I don’t always play old games.  For example, I am currently playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  I’m taking my sweet time with it, and I estimate I’m only about halfway through, but I wanted to write about it anyway.

If you play games, you have almost certainly heard of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and you’ve likely played it.  You also know that the gaming press has already written quite a lot about it. But if you are that person, this post is not for you.  Rather, this post is for those who have not played it, and perhaps have never even heard of it.  I am going to convince you to try it out.  The following contains only the mildest of spoilers.

(click images for larger versions)

While games are certainly becoming more mainstream, there is still a vocal minority who believe that games are merely “murder simulators”, with nothing of value to offer. Clearly they have not have played Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one of the most thoughtful games in years.

In the future, everything is gold-tinted.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about, among other things, human augmentation. Set in the late 2020s (a bit optimistic, but it’s limited by being a prequel to the original Deus Ex), human augmentation technology has started to take off. Beginning innocently enough as the next step in prosthetics, several biotech companies began to offer fully functional robotic limbs for the disabled, letting them walk again, or even play piano again. When things get interesting, however, is when people begin to get augmentations voluntarily. If you have the money, you can replace your arms with mechanical ones, and become stronger and more dextrous. Or get some neural implants for enhanced vision, or a computer interface that lets you communicate directly with data systems.

In addition to the obvious questions this raises about tampering with the human form, many other ethical dilemmas arise as well. What happens when employers hire augmented humans over “naturals”, due to their superior abilities? What about those who have moral qualms with augmentation, or those who can’t afford it? Are they now “obsolete”? To make matters worse, augmented people must take the (rather expensive) drug Neuropozyne regularly to stave off “rejection syndrome”. If they do not, they will become severely ill and eventually die. So, choosing to become augmented means a dependency on expensive treatments, making it a tough choice. And what about those who had no choice in getting augmented? What if augmentations were needed to save your life, but now you can’t afford the regular treatments?

Deus Ex: Human Revolution lets you make up your own mind about these questions. You play Adam Jensen, the head of security for Sarif Industries, one of the major augmentation companies. You begin the game undecided about augmentations, but an unfortunate event (shown through a short playable introduction) leaves you hospitalized, and augmentations are required to save your life. Your boss goes beyond what is required and gets you top-of-the-line augmentations, without needing your consent (it’s in your contract). So as the game proper begins, you are augmented, but you’re unsure how you feel about it.

Just because you have mechanical arms doesn't mean you can't look marvelous.

Augmentation is the hot issue of the moment, and the characters you meet are happy to tell you what they think. You will hear about government debates as to whether augmentation technology should be regulated. You will hear from executives and employees of augmentation companies. You will hear from homeless people on the streets. You will hear from anti-augmentation protest groups. You will hear about survivors of terrorist attacks who are able to get their lives back due to augmentations, and about people who become addicted to their augmentations, desperately upgrading each time a new model is released. You will also see. You will see that the fancy building of the high-tech biotechnology firm that is supposed to be revitalizing Detroit is only a block away from rundown slums. You will see augmented and non-augmented street gangs battling for territory. You will see the contrast between the dingy apartments where many of the company’s employees live and your own fancy pad that your boss got for you.

Detroit isn't looking too revitalized from here.

This is the world that Human Revolution places you in, and it lets you decide how you feel about it. Do you become an anti-augmentation activist, embittered that you were augmented against your will, and try to smuggle Neuropozyne out to those in need? Or do you embrace your new augmentations as the future direction of mankind? Perhaps you think the government should step in and regulate augmentation technology? It’s up to you.

The “games are murder simulators” camp would point out at this point (or they would, if they were aware this game exists) that while all these questions are in the game, the central gameplay is still violent. But this is not actually the case; in the gameplay as well, Human Revolution lets you make your own decisions. Yes, you are chief of security and this means you have to deal with tense situations that can easily become violent. And if you want to solve them violently, you can, but you don’t have to.

For example, the first mission you undertake involves an anti-augmentation terrorist group who have broken into a Sarif Industries manufacturing plant and taken hostages. You need to get in there, make sure the terrorists don’t get their hands on your company’s secret prototype project, and try and save the hostages. How do you go about it? You can head in guns blazing if you like… your augmentations will give you an edge on the poorly-equipped terrorists. Or you can sneak in and take out the guards silently, lethally or non-lethally. Or you can find an alternate means of entry and try to avoid the guards completely, getting to your objective without them ever knowing you were there. You can succeed in saving the hostages or you can fail, and the game will keep going. But your boss will probably have something to say about it if you don’t get his people out alive.

The hands of fate.

These gameplay decisions are a core theme throughout the game. Everywhere you go, there are multiple paths to your objectives, depending on how you want to handle things. It’s incredibly satisfying that the game not only allows these choices, but responds to them, with characters commenting on your tactics and certain events unfolding differently based on your actions. It’s actually possible to complete the game without killing anyone, with the sole exception of some unfortunate boss encounters. These have already been lambasted in the press, and I have little to add except that they are a very minor part of the game, and easily forgotten in favor of the rest.

Go to sleep, sweet prince.

Sure, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is still an action game, but it’s an action game with far more intelligence than most. It might take a turn for the worse. Maybe the second half of the game will be a huge letdown. But it doesn’t matter. It’s worth playing it even if you only play the beginning. If you’re looking for a game that challenges your mind as much as your gaming skills, this is a great place to start.