“Immersive Sim” is a term that gets invoked both as an aspiration for video games and a description of a few actual games, specifically those made by certain developers during the 90s/early 00s, where large leaps were made in PC gaming with graphical fidelity, budget, control and content. As the legend goes, the term was coined by Warren Spector during his time at Looking Glass Studios, and it describes a specific type of game where you interact with a digital world with consistent rules in first person, with many options for resolving conflicts given to you and your wit, plus in-game mechanics, for you to resolve them. All well and good, except in a world where such traits are a given due to the ubiquity of epic 3D action-adventure titles like Assassin’s Creed, not to mention the strides made in, “sandbox” gaming since Grand Theft Auto III, that’s an incomplete description that could very well just describe gaming itself. And as Errant Signal pointed out in a video essay titled, “0451”, its difficult to pin down such traits to ideas of auteurism or even just the appearance of the titular, “0451” motif in titles ranging from System Shock to Gone Home.
But in the major titles I’ve been playing and mulling over, namely the original Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored and Prey, there is at least one constant: a concern for contemporary issues and the human condition along with philosophical inquiries into how you answer these things, linking choice and consequence with real-life outlooks, or at least approximations of such. While each game gives you tools and spaces to use them in, peeling back their content and layers reveals an interesting examination of each development team’s cultural references and ideas. But referring to social issues is one thing. Actually having a point is another. This is where the Immersive Sim brushes against the very limits of gaming as a medium, not just in terms of graphics and size, but also in the very capacity of the medium to provide avenues of comprehensive probing into humanity, choice, and politics. And the ways each title I’m laying out addresses this can vary, from the didactic to the dissatisfactory. Some of it arguably stems from the makeups of the designer teams themselves along with the amount of time each was allowed to develop these visions under marketing, fickle consumer/shareholder demands, and the very assumptions each team has about what constitutes an effective gaming experience.
Not that these games are complete failures. Each game has a unique way of dawing in and probing the player, from the way Human Revolution draws on inspiration from Robocop, the works of William Gibson, and concerns over environmental impact, to Bob Page in the original Deus Ex quoting Thomas Aquinas in the game’s introductory opening while monologuing about how he will take over the world through biological terrorism and covert regime change. Prey wears its meta-comentary on gaming tropes and design plus influences from System Shock, Bioshock and alt-history Sci-Fi on its sleeve, peppering its narrative with a recurring motif involving the, “Looking Glass” (ha, ha) technology along with characters probing you about your perception and choices. And Dishonored is primarily a modern, more streamlined take on Thief (a game series initially made with the Immersive Sim philosophy in mind) but set in a world that is part Victorian Era/Industrial Revolution, part steampunk, and part magic, with a scale between non-violence and carnage that could make the difference between a restoring a kingdom or ending everything in destruction.
The depth of these games comes from how they combine the disparate elements of RPG, first person shooter, philosophy, politics, and alt-universe world-building. These games name-drop historical figures, push you towards making choices big and small, and give you bonuses for being nosy. On a visceral and contemplative level, these are all something special. But for all of the detail and space these games hand you to express your power or cleverness, there are portions of these respective games that leave one dissatisfied with their tackling of themes, and can leave one unconvinced that they are truly making effective statements about politics and social conflict, no matter how strong their endgames are.
For starters, both the original Deus Ex and Human Revolution have a racism problem. In the case of the former game, ou play a cop, specifically a member of UNACTO, a government organization formed after a terrorist attack which leaves the Statue of Liberty in pieces. You go through a portion of the game doing what a cop does plus the takes of specialized personal, going from recon to hostage rescue to outright assault depending on your play style. Later there is a lengthy Hong Kong section after a plot twist and a few subsequent missions, resulting in your departure from UNACTO. In Hong Kong you navigate through tunnels, swim in a river, go through hidden rooms and eventually resolve a clash between two triads populated with poorly-acted Chinese caricatures. This is topped off with a cringe-inducing nightclub portion with more of the same plus references to the People’s Republic of China, which is portrayed more or less as just another regime in opposition to the United States.
While you do meet a major character, Tracer Tong, who has motivations and political nuances, he’s the only part of that section which is allowed space to be a character. The other prominent character you meet in Hong Kong is Maggie Chow, who is pretty much all of the tropes of the double-crossing dame from Western Noir stories transplanted into an Eastern setting. The results are not pretty, and not just because of the Unreal engine she’s rendered in.
