When the background is the foreground

Or, What’s Wrong with Deus Ex: Human Revolution despite how well I like it so far.

That’s serious by the way, I’m really enjoying the game even though I’m not very far into it yet. If you’ve played it, I’ve made it to the FEMA building, so pretty much the second mission, though I cleared all the side-missions I could first. Anyway, my point this week is simple: Deus Ex seems like it has a great setting, but it needs to shut the hell up about it.

If you haven’t played this game (I played some of the first game years ago, but don’t remember much about its setting or plot), it’s a cyberpunk game that begins with a research firm being attacked. Your character is the head of security, a former cop, and is badly injured during the attack. You get a bunch of cybernetic upgrades while unconscious, some necessary to keep you alive, some, well, not. So it’s very much 80s William Gibson, where the corporation actually has clauses in contracts allowing them to do what they want with employees, while people protest augmentation like it’s the new abortion. This is an interesting setup for a game that asks you to level up by buying augmentations. I’ve already encountered one good question, even though I don’t know if it will affect anything in-game or not: my character’s legs are still normal, so far as I know. There are upgrades that make me faster and quieter, but I’d have to cut off my legs first, to put the prosthetic ones in. Do I do that, or do I stick with stuff that’s already implanted, like my eye enhancements or extra strength in the arms? This is a classical question from cyberpunk, formalized in the rules to the old Shadowrun RPG – in which the more augmentations you had, the more points in a score that represented your sense of alienation from your own, human self. You could fail “being human” checks, basically, and fuck up your psyche.

So I mentioned there was a problem, right? Well, that debate about whether augmentation is ok? It’s all anyone talks about. I don’t mean characters in the plot, who are understandably concerned by the Congressional hearings they’re embroiled in, or the protesters breaking into their facilities. I mean people on the streets – So far I have run into two NPCs who don’t talk about the news stories, augmentations in general, or my augmentations specifically. One of those NPCs was the manager of my apartment building, who is an ass (she told me my new bathroom mirror was on back order, but when I read her emails the manufacturer is bitching at her to come get the damn thing before they send it back to the warehouse – yes I read her emails, what?). The other NPC presumed I was hitting on her. Everyone else, including the hookers, talk about whether they would fuck someone with augmentations, if I should have ruined my “natural beauty” with augmentations, that I am lucky to be able to afford all those shiny new upgrades (Adam, my character, never gets a chance to tell anyone he didn’t have a choice, which actually keeps that powerlessness in the forefront of my mind as I play, so that’s ok).

In other words, in a world in which there’s a big news story right now, a world that’s meant to be sort of near future, in which body upgrades and genetic manipulation can change the face of humanity – in this world, there are no sports teams, no youth pranks, no Occupy movement, no financial crisis, no celebrity gossip, no cheap diners. Where’s the rest of this world? I lied a little when I said there are no sports teams: one guy in the lobby of my apartment building mentioned a baseball team, but only to complain about how a batter broke the hit record but he has a mechanical arm and shouldn’t have been allowed to play, or at least not counted for the record. Every single thing is either there to facilitate my missions (the homeless woman I can pump information out of with money or beer) or to remind me of the debate the game is about (everything the fuck else).

Worldbuilding, in the good or bad sense, is a tricky business. The thing about convincing worlds is that they remind the audience that the plot is happening inside a world. Things still happen that have nothing to do with the plot. It can be hard to do that without providing a distraction – or, it can in movies, books, so on. But a comic book can have stuff in the background (see Transmetropolitan) and a video game can have some NPCs there to just complain about their work day or a drunk bitching about his wife leaving him, or something. Anything. William Gibson has always been one of the best with this: The Sprawl comes alive as characters walk through it; the Bridge is full of people who have no idea what’s going on the plot proper, including one of the main characters for quite a while.

I don’t think I’m chastising the game for something it didn’t try to do. I think the game tries very hard to give the player a sense of the world around the character. TVs blast news stories everywhere, radios play political talk shows constantly. But every TV news story is about what happened to my company or the debates in Congress; every radio talk show is about the augmentation debate and the host’s claim that he has to move every episode and use a different server to stream every call, cause the government wants to shut him down – which seems unlikely, actually. The developers knew part of the appeal of this setting was seeing strange riffs on the modern, technologized world – the newscasters wear ridiculous outfits (a la Dark Knight Returns, just with far less nudity) and newspapers still come in those street-corner boxes but are smart digital paper that scroll things across the head. But the city doesn’t bubble with life; people aren’t there because they’re there: they’re there for me to get quest hooks.

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