deus ex:hr

Rant #2: Deus Ex:HR and Disability

Kay, here’s the thing. I love Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but there’s one thing they did that rubs me the wrong way. Like, really peeves me off, which I think was a major loss on both examining both the character of Jensen and the world around him, and that is that the game forgets that augments are prosthetics, and it’s irritating that they aren’t treated as such.

First of all, there’s the matter of Jensen getting augmented. The game leaves it pretty open ended as to how the player should feel about augmentation, but there are a lot of clues (and “clues”) as to how Jensen himself feels. From him outright stating “I never asked for this” to finding the punched mirror, we get a very clear picture of his unhappiness with his position, but depending on how you play the game he can have more positive views as well, like after the first mission saying to Malik that it felt “surprisingly good” to work again after the attack, to trying to convince the paralyzed detective Brent Radford to get augmented. But there’s one aspect that the developers badly neglected to flesh out, and without it all of Adam’s thoughts and feelings potentially come off remarkably whiny and ungrateful for his position as an augmented superman.

Adam Jensen is a DISABLED protagonist, or rather a “differently abled” protagonist.

To non-disabled people, this statement can be pretty laughable. I mean, come on! He can punch through walls, jump nine feet in the air, disappear almost at will! How can he be disabled? Because everything that now makes him special isn’t actually him. Back before he was augmented, he obviously couldn’t do any of those things, but do you know what he did have?

No dysphoria.

Like I mentioned before, Jensen has major emotional issues about his augmentations, and the best way to understand his position is through the lens of a disabled veteran who was given prostheses. Let’s start back at before he was augmented. Who was Adam Jensen? He was a cop, and a SWAT team member at that, then worked in corporate security for about two years. Obviously this is a very physically demanding job, so Jensen’s body must necessarily be in peak physical condition. At the same time, this profession was willingly chosen, even with the strenuous demands, meaning Jensen must like, or at least value, having a strong, capable physique. His body is important to him, he couldn’t do anywhere near the things he did as a SWAT member if he didn’t.

Now to the inciting incident. Jensen get mutilated. Glass riddled throughout his body, abdomen torn open, trachea crushed, then shot in the head. He needs some patching up. But then comes Sarif, who, for all his good intentions, has an agenda. When we finally see Jensen again, the augments he has are far more extensive than he needed, on account of Sarif’s contract. He’s had his body taken away from him, not only by terrorists, but by a man he respected, and he is perfectly justified in feeling resentful. Compounding this, think about what the augments mean to him. They signify failure of the highest magnitude, his failure to save Megan, her team, and even himself, and they will always remind him of that.

But all this is still surface level, main event stuff. What did Jensen’s six months in recovery look like? Or rather, what did they feel like? Jensen has augments, which at their cores, are fancy prostheses. That’s all they are, once you strip away the superman aspects, and that’s how the game failed to adequately portray them as. How did he relearn to walk? How did he learn to control his arms? We see in the cinematic trailer that just holding a glass is difficult, he starts to crack it just by grasping it. Many people speculate he learned to control his hands through clockmaking, but did he need any initial physical therapy? Do his mechanical eyes glitch often? Do those sunglasses get in the way of washing his face? How waterproof is he now? What kind of nerve restructuring did he have to go through for his augments to interface correctly, and did he have to be taught how to control those neural impulses? Do his neural impulses ever malfunction, like if opening and closing his specs are mapped to the thought of blinking, but instead he can only flip his specs open and close while his eyes water until he remembers how to actually blink? There are innumerable ways his body is alien, especially to him, all of his functions have to be relearned like someone learning to use a hook hand, except now everything is hook hands. When he says he never asked for this, THIS is what’s hiding behind that statement.

Moving on to the second point, their failure to acknowledge that augments are foremostly prostheses means that they missed a very important opportunity to show how augmentation culture affects disabled people. There are a few ways they tried to do this, to varying degrees of success. Personally I think Zeke Sandoval’s narrative was handled most realistically, Brent Radford’s very misguided but still believable, and Hugh Darrow’s fantastically awfully to the point of cartoonish supervillainy.