The game goes through an awkward flux with its depiction of ethnic characters, where the ones who are closer to you as protagonist J.C. Denton (whose skin color you can customize at least) are accommodating and well-spoken, versus those who are antagonists being given crude, unrefined speech. For the every Jaime Reyes, a latino doctor voiced by Sean Hennigan who specializes in cyber enhancements, we have a dozen heavily-accented street gang members who task you with assassinating a rival. In contrast to the well-spoken Black leader of the NSF Leo Gold, whose voice actor Marcus M. Mauldin gives an effective speech underlining the game’s themes with a big red pen, we have four NPCs like the jive-speaking pimp you take care of in a side mission in Hell’s Kitchen, plus a paranoid Smugler hidden in the depths behind booby traps. But the problem with the game’s racism is more than just a matter of numbers and bad voice acting. The problem lies in how the game presents these disparate details of life in a dystopian United States as representation of oppression. And while the game provides you a wide space to make choices, specific details jump out revealing an overall bent.
In the aforementioned side mission in Hell’s Kitchen, you are tasked by a woman in a bar to rescue another woman, the daughter of a hotel owner, from a pimp who speaks in jive. While the rekindling of her relationship with her father happens over time, there is an obvious angle of the daughter who has lost her way being exploited by a radicalized, urban menace. A detail in a bigger story with global consequences, but one nonetheless that parrots media vilification of real impoverished communities and their members from the likes of media like Law & Order. This all stems from fundamental roots game’s story. However well you adhere to a no-kill rule, either in UNACTO or out of it, your actions still add to the weight of institutional power (whichever one you decide to side with by the end), and ripple throughout a societal fabric. It seems even-handed from the first glance, but the moment you interact with specific missions, using specific NPCs of specific skin tones, is where you know where the sympathies lie. The finer points of the narrative still utilizes majority white characters, sometimes as sympathetic, other times as adversaries, but often with an implicit understanding of who matters, and ultimately who should get a say in directing the future.
With all of this said, plus mechanics that are crude by today’s standards, its one the strongest examples of the immersive sim realizing gaming’s potential for both thematic scope and mechanical depth. Throughout the story you are told as little as possible, and then over time, with your own agency within these spaces, you determine where you stand. You exchange small talk with co-workers, who you’re then estranged from, and then who emerge later as allies or enemies. You spar with one particular character as the embodiment of technological advancement and control versus his imminent obsolescence. You converse with a prototype AI in an office about panopticons, human vanity and the concept of God. You even have boss battles where you can kill them, put them to sleep or just avoid them entirely, something few other games let you do even today. And through all of this you come to make tough decisions where no solution is one-hundred percent, “good”, caught between pragmatism, aspiration and danger after defeating a few really well-realized villains of varying degrees of cunning and hamminess. But the details matter, and for all its chilling moments that line up with contemporary concerns of growing poverty under Capitalism, plus the depictions of surveillance and Sinophobia through characters big and small, the developers have only went so far in providing a space to contemplate these matters. Plus, you can’t play as a woman, since that option was apparently cut during development. Though given the limited the space of subjectivity this game gives women, plus how ugly everyone looks, we probably dodged a bullet there.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is limited in compared to the original game when it comes to choice, but hits on some familiar notes of being one person in a big and hostile world while having smoother mechanics and a strong sense of style. You play Adam Jensen, a former cop and now chief of security for Sarif Industries, a biotech firm. But after a violent attack that leaves you presumably dead and your girlfriend missing, you get life-saving cyber tech and are set to find her while being in the midst of corporate espionage, social conflicts between those who are, “augmented” and those who are against the increasingly ubiquitous cybertech, and signs of a growing global conspiracy. Also first presents a more nuanced picture of stratification and the reign of biotechnology in its version of Hong Kong later in the story…only to have you go through a White Man’s Savior Journey once you walk inside a brothel. And unlike the original Deus Ex you don’t get to customize your character’s race, in addition to smaller play spaces than the original. This consequently makes one’s distance between the narrative’s problematic elements and your interactivity much more narrow. And what would have just been an annoyance at best under the scope of the original is front and center here.
