Deus Ex has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for the lore surrounding it’s newest game Mankind Divided. Deus Ex is a favourite among gamers not just for the immersive world you are placed in but for the underlying commentary.
Deus Ex is known for tackling hard issues, and as far as fiction goes, in my opinion, it is one of the best pieces of science fiction to date. Now games journalists want games to be regarded more for their art and message, as evidenced by games like Gone Home and Sunset. Widely acclaimed by a media supposedly representing the gamer. However, for all their talk of wanting social issues tackled in video games. They appear rather shy of Deus Ex.
The first critical articles came up regarding the term mechanical apartheid. Its relevance in the Deus Ex universe relates to the division amongst Augs and non-Augs. Most Augs are seen as the lower half of society and as human revolution demonstrated they are often demonised and as the story progressed, they were hacked leading to them attacking and possibly killing other people with no way restraining themselves. In later missions, some of the living conditions for Augs can be seen as appalling. They are held to ransom by the black market that makes a living off of their prosthetic limbs.
Polygons criticism of the term begins with the definition of Apartheid;
Apartheid (literally “separateness” in Afrikaans) was the brutal governmental system of political oppression and racial segregation used by white rulers in South Africa throughout much of the last century.
In truth, there is more to that definition. Apartheid is also the segregation on grounds other than race.’ Therefore it can be used to define the separation of natural people from the augmented people as shown in Mankind Divided.
The writer Colin Campbell quotes a series of tweets made by Austin Walker stating “How might we feel if they called it ‘Robot Jim Crow Laws'” and “Apartheid isn’t just a general term, it references a specific period of great trauma and oppression.”
The general consensus is that it’s the wrong choice of term. This ignores the fact as fiction goes, the use makes sense as a reflection of the oppression faced by the Augmented. If we as writers hesitate over terms then how can fiction ever develop as a literary form? This approach by critics reflects how some regarded the Reader, a novel that later was made into a movie. The controversy spawned from the movie as publications moved to slam it and deny Kate Winslet an Oscar she was nominated for. The Telegraph reported at the time;
‘Movie critics are divided on whether Winslet should receive the best actress Oscar for the role. Voting closes at 5pm on Tuesday and supporters of rival films are said to be emailing Jewish members of the Academy in a last-minute campaign to ruin The Reader’s chances.’
And one critic Gabrielle Burton accepted that the film was “flawlessly crafted” with fine performances but went on to say how ‘it was too close to that scary genre ‘Holocaust palatable”.
Is it too much to say that this fear of dark fiction is what leads critics to get on a bandwagon of hate? Whether it’s Mankind Divided or even the Killing Joke. What stands out is how the ‘intended’ audience reacts. And usually, it’s positive because they, unlike some critics, realise perhaps that fiction should be allowed to tackle dark subject matters. Because it can serve as a way of reflection on our past, as well as looking to our future whilst also exploring our flaws as human beings.
This isn’t to say that people can’t criticise the term ‘Mechanical Apartheid’ but I feel in their haste to push a story, journalists and especially game journalists usually overlook key details in favour of pushing the story to publication. The message conveyed by some of these people is that they want its removal. Campbell does refer to Giles Matouba’s rant on Reddit. Giles formally worked on Mankind Divided and goes into detail on why the term was chosen over other things.
‘When we decided to go all-in on delivering the experience to play as Adam Jensen, an Augmented, in a world aggressively segregating his own kind, we actually wanted to offer to our audience something unique. Something that was close and very personal to us: The experience of being torn between 2 worlds and 2 identities. Augs calling you the ‘uncle Tom’ of the non-Augs, non-Augs always insecure when you’re around, always deeply being scared or appalled by your mechanical body.’
Campbell’s criticism points at how segregation affected those native to South Africa, he also refers to gender apartheid and states that in regards to Mankind Divided;
‘The Augmented in Mankind Divided are a privileged and wealthy elite who mostly choose to put themselves above their fellow human beings through expensive technological enhancements. When these enhancements are manipulated by evil forces, millions of people are killed.’
This statement is misrepresentative of how many Augs are well below the poverty line and struggle even to survive. It also ignores the fact that Augmentation saved a lot of lives, especially that of a woman of colour who is mentioned in a newspaper if the player chooses to read it. The revulsion and forced separation of Augs and Non-Augs by any means necessary is without a doubt a form of Apartheid that literally afflicts everyone who for whatever reason, whether wealthy or otherwise was deemed too dangerous for society. The trailers shown so far clearly conveys a world divided to the break point.
Despite the terms relevance, this hasn’t stopped other notable figures coming out against it. Zoe Quinn’s comments ignore that the man who coined the phrase Mechanical Apartheid and who formerly worked as one of the Directors on the game, Giles Matouba is actually a person of colour. However, she is not the only one critical of the game, Mass Effect developer, Manveer Heir in response to the use of ‘Aug Lives Matter’ among other things tweeted ‘Also, let’s pretend for a minute there was a ton of diversity on that Deus Ex team. It doesn’t mean they understand the issues well enough’ which in turn led to a response from one of the writers that the term Aug Lives Matter was purely coincidental.
Essentially we now live in a world where a critic can basically say ‘sod the content’ attack the creators. It’s why I personally worry that some people need step back and realise they are acting morally superior. Talent for writing is not and I repeat not decided by your gender or your skin colour. Perhaps Manveer should first realise this.
Inevitably, Jonathan McIntosh formerly associated with Feminist Frequency went on his own personal tirade against the game stating that ‘Sometimes when game designers set up “player choices,” the choice itself is immoral because it shouldn’t be up to the player to make it.’ To which I ask should the player be given any choice. Whilst true the game has programmed responses to every action, every consequence is shaped by how you play the game. It’s what makes RPGs so popular with gamers.
The problem with McIntosh’s approach is that it leads to conflating fiction with reality to the point they are indistinguishable when they are two separate entities entirely. Inspiration is natural by product of the writing process. In the end, the only way we will know that Mankind Divided is a success is how it sells and how the actual players respond to the game. Because sometimes I get the feeling that its critics who are actually out of touch with their audience.