men have been doing this since the sixties.
The X-Men were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wanting to bring issues of civil rights and social injustice into the forefront of the comics. The method they used was to create a space in their comics universe where superheroes – cool characters, people you liked – were nonetheless subjected to oppression that you, the reader, could recognise as wrong and unreasonable. It’s the same thing, with the same kind of basic problem:
What if white people suffered racism, and were wizards?
Like, it’s totally reasonable to complain about the person coming on the plane next to you with a bazooka for a face. To quote a scholar, sir, we would like to accommodate you on this plane, but your face is constantly exploding.
They call it The Mechanical Apartheid for god’s sake.
This is why when you make these comparisons you have to answer these questions. How is Aug oppression actually like racism? How is the way Augs are pressured into getting augment-friendly work and loans like the way black people are pressured into societal roles along with associated debt and costs. You can do that, you could make a story about that, if you weren’t dealing with frog-hopping doofuses.
The sad irony of this is that there is a legitimate strength to this device in videogames. It’s a way to put a player who’s interested in the power fantasy, someone who hasn’t experienced oppression, in the position to experience it and realise it sucks. It can be a way to tempt people into empathy, even if it may lead to a grindingly embarassing moment where a Very Privileged Person says they were illuminated on racism by A Video Game.
It’s not worthless as a point of empathy – from my own experience, I know there are some ridiculous things that helped me escape some of my own mental baggage, to start seeing people around me as people and to realise the value of care and empathy. It’s very likely that out there, somewhere, there’s someone who got started on a good path from this game.
But you can’t just rely on ‘it’s good for someone,’ though, because that’s true of everything. People are really cool at sifting through garbage and finding different takes on things. Without that kind of outcome or ability to test outcomes, we’re left looking at things in terms of what they’re trying to do, what they’re trying to say.
What then, is Deux Ex: Mankind Divided trying to say?
My first impulse, after playing the game through was to say to myself that it kind of didn’t want to say anything. Games full of choices often have this problem, where to present you with a lot of possible ways to solve a problem, they have to have scenarios that don’t expect any single result. There’s a broadness to everything because it’s just too hard to make every single thing you do result in a slightly different, meaningfully noticed outcome. That way lies Alpha Protocol’s Hell-Web of Flags that break if you breathe on them.
Still, the solutions a game lets you use on a problem should give you a probability space, a sort of range of potential answers you can use. Is this a game where you can overcome the powers of conspiracy through two-fisted inquisitive exploration, backed up with excessive firepower? Is this a game for snipers who pick every target, place every kill, are never out of position and take an hour per mission? What about if you want to explore everything, talk to everyone, and never want to see combat? There’s only so many ways the game can write its story so that all those disparate approaches work and reinforce the game’s theme.
Games can communicate a lot through their mechanics, through their fiction, and also through their base assumptions. Without the mechanics able to reinforce the ideas of this game, you’re left with the fiction, and those base assumptions, the things that are already there. Some of the base assumptions of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided include ‘you know how a triple-A videogame works’ and ‘the PVP control scheme is probably the best base for the PVE one,’ and crucially, the entire plot of Deus Ex.
I’ve said in the past that prequels, by definition, are mistakes. If your story has a good story before the story started, you should have started earlier. If your story doesn’t make sense or isn’t good or meaningful without more of the story, before you started the story, then maybe your story is failing to include some crucial details. And if there’s a good story in the past, and if it was better than this one, maybe you should have told that instead. Prequels are some of the worst kind of nerd junk, most of the time. The best reason for a prequel is to explain how something could happen, rather than explain how something did happen. The question answered by a prequel has to be something that’s genuinely staggering, something you can’t imagine happening otherwise.
Deus Ex is a universe with literal, actual world-spanning multi-generational conspiracies and shadow governments. That kind of kills all the tension in the question ‘how could this happen’ because conspiracies are inherently a mixture of mysterious motivation and ridiculous power.
Why did that happen?
Well, the conspiracy did that.
Because the conspiracy wanted to do it.
Because conspiracies have long-reaching plans that you don’t necessarily understand.
What this means is that no matter how things are meant to go, no matter how invested you want to make me into the work of Adam Jensen to try and make something good in this miserable dystopia, you can’t, because we know for a fact that Deus Ex happens. It sits at the end of the narrative like a train at the end of a tunnel, not even moving forward, just waiting for us to charge into it hard enough to splatter all our efforts around ourselves.
Normally, I’d expect a story that’s so confined on one end by the needs of a sequel to become focused. After all, if you can’t affect the big picture, why not make the story about small stories? You could make a really interesting series of anthologies, trying different gameplay modes. Show the world through a dozen different eyes, don’t try and do a big, expressive conspiracy, and saving the world.
That would be the smart thing, but instead we get the continuing efforts of Mankind Divided to pretend it’s both not a prequel, and also a game with something to say.
The story of Deus Ex: Human Revolution wanted to try and explain the origin points for some things. Things that didn’t need explaining. One of them was ‘how do augs resist glial buildup,’ and the answer is ‘because Adam doesn’t.’ If you had already come up with that first question and found the answer satisfactory, you have extremely specific views on satisfaction in narrative. It even had a final ending that was meant to represent a conclusion to the story that set up the next story. The story started with new stuff, then got rid of that new stuff, because by necessity, Deus Ex was following it. It was a cul-de-sac of a narrative.
While Human Revolution was an unnecessary prequel, Mankind Divided is even moreso. Now it has to undo the finality of Human Revolution, where Adam dies, and introduce a new threat that still can’t be so important it changes the events of Deus Ex.
