Choose your own adventure: Deus Ex and the mechanism of power

Choose your own adventure is a regular column exploring games which offer the player considerable narrative choices. Scroll down to continue reading, click through to skip to the end, or press ALT+F4 to return to the beginning.

Last time in choose your own adventure, I contributed New Vegas’ incredible sense of role playing freedom to its amorality and political affiliations. The role playing of Deus Ex, while heavily tied to various political organizations and the capitalistic ventures with which they coexist, is limited to the actual mechanics of the game: at no point can you stop being anybody but J.C. Denton. What you can choose, however, is typical video game stuff: how well you shoot, which way to enter top secret command post #3018, and whether to reinstate a technological dark age or the (according to the game) bourgeois remnants of the Illuminati itself.

There is a third option, of course, but we’ll get to that later.

As with many RPGs, Deus Ex is focused on power: who has power in the beginning of the game, as well as who has power at the end. The latter category is important because it identifies with the actions of the player, the former for its role in structuring the plot (chiastics, anyone?). What makes this a typical Y2K production is its obsession with information, as the game blends the social paranoia rampant in the newest millennium with the ubiquity of computers and, by association, data, inherent to the sci-fi genre. The game quickly establishes a subsidiary of the American government as the center of power, identifying FEMA and the Majestic 12 with the creation of a worldwide plague and the distribution of its only vaccine. Players are led to believe that the NSF–or National Secessionist Forces–are the government’s (binary) opposition, but the appearance of the Illuminati exposes the real threat to the Majestic 12’s plans.

Here we find the binary opposition that structures the plot and its delegations of power. Other forces and organizations make appearances, but they don’t disrupt the binary so much as contribute to it (except, well, but we’ll go to that). While the structure’s a point of interest in it’s own right, what makes Deus Ex significant–as opposed to many contemporary open-ended games–is how the game positions the player as above the binary, allowing them to ultimately decide the denouement of the plot, i.e., which pole wins.

Here you may want to interject in order to say that even a modern game like Skyrim, paradoxically renowned for its subjugation and celebration of the player depending on who you ask, provides the player the ability to decide the conclusion of the binary opposition. While this is true, the character (who, via the player’s role playing efforts, has hopefully been endowed with an identity and motive before the credits roll) cannot exceed the boundary but play by its rules: no matter which side you choose, your actions only serve to raise one pole to power while destroying the leadership–and, because we’re following the most basic of monarchical thought, this results in complete destruction–of the Other. The player remains a nameless soldier, however skilled they might be.

As for Deus Ex, perhaps it would be beneficial to consult with Foucault:

Are there no great radical ruptures, massive binary divisions, then? Occasionally, yes. But more often one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and effecting regroupings, furrowing across individuals themselves, cutting them up and remolding them, marking off irreducible regions in them, in their bodies and minds.

The History of Sexuality, Volume 1

While Foucault was associating these “radical ruptures” to the human body and the creation of discourse and–by extension–sexuality, Deus Ex has its own point of resistance in the character of J.C. Denton. Because the character is not fully committed to one organization or another until the end, Denton utilizes the advantages of each side to reach his goal. The personifications of the revolutionary forces and the Illuminati–seen in Tracer Tong and Morgan Everett, respectively–learn as much from Denton’s actions as he does from them; minor revelations cause them to shift beliefs and ideas around in regroupings quite similar to Foucault’s own. The irreducible regions, the accumulated “essence” of each group, derives from the player’s efforts. You are just as in control of the game as the binary oppositions are, if not more so.

Toying with Deus Ex’s documented obsession with data, the “mobile and transitory” Denton becomes a harbinger of discourse not on sexuality but discourse itself. In fact, the very fate of discourse is placed in your hands: the player can choose to effectively erase the internet from existence (a modern day equivalent to the burning of Alexandria?) or reinstate a power whose most pronounced methodology is the exploitation of information. While I’m not familiar with Invisible War and the intricacies of the Collapse, the potency of such a dichotomy satisfies more than the resolution of a colonial war between, say, an Imperial center and those who resist it. Each option does not necessarily revoke the other; a worthwhile lesson on how to create organizations which lean and sway instead of snapping in the wind.

Of course, a game like Deux Ex is not satisfied with a simple presentation of the binary’s completion–a third option exists that quite literally allows Denton to transcend the role of the organizations he’s worked with throughout the game to become the very source of discourse–and thus, of power–himself. An interesting imaginative process, one so akin to philosophy that it could only come from a conjectural science fiction game. A blend of machine and man (which, of course, is redudant–is Denton not so already? But I digress) that is both the result of and creator of the mechanism of power? Post-structuralists rejoice, then feel free to go home.

The abrupt end, typical to early action games, only serves to preserve the impact of the player’s choice. Here we have a game that chooses not to limit the player or the narrative, allowing one to work alongside the other rather than cage them into a dubious dichotomy. Of course, the role is still written for them, but the player can successfully allow themselves to be fooled until the very end. For those of us who prefer magic and mystery in video games, what more could we want?

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One Response to Choose your own adventure: Deus Ex and the mechanism of power

  1. Pingback: But wait! There’s more! « The Bombers' Notebook

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