This on top of the aesthetic, canonical problems of being a prequel to an older entertainment title. People have been angry about Star Wars and the revelations made throughout its mythology and canon since Empire Strikes Back at the very least, but Human Revolution has some especially striking differences and incongruities with the first Deus Ex. Some of which are inevitable due to the age of the difference of the tech between the two, but others which showcase how difficult it can be to maintain an fictional canon as densely packed as this. It also doesn’t help that through its thematic echoes, its a lot more apparent to see when the developers are circling their wheels. For instance, the game first presents a more nuanced picture of stratification and the reign of biotechnology in its version of Hong Kong than the original game did, giving you a map that is more vertical than that of the first level, Detroit. You can run on rooftops, go through the subway station, overhear civilian conversations (at lot of which is about augmentations) and you see in stark terms just how much corporations, wealth and poverty have carved through life.
Unfortunately as you get deeper within, you are tasked with living through a White Man’s Savior Journey once you walk inside a brothel (a literal red building presumably so the player won’t be confused as to what’s going on). And as you talk and overhear NPCs, there is a thin line between caricature and humanization that, like the last game, mostly depends on who is your friend and who isn’t. Oh, and there’s a double-crossing Chinese woman you meet later in the story who turns out to be much more promin ent in the main plot but somehow has even less character depth than Maggie Chow.
But before all of that, plus the game’s awkward way of communicating its themes to the player, there is the game’s earlier stab at fleshing out and humanize the underbelly of its version of Detroit. The game makes a great choice in choosing Detroit and emphasizing, at least through its futuristic, dystopic lens, dynamics of red-lining, gentrification and stratification. And your role as an overpowered, cybernetic security guard for a massive corporation is not unlike that of being an Amazon employee in Seattle, with the heavy workloads, corporate culture and heavy policing alongside your presence included. But the illusion of this game’s even-handed handling of race, class and social inequality is shattered the moment you overhear, or talk to, NPCs. This is exemplified in your first in-game conversation with Letitia, the homeless Black woman you see digging through trash by the sidewalk after you, as Adam Jensen, get your enhancements.
(…Jesus, just rewatching the cutscene with Jensen and Letita brings back so much. I’ve honestly blocked off all memory of it until now, and now you must suffer along with me.)
Despite having heavy portrayals of class conflict plus an aesthetic steeped in influences from William Gibson, the movie Robocop, high fashion and crime dramas, later events in the story boil everything down to yet another global conflict between East and West with an Illuminati conspiracy in the background. While one could forgive it for just being in line with the rest of the series, at this point it feels more like a retreat into the maintenance of the Deus Ex brand (TM) than an organic consequence of your actions as a player. Its bad enough that the racial politics is awkward at best when you go everywhere from Detroit to Hong Kong to Pangea. But the way it ties it all up with the lore and technojargon gets downright infuriating, for there are many signs (plus way too much time since the original game) that the developers could have done better. As for the boss battles? Well, you probably heard or experienced this by now, but they’re awful. You’re just put you in a room with a boss you can’t run away from (which has reportedly been improved in the Director’s Cut, but even if you play that version its still infuriating), and you have to dispose of them. The final boss is basically that but on an elaborate scale which, to its credit, lets you utilize your by-now superpowered up skills to pick the best avenue for attack. But after that you walk into another room for a conversation with a prominent character, then you’re asked to just pick a button for an ending where you’re told the consequences but aren’t actually shown them, the complete opposite of the original game’s approach of actually adding up everything you’ve done.
The game is too faithful to the original in some respects, in that it reproduces, even amplifies, that earlier game’s racism and stereotyping when it should be giving more room for the subaltern to be engaged as people, to give a more complete picture of how its dystopia functions. Moment to moment its a smoother play than the original, with snappy combat and satisfying stealth mechanics. And the game is gorgeous at least on an art-direction level (the real-time rendering can be choppy), with awe-inspiring designs and terrifying environments that show a lot of thought into how to envelope you into a fictional world, almost completely disguising that for all of the polygons and bloom you have much less to play around with. While it is certainly more successful at what it sets out to do overall than Invisible War before it, Human Revolution has signs of a messy push-pull between embodying complexity, providing instant gratification, giving fan service and pushing new ground. Sometimes out of that fight comes triumph, but other times you just get an airhorn to the face.
