Deus Ex: I Am Not Adam Jensen, Either.

Adam Jensen

Adam Jensen

I didn’t play video games when Deus Ex (the orig­i­nal) was released.  I have, since then, acquired a copy of the game and played part of it.  To be hon­est, it’s a bit dat­ed, but still cool.  Con­sid­er­ing that it’s direct sequel was not received as well and that it’s been 11 years since the release of Deus Ex, the new pre­quel: Deus Ex: Human Rev­o­lu­tion has been antic­i­pat­ed by fans for some con­sid­er­able time.  Luck­i­ly, it didn’t suf­fer the fate Duke Nukem… pos­si­bly large­ly due to the fact that it hasn’t been under con­stant devel­op­ment and revi­sion for the inter­ven­ing eleven years.

As I said ear­li­er, Rock Paper Shot­gun has run a num­ber of arti­cles includ­ing “I am not Adam Jensen” in which the author dis­cuss­es the fact that his own moti­va­tions are quite dif­fer­ent from the avatar in the game.  Many role play­ing games (both on the com­put­er and in oth­er gen­res) allow you a high or even extreme degree of avatar con­struc­tion such that your avatar is a reflec­tion, if not of your own char­ac­ter, of the char­ac­ter you wish to play.  Games like Obliv­ion and Drag­on Age give you end­less cus­tomiza­tions of how you look, your back­sto­ry, your race, and what skills you have.

Oth­er games give you cus­tomiza­tion of the avatar with­in bound­aries.  Some, like Mass Effect, allow you to choose from a few back­grounds and even choose the sex of your char­ac­ter.  Then some oth­ers allow you to choose from a set of pre­de­fined char­ac­ters with lit­tle or no changes like Torch­light, Dun­geon Siege III and Left 4 Dead.

Then there is Deus Ex: Human Rev­o­lu­tion.  One char­ac­ter.  One Look.  One Sex.   One Sto­ry.  To be fair, I can’t imag­ine too much flex­i­bil­i­ty here (sure, he could look dif­fer­ent or be les­bian (to explain “her” girl­friend)), but “Adam” Jensen (even the name is fixed) has a pret­ty messed up life and that messed up life informs much of the game’s sto­ry.  This fact is also core to my the­sis: that I am not Adam Jensen, either.

It’s worth con­sid­er­ing that I don’t tend play char­ac­ters that mir­ror myself in games where I have a large degree of free­dom to design the char­ac­ter.  I am nei­ther a mage nor do I pos­sess the abil­i­ty to jump or run great dis­tances (think­ing specif­i­cal­ly of my Obiliv­ion char­ac­ter).  I’m not even com­plete­ly sure that there exists facets of myself in the roles I play in games: I ‘m ful­ly capa­ble of play­ing a char­ac­ter by role play­ing what that char­ac­ter would choose giv­en the sit­u­a­tions pre­sent­ed in the game.

But the jist of the “I am not Adam Jensen” arti­cle goes some­what fur­ther; imply­ing that the Deus Ex play­er char­ac­ter and the incen­tives of the game are at odds with each oth­er and that many gamers (espe­cial­ly those that suf­fer a cer­tain amount of com­ple­tion­ist ten­den­cies) will be guid­ing the play­er char­ac­ter of Adam Jen­son to do very un-Adam Jen­son like things.

An easy exam­ple would be hack­ing com­put­ers.  There are times when hack­ing com­put­ers give you access to areas or items that you might not oth­er­wise.  There are also times when hack­ing com­put­ers can change the nature of a bat­tle or con­fronta­tion that allows Adam Jen­sons that spe­cial­ize in hack­ing to require less (or no) actu­al com­bat.  This is the adver­tised fea­ture of the game that allows the play­er to approach sit­u­a­tions dif­fer­ent­ly and with a range of play­er char­ac­ter skills.

