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The Symbolism of Myth of Daedalus and Icarus in Deus Ex

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What does it mean to be human? As science continues to progress, this question will likely become increasingly difficult to answer. Many people have been able to improve various impaired capabilities thanks to human enhancement technology, which continues to progress, potentially allowing our species to evolve beyond its current limitations, while also raising difficult questions. Before humanity can evolve, potential consequences must be considered, and questions must be asked, questions which are raised by Deus Ex Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, 2011, hereafter referred to as Human Revolution).

Human Revolution is a prequel to the original Deus Ex game (Ion Storm, 2000) which was set in the year 2052, where humans have become heavily augmented cyborgs, briefly touching on the theme of transhumanism, defined by Max More as “Philosophies of life (such as extropian perspectives) that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values”(More, 2013, p.3). Setting Human Revolution closer to the present date allowed the theme to be explored in detail while exploring real-world issues. This was clearly one of the game’s main intentions, as suggested by lead writer Mary DeMarle in an interview (Munkittrick, 2011), who described how she researched the theme prior to writing the game. The game is set in the year 2027, where scientific progress has led to development of artificial organs, known as “augmentations”, capable of greatly enhancing the human body, which have recently become available to mainstream society, allowing people to overcome serious disabilities and injuries, and to augment themselves voluntarily, increasing their physical and mental abilities. Due to the high price of augmentations and the need to take the expensive drug “Neuropozyne” to stop the body from rejecting the augmentations, only the rich can afford to be augmented, causing tensions to rise between those who view augmentation as the future of humanity, and those opposed to it, comprising of people who view it as immoral, or people who cannot afford it, who fear becoming obsolete as the upper class evolves. The issue is presented to the player throughout the game using semiotics found in the game’s character design, gameplay and worldbuilding.

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The player controls Adam Jensen, Chief of Security at Sarif Industries, one of the world’s main augmentation manufacturers, who’s views on augmentation are never specified. At the start of the game, Adam is nearly killed in a terrorist attack on the Sarif Industries headquarters, and becomes heavily augmented by his boss, David Sarif, to save his life. In addition to this, Sarif takes advantage of the situation by equipping Adam with advanced experimental military augmentations, despite Adam having never asked for it. Adam is an effective choice for a player character from a ludic and narrative perspective. Having a heavily augmented protagonist in a game focused on transhumanism is thematically relevant, while allowing fun and varied gameplay, which remains relevant to the game’s premise.

Using the player-character semiotic structural model proposed by Daniel Vella (Vella, 2014), the elements used to construct Adam’s character can be divided into two main categories: The static mimetic elements, and the dynamic mimetic elements. Static mimetic elements, according to Vella are “fixed (or relatively fixed) facts regarding a character” (p. 5), including name, physical appearance, possessions, etc., which can be used to convey information to the player about the character. Dynamic mimetic elements, on the other hand, are actions performed by the character, physically or verbally, initiated by the character without player input (character action), or initiated by the player, (player action). In Human Revolution, most of Adam’s actions are performed by the player, including many of the character’s narrative choices, which are decided by the player in dialogue choices. The choices the player makes, ludic, and narrative, define Adam’s character. For example, the outcome of the narrative decision at the end of the game can act as a signifier to what Adam’s views on augmentation are, whereas a ludic choice such as sneaking past enemies rather than engage in combat could suggest that Adam believes his combat augmentations to be unethical. The player can keep Adam’s views consistent throughout almost all of the entire game, as it is possible to play through the story without killing a single NPC, with the exception of boss battles, which were one of the few aspects to be frequently criticised by the public (Metacritic, 2011). Boss battles aside, the player is responsible for shaping Adam’s character, so the player is forced to think about their own views on the ethics of transhumanism when shaping Adam’s views. This can all be applied to the MDA Framework (Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek, 2004), which divides games into 3 design components: Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics. In Human Revolution the base mechanics such as shooting, sneaking and levelling up combine to create a dynamic where the player is free to choose their own playstyle, which defines Adam’s character and views, which has an influence on the game’s main aesthetic, the narrative. The only problem with the ludic freedom given to the player is that some players could potentially play the game in an inconsistent manner, for example killing everyone Adam encounters during gameplay, while being as sympathetic as possible in the narrative, which would be a case of Ludonarrative Dissonance, a term invented by Clint Hocking (Hocking, 2007) for when the gameplay conflicts with the narrative. While a way to avoid this problem would be to restrict the player’s decisions, the freedom given in Human Revolution is essential in allowing players to explore their views on the game’s themes, and while some may play the game in a non-serious manner, many will think about their views while experiencing the story, and have their views reflected when making ludic and narrative decisions. It is these players who benefit the most from playing the game.

Before forming their own views, the player must understand the topic, by being exposed to various viewpoints, and witnessing different consequences of augmentation. As Adam spends the game searching for the people behind the terrorist attack, he encounters various characters and factions, witnessing the impact of augmentation on their lives. Throughout the game, the player can gain a knowledge about the game’s world, factions and conflicts by paying attention to the exposition conveyed through dialogue, as well as by listening to news reports played on in-game televisions and reading newspapers and books found throughout the game world. Mieke Bal writes (Bal, 1994) that signs convey meanings which are interpreted to create second meanings. In the case of Human Revolution, the sources of information serve as signs which convey information about the world, which is the first meaning, with the logical implication of the information being that there is a significant conflict between contrasting views, which is the second meaning. This contrast is also conveyed through signs found in the visual style.

