Diary Ex – A Human Revolution Journal. Episode 2: Mirrors

By: Joe Martin

Published: September 13, 2011 Posted in: Diary Ex

Extremely mild spoilers up to the middle of China.

When I was a kid, I used to ride the bus to school. It was a long trip, prefaced by a mile long walk and ending with an hour on an ornery double-decker that was as likely to roll back down a hill as climb one. This meant there was a lot of time for bored village boys to talk about their favourite topics: Quake II, Duke Nukem 3D, Jedi Knight. Carefree and convinced we were on the cutting edge, we were nonetheless aware of the limits of our tales – the finite number of ways to say I’d grabbed the Gold Key and killed a dude, dude!

deus ex diary 2 - crush your way in

Deus Ex, for reasons everyone anticipates, offered something different and quickly became a recurring topic. There were so many paths, choices layered up a story that had to be peeled apart bit by bit – each fragment offering new tales of its own. We would swap trivia (‘Did you know JC was originally meant to be a descendant of Jesus?’), argue motivations (‘I’m a robotic killing machine, I don’t sneak anywhere!’) and narrate our paths (‘How the hell do you get on the roof?’)

With Human Revolution, I’ve been telling these stories again to friends both new and old and, more than the game itself, that’s what I find myself looking forward to – the chance to look a friend in the eye and raise a challenge. How did you infiltrate Detroit PD’s morgue?

Every time, it feels just like old times; my oldest friends sneaking in through vents on the top floor, while people I know who never played the original merely charged in, guns blazing. Personally, I just asked nicely. To me, talking about Human Revolution is as integral a part of the experience as playing it, to the point that I was admonished at a dinner party last week for talking about ‘that fucking computer game that Ben is always playing’.

Naturally, the only effect the scolding had was to drive me closer to a whisper – ‘Ben, did you find the sniper rifle on top of the petrol station at the start?

The fact that Deus Ex and Human Revolution are so suitable to this sort of discussion is one of the main reasons that both games have rocketed to classic status. What else could it be? Not the graphics, which are middling, or the design which crumbles any difficulty back to easy as soon as you put a laser pointer on a silenced pistol. Every negative in Tom Chick’s review of the original Deus Ex can be levelled against Human Revolution too.

This is the great irony of the Deus Ex series, of course; it’s always held up for it’s innovations and vision, but the franchise is stuck in it’s own mould. Human Revolution has had such a warm reception not because it moves game design forward as Deus Ex did, but because it keeps us at that point.

Anyway, the conversations. The fact that Human Revolution can support so many different interpretations on every level from the practical (How you tackled the FEMA base) to the philosophical (Why you tackled it that way) is the defining aspect of the game. Kieron Gillen thinks Human Revolution is about DRM, but I’m so far interpreting it as being about republicanism – and we can argue that fact until the augmented cows come home. It’s something I look forward to, because far more important than the methods we use to kill imaginary cyborgs are the ways we discuss the events afterwards and the language we use to do so.

deus ex diary 2 - stealth in

Hell, I’d even go so far as to say that impassioned discussion after the event is more fun than the event itself.

Case in point: How did tackle the hostage mission at the start of the game and how do the tactics you used there compare to your handling of the Detroit PD and FEMA missions? Personally, I find Human Revolution’s greatest strength is that it’s allowed me to tell these stories again, with the same peel-away structure. Visiting an old school friend last week it was all we could do to keep our voices quiet as we swapped tales of handling Detroit PD’s offices – him sneaking through, me bluffing past guards. It’s been great to tell these familiar stories to an old friend.

Not just familiar though – the same.

I’ve found it hard to ignore how closely the early game mirrors the first. The early levels especially feel brazen in their move to parallel the objectives of the original; your first job is hostage mission, with captives to free and a leader to either snuff or talk down. After that you’re returned to your base – Sarif’s lobby or UNATCO – and turned loose in urban America to deal with optional gangs and a transmitter which sits in the rough part of town. Then: whoomph, you’re off to China in your helicopter to talk to a hacker and a millionaire businesswoman with a ropey accent.

I’ve still not finished Human Revolution, having only just moved on past the sections I’ve discussed, but I’ve still been noticing these mirrors everywhere. It’s all over the place; Jensen’s croaky vocals, the selection of weapons, the way empty US streets are immediately contrasted to a comparatively thrumming China. There may be nuance in the details (and there is, plenty) but I’ve often had the impression that Human Revolution is just walking Deus Ex’s footprints in new shoes.

This might sound like a criticism of Human Revolution, especially given how quick game critics are to dismiss most sequels – prompting questions about whether writers understand their industry – but it’s not. This is all that Deus Ex fans, normally so fixated on such intangibilities as emergence and innovation, really care about. They don’t want a new game, they want the old one with prettier pictures and a few twists.

There’s a freshness and depth to the game that wasn’t there before and even just the fact that there’s a more notable visual theme dramatically changes how stories are presented. Gone are the sterile corridors and suits of Ion Storm’s vision of the future, replaced with gilt and uncomfortable ruffles; your enemy is no longer merely The Man, he’s a King.

Joe Martin