One of the biggest characteristics of video games that set it apart from every other form of entertainment and art is its propensity for high immersion. Immersion is something all entertainers yearn for regardless of the medium. You want people to forget the outside world, forget where they are, forget what they are worried about, and simply enjoy the experience. On a greater level, you want people to empathize with whatever message you might have and to come away with a better understanding. Video games are in a unique position to accomplish this, because it actually requires players to experience it themselves rather than having to vicariously watch someone else do it. Story based games in particular need immersion to be successful. If you can’t relate to the character you are in control of, then you won’t have much investment in the choices you have to make, the dangers you have to face, or any of the other characters you have to interact with. Narrative games use many tools to get players to connect with their avatars, to varying degrees of success. None have done it better than Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a very brave title. It tackles concepts that draw very clear parallels with real life, many of which are sensitive topics. What’s more, it does so in a way that leaves all involved accountable. Most stories prefer to keep things simple—there is a clear enemy, there is a clear protagonist, there is a clear objective, and moral choices are obvious. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a step away from that but still fell back on a clearly evil villain with no redeeming qualities or motivations, and only a few moderately difficult choices. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided pulls no punches. There are multiple decisions that have no right or wrong answer and no morality to speak of. Typically they consist of choosing between a guarantee that you may save a life or a hope that you might be able to help the world as a whole. Those decisions are impressively difficult, and there are several in both main and side quests. One of the hardest (spoilers) to handle is a side quest in which you must choose between two people at risk of being deported: a woman with schizophrenia and no family to care for her and a man who is trying to reconnect with his daughter and grandson after the Aug Incident. Whoever you don’t choose is arrested or deported to Golem, a dangerous aug ghetto.
That is what you do directly, though. The best part of the atmosphere actually comes from just walking down the street in Prague. Most of us have never lived in a truly prejudiced society. Yet, prejudice exists in the developed world, but it is far rarer. There are places in the world where it is far more prevalent, though, and was a phenomenon even in industrialized countries not too long ago. Many have tried to emulate that type of society, to make a point about the harm bigotry causes. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided does it best, though. In this case, the group in question is a fictionalized one: augmented people. Following the Aug Incident, fear drove people to create laws that turned augmented people into second-class citizens and, in some places, placed augs in segregated camps and neighborhoods. The environment built to emphasize this is amazing, and it has the potential to actually elicit a reaction from the player. Walking down the street and getting harassed by police and called a “clank” at every corner strikes a nerve, even (maybe especially) for players who’ve never had to deal with it before. It’s interesting because no player is likely augmented in the way Jensen is, and “clank” in our society isn’t inflammatory by any means. You learn so quickly that it’s a slur and hearing it in that dismissive and insulting tone constantly begins to embed it in your brain and suddenly you grit your teeth whenever you hear it.
The constant police stops do this too. If you take a wrong door or try to go down certain alleys, you get stopped by Prague police for simply moving about. Since you are Jensen and an employee of Interpol, you always get through obviously, but even with your impressive credentials, you don’t get much better treatment than any other aug. Later in the game this gets worse, and it becomes obvious how this is pointed at augmented people in particular.
There are a lot of comparisons you can and likely will draw to the many factions of the game, to relate it to present day. Who you identify with in-game, or who you compare those groups too, will likely hinge a lot on your views of the world. The most realistic interpretation though is that the factions in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided represent no groups in particular, yet represent every group in history. They aren’t meant to specifically emulate some modern phenomenon, but the concept of fear and discrimination in general. Augmented people come in every race, gender, and ethnicity; in fact, it seems like our version of racism and sexism doesn’t exist in this universe at all. All that hatred is directed at augmented people. And because this is an issue completely unfamiliar to us in the real world, when you first start the game, the explanations almost make sense. Of course, people have a right to be afraid after what happened—what does it matter anyway? Augments are a “choice” after all.
As you play the game, though, things get more complicated. Jensen didn’t choose his augments after all, nor several other characters. Many either had a choice between augments or living with severe disabilities and limitations. Even those who made the choice, if it is for the sake of improving themselves, is that bad? Can we actually blame them for something that was completely out of their control? Then it gets worse, with extremists on both ends committing deplorable acts to get their way. Fighting and riots grow, and tensions get hotter. All the while you are essentially a bystander; you are augmented, but you are also an enforcer of the law. You understand all too well that how augmented people are treated isn’t fair, but that doesn’t justify murder and terrorism despite what extremists want to think.
The main group protesting the treatment of augmented people is ARC, and ARC is a near-perfect metaphor for nearly every activist group to ever exist. The majority who look on or support it simply do so from afar, without wanting to dedicate too much of themselves. It isn’t because they are lazy, but because they have families and lives they cannot risk. Then inside the organization itself, most want peace. They may occasionally do illegal things but never something that would harm people. When things don’t change immediately, though, some augs decide they need to act more rashly, at first acting independently but soon creating their own coalition within the main organizations. ARC is forced to take the blame for that small group who thinks the only way to help augs is to silence all those who stand in their way. Eventually, that small subgroup tries to take over completely, and that majority on the sidelines starts to either inch away or radicalize themselves. The end result is no one is helped, but the hatred and bigotry only increases further, and those moderate radicals who still desperately want to fix things often become hopeless and disillusioned, while others like Jensen or the Collective soldier on.
Never are those radicals portrayed as simply evil. They are misguided. They are driven to the brink by both the actual hardships of the world and the ones they only perceive and think they are helping the world. Sometimes they can be reasoned with, other times they are too far gone. Similarly, the government is not all good or evil either, particularly Interpol, which walks an interesting line between absolute lawfulness and doing what is right in spite of what is legal.
All of this complexity makes the world so much more interesting, especially when you start examining it closely. There are so many fine details in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, some of which are meant for fun but many are meant to develop the world. Most won’t read every single email and Pocket Secretary, but if you catch some, you’ll see what I mean. You’ll find two emails to the ARC director, one from a mother praising him for trying to help and the other from an angry aug who thinks his message of peace will solve nothing. Emails between coworkers sometimes detail care and concern for Jensen, but other times disdain and even distrust. In a world where the big debate is what makes us human, everyone actually seems incredibly human. Even minor characters, even the background characters you see on the street—stand and observe them. It is all so fascinating and flawed and human, and that is what creates such an incredible immersive experience.
It is a shame that a lot of this will be overlooked in favor of just comparing it to modern incidences and claiming it is bad or good depending on current politics. These things will pass eventually. Mankind Divided‘s interpretation of the world will still be relevant when the next group comes along trying to make the world a better place, when the next government tried to limit people they perceive to be dangerous for good reasons but with bad methods, when the next anonymous group tries to reveal the truth to people regardless of the ethics. While it may not be colorful or optimistic, it is a nice reminder, because while no one in Deus Ex is perfect, no one is truly evil either, which means there is still hope for Jensen to make the world better.More About This Game