Modification of the individual has been at the core of the gaming experience since the inception of the role-playing genre. It wasn’t until System Shock (1995), however, that designers started probing the deeper issues beneath these newfound powers. System Shock’s spiritual descendants—the BioShock and Deus Ex series—continue to explore this nexus point where issues of gameplay intersect with one of the developing moral and ethical issues of our time: what it means to be human.
Humanity finds itself at a crossroads. Humans have always used their free will to alter the world around them, their own views of that world, and even their appearances. The parallel acceleration of genetic research and nanotechnology, however, are opening the building blocks of human life to tampering, from the moment of conception, and before. It’s unthinkable that these technologies can be deployed without fundamentally redefining what it means to be human.
This is the crossroads where Adam Jensen finds himself in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which takes place only 15 years in the future. The game may try to take a neutral stance on the issue of transhumanism by allowing the player to choose Adam’s reactions, but the narrative itself makes hash of this neutrality. These technologies begin with a new golden age in which people are relieved of crippling disabilities, before they fall prey to the same old power plays among governments, corporations, and those who simply refuse to follow the program.
The designers may well be warning about the dangers of transhumanism, but the gameplay itself undercuts this message. After all, your success is based upon Adam getting the best mods for the job. Adam is ultimately allowed some reflection upon just What It All Means, but since he’s spent the past 30 hours punching through walls or fading to invisibility, any words of protest against a modified humanity sound a bit hollow.
The fact is, these mods work out pretty well for Adam, as they probably will for any individual. But the chaos engulfing the world of Human Revolution shows us that society is more than the individual.