But one area that Human Revolution definitely improves upon over the original is in laying out and highlighting the labor and class conflict which would makes its high tech world possible. In the main campaign, this is highlighted by the various, heavily advertised augmentation centers you can walk into much like the Hell’s Kitchen’s hospital in Deus Ex, and there are multiple logs highlighting developments in this technology in ways not unlike the pamphlets of biotech corporations you may read today. This is in contrast with the aggressive sermonizing of the anti-cybernetics characters in the game who say that such technology only divides and betrays humanity. But in the DLC The Missing Link (which you can play in the Director’s Cut of the game), you get kidnapped and interrogated by a PMC, after which you escape and go through a massive facility which turns out to be a concentration camp full of prisoners and other missing people, used as guinea pigs for the cybernetics technology. Through this campaign you converse with an operative, work with a weapon’s dealer, hack systems alongside a mysterious voice, and uncover ties with a megacorporation pushing scientists and employees to speed up progress at the expense of human lives. And in the end you face not just a hard choice but also a boss battle that, unlike the rest of Human Revolution even within the improved Director’s Cut, gives you plenty of play room for a non-lethal or lethal playthrough without having to deal with an annoying, thinly characterized bullet sponge of a boss following you around.
It’s an excellent encapsulation of the series, with plenty of room for emergent play and exploration, and does a better job of communicating themes around exploitation and power than the main campaign does. Within this space The Missing Link really unearths what makes the world of Deus Ex run: labor and resources, and it ties the fields of science, profit-motive, PMCs (with logs detailing Climate Change-induced conflicts over resources in Australia, to say of one detail) and politics in ways that are chilling and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately it like the main campaign is also hampered by awkward speechifying, and even here anyone who isn’t white is just an accessory underlining just how much this future sucks. Even its highlight of exploitation in the name of megacorporate profit involves an imprisoned white woman from South Africa with a tearful backstory. Everyone else, including Black, Chinese, and Indian NPCs, just loops their cries of despair during a late part of this portion of the story where you eventually choose if they live or die in a Trolley Problem-esque plot point, the same thematic framework the later Arkane Studio’s take on System Shock, Prey, would turn on its head.
Also, another thing Human Revolution doesn’t share with the original is a great soundtrack. Seriously, name one track in Human Revolution that even half as good and atmospheric as The Synapse. You can’t.
Dishonored is a mash-up of Industrial Revolution era-England aesthetics, magic and dystopia civic design, with a betrayal plot (which happens to you twice) that is nowhere near as compelling as the bits of lore you collect through audio logs and books. You play as Corvo, a Royal Protector framed for the assassination of the Empress and the disappearance of Emily, heir to the throne. After an escape from Prison, you fall in with a group of loyalists and work with them to take care of various members of the current regime, all the while a plague devastates an already unstable kingdom and you get visited by an embodiment of Chaos, The Outsider, who gives you magical powers you can choose to use, or not. Throughout this narrative, you only get to choose between being a kill-crazy monster or a stealthy sleeper to determine the ultimate fate of the monarchist cause you fight for. To its credit, the game lets you play in the space between those two extremes throughout, only giving you the High Chaos rank (which leads to the Bad Ending if you get it the most), if you kill too many people.
But within this digital playground you run into some frustrating limits rather quickly. The root of the issue is just how thinly sketched your protagonist Corvo and most of the NPCs you play alongside are. One could say that this is to give just enough room to fill in the blanks of your progression as a player, supported by the fact that Corvo is silent throughout the game. But if even the Deus Ex series stumbles in its engagement of identity politics, civil unrest and super structures despite having loads of voiced dialogue and real-world references/analogues, Dishonored’s approach proves that simply making your protagonist silent and nimble through a narrative full of sex, violence and societal decay doesn’t let you off the hook. Portions of the game, particularly Lady Boyle’s Last Party, have you deal with women either as targets or accessories. Rescuing Emily, the heir to the throne, from kidnapping is one thing, and Emily is given sufficient room for subjectivity. But other women, from the scandalous Lady Boyle to Lydia and Cecilia of the Loyalists at the Hound Pits Club, are just walking plot points. Yes they all respond to your choices, but that’s not the same as them being actual people. The men are wafer-thin enough despite their prominence in the plot, with some being conspirators in your first betrayal and others being a part of the second, but the women hardly leave a mark, save for Lady Boyle, who represents the most repulsive side of what the game really thinks of women.
