Deus Ex is considered to be one of the quintessential works of the cyberpunk genre in games, as well as one of the most well-received games of all time. Telling a story of human augmentation, an increasing presence of technology in our lives, and the conspiracies of those in control of it, Deus Ex deals with a lot of topics.
While transhumanism is the big, obvious theme, the trailer for the recently announced fourth main game in the series Deus Ex: Mankind Divided got me thinking about the series in terms of disability, because what else do I seem to think about?
Mankind Divided is set after Deux Ex: Human Revolution, but before the first Deus Ex. The augmentations available to the public are still widely mechanical as opposed to nanomachines later on in the game’s canon. The trailer for Mankind Divided sets up a civil-war – or even an X-Men-like scenario – where tensions are rising between the augmented underclass and the non-augmented people in power.
People who have been augmented are often very visibly different from non-augmented people: differently coloured limbs, bulkier bodies, and scarring are often shown to be the results of replacing body parts with machines. In this way, parallels to how disability is seen in the media and in society can be drawn and need to be made before discussing the trailer more in-depth.
Augmented bodies aren’t seen as ‘whole’. Their physical ‘completeness’ has been compromised by this new technology – limbs and organs have been removed, and foreign external entities have invaded the body in ways that’s seen as being obscene and challenges what having a physical body means. Augmentation is often traumatic, as is the case of Adam Jensen’s augmentations in Human Revolution. Disability, or in this case transhumanism, is often used to challenge the audience’s certainty about their own body; this is the main crutch which body horror relies on for example.
This is a very common way that the media defines disability: this body is wrong, it’s broken, and it makes able-bodied people uncomfortable because it reaffirms the fragility of their physical self by making disability a terrible fate worse than death. ‘If it can happen to this person, what’s to stop it from happening to me?’
With my general unease about transhumanism and augmentation as themes explained, the trailer itself also raises some pretty big issues.
The trailer begins as a generic cinematic trailer: rain, fancy futuristic cityscapes. Adam Jensen is running around looking worried as usual. However, about 30 seconds in a voice is heard saying: “we are human beings.” Immediately after, people with augmented limbs (many of which resemble current real-world prosthetics) are being searched and beaten by security forces.
The scene is sympathetic to those being attacked, which is nice, but is then followed up by news reports labelling them as ‘terrorists’; painting the marginalised as a threat and making augmentation (and so by extension disability) “dangerous”. This directly links in to the idea that disability threatens and questions the physical status of able-bodied people, which isn’t so nice.
To make matters worse, it turns out there are a group of augmented individuals who are members of a terrorist group, and they carry out an attack. There is an explosion, and people die, so the images of augmentation are simply confirmed and validated.
We finally see who the owner of that voice was: a large, burly, scarred Russian man, with bulky augmented limbs and a missing eye. He’s the leader of this terrorist group. After Jensen fights and kills almost all of them, the Russian man invites Jensen to his cause by invoking the red scare trope, saying “this should be your fight as well… brother.” The use of ‘brother’, and the thick Russian accent, is plainly a ploy to use similarities to anti-communism to make the audience feel uncomfortable and code this man as the villain.
The leader of this terrorist group is a big ball of tropes, and is othered in as many ways as Eidos Montreal could fit: he’s a very large, physically imposing Russian man, whose physical ‘wholeness’ has been compromised by his bulky augmentations – his silhouette isn’t that of a non-augmented person’s. His face has been scared and encroached upon by augmentations, and his eye is missing; disability is used as a way to reinforce how this character is the ‘bad guy’ of the game just as much as the stereotypical Russian accent and call-backs to communism does.
That’s not the only evidence shown in the trailer there. There is one scene that stands out: the Russian man offers his large, unhuman augmented hand to the character who is shown to have caused the explosion, making him kiss it as a sign of subservience. Immediately after, this is paralleled by Adam Jensen’s more human-looking hand grasping a dead but organic hand.
The imagery here is pretty plain to see: the non-human hand is the threat to ‘normal’, ‘complete’ people, who are seen as the victims of these physically different enemies – physical difference is the driving force behind determining who is good and who is bad in this trailer; disability is a quick codifier for the morality of the characters. While we don’t know how Mankind Divided will play yet, Human Revolution also featured a lot of moral ambiguity, and so for this trailer to so readily decide for us who the antagonists are is bothersome.
Ultimately, Mankind Divided could be a good game, but the way this trailer quickly uses metaphors of disability to define who is good and who is bad is something a lot of media does. Deus Ex has constantly done it: Jensen’s augmentations were the result of severe physical trauma, and a lot of Human Revolution shows Jensen struggling to accept it. Disability is seen as a bad thing, and as a result those who are disabled are often seen as bad as well.
So forgive me for not being entirely optimistic about this game.