The latest Deus Ex video game can help us learn an important lesson about God.
But first, an illustration.
The overall story of the Bible seems to be one of humanity in a perpetual conversation with God, a conversation that goes something like this:
People: Hey, who are you?
God: I’m God.
People: Then who am I?
God: Not God, but that’s okay, because—
People: No fair, I wanna be God.
God: Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered, I just—
People: What if I do *this*? Do I get to be God now?
God: No, and please, put that down. You’re going to get hurt.
People: Ow! Why did You let me do that? I thought You were God! I hate You.
God: I am God, and I love you, and… *sigh* . . . Here, let Me show you a little more of Myself.
People: Aaughhh! Scary!!!! (runs away)
People: (after awhile, slowly comes back) You still there?
People: Are You sure that’s You? I don’t recognize You anymore. Also, why did that bad thing happen?
God: Yes, and I was getting to that—maybe you should ask Me before you start doing a bunch of stuff.
People: But who are You to tell me what to do?
God: I’m God.
And on and on it goes. We reach out, it goes bad, He intervenes, rinse and repeat.
In response to our reaching out, God counters our futility with His own incarnational invitation toward revelation, restoration, and relationship. But because we human beings can be stubborn creatures, we continue to struggle with the question of what it means to be human, continually attempting to “self-help” our way into God-like status. This is the theme embedded into the kernel root of many of the most thought-provoking works of fiction that grapple with ideas about humanity and divinity, and nowhere is that more clear than in the latest Square Enix / Eidos Interactive video game, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
Mankind Divided is the sixth game in the Deus Ex series, one which takes its title from the Latin phrase deus ex machina, or “God from the machine.” That expression is most widely known as a storytelling device where an unexpected solution arises at just the right moment, usually when the storyteller has painted herself into a corner. Dramatically speaking, it’s kind of like cheating.
But in Deus Ex, the term takes a much more literal meaning, because it’s a series of interlocking narratives about people with mechanical augmentations bioengineered into their human bodies. It’s a classic science fiction trope that has powered classic fictional characters like RoboCop, Cyborg, and if you wanna go way back, to Steve Austin and Jamie Sommers as “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman,” respectively.
Mankind Divided is set in the near future of 2029, two years after what’s known as “the Aug incident,” where thousands of augmented humans were triggered by their implants and lapsed into uncontrollable lethal violence. The fallout from the incident created an environment of separation and distrust of augmented people, who eventually become worldwide outcasts. Our protagonist is a security expert named Adam Jensen, tasked with investigating a series of terrorist events and a possible link with a resistance group called ARC (The Augmented Rights Coalition). The investigation generates an internal conflict for Jensen because he himself is augmented and identifies with the cause of the underclass.
Nevertheless, Jensen is tasked with infiltrating the criminal underground of futuristic Prague, a shadowy network of people and places where he is perpetually viewed as an outsider not to be trusted, sometimes because he’s an “aug,” sometimes because he’s a government agent, and sometimes both. As the story progresses, Jensen engages in a series of missions that both reveal layers of the overarching narrative and unlock more cybernetic super-abilities, gradually transforming Jensen from a musclebound enforcer into a computer-hacking, armor-bearing, invisible-cloaking, weaponized juggernaut, capable of infiltrating any fortress or engaging any enemy with a plethora of both lethal and non-lethal options at his disposal.
Like many sandbox-style open path titles, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided goes to great lengths to provide an engrossing sense of place and time. The litany of public service announcements, emails, overheard conversations, radio broadcasts, television news reports, and walls of spray-painted graffiti Jensen encounters serves to ground the player in a sense of adjacent realism that draws connections from events from our present or recent past. So the system of institutionalized discrimination against augmented people is known as “mechanical apartheid,” and the plot revolves around a proposed legislation called “The Human Restoration Act” that would legalize permanent segregation between augs and natural humans, which then sparked the resistance outcry, “Augs lives matter,” which sparked real-life accusations of racial insensitivity.
While there is plenty to say about its gameplay mechanics (reminds me of the Crysis 3, but with a more coherent storyline), and narrative structure (the RPG-like emphasis on choice means you end up doing much more talking than shooting), what engaged me most in playing the game was the question of how its title related to the rest of the story. The subtitle “mankind divided” is a pretty obvious reference to institutionalized discrimination, but to what end, and at what cost? It seems to me that at its core, the Deus Ex series is fundamentally about people trying to use technology to become one with God. (Lest you think I’m making too big a leap, there’s even a subplot about a religious cult called “The Church of the Machine God.”)
And not to drop any spoilers, but the game seems to conclude that divinity through technology is a fool’s errand. Not only does the pursuit of augmented biotech come with a bunch of unintended consequences (most of which were tied to the plot of 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution), but by the end of the story, most of the key players and factions are still shrouded in mystery. Who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys? Just like in real life, it’s complicated.
And even someone as stacked with abilities as Adam Jensen still faces problems technology alone cannot solve. In particular, several sets of interlocking mission scenarios put Jensen in the unenviable position of having to choose between two critical time-sensitive paths. Though technically feasible, it’s nearly impossible to achieve the best possible ending without having either advance knowledge of the game’s secrets or an infinite wellspring of patience for trial-and-error problem-solving, neither of which is ever doable in real life.
And this, to me, is the biggest takeaway.
Thousands of years and platform cycles later, God is still God and we are still human. We cannot hack, splice, upgrade, or “MacGyver” our way to knowing Him or becoming like Him.
But the good news is that we don’t have to. The sooner each of us can learn that, the less we’ll have to grapple with the unbearable ennui of mortality.
Or tech support, which is almost as bad.