While exploring some the more privileged areas such as the Sarif Industries and Tai-Yong medical headquarters, the notion of a “Cyber Renaissance”, as described by Art Director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête (Schramm, 2010, p.1), is enforced by the aesthetic, reinforcing the view that humanity will continue to evolve and improve. The reason, according to Belletête, was that the scientific innovation of Human Revolution parallels the Renaissance era’s discoveries. The architectural style of many in-game buildings resembles that of the renaissance, particularly Adam’s apartment, where the design around the windows were based on elevation plans for old European cathedrals, according to Belletête. In addition, many characters wear modern attire with elements reminiscent of Renaissance, including puffy sleeves, and Renaissance patterns. Inside the office of David Sarif, Adam’s boss, a copy of the Renaissance painting The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (Rembrandt, 1632) can be found on the wall, depicting medical professionals analysing the muscles inside a body’s arm. In Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of semiotics, explained by Frédéric Seraphine (Seraphine, 2016), signs are classified as icons, indexes, and symbols. Human Revoulution’s Renaissance imagery would be classified as an icon, signifying the renaissance through visual similarity. Since the renaissance is frequently associated with innovation due to it being the transition period between the middle ages and the modern period, the renaissance can be classified as a symbol, as it signifies innovation and discovery, without any visual similarity. All these signs combine to enforce the notion that 2027 is a year of great innovation, a new renaissance.

This contrasts directly with the less privileged areas of the game, negatively effected by augmentation, particularly Lower Hengsha, where the atmosphere is dark and claustrophobic due to the high concentration of buildings and the sky being blocked off by the city’s upper layer, with the architecture resembling a more traditional cyberpunk environment, creating a dystopian atmosphere. The contrast between the “cyber renaissance” and the dystopian future is emphasised by the game’s colour scheme, with the dominant colours being black and gold, which was intentional according to game director Jean Francois Dugas, who said that “the black aspect of the game refers to the dystopian world, cyberpunk – people in suffering and things like that. The gold aspect represents a bit of hope – and society, with augmentations, a promise of better selves” (Kolan, 2010, p.2). The emphasis on gold and black is apparent as the game originally released with a gold colour filter applied to the game, giving the lighter colours a gold hue, contrasting with the game’s darker colours. The only downside is that a heavily stylised colour scheme could feel out of place in a game with an otherwise realistic visual style, which the developers may have realised, as the filter was significantly toned down in the Director’s Cut release of the game (Eidos Montreal, 2013).

Another sign used throughout the game is the frequent referencing of the Icarus and Daedalus myth, in which Daedalus creates wings to escape Crete, but Icarus flies too close to the sun, causing his wings too melt, resulting in him falling to his death. One of the game’s antagonists, Hugh Darrow, the creator of augmentation who regrets his invention, explains that he views Humanity as Icarus, and himself as Daedalus, watching his child flying too close to the sun. Alongside this, the game’s trailer depicts Adam using wings to fly towards the sun, which quickly burn away, while one of the unlockable augmentations is called “Icarus Landing System”, and the title of the game’s main theme is “Icarus”. The Icarus references act as signs which convey an image of a man flying too close to the sun and falling, which, due to the game’s setting, can be interpreted as a sign that Humanity is evolving at an unnatural pace, and if it continues, the consequences could be dire. Despite this being a clever way to convey a message, the interpretation relies heavily on the player’s general knowledge, so a player unfamiliar with the myth would be unlikely to make the correct interpretation.

Another possible interpretation, should the interpreter be familiar with the myth, is that the developers could be biased towards a negative view on transhumanism, because as mentioned previously, the Icarus references convey a notion of augmentation being the potential end of humanity. While this assumption would not be unreasonable, something that needs to be considered is the previously mentioned “cyber renaissance” aesthetic. The game would not include an aesthetic which enforces the notion of great innovation if the developers wanted to create a game biased towards the opposite point of view. In the previously mentioned interview (Munkittrick, 2011), lead writer DeMarle stated that “I’ve seen the potential and the incredible allure of human augmentation. At the same time a lot of my research into the dangers of experimentation and unregulated industries has made me understand the other side of the debate” (p.1). The lead writer clearly sees both sides of the debate, both of which are reflected throughout the game. Some games are limited to a specific view points, which can negatively effect the message of the game, for example Assassin’s Creed III (Ubisoft Montreal, 2012) which was criticized for this reason (Shaw, 2015), but Human Revolution succeeds in telling a story for a neutral viewpoint, while exploring different sides of the Debate raised by the game, granting the player freedom to think about their perspective on the issue.

The expression of both sides of the augmentation debate throughout the game allows the player to understand different perspectives which they are forced to think about when making ludic and narrative decisions, especially the final decision at the end of the game, where Adam is responsible for the future of humanity, where each decision strongly reflects the player’s view. Ultimately, the game serves as a critique on the direction our society is likely heading towards, with the main message being that humanity must be careful with its future decisions, which could result in the success, or end of our species. Either way, the future will likely result in conflict between opposing views, and while Human Revolution successfully entertains its audience, it also serves as a serious game which makes the player contemplate serious issues.


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