In the chapter Lady Boyle’s Last Dance, you are tasked with disposing of the titular woman, a rich, conniving socialite during a masquerade ball where you, Corvo, dress as yourself but slip in unaware (or not). Like the rest of the game you are given pathways for approaching the game, with your own ingenuity plus in-game abilities as your tools. The problem is that this is a portion of the game where you are only given two options: murder her, or drugging her so she can taken by boat to another place by an obsessive stalker. No, seriously. And the latter option is treated as the non-violent, “Low Chaos” option while the former would tip you over into, “High Chaos” which would make things even aggressive later in the game. What justifies this, supposedly, is that she is an obstacle to the restoration of the throne where young Emily would have gone were it not for an attempt by saboteurs, lead by Daud. That’s it. Oh, yeah, and logs and NPC conversations reveal her to be a freewheeling hedonist who likes sex with men a lot. So one possible solution involves just tricking her into sleeping with you before you murder her. Charming.
Vera Moray, referred to throughout the campaign as Granny Rags, is played by Susan Sarandon with a compelling mix of dark wimsy and cunning. As you explore, you see her connection with The Outsider, and certain events occur based on her presence and involvement. As the plague carves through the city’s population so she thrives, and when you go through rooms even The Outsider tells you of just what she is capable of. Finally, she becomes a boss battle after you crawl out of a long sewer section to the surface, and that’s it. This isn’t as reprehensible as Lady Boyle or as dissatisfying as the women of the Loyalists, but its only notable for being a bow tying together the game’s themes with its showing off of celebrity talent, high production values and beautiful production design. She’s more of a force than a character in her own right (not that you can’t collect a few logs and listen to a few conversations detailing her life), but its a force that does its job.
The men of the narrative are given a bit more flavor, but not by much. The Loyalists are definable the moment you see them, from Samuel Beechworth, the boatman who takes you to your missions after each interlude at Hound Pits Club, to Farley Havelock a former admiral who works alongside Trevor Pendelton the aristocrat and Teague Martin an Overseer. These characters rarely go outside of the very archetypes you see them as for the entirety of the game, colored just a little by your choices throughout the narrative but not in ways that are particularly interesting otherwise. There is an interesting contrast between the two scientists of the narrative, namely Piero Joplin and Anton Sokolov, who throughout the campaign epouse differences in not just scientific approach but also in beliefs. Granted the two are characterized respectively by the former being a mincing yet egotistical and antisocial person while the latter is basically Nikola Tesla with the beard of Rasputin, but they’re the closest things the main campaign has to complete character arcs, with Brad Dourif and Roger L. Jackson providing excellent voice acting to flesh out this amusing and illuminating (at least in lore terms) relationship.
But for the bits of good you get out of this, with all the traits of the Immersive Sim in full display, its still oddly dissatisfying. What brings the frustration with the narrative to the surface is that from the logs alone you can get a feel of the wide scope of what you’re playing in, in stark contrast to the route story you go through. Through them you trace a wider narrative that examines the consequences of industrialization, stratification and exploitation, all with a perspective like that of Charles Dickens. Through the lore we get a great canvas of a time where class and environmental devastation are staring at you right in your face, yet through the main campaign you made to play through the least interesting and in some respects grossly regressive portion. The downloadable campaign Knife of Dunwall (which I’m still playing through) makes up for this by centering Daud, an magic-wielding assassin you meet later in the game whose arc is the most compelling in that he embodies all of the contradictions and clashes of the game world, but adds with it a melancholy note of weariness, voiced very well by Michael Madsen. And Knife of Dunwall has you wade knee-deep into situations ranging from workers strikes to the hard compromises one with as much power as Daud would have to make in a universe of freeing, but deadly chaos and crushing but stable order. But you’d have to play through the game’s otherwise bland main campaign to get anything out of it, and as fun as it is to play (I immediately wanted to play through the campaign again to see how much fun I can have with a High Chaos run), its hard to overstate just how dissatisfying it is thematically. It paints a big, pretty and haunting picture, but that picture can leave you wanting for depth.
