10 years on, Deus Ex: Human Revolution still has the most nuanced portrayal of cyborgs

Cyborg bodies are a battleground of opposing identities, and Deus Ex explores these identities masterfully

From Bionic Commando to Cyberpunk 2077, many video games have featured stories about cyborgs. Ten years on, Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s portrayal of Adam Jensen, a former SWAT officer turned head of security for cybernetics augmentation developer Sarif Industries, still provides the most interesting, nuanced depiction of a cyborg in video games.

Adam begins the game as a human, but an attack on Sarif Industries by cyborg mercenaries decommissions him quickly. One of the mercs throws him through a computer screen and embeds him in machinery, glass protruding from his hands. Adam limply raises his gun, but his foe knocks it out his hands and raises him in the air by the throat. The mercenary only drops Adam when his girlfriend, Dr Megan Reed, throws acid in the attacker’s face. The cyborg assailant backhands Megan, presumably killing her, and he then walks over to Adam and shoots him in the head.

These opening moments serve to immediately emasculate Adam as he fails at his job and is unable to defend himself, his girlfriend, or Sarif Industries against the augmented man. The game’s introductory credits are then played over a cinematic of Adam’s reconstructive, life-changing surgery. This cinematic explores many themes that cyborg media deals with.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Credit: Eidos Montreal

Firstly, Adam’s emasculation is cemented. Large metal spikes protrude through his body as he has visions of himself and Megan having sex. We see his heart beating inside his chest. Penetration is seen as a masculine act, but now instead of Adam having sex with Megan, he is penetrated by machinery. Adam dies on the table, his heart flatlining. This symbolises the loss of his relationship, which further emasculates him.

The scene then goes into issues of both consent and the commodification of Adam’s body. His boss, David Sarif, coldly states, “he’s no good to me like this”, and has the doctors prep him for augmentation. The doctors plead that the cybernetic prosthetics being demanded are excessive and could even kill Adam. We later learn that David secretly altered Adam’s contract so that he would be able to transform him if he wanted. This asks the question: how much do our bosses control our bodies already?

Adam’s surgery is violent, bloody, and laden with invasive imagery. There are constant shots of pieces of metal being jammed into him, open holes waiting to be filled with Sarif Industries augmentations, his very lifeblood being spilled. Adam’s body is being violated by his boss and his corporate interests. There’s another vision of Megan’s face, and then Adam’s heart; now covered in an electronic mesh with the word Sarif written on it. His heart that belonged to his partner is now coated in Sarif-brand machinery: his human connections are now secondary to his corporate allegiance to Sarif Industries.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Credit: Eidos Montreal

Everything human about Adam is lost. It gushes out, gets ripped away, and is replaced by machinery. Adam struggles with his new identity, even smashing his apartment mirror when he first looks in it, and often begrudgingly mentions how he did not choose to have these changes made to him.

Most of the game takes place in first person, but some moments give us a third person view, forcing us to sit and watch as Adam skillfully performs takedowns on enemies, uses an electromagnetic Icarus augmentation to land safely after falling from great heights, and uses a military-grade Typhoon weapon system to fire explosive balls from his body in a 360-degree arc, killing everyone around him. These viewpoint changes allow us to marvel at, and be alienated from him.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Credit: Eidos Montreal

These are all acts that highlight the physicality of his cyborg body. But the switch in perspective begs the question of how much we really control him. We push the Circle button to begin a takedown, but Adam assumes control, forcing the camera out of his head and taking our perspective along with it. The ejection of the camera – us – combined with his confident, sarcastic persona creates a tone that mocks us for being unable to commit these fantastical acts ourselves. This switch could also signify that Adam is not fully in control while these actions occur, implying his cybernetic augmentations are taking over. It isn’t just us watching the spectacle unfold as we push a button, he’s doing it too. Or perhaps both of these perspectives could be true. Adam could be mocking us as a facade to cover up his own insecurities caused by his new body.

Adam Jensen is a complex character. He embodies a loss of traditional masculinity through losing both his life and his girlfriend to a cyborg. But he also loses control of his body due to corporate subterfuge and the commodification and militarisation of his body due to the augments in him. He’s rejecting our control of him and eventually embraces his cyborg body, using it to rebel against his boss by going rogue when he discovers his girlfriend is still alive. In doing so, he ultimately reclaims his human nature by following his heart instead of orders.

Cyberpunk 2077 and Call of Duty: Black Ops III both do a great job of creating interesting cyborg protagonists. But neither uses the cyborg body itself as well as Deus Ex. Cyberpunk involves your character racing to remove another person’s consciousness from their cyberware before they take over their mind completely. While this plot is interesting, it lacks the duality present in Adam Jensen which makes him such an interesting character.

Black Ops III misleads us into playing through our character’s final moments on an operating table as they relive the last mission of John Taylor, a soldier trying to train us virtually. It’s a great idea, but too convoluted, and ultimately meaningless, as our actions in the game all happen within a few minutes inside our character’s mind. They both have some moments of great spectacle, but they lack the introspection of Deus Ex.

If you haven’t played Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you’ll be pleased to know it still holds up today. The small but dense open-world of city hubs is the perfect playground for a cyborg, and its quests offer captivating perspectives on a world divided by augmentations.

Deus Ex developer Eidos-Montréal hasn’t announced a final sequel to its planned cyborg trilogy, but it is working on the upcoming Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy game.

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