Starting with Zeke, his story is more tragic than anything else. He served in Afghanistan, got injured and lost an eye, possibly more, then was augmented by the U.S. army. So far it sounds fairly similar to Jensen’s plight, except for one thing: he was told by both his brother and Purity First that he was evil for having them, and came to reject them by having his augmented eye removed, then moving on to terrorist attacks against Sarif Industries to stop augmentation altogether. What I think falls flat, though, is that the justification behind Purity First’s beliefs doesn’t really make sense. They believe that augmentations are playing God, and that getting them is violating their bodies. Is that how they view regular prostheses? Are they so anti-transhumanism that they’ll actively drive a veteran to throw away his tools toward living a normal life? Their movement only makes sense if the only narrative towards augmentations is Sarif’s, that is, augmentation is necessary for all humans to progress evolutionarily. Implicitly this sentiment is helpful to the disabled, that augmentations will be the great equalizer on this field, but this sentiment appears to either be forgotten or omitted entirely in the name of progress for “all”, which is so often seen as the able-bodied “normal”. I do not believe that the narrative of the disabled has been so subverted by this world’s view of transhumanism that a group as Luddite-like as Purity First would actually hold the views it does as espoused by Zeke.

The game badly struggles with handling reasons why the disabled shouldn’t get augmented, especially with Brent Radford. Retired detective, shot through the spine by a hired gun, and begging Adam to kill him rather than get augmented. Again, we have another Purist, but when you get right down to it, his argument boils down to “augments steal your soul”. I’m unsure whether this was intended to be a valid concern, a position founded on in-universe misinformation (which the game very often uses in service to its central conspiracy), or if this is real world discrimination of disabled people bleeding through to a work of fiction. Let’s start by taking it at face value, that for some religious or philosophical reason, getting augmented fundamentally alters someone’s soul or personality. How, exactly? The trauma from disabling incidents changes people, undoubtedly, but getting prostheses shouldn’t. Is it because augments are surgically implanted and wired into the nervous system? It would make sense from the “body-polluting” narrative by the Purists, but again, there’s no mechanism to fundamentally change someone. One could argue that the biochip, the interface between the brain and augments, is the source of this pollution via the catastrophic damage on the psyche that Hugh Darrow’s broadcast caused in the third act, but it wasn’t inherently the biochip’s fault because it was subverted and abused by an external force. The potential for abuse of the biochip was and is still horrifying, but that’s neither presently important nor the fault of the augmentations themselves. The second option, that Radford is both incredibly prejudiced and fed propaganda by the Purists makes the most sense in-universe, but may have the most unfortunate implications. Radford’s dialog is by far the cruelest in relation to Jensen’s augments, and seeing how poorly Radford views Jensen, as he sees it, a wounded soldier reduced to an inhuman robot because of his augments, speaks volumes about how this world views the disabled. The disabled are maligned, broken, and inhuman even for wanting prostheses, and that it would be better for them to die then be corrupted. Unless, of course, you side with Sarif, where he’ll ever so benevolently sink you into massive debt in exchange for being othered and maligned for your augments. That is, if you’re genetically capable of being augmented at all, and in which case you aren’t, good luck, because these two narratives seem to be the only ones present. But thirdly, and most damagingly, this vitriol may have bled in from tropes and prejudices from present day. While attitudes have improved considerably from historical norms, prejudice against disabled people, especially with religious justifications, is very much alive. It’s not an uncommon view that disabilities are supposed to teach lessons, either to the disabled or their caretakers. They’re supposed to be saints sent from on high, made to make the able-bodied feel better about themselves for not being disabled, or by setting a point of comparison for “inspiration porn”, that is, using a disabled person’s achievements and setting their goals as easy targets because “if the cripple can do it, why not you?” Conversely, disabilities are also thought of as punishments, both in a retaliatory and a karmic sense. For example, “You lost a leg in combat? Maybe you shouldn’t have been murdering people” or “You’re blind because you must have done something to anger God / were a bad person in a previous life.” The disabled person is supposed to nobly suffer this fate, and if they don’t they are being bitter. Both of these views are damaging to disabled people, but if taken as inherent truths about disability they are going to be jarring to contend with for the abled when these concepts are broken. Now add in augmentations. These prostheses are functionally the most human-like and best replacements for missing limbs, oftentimes surpassing human capability. How are the disabled supposed to nobly suffer like this? How can they make us feel better about ourselves if, in quantifiable and non-platitude-ly ways, THEY are better than us? The entire interaction with Radford reeks of martyrdom, and I really really hope that this wasn’t the developers intention of holding the natural and righteous way of the cripple as laudable compared to Jensen’s pragmatic but subversive augmented life.

