The Drifter is a psychogeographical tour guide to virtual space. He’s going to take you through the backstreets, where other guides fear to tread. So lay down your weapons. It’s time to stop following Mission Quests and start asking questions. What will happen when we give up hunting XP, and learn simply to see?
In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, tool use is less an argument for the uniqueness of homo sapiens than a punishment for being born in the information age. Our protagonist strides cocksure through half-abandoned offices, trying not to drip blood onto the pastel-colored laminate floor. We loot single-serving gadgets from the unconscious bodies of our victims, each new addition enhancing our already Nietzschean powers to crack open terminals like horse chestnuts, spilling out passwords and facile meeting agendas. Behind every tumble-locked door lies another suite of bone white desktops, waiting to be injected with our code. The future of work has finally arrived, and it’s not a pretty sight.
If the original Deus Ex used a cyberpunk aesthetic to toy with pre-millennial anxieties around technological dependency, its prequel is a panacea for the victory of the Silicon Valley Rand fanatics over every aspect of our lives. One imagines the developers succumbing to early middle-age, quietly appalled to find themselves the inheritors of the western world rather than the anarchist-cowboys of their Gibsonian youth. Panicked by their own hypocrisy, they co-opt us into shooting up the office furniture whilst never threatening to destroy the super-structures which keep us there. What else can explain the myths of empowerment and capitulation at the game’s heart? Every time we slip across cover, we believe ourselves to be walking between the raindrops, unwilling to admit the extent to which our hero is acquiescing in grotesque corporate crimes. Sleeping and eating were stripped from the circuitry of our bodies the moment we signed on the dotted line. These days we’re fuelled by little more than bloodlust and adrenochrome.
Faced by endless choices with no consequences, is it any wonder we turn our machine pistols against the hapless security mercs? This night shift didn’t pass their leaver’s exams. Confused, constipated puppets with plastic faces and awkward wiggles, they stalk you through their warehouses like muscular goldfish, shouting paranoid, bowdlerised insults. Kill one of their colleagues before their eyes and evade their panicked attempts to hunt you; watch for long enough and giggle as they forget you ever existed. Take whatever satisfaction from this that you can. From human psychology to day-night cycles, complex systems are scrubbed so clean you could eat your dinner from them. Even the vicious, genital-slicing takedowns delivered by our bio-augmented hero are automated at the touch of a button and handled by internal machinery. They would be operated wirelessly from the desks of our employers if that didn’t threaten our sense of emergent free will.
For those tiring of office wetwork, Detroit’s ghetto offers a nostalgic glimpse into the dystopian mores of the first Deus Ex. Broadsheet articles detail the economic stagnation of the United States on HD tablets finished with metallic dusting. Ask yourself: what postmodern catastrophe caused every car in America to atrophy, so only the matted grey husks of their chassis remain? Were they gradually picked apart by homeless, industrial vultures hungry for the rotting meat of the rust belt? Or did they implode instantaneously in a thermodynamic miracle of petrol-fire and terror, while their owners writhed hideously inside? It doesn’t matter. We know who the real villains are. On a tiny corner of Mount Rushmore, someone has scratched the words: Made in China.