Jesper Juuls, in Half Real, describes videogames as existing on a pair of polarities as games of emergence versus games of progression. A game of progression is one where the game has, in some way, a vision of the beginning and the end, and you play to get from one to the other. That’s the basic structure of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and it’s telling how much the game doesn’t really care about anything in between. The game will notice that you’re not going kill happy, and it gives you a pair of binary choices that give you more options in the fiction, but in the end, you are progressing from one thing to the next. Lots of different ways to progress, but the game will not, in the end, give you something that the designers did not very deliberately intend. That’s fine, lots of games do that, but Mankind Divided is a game that structures these narrative chokepoints such that it’s very easy to feel like literally nothing you’re doing really matters, you’re just waiting for the game-train to take you to the next stop.
On a related note, one of the things that the game – hypothetically – can do for you as you travel through it is give you things like ghost and pacifist achievements. Since in this game, behaviour you have nothing to do with can accidentally result in breaking that – like npcs who are already unconscious falling a half-inch resulting in their sudden demise – it makes it hard to care about those bonuses.
What this means for you is that most of your experience, no matter how much faffing around you do between those points, is only going to recognise those points, and if you try to break free of the plot, or do your own thing, it’s not really going to notice. Everything that happens in Mankind Divided, even the really interesting things they introduce like questions of Adam’s fundamental identity or his relationship to glial implants, just… is dropped, because they don’t want to say anything because they can’t.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a plot cul-de-sac off a plot cul-de-sac. It is coming from nowhere and it can go nowhere. The only experience you get out of this game, out of what this game is about is to quietly reinforce what you already thought was true. Maybe mass media is bad, or maybe the people who oppose mass media are conspiracy-champing chumps. Maybe police brutality is bad, or maybe they’re reacting to people who can kill them. Maybe secret societies are bad, or maybe they’re good. Whatever you thought going in, the odds are great you’ll think that coming out.
I actually thought at first that maybe the whole point of Mankind Divided was to be pretty apathetic to plot and story, and it was just going to give you a city to crawl around in, a few bad boss fights as per tradition and a lot of hacking mini-games. Maybe it’d be one of your Franchise Spackle games, just there to keep the branding going in the public eye. After the absolutely shocking advertising campaign, where Eidos tried to combine the worst aspects of a lootcrate, preorder and kickstarter system all at once,it was pretty easy to imagine the game was just going to be cynical and by-the-numbers.
Except if you play this game, you are first offered a recap to make sure you understand what the ‘right’ choices in Deus Ex: Human Revolution were, then an introduction, a a single tutorial mission that takes maybe fifteen minutes while also regularly interrupting you to give you videos and practice mode experiments on how you want to play, then a long, non-interactive cutscene, then another, different non-interactive cutscene, then another non-interactive cutscene, then you get control back.
You don’t spend two thirds of your first hour of runtime making the player sit down and watch video that gives you backstory and motivations if you’re not about something. It’s ham-fisted, sure – Vega and Adam have a ten-minute long conversation that basically maps out the story beats, setting the tone as a pair of positions that are less ‘at war’ and more ‘sitting next to each other too closely on the bus.’
But… like, christ. Look at this.
You don’t do meaningful moments with dying mothers in the rubble of a terrorist attack if you’re not trying to express something. This moment is the last major thing that happens before you wake up and get control of Adam back. The rest of the game doesn’t hearken back to it, Adam doesn’t mention it to anyone, there’s no use of this scene later. If it was cut out of the scene, you’d never notice it, because after this moment it never comes up again. So all that introduction builds up to this moment, and then this moment only matters for this moment.
You can recognise this as an Important Moment because of how it’s shot, but is it? Is it actually important?
Or is it just a moment you’re meant to pass through unchanged?
The inability of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to commit to any of its ideas, to make a choice about things like Mass Media, corporations, the proper and appropriate use of violence, whether violent means can make peaceful ends, whether or not conspiracy is bad, is what hollows out all this good intention. The one issue it wants to stake a claim on it makes laughable because racism and anti-transhumanism are not remotely similar problems, and on the question of aug rights, it lands on the side of the augs after making the augs completely unreasonable, and then tells us they deserve freedom and recognition and the benefit of the doubt only after we have spent our time hanging around the one aug who is removed from the problems all other augs face. They even have you held up at checkpoints to emphasise hey – the cops are keeping an eye on you.
But they’re keeping an eye on you because you are travelling around town with a bazooka on your shoulder all the time! And all they do is check your papers and you move on!
It’s not that you can’t get anything out of a game that’s going nowhere. There are plenty of games that go nowhere and it’s fine. Hell in this blasted hellscape of a life on this Earth, everything ends. You’re going to walk away from some things you thought were the most important thing in your life, and look back only to see all of it that mattered in the long term in how it changed you for the experience.
But Deus Ex: Mankind Divided doesn’t want to change you. It doesn’t want you to be challenged in your positions and it doesn’t want to make you think because if it did it would have to commit to one of more of its many possible positions in a cloud of potential text. If Mankind Divided had an opinion on something, it would have to have an opinion on something.
And thus we come back to Foucault and the heterotopia. Mankind Divided is, as a game, as a fiction, as an experience, a train. You are there to wait, to be comfortable waiting, and to emerge changed as little as possible for the experience of your waiting.
You’re left, after all of that, here, in this place, the place you can’t commit to staying, the place that cannot be real, a place that literally only wants you to travel through it and move on. The only thing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided offers you is the understanding that it has nothing to offer you.
Whatever you brought in, it will tell you was already right.