Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Deus Ex: Gonna Go Back in Time

Invisible War Box ArtIf you’re at all into them-there video games, you probably know that Deus Ex: Human Revolution hits the US this week. Like many nerds of my age bracket, I can’t wait to put on some mirror shades and fight the technocratic oligarchy. (Scientists now believe Invisible War would have sold a billion more units if the PCs had mirror shades.)

If you haven’t played Deus Ex (because you weren’t a PC gamer at the time, you aren’t into FPSes, or— god help us— you weren’t fucking born yet), the game still has a lot to offer a modern player.

Deus Ex is a cyber-punk FPS-RPG that depicts a world rebuilding after a devastating economic collapse. Sovereign nations are giving way to a global community. New advances in technology at once give governments a tighter grip, but also empower rebellious factions and civil war. And the hero is a nanotechnologically enhanced super-soldier, working for an counter-terrorism group formed after a terrorist attack on New York City.

In short, it is almost the perfect representation of the post-9/11 zeitgeist.

Except it came out in 2000.

Deus Ex NY SkylineOkay, back up again. That stuff I said up there about the plot? With the terrorists and the technology boom and the governments collapse? That’s all true. Those things happen. But I’m selectively elevating certain elements. These are the bits that stick out to me as I’m playing back through. These are the parts that are reverberating, bouncing around in my 2011 head.

Something’s off, though. It’s not like the game only became a hit after 9/11. I’m irrationally proud to say I played Deus Ex when it dropped in 2000, and I played the shit out of it. The story was just as strong then as it was a year later. But what was Deus Ex actually reacting to?

Buckle up for a journey in the Wayback Machine. We’re taking a trip to the 90s.

(Also, fuck New Critics.)

Fresh PrinceDo you remember the 90s? It’s okay if you don’t. It was a bit of a shit decade. Parachute pants, grunge, Howard Stern, Russian mob, Windows 95 release parties. When 90s nostalgia comes around, I will force VH1’s “I Love the 90s” off the air with my pure hate until people forget that horrible null space of human development.

Shit, where am I? Right, the 90s. There’s some stuff that’s easy to forget now.

If you forgot or were absent, we were actually paranoid as fuck about terrorism before 9/11. And it seemed not without warrant. There was the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The US embassies in Kenya and Tanzia were bombed in 1998. Jihadist terrorists have been kicking around long before that, but we’ll stick with the 90s here.

So yeah, Deus Ex already had a lot of terrorist stuff to play off of. Except foreign terrorists weren’t the biggest boogeyman at the time. It was us.

There was this fear in the back of the American consciousness that we were a country coming apart at the seems. Ruby Ridge and its big-budget sequel, Waco, in the early 90s gave us the Oklahoma Musicalimage of US agencies violently botching raids on US citizens. With bullets. And fire. I think there was a tank, too. The Oklahoma city bombing—the big sumbitch of the 90s—showed the destructive potential individuals could pose to those very same agencies. And with the arrest of Ted Kaczynski in 1996, the series of events got its meta-narrative through an American-bred-crackpot’s manifesto.

Sum of All Fears movie posterFor a while, it seemed that around was a group of survivalist nuts out in Montana preparing for the next American Revolution against big government. So when Deus Ex set told 2000 players they were fighting a group of domestic terrorists called the Northwest Secessionist Forces, they weren’t whiting up the terrorists (thanks, Sum of All Fears). Domestic terrorism was demonstrably a very real threat. When Deus Ex was released, it had only been 5 years since Oklahoma City. We’re twice that past 9/11 now. Unless something bigger happens, it takes a while to forget that shit.

There are a host of other things going on in the story that still work, but have lost some of their context. Like greys. Remember them? The little alien dudes that just couldn’t get enough of abducting people. They were bigger than fat Elvis. Fire in the Sky, The X-Files, Men in Black, etc., made greys and the related men-in-black common figures in the popular conscious. So, Deus Ex is a game about government conspiracies and stabbing MiB’s in the face with a laser sword? Gotta have some greys in there. (Granted, making them mutated venom-spitting monkeys was goddamn outta left field.)

Speaking of X-Files, any discussion of the original Deus Ex has to bring up FEMA. In Deus Ex, the bad guys plot to overthrow the US government with injudicious use of FEMA’s emergency powers. Declare emergency, declare martial law and nullify the constitution. Today, that plot sounds goddamn ridiculous. Well, okay in 2000 it was crazy-pants paranoia stuff too, but it wasn’t zany. But in 90s conspiracy theory land, the emergency powers FEMA could use were a popular topic. Sure, FEMA hadn’t overthrown the government yet, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t. Post-Katrina? Obama’s Death Panels sound like a more reasonable threat.

Millennialism was also big. That giant round magic number was coming up, and goddamn if we weren’t heading towards something apocalyptic because of it. Suicide cults were offing themselves to get on the Hale-Bopp comet. Angel sightings were vying for real estate with the greys. And we were paranoid as fuck that our technology was out to get us.

Bad political toon on Y2K

Oh, I can still taste that sweet Y2K paranoia. All of our computers were going to run out of magic year bits when the year hit 2000, making every computer convinced it was Jesus-o-clock. The punishment for our folly was going to be the simultaneous collapse of the internet, banking, and a huge fuck-off nuclear holocaust. Y2K clearly didn’t destroy civilization, and looking back at it all you can really see is a number of embarrassing newscasts and sitcom episodes about stockpiling canned tomatoes. But Deus Ex builds off the millennial tone perfectly. Deus Ex presents a world filled with hubris and apocalypse, all through a veil of anxiety over the progress of technology.

So where does that leave the current reading of Deus Ex? Are people going to enjoy it less without the 90s anxieties and concerns pulsing in their heads? Of course not. I played Deus Ex on a nearly yearly basis for ten years after launch, and I forgot most of that 90s shit in the first two. Hell, I had to Google half of that just to write this up.

Deus Ex is a large and complicated game that asks a lot of political and philosophical questions. Its questions aren’t about the 90s any more than they’re about post-9/11. They’re about the relationship between power and corruption, security and freedoms, and the march of technology. The topics and events that Deus Ex presents can be read and re-interpreted in almost any year, and the odds are good that the reading will hold up. Like any good work, it lives beyond its original context and loses none of its real impact.

And that is why you should just goddamn play Deus Ex.

JC Denton


  1. It pains me to say that I have tried several times, but the first level just makes me feel like throwing myself off a cliff.

    I know that the game should be one of my favourites if I could only get past that barrier, but until then it just feels as if I'm beating my head against a brick wall.

    Honestly, I'm considering finding a save file from someone else who has already completed Liberty Island just to avoid self-mutilation.

  2. "It pains me to say that I have tried several times, but the first level just makes me feel like throwing myself off a cliff."

    I've also always found the first level disproportionately hard.

    Great article, Chris. It's always fascinating to explore how the cultural context for media changes even over relatively short periods of time.

  3. Growing up, I remember the two biggest threats in my mind were Satanic cultists and white supremacists. Maybe that's just what a Delaware upbringing'll get you, but I remember thinking as a kid that True Lies' terrorists, who were Arab, were motivated by something as vague and indefinably Bad as a Captain Planet villain.

    On the other hand, white supremacists wanted to kill black people (and the white people who helped black people out in any way), and racism was a big part of where I grew up. Arab or Muslim terrorists, as a meme, were not.