Sunday, September 4, 2011

Splashing in the Shallow End

I've been sitting on this for a long time because I didn't want to spoil things for people, so, heads up: big fat Deus Ex 3 spoiler. I mean, I'm going over the very end of the whole game. Go away until you've played through it, unless you really don't mind having it spoiled.

That said, this is less of a spoiler than it should be in some ways. I'll set the scene.

You, Adam Jensen, ex-cop, head of security for the bleeding-edge human augmentation corporation Serif Industries, rebuilt from practically the ground up after a raid by paramilitary goons leaves you broken, are headed to Panchaea. Panchaea is a project built by your boss's mentor, Hugh Darrow, as an ambitious project to take control of global warming. It also turns out that it's got a system which is tied into the world's augmented citizenry--a recent "fault" in the neural interface caused everyone to go to their clinics to get a "fixed" version which, it turns out, allows for an alarming level of control of any person with such a fix. Darrow sent out a global signal which caused everyone to basically go mad. You, paranoiac that you are, avoided the upgrade before finding out how awful it was.

It turns out that Darrow had lost faith in the secret project he was really working on, or perhaps intended to go rogue the entire time: a shadowy cabal of people calling themselves the Illuminati intended for everyone to get the upgrade to become controllable, so that at any time they could simply immobilize anyone with augmentations. Other individuals you meet suggest this could further allow them to control a person's memory to a degree, or make them do things they wouldn't in their right mind. Darrow intended for his action to be a painful object lesson, to teach people not to trust the augmentations or the people behind them.

You manage to dig to the heart of the system to shut it down, and are presented with four choices:
  1. Darrow set up a recorded message laying everything out. It is strongly suggested that the revelation will drive massive anti-technology backlash, trashing the infant augmentation industry. This is Darrow's preferred ending.
  2. An edited version can go out which hides the failures of the corporation but leaves in all the bits about Illuminati control. This version will cause people to not shut down augmentation technology. This is David Sarif's preferred ending.
  3. An edited version which places the entire blame on Sarif and hides the Illuminati string-pulling. This version will cause people to demand stronger regulation of augmentation technology which will ultimately lead to control by the powerful. This is Bill Taggart's preferred ending.
  4. Don't send out any recording and destroy the facility, leaving it at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and rendering the entire event a mystery. This will allow people to make a decision without the influence of Darrow, Sarif, Taggart, or you.
If you view them as "who do you want to win" positions, it's okay if a little unsatisfying; ultimately I tend to prefer Sarif's futurist philosophy to anyone else's, but then they build a moral for each of them, and this is where it falls apart, giving you a "why would you take this option" summary, and each of them are questionable in their own special way.

Darrow's ending finishes up with a message straight from the Unabomber: technology is bad. People can't be trusted with it, and it must be ended. No one ever really puts it this way in the game, so it seems out of left field, though it is a real philosophical position, it's just not a generally coherent one. There's some noise about the technology risking what makes humans human, but it's a position taken in a vacuum, with no thought given to alternatives and the risks inherent in them. However, his is the only ending in which the truth in its entirety is revealed to the outside. I found this fundamentally frustrating, in that I feel that getting the truth out would be vital to the informed decision making of others, yet it's spun with an unpalatable philosophy.

Sarif's ending, the one I sympathize most with, is basically a futurist one, in which it is seen as vital to progress. However, his ending suggests that we should turn a blind eye to those hurt by progress and simply accept the harms without any redress. There's also a strong underpinning of, "well, we won't let this happen again," but we've got no real reason to believe it won't. Further, you have to lie to get the message out and cover up Sarif's failure.

Taggart's ending is as bad as Darrow's, in which we advocate control by "our betters" in order to preserve social order. We do this by, of course, hiding a different set of the truth. In some ways this one is just stupid, though, in that we're trusting the Illuminati to control things for the greater benefit of all, or so it's suggested, yet the very endgame scenario illustrates that the Illuminati are a bunch of incompetent clowns who should never be handed the reins of the world. One of them had a fit of philosophical conscience and drove everyone mad, remember?

Finally, we have the ending where you destroy it all in the name of letting "humanity" decide, but this is probably the most ridiculous of the options. It suggests that doing otherwise is not "trusting" people to do the right thing, yet I don't see how hiding the facts of the events allows for people to make a rational decision about what happened. It further suggests that the messages constitute "meddling" in humanity's collective decision-making process, yet it fails on a number of fronts: the collective meddling is what happens in any decision made, and destroying everything leaves the majority of the Illuminati out there and in control of what is allegedly the most powerful media institution in the world. You're even told by the media corp's AI that it can make people believe any position you want them to.

So, why did they do this and pigeonhole us into four endings, none of which is what I'd really want? I'd guess they simply can't do everything, but at the same time I can't help but feel like most people would be dissatisfied in the endings. It feels like they've provided us with synopses of larger philosophies without providing adequate underpinning to make them seem reasonable. That part of the story just felt half-assed.

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