Last week Ion Storm’s classic first-person RPG Deus Ex turned 20. The week before that I had written about the game for the first time, having played it through again over the winter, totally unaware of its imminent birthday. I don’t know why it took me just shy of two decades to write about given its enormous influence on my creative life (I first picked it up in…2002, by which time it had made its way into the Sold-Out Software range). It might be that I owe it something of a debt.
But so much has been written about Deus Ex over the years that I knew there was little value in going over the usual talking points. I decided instead to explore what it was like to be a part of this most immersive of games, with its rich, conspiracy-laden world. It meant venturing into the margins of its story, where a surprising amount of Deus Ex’s…let’s say purpose resides. And it meant talking about two characters that have always stuck with me and to whom I wished, in some small way, to tip my hat.
So, here it is. Happy birthday, Deus Ex. This was for you, in more ways than I knew.
A devastating plague ravages the world, disproportionately affecting the lower classes, where plague victims are dying in droves.
Rage at the injustices of a corrupt system bubble to the surface and violence spills out onto the streets. It doesn’t last long. Each flare of resistance is brutally suppressed by law enforcement agencies that increasingly seem to serve the interests of a corporate class, and not the citizens to whom they swore an oath.
The political world is paralysed; too inept and mired in bureaucracy to successfully restore order to the states they were elected to govern and faith to the institutions they pledged to serve.
Inequality, poverty, and social injustice are endemic the world over, but especially pronounced in North America. The republic decays daily, disgraced by an amoral and shameless administration bound to avaricious corporate powers.
It is 2052.
A technological revolution has blurred the lines between the human and transhuman. Nanotechnology is changing, adapting, and modifying the chemistry of the human body. It will herald a new dawn, but apparently its light is reserved only for a select few.
“I don’t care what she’s been doing. Tell her she can come home. No questions, no speeches.”
Hell’s Kitchen, New York. The ‘Ton Hotel. Formerly a Hilton, in days gone by. Not better, exactly, just less worse. Now half the neon sign is bust. Lights of a bygone era that are never coming back. The interior is a step down from the step down. Inside, the faulty electrics stand a good chance of killing you. The elevator is perennially broken and spitting out arcs of electricity. Rats hold court in the lobby.
There’s more rodents than guests. Admittedly it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.
The owner, Gilbert Renton, is a decent man. Proud. He speaks with a guttural croak, as if his throat were a car exhaust sputtering out the last gasps of a busted engine. He knows the ‘Ton’s rep, but what can he do? No, really – what can he do?
There’s a framed picture on the wall. It’s a young woman set against a backdrop of impossible green. Was the world ever so green? It is becoming harder by the day to recall.
“Sandra,” he wheezes. His daughter. She was meant to help with the hotel’s upkeep, but the filth is too ingrained now. Scrub away the dirt and there won’t even be a ‘Ton. He just wants to know she’s safe, as safe as she can be in this rotten old world.
Where is she now? Far from the green. In the cold grey of New York’s desperate urban jungle. Hating the ‘Ton, which symbolises the squalor of her life, she turned to prostitution, fell in with a bad crowd. Johnny. JoJo. Punks, but dangerous punks. Now she wants to leave. Where?
Anywhere. Anywhere but here. Like a lot of young people, the only chance of a roof over her head is with a parent. Only now the ‘Ton’s roof, its walls – they’re closer to a prison than a home. The alternative is homelessness. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but not here. She’s seen enough of this city, inhaled too much of its noxious air, to let herself join its under-dwellers in the sad march to an inevitable early death mourned by no one at all.
Across the street there’s a free clinic. The so-called front-line. It’s starved of cash and is frequently raided for supplies. Half the staff are too afraid to come to work. Appalling governmental failures on a federal and state level have left them without support. They’ve even had to throw open their doors to shelter vagrants who have attracted the arbitrary ire of the police force, or whoever the heavies with guns are. No one knows for sure. All they know is that it can’t go on like this much longer. The entire system is buckling.
Sandra Renton is looking away from New York, to beyond the horizon. Who will tell her there’s nothing there?
“Only in novels do buildings collapse when their spirit is lost.”
A deserted château, Paris. Château DuClare by name. Grand and stately, it is a far cry from Hell’s Kitchen, but imbued with its own pervasive melancholy.
The château was once the home of a woman called Elizabeth DuClare. That DuClare possessed great wealth was no secret, but what she did with it was. Although ostensibly a centrist with socially liberal views, at heart she stood for a conservative regime that exercised its power from the shadows. She believed in a world with ancient centralised power systems; class and hierarchy were essential and tacitly maintained, all in the name of a balanced civilization.
The world as it has been defined for centuries.
It was a world taken out from under her by scheming acolytes of that same power system – men who wished to seize the shadows, and ultimately step out of them. But not as men. As something, in their eyes at least, more than men. More, even, than human.
Their paramilitary troops now enforce a strict martial law in Paris, which was enacted after a series of terrorist incidents by a group called ‘Silhouette’.
Terrorists, or freedom fighters? That depends on who you ask; but if you do, do so in the dark, and in hushed voices. Even the ATM’s have ears.
The French president appears on screens across the country, apparently to calm a frightened nation. He’s sweating. A bartender at a nightclub says it’s because there’s a gun to his head. You’d ask him to elaborate, but he’s already turned away, afraid to say more. Afraid of what he’s already said.
When did this coup d’etat take place? How did a nation surrender its sovereignty to shadowy conspirators? What form do these usurpers take?
There’s a young woman in the club. Her name is Nicolette. She spends her nights here, drinking, dancing, prolonging the present moment to avoid the future. She is the daughter of Elizabeth DuClare. She can afford such luxuries.
The relationship between mother and daughter was strained; Nicolette resented her mother’s secrets, and her mother scorned Nicolette’s radical politics. But there was a certain respect between the two women, which kept the chance of reconciliation alive.
But now Elizabeth is dead. Nicolette is the heir to the DuClare fortune and the sole owner of the lonely château. Standing before it again, after so long, she shivers. She is not sure what she will find inside. A legacy of a lost world, probably. A world that callously resisted equality, and so inevitably led to this one. Wealth, power, influence – all handed to Nicolette by virtue of birth.
All things Sandra Renton will never and could never know. Nicolette doesn’t know Sandra Renton personally, but she knows the Sandra Rentons of the world, and her heart bleeds for them. It’s why she’s drawn to the revolutionary politics of Silhouette and the political philosophers who give it shape and voice. The ancien régime her mother helped curate must not be allowed to rise again when – if – the present tyranny is overthrown.
She knows this – at least as well as someone born and raised in a rural château can know it. Which is just another way of saying she doesn’t know it at all.
Today’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s tyrants.
A dark and sinister conspiracy unites all of these divergent aspects, but that’s just a framing device to tell of institutions, government and otherwise, that have failed to fulfil their basic pledges to the people they were meant to serve – and the devastating consequences that ensued.
These depths exist in the margins. In the snippets of conversation at bars and health clinics; in the locked apartments and gloomy offices; in the frantic emails of beleaguered doctors and frustrated officials; in the Sandras and Nicolettes, who don’t exactly carry the weight of what’s being told, but who nonetheless provide it with essential context and meaning.
As a hypothetical future it was, and remains, remarkably prescient. And in its depiction of widespread and crippling inequality, its echoes of our present moment are more than a little chilling.