Is Deus Ex anarchist?

To my comrade G, for first having brought Deus Ex to my attention some years ago

NB: The following contains a great number of revelations regarding the happenings in Deus Ex

While reservations should surely be had regarding the place of simulated reality in the current world—and in particular with regard to computer and video games—it is not necessarily the case that all such simulations reproduce hegemonic social relations. Such an assertion should not of course be taken as belittling the highly destructive role that the vast majority of such simulations have had, especially on contemporary youth: little can be said in favor of games that have users create empires, enslave and exterminate other peoples (or players), or employ nuclear weapons—as a great number of games heretofore created allow for and even encourage. Nonetheless, games, like film, can rebel against the monstrosities that prevail today, following the long-established ascendancy of alienated existence, thus helping perhaps to introduce or develop within users oppositional perspectives to the actual world in which they find themselves. Deus Ex, a computer game released in 2000 that explores a highly dystopian future, arguably does precisely this; it can even be said that the game advances anarchist perspectives on society.

Players of Deus Ex take on the role of JC Denton, who at the beginning of the game works as a special agent for UNATCO, the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition. A “planned organism,” JC, ‘brother’ to UNATCO special agent Paul Denton, was in fact created in a lab at Area 51, where, as had been done some years earlier with Paul, he was engineered using highly experimental methods that would eventually allow his handlers to equip him with nanoaugmentations—special abilities that would greatly enhance his ability to kill for UNATCO, thus becoming their “superweapon.”

Constituted power in Deus Ex is shown to be horrific in its maxims and behavior. Beyond the specific case of JC and Paul Denton, created by a “cabal of technophiles” who would even manipulate “the chemistry of our bodies” in their desire for power, world society in Deus Ex is depicted as being strongly hierarchical, with highly militarized institutions dominating “the underclasses,” who in large part seem to be materially impoverished and socially excluded; the various homeless individuals encountered by JC in New York City attest to this, as does the community of so-called Mole People who, forgotten by the rest of society, reside in tunnels below the city. The peoples of the world in Deus Ex are threatened by the Gray Death, a highly lethal virus produced by the Versalife Corporation, which also holds as its intellectual property the vaccine Ambrosia designed as an antidote to the virus. Resistance against the depredations of Versalife come by means of the “terrorist” National Secessionist Force (NSF), which at the opening of the game has taken control of a number of Ambrosia vials so as to distribute them to “the people.” As is to be expected from the State, JC Denton is ordered by UNATCO to recover the expropriated Ambrosia, in the process killing or rendering-unconscious a great number of NSF operatives (players can choose to employ non-lethal tactics against those who would oppose JC’s actions). While searching for the Ambrosia containers, JC learns that his brother Paul has in fact been aiding the NSF for some time, following his discovery that the Gray Death virus was indeed developed consciously by humans for repressive-genocidal purposes. Paul’s defection to the NSF sets in motion a frantic man-hunt by UNATCO, during which Paul suggests to JC that he “join the resistance” by sending a distress signal to his French counterparts from the radical group Silhouette.

Heeding Paul’s recommendations, JC sends word to Silhouette, and subsequently joins his brother as a wanted man; he is eventually captured and taken to a UNATCO prison, following the activation of a 24-hour “kill-switch” introduced into his body by his developers. JC is aided in his escape by the rebellious artificial intelligence construct known as Daedalus, a being originally developed to process data for constituted power, and comes to meet computer specialist Tracer Tong in Hong Kong, who deactivates his kill-switch. Hong Kong, of course, is the site of a major investigative center maintained by Versalife; JC breaks into this facility, there to witness the macabre experiments and research carried out by scientists working for the corporation: the development of ‘transgenic’ beings, testing on humans, and so on. JC is guided by Daedalus and Tong to the location of the Universal Constructor in the Versalife building that is used for the production of the Gray Death virus and, in a Hegelian reversal, destroys it.

JC’s resistance activities against Versalife, denounced by UNATCO as terrorism, take him to Paris, where he meets members of Silhouette, a revolutionary association made up of “intellectuals, artists, and labor organizers” who have for some time been emitting subversive communiques to the public via their so-called Ministry for True Lies—an amalgam of Orwell and Situationism. By the time JC reaches them they have resorted to hiding in the catacombs of Paris, threatened as they are by their association with JC and the NSF during the events depicted in the game, which follow the