But hack­ing com­put­ers gives, on every suc­cess­ful hack, expe­ri­ence points.  To the com­ple­tion­ist, this can dri­ve the play­er to not only hack every ter­mi­nal that is encoun­tered (even those with­in your own base of oper­a­tions and even your own ter­mi­nal and even those for which you have received the pass­word by oth­er means), but also to hack a lock in addi­tion to the com­put­er con­trol­ling a lock — com­plete­ly redun­dant actions that net more expe­ri­ence points.

Anoth­er exam­ple is that there are points in the game where you are gen­uine­ly giv­en a sense of urgency by the actions and voice act­ing of the oth­er char­ac­ters.  “Hur­ry on your mis­sion as peo­ple will sure­ly die if you are too tardy.”  Expe­ri­enced play­ers of role play­ing games will imme­di­ate­ly see where I’m going here.  Very few sequences, espe­cial­ly sequences of any com­plex­i­ty, are ever time con­strained by mod­ern games.  Gen­er­al­ly, although the sense of urgency is giv­en, the events in ques­tion will not trig­ger until the play­er char­ac­ter is in the right posi­tion to wit­ness the events.  There are many rea­sons for this, not the least of which is that the timed sequences can be dif­fi­cult and frus­trat­ing but also because it is dif­fi­cult to com­mu­ni­cate “nat­u­ral­ly” to the play­er that there is a time­out and what the time­out is.

Regard­less, dur­ing these “urgent” por­tions of the game the play­er is often drag­ging the play­er char­ac­ter through a num­ber of “side mis­sions” … mis­sions that give expe­ri­ence, but have no impor­tance to the plot.  In fact, many of these mis­sions in Deus Ex would seem rather below the thresh­old of con­sid­er­a­tion dur­ing such a sense of urgency.

A spe­cif­ic exam­ple from Deus Ex would be the side quest “Rot­ten Busi­ness” in which a pros­ti­tute near where you land in Chi­na tells you her friend (anoth­er pros­ti­tute) has gone miss­ing.  Deus Ex is not as bad as some games … send­ing you out on end­less errands that are mean­ing­less … most of the side quests have time tie to the sto­ry or to the char­ac­ters to which you are becom­ing attached if you are enjoy­ing the game, but in bring­ing down a glob­al con­spir­a­cy that could poten­tial­ly oppress mil­lions of peo­ple and change the course of his­to­ry and when you are seem­ing­ly the only per­son in a posi­tion to do so, achiev­ing the side quest is def­i­nite­ly in the inter­ests of the play­er and not the play­er char­ac­ter.

When I am design­ing my own char­ac­ter, I can safe­ly argue that he is obsessed with col­lect­ing things or even achiev­ing each advance in his skill, but Deus Ex delib­er­ate­ly gives you a play­er char­ac­ter that has this sit­u­a­tion thrust upon him such that even his “aug­men­ta­tions” (that which the expe­ri­ence points aug­ment) are things that he clear­ly may not want … or at best is ambiva­lent about.

So it strikes me that the play­er (or at least I, myself) is at best mess­ing with the play­er char­ac­ter instead of strict­ly role play­ing it.  That is: I could strict­ly role play Adam Jensen, but my inter­ests in the game and, indeed, most play­ers inter­est in the game is actu­al­ly at cross pur­pos­es with the goals of Adam Jensen.  Fur­ther, this cross pur­pose is part of the core game design itself.

Gam­ing itself is a very young medi­um.  I’m fair­ly con­fi­dent that the cre­ators and more specif­i­cal­ly the writ­ers of Deus Ex were schem­ing to cre­ate a great game — one that is fun to play.  In that part they have suc­ceed­ed, or at least most­ly suc­ceed­ed.  But there is a sub­tle dis­con­nect between the game­play in the sto­ry — where one encour­ages find­ing every col­lectible and hack­ing every com­put­er and the oth­er involves a deeply trou­bled and imper­fect pro­tag­o­nist that is pushed through­out the sto­ry to it’s inevitable con­clu­sion.

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One Response to Deus Ex: I Am Not Adam Jensen, Either.

  1. Pingback: Review: “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” | | Random Scribblings ...Random Scribblings …

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