Recently I had a chat with Mary DeMarle, the lead writer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, about how the ethics of enhancement and augmentation were considered when crafting the game’s story and characters.
Among gamers, Deus Ex is something of a legendary fusion of disparate gaming styles. Among science fiction buffs, Deus Ex is lauded for managing to take two awesome genres, William Gibson-esque cyberpunk and Robert Anton Wilson-level conspiracy theories, and jam them together into an immanentizing of the eschaton unlike anything you’ve seen since Doktor Sleepless. And among transhumanists, Deus Ex brings up every issue of humanity’s fusion with technology one could imagine. It is a rich computer game.
Watch the video below for a taste of what is offered:
When Square Enix decided to pick up the reins from Eidos and create a new installment in the series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR), I was quite excited. The first indication DX:HR was not going to be a crummy exploitation of the original’s success (like Deus Ex 2: Invisible War) was the teaser trailer, shown above. Normally, a teaser trailer is just music and a slow build to a logo or single image that lets you know the game is coming out. This time, though, the development team decided to demonstrate that it was taking the philosophy of the game seriously.
What philosophy? Why, transhumanism, of course. Nick Bostrom, chair of the IEET, centers the birth of transhumanism in the Renaissance and the Age of the Enlightenment in his article “A History of Transhumanist Thought.” The visuals of the teaser harken to Renaissance imagery (such as the Da Vinci style drawings) and the teaser ends with a Nietzschean quote: “Who we are is but a stepping stone to what we can become.”
Later trailers would reference Icarus and Daedalus (who also happened to be the names of AI constructs in the original game), addressing the all-too-common fear that by pursuing technology, we are pursuing our own destruction. This narrative thread has become the central point of conflict in DX:HR. Even its viral ad campaign has been told through two lenses: that of Sarif Industries, maker of prosthetic bodies that change lives, and that of Purity First, a protest group that opposes human augmentation. The question is, upon which part of our shared humanity do we step as we climb to greater heights?
When was the last time a video game asked you an existential question about the nature of our species?
The tension between proponents and opponents of transhumanism in DX:HR is heightened by the ambiguous opinion towards enhancement of the main character, Adam Jensen. Jensen’s own enhancements are a result of the need to save his life after a traumatic attack. Unlike Tony Stark, Jensen does not craft his own mechanized additions, but must instead come to terms with the cybernetic hand he has been dealt.
DX:HR is not interested in cybernetics as merely a fun backdrop for a video game, but instead treats enhancement as the serious ethical issue that it is. The world of the game is set in a “Neo-Renaissance” where even the characters’ clothing reminds us that transhumanism is born out of the Age of Enlightenment. As a prequel to the original Deus Ex, DX:HR takes us into a world where augmentation and cyberization are still new to humanity and shows us how painful the transition into a transhuman future might be.
To dive deeper into these issues, I had a chat with Mary DeMarle, the lead writer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, about how the ethics of enhancement and augmentation were considered when crafting the game’s story and characters.
Q: How did you approach the topic of augmentation? What were your thoughts about cyborgs and human engineering before you began your research?
A: As soon as I knew we wanted to center the game around the concept of human augmentation and where advancements in neuroprosthetics might take Mankind, I knew I needed to do a lot of research. I started with a book entitled, Radical Evolution by Joel Garreaux. It was a great introduction not only to the subject of human engineering, but also to the various theories and arguments for and against it.
After that, I split my research efforts in two, spending some of my time reading up on the technological advancements, and some of my time reading up on the philosophical debate. I have to admit that, before starting all this research, I had tended to think of cyborgs and human engineering as the stuff of science fiction — something I love to read and immerse myself in conceptually, but not something I might actually see in this reality.
Q: How have those views changed as you’ve worked on this project?
A: I think the biggest change was the realization that cyborgs and human engineering are not only possible, but probable in our lifetime. When you talk to people who are working in the field — people like Will Rosellini, our technical consultant — and you learn about current projects and how close we are to achieving some of the advancements we depict in the game, you can’t help but be amazed.
I’ve also had the opportunity to talk with people who have not just overcome disabilities through advancing technologies, but who have gone on to achieve things most “able-bodied” people never will. In the process, I’ve seen the potential and the incredible allure of human augmentation. At the same time, a lot of my research into the dangers of experimentation and unregulated industries has made me understand the other side of the debate. It truly is a rich, complex issue that becomes all the more fascinating the more you dive into it.