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Examining the Use of History in the Deus Ex Video Game Series

Image from the Deus Ex video game series - Exploring the use of history in the Deus Ex series

The use of historical elements in the Deus Ex video game series really puts it ahead of the competition.

“If there were no god, it would be necessary to invent him.”

The Deus Ex video game series details mankind’s technological ambition to surpass biology. Well known for its immersive exposition, emphasis on technology and conspiracy-theory centric plotline, Deus Ex (DX) is the definition of cyberpunk. With the recent release of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided as a follow-up to the series’ revitalization in Deus Ex: Human Revolution: an analysis of the series’ timeline and understanding of history is in order. The games in the Deus Ex series span from the year 2025 up through the early 2070s. Thanks to the many datapads and books that players can read, there’s also some description of “historical” events as early as 2017.

Aside from this range of time, the Deus Ex series is notable for its incorporation of references to the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras, with the implication being that the human civilization depicted in DX views itself as being in a similar age of meteoric progress and knowledge. Ultimately, it’s also strongly implied that humanity let progress go to its head, and is utterly devastated by the consequent fall from grace. References to the ancient Greek myth of Icarus are also deeply incorporated into the DX series, with mankind eager to make wings from wax and feathers.

Towards the mythical City on the Hill

deus ex

One of many real-life Illuminati symbols.

Much like the introductory cinematics in each of the major games in the series, the history of the world of Deus Ex begins with the founding of the Bavarian Illuminati. In DX, the Illuminati is real, organized, and dominant. In the centuries after its founding during the Enlightenment, the Illuminati of DX are a who’s who of the power elite. Though the exact faces of its members change over the course of the series’ timeline, the bottom line is that there is a cabal of the ultra-powerful who run the world via their invisible influence, exercised via the world’s governments, religions, and corporations.

In the earliest part of the Deus Ex timeline, the Illuminati populate conspiracy-laden groups that exist in real life such as the Knights Templar, the Bilderberg group, and the Trilateral commission. I wouldn’t rule out more prequels. The Illuminati’s control over mankind is never complete throughout the series, although they do manage to increase their share of power over time. Importantly, the Illuminati views itself as the rightful shepherds of mankind, responsible for guiding civilization through times both good and bad. More importantly, the Illuminati isn’t the only secretive group vying for power, a premise that is continually used as a plot device for the conflict of the games.

The first major conflict between the power elite comes to a head during Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in which the Illuminati hires terrorists to attack the robotic limb manufacturer Sarif Industries in an attempt to destroy their corporate competition. The player takes the role of Adam Jensen, employed by Sarif to investigate the attacks. There is an entire subplot about Jensen that stretches back into the series’ 1990s, but I won’t get into it here.

Flying Too Close to the Sun

The conflict of Deus Ex: Human Revolution occurs during humanity’s deep investment and preoccupation with robotic human augmentation. In the game’s canon, humanity’s obsession with augmentation began as early as 2017, when the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on and escalated to the point where the military is short on manpower. In order to fill the ranks, the military teams up with a corporate cartel to offer free prosthesis and upgrades to any veterans who choose to re-enlist or stay in the military after being critically injured. Thus the government is able to freely use human subjects to experiment with the first generation of military robotic augmentations, which rapidly trickle down to the civilian population.

The civilian population is content to augment only the wounded at first, but ultimately the power of robotic limbs is too much for the healthy to resist. The gates of general augmentation are opened when a group of construction workers sue a hospital in order to be approved for an operation which would amputate their healthy organic limbs so that they could get augmentations instead. After the landmark court case, augmentations become more mainstream, though they remain akin to facial tattoos or other edgy plumage throughout Human Revolution. In this period of the game’s chronology, mankind is in an undeniable golden age, with biomedical science finally following through on promises of regeneration and potentially infinite lifespan.

This period of time marks the apogee of humanity’s progress within the Deus Ex series. Wealth, while very unequally distributed, is vast. Technology’s promise seems to be limitless. Societies grow stronger and stronger, and individuals are able to increase their strength commensurately. In this era, only the bright sides of technology are considered, and the hype seems to only accelerate.

All good things must come to an end, however. The events of Human Revolution culminate with a member of the Illuminati causing the robotically augmented people of the world to go berserk, causing mass chaos. His goal of putting the genie back into the bottle fails, and human augmentation is not abandoned as he had hoped. Unfortunately, his plot marks the end of the golden age, and the start of the fall. The most recent game in the series, Mankind Divided, details the “mechanical apartheid” caused by the day of rage. Ominously, Mankind Divided also begins discussion of the major threat to human life during the fall: nanoviruses.

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Ambrosia- Sweet as Life Itself

The first game of the series, Deus Ex, occurs 25 years in the future of the more recent games. The nanoviruses mentioned in the prior games have been developed and deployed against the public, who are suffering by the millions. The elites control production of the vaccine, named Ambrosia. Mankind’s technological corpus has advanced beyond robotic augmentations, now focused on “nanoaugmentations”. The golden age depicted in Human Revolution is long gone, and a painful memory for those that remember. Things look bleak, and on a downswing.

Despite advanced technology, humanity is unquestionably in a dark age. The society of the US has been frayed so much by the nanoviral plague and social struggle against the augmented people that secessionist forces operate openly, and control large swaths of the country. It seems as though other countries are struggling similarly, with no examples of effective functioning or economic prosperity. The events of the original Deus Ex merely exacerbate the troubles of the dark age, culminating in the widespread collapse of existing power structures and even more chaos. Depending on the ending that the player picks, it’s possible that all electronic devices are knocked out in the conclusion of the game.

By the time of the chronologically farthest-forward game in the series, Invisible War, twenty years have passed. Society has rebuilt itself somewhat since “the collapse”, though things are far from stable. The World Trade Organization is now one of the de facto owners of the world, having organized the remaining human settlements into corporate provinces. Predictably, the Illuminati is still warring amidst itself, and it seems as though mankind will continue to struggle through darkness for the foreseeable future.

Deus Ex video game series cover

Check out Deus Ex Games on Steam or on Amazon

Final Thoughts on the Deus Ex Series

In a sense, the Deus Ex video game series is an extended explanation of how technology changes society. From the references to the early days of organized science, we see that the series is fundamentally optimistic about humanity’s prospects. But with every aspiration comes the dark side of unforeseen consequences. In the dreams of the Human Revolution golden age, none could conceive that social and political structures could be disrupted by technology to the point where the elites would rebel against the citizenry violently. As such, technology is the equalizer–but old power dies hard. Hard enough to crash an entire civilization, as it turns out.

Feature Image: Eidos Interactive / Square Enix

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