Prey (2017) is a riff on System Shock 2, Sci-Fi biotech and corporate culture with an interesting alt-history perspective. Through a diverse cast of characters, you play as a Chinese/German character company founder named Morgan Yu, who you can choose to be either male or female. You are in the midst of a program developing Neuromods, an enhancement of mysterious origin that grants one abilities with a simple injection in the eye. But there is something about the entire process, plus the company you have started with your brother Alex Yu, that is a little…off. And you wake you up in a room one day to start what should be a typical day in the company before things go horribly wrong.
From there you begin to piece things together, find out truths big and small, and struggle, or not, to hold onto your humanity as you collect power through Neuromods. The more you take, the more your very person changes, in ways similar to that of the Mimics, the alien race of the game that can transform people and disguise itself as objects you interact with in the game. With this you can’t always thrust your environment, even the very cups you can hold in the game could turn against you, and the Phantoms, of which there are a few varieties, can wound you and emerge from the bodies of dead co-workers. Along the way you find survivors who may or may not be able to help you piece together a bigger picture of exploitation, company secrets and underhanded motives, with you in the center of it all. What do you do with this? That’s up to you, of course.
The game opens really strong, with a startling and disorienting introduction that both warps one’s perspective and sense of space. And it does this with a large cast of characters with a refreshing amount of diversity highlighting different portions of the setting, from the dirty to the upper crust. Thing is, that diversity only adds so much beyond the surface level. Some portions are hard hitting, particularly a story you can choose to piece together of an old man named Doctor Calvino who is a big part of the development of the game’s, “Looking Glass” technology, which enables one to view 3D space through a flat screen, with a devastating secret that at first suggests an affect of the company environment but is ultimately just a mark of the very human condition your company seeks to transform through the Neuromod technology. But for its overt displays of diversity and multiculturalism like these, there the dead people in its margins, used merely as markups towards larger plot points, which while effective in the sense of environmental storytelling, brushes just up against the wall of dehumanizing representation. One side mission in particular exemplifies the game’s sometimes haphazard way addressing the subjectivity of its characters with larger themes, centered around a lesbian couple, an escaped convict with a stolen identity and revelations of what you are really fighting for, and murder (guess how that turns out).
To its credit, Prey twists the usual individualistic perspective that usually comes with the Immersive Sim with a referential, meta-textual angle, especially in the beginning. By drawing attention to its influences and mechanics, the game acheives a few moments not unlike encountering an art sculpture in a museum or park, inviting you to play with the space and texture of the work itself. The best moments of the game are when it gives you space to ponder on, and play with, what it means to see and feel in a digital world. And from there is a philosophical throughline the game, drawing a line between humanity and cruelity, power and weakness, immersion and otherwise. Through this you begin to probe through this why one is so invested in their choices when not even your allegiances and sense of reality is certain. On top of this is an engaging alt-history involving a period where JFK was never assassinated and the Soviet Union worked with the United States of America to colonize space, which you piece together through logs and surviving NPCs…or not.
Unfortunately, there are large portions you have to slog through just to get to those bits of narrative content, and the endgames ties this all up in irritatingly trite ways. The game starts strong and even gives you a way to ponder the space of video games in a way that is surprisingly nuanced and unpretentious…then just drops it. Oh, but at least you get one of three movies out of the end of the campaign depending on your final choice, two of which the NPCs just won’t shut the fuck up about until you just do the thing, and one of which you have to do your own digging to get to but may be underwhelmed by. This is followed by credits and…well, just play for yourself. The game is well-polished in some spots and incomplete in others. Either people behind it thought that simply providing a meta-textual reference point within the game pointing out the various ways video games, “trick” us into staring at a flat screen for hours in an imaginary space is enough content, or they had a lot of great ideas but were pushed by publisher Bethseda to get the whole thing released, “Fallout: New Vegas” style.