And finally, Hugh Darrow. My God, if he isn’t the bitterest of cripples. Essentially, he’s the father of augmentation, the inventor of the biochip that allows human and machine to merge, and close friend to Sarif. This section has major spoilers for the climax of the game, so if you haven’t completed the story, you may want to skip this paragraph. In Panchea, if you argue especially well with him, you’ll discover Hugh Darrow’s true purpose for driving augmented people insane through their biochips: he is genetically incompatible with the technology that makes augmentation possible, and hates the augmented for it. And that’s his reason for essentially starting a zombie apocalypse and damning every beneficial use of augmentation to ‘too dangerous’ territory forever. Why is he so bitter? Is his disability so severe that he’s perpetually trapped in his body, having to reach out to the world through extensive and obtuse technology that continuously falls short, leaving him alone to let these feelings of resentment fester? No, he has a paralyzed leg, and aside from wearing a leg brace and using a cane, he keeps a fairly normal life for a Nobel laureate and Illuminati member. I get that he’s supposed to be nuts, what with that saying about genius and insanity being separated by a fine line, and it’s clear that he has no concept of ethics as evidenced by Hyron, Panchea, and his Illuminati involvement in its entirety, as well as other clues here and there, but the sheer magnitude of overblown pissantery about his inability to get augmented feeds again into the narrative that the disabled must nobly suffer else be immoral subversives. At the same time, Darrow being the only traditionally disabled character who is also a villain, and that he is specifically hateful to the “fixed” disabled people, reinforces the narrative that disabled people are morally broken along with being physically broken. This narrative of disabled person getting back at the world for making them disabled or just being fundamentally corrupt is widespread, you’ll most often find supervillains from comics based around this trope, but the most damaging aspect about it is that this is not how actual disabled people feel or function, nor will the population at large ever know it because there are so few good cripples to empathize with. Disability is almost always portrayed as ugly, as dangerous, and the uncanniness of moving differently is always capitalized to other the character. Hugh Darrow, for as relatively physically minor his disability was, was this trope played to the hilt.

So are there any examples of people directly benefiting from augmentation? Sadly, not really There’s a lot of lip service to augments improving disabled people’s lives, but there are no in-game examples. Jensen is now a superman, but the emotional toll really makes his case more of a break even. Faridah Malik says that her augments make her a better pilot, but we never really see this. This gap leaves so many questions. How do disabled people view augments in a Sarif vs Purist sense? How do they feel about abled people getting augments? Are there incentives for disabled people to get augments from the government? How do disabled people without the money for augments cope? How are people who prefer or identify with traditional prostheses or wheelchairs treated on either side? The CASIE augment is supposed to made you think faster, does that aid cognitively disabled people? Do mentally and cognitively disabled people feel resentful that so much progress has been made for physical disabilities? By not acknowledging the prosthetic aspects of augments, none of these topics can be explored, which is a major strike against an otherwise masterfully created and thought out game. At the same time, the official blog showcases modern day augments and how they function, but unfortunately comes across as equal parts pageant and tech demo, focusing exclusively of the technology to the detriment of the person wearing it. I’m sure no offense is meant, it just feels somewhat shallow. I’m very much looking forward to the sequel Mankind Divided, where the issues of being augmented and social acceptance will play a prominent role, and am keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll see better representation for these issues.