If you want a sense of what goes on in the minds of the people who live in the world of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, take a look at their movie posters.
Like the real-life Hollywood, the film industry within Deus Ex reflects the zeitgeist of its world—in this case, a near-future dystopia in which players take on the role of Adam Jensen, an Interpol agent who spends his time trying to unravel a terrorist attack while getting into gunfights, sneaking around enemy bases and thrashing bad guys. In this world, technology allows people to enhance or “augment” their bodies through replacement limbs or organs or computer chips in their brains. After an accident in the last game, Jensen was decked out with all kinds of military grade enhancements, turning him into something of a superman.
Popular culture in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided reflects this techno reality, and the anxieties that come with it. The movies set in this world are about people hanging out with robots, people who are secretly robots and people who lose control of their partly robotic selves. As you wander the game’s primary setting of near-future Prague, a combination of old architecture and gleaming, futuristic reactive billboards, you’re bombarded with advertisements. The range of posters created for the game spans espionage thrillers about hidden robots with frightening programming, indie films with fake festival laurels and straight-up action movies where a hero kicks ass with his robotic legs.
It’s not just that some people can replace their normal human parts with amazing robotic ones; in the fiction of the game world, there are legitimate reasons to be afraid of the augmented. Their parts make them stronger and faster and, like any computer, they might even be vulnerable to hackers.
At the end of the last game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, most of the people with mechanical augmentations went crazy, thanks to a terrorist attack, and started murdering everyone they came across. Now the rest of the world is scared of them, discriminating against them and planning to segregate them.
As players in Mankind Divided work their way through Prague, they’re confronted by the segregation of augmented people. It’s often hard to walk down the street without seeing police hassling or even arresting an aug, usually on trumped-up charges. Simmering resentment, terrorist attacks, corrupt policing and more are at the heart of the various stories Mankind Divided tells, and those themes are reflected in the dialogue players overhear and the events they see.
Hence the faux-thriller Incipient. Everything, from the fear in the eyes of the woman to the title of the film itself, suggests there is something to fear—even though the poster isn’t clear on what it is. The generalized anxiety that Deus Ex’s Hollywood is leveraging is playing out all around the player, in graffiti, on TV and in police shaking down augs on the street.
It’s not just the film posters that provide hints into Deus Ex’s larger world. From the product ads that flash constantly in your peripheral vision as you search for clues or sneak around gangsters, it’s not hard to imagine the need drug companies in Mankind Divided are looking to fill. Or the board meetings that would have led to ads like these:
And then there’s alcohol, the advertisers of which don’t bother to mince words about why you might want to buy some.
The ads of Mankind Divided suggest an unpleasant truth of the real world: Capitalism doesn’t take a day off. In fact, it seems plenty of people in the world of Mankind Divided have seen needs to fill popping up in the conflict between the augmented and unaugmented, or “naturals.”
Meanwhile, the debate about augmented people continues throughout the game. Is it okay to strip a few million augs of their rights in favor of keeping naturals safe?
Arguments for segregating augs fill TV news programs as players sneak through buildings to take out criminals and gather clues about terrorists. Meanwhile, though there might be a political movement to see augs removed from society, there’s still money to be made from them.
Mankind Divided’s ads suggest normalcy; prejudices open enough to become standard work for low-level copywriters. And of course, something to be exploited by everyone from soda makers to entertainers to pharmaceutical corporations to turn a profit. But the chance to cash in on fear isn’t always far out of mind.
Mankind Divided has been criticized for having little to say about its themes of institutionalized bigotry. But for most of the story, Jensen investigates a terrorist bombing, ostensibly being pinned on an aug rights group. One mission has players sneaking into a police station to doctor papers for augmented individuals to keep them from being shipped off to an aug ghetto; another concerns a serial killer targeting only augmented people and tearing off their limbs. Every step of the way, players are presented with situations in which one has to wonder what Jensen is thinking—he’s seriously augmented, and unlike the rich who bought their augs, his were given to him against his will, saving his life but also forever altering it, and potentially making him exactly the kind of walking killing machine unaugmented people fear.
In a way, the ads of Deus Ex capture the bleakness of its future better than “no augs” signs and police checkpoints ever could. While the game never stops and makes a speech about its politics, Mankind Divided excels in normalizing situations that are meant to cause the player to react. And though big-budget video games like this one are great at avoiding controversy by “leaving it to the player to decide” how they should feel about such situations, it’s impossible to miss one big idea: Fear can lead people to do awful things to one another. In Deus Ex’s world, that fear comes out in its movies, the same as in our own.