In my experience I found the game to be quite easy to sequence-break compared to even the original Deus Ex, a game notorious for not being well-optimized and pretty buggy, because of the barrenness of the game. But because the overall narrative is making you question the very reality you inhabit through its Mimics and plot progression, it can be hard to judge how much of this is good or bad in a critical context. Are the moments of mechanical weirdness, heavy backtracking and dead space clever bits of pacing and foreshadowing for the other twists to come, or could the game have used a bit more debugging and compression? Are the obvious callbacks to System Shock 2 and Bioshock there to set up expectations and warp them with unique, paranoid theming, or are the developers resting on the technical advancements of past AAA games instead of providing something fresh? Whereas other Immersive Sims throw a lot of content at you in addition to a plethora of mechanics, Prey is more interested giving you just enough for a solid experience while probing why one as a player gives a shit about the choices and characters within the space to begin with. But there are times when that probing just feels incomplete, which depending on who you ask could either be a clever narrative layer that depends on your level of effort and perception as a player, or a frustrating cop-out in lieu of subverting or twisting expectations. As with a lot of contemporary modern art, your mileage may vary.
(Fun fact, I decided to buy the game on PC after watching Markiplier’s playthrough of it with a friend. I picked it up, then dropped it due to life/other stuff, then picked it up again and went through the aforementioned engrossment and frustration, not to mention how well the game plays and how beautiful it is.)
For all of their technical ambition, cleverness and name-dropping of big ideas, great men and concepts, each games reveals a darth of creative imagination at some critical points, namely in their representation of the oppressed, which makes their visions of you making big choices in complicated, broken worlds feel incomplete. These are supposed to be stories where you are a mediator between opposing ideas, but how each game treats the subaltern is still rooted in one direction: the western, colonizer perspective. Yes, class struggle, stratification and personhood are concerns everywhere in the world today, but the overriding thematic angle of the Deus Ex series plays on very American anxieties while you globetrot, with its central conspiracy theories centering on secret governments, New World Orders and the like (idea which are…not as fun to play with in person today as they probably were back when the original X-Files was at its peak). For all of the exploration you do and characters you meet with an avatar configured to the game’s limits, by the time you get to the end of each game you may as well just be either another American high schooler/college freshman who just read Leviathan for the first time and found the key to saving the world. You are either a genocidal authoritarian, a pretentious centrist, or a nihilistic psychopath, with all nuance and detail flattened into one ultimate choice that ends the experience.
The original Deus Ex is able to stick the landing in this regard, thanks to prominent and consistent character arcs in the midst of its digital narrative space between high tech, low life and transcendent human potential. In contrast, Human Revolution, Dishonored and Prey…don’t, and the reasons for their failures vary. But even the best of these games have their limits when it comes to addressing the political, in a field known (and sometimes criticized) for prioritizing the spectacle. Unfortunately in trying to transcend this pigeonholing by addressing real-world issues and philosophical inquiries, these games do so with either a jarring lack of perspective or lazy stereotypes of the real world. And by the time you get to the endgame, most of them end up being just Philisophy 101 essays of varying qualities (don’t get me started on how rushed the endings of Human Revolution and Prey are), filtered through the heavy genre fixations and art direction of each. At least developer Arkane (Prey, Prey: Mooncrash, Dishonored) is one of the few contemporary developers working to overcome the stereotypes and Western-chauvinism of the AAA game with gestures towards wider perspectives and strong thematic threads on how technological achievements can come at the expense of unseen and unacknowledged peoples. But these gestures are just that, and one can only do so much with a overriding progressive political stance and theming within the constraints of the AAA gaming market and its demand for spectacle, endless revenue streams and prominence in the spotlight of pop culture.
With games like Deus Ex having influenced developers big and small for decades, I worry for anyone whose political education or perception that video games are an art form comes solely from having played these games. The reason is simply that there is so much more that could be done. Simply referring to social issues through an artistic work is not the same as providing commentary or answers on them, much less the good kind. And one can advertise their game as being a medium for the player to express themselves as they wish, but the content of the medium is what draws people in, fantastical or otherwise. One can’t just refer to social and philosophical questions and retreat from the implications behind how you refer to them by going on and on about how you are giving the player choices. One has to contend with how you portray these questions, and how a player interacts with them. Even a curation, whether it is that of a space, a list or a private collection, communicates an idea and shows your bias. And the moment you share that curation is the moment you have to own up what you say through it.
I hope these developers keep pushing forward in making works that are as all-encompassing in their philosophical and political depth as they are in their use of space. Or, if you’re reading this and think you have the moxie, why not just get some people together and make your own game? Just please lay off the bad accents and misused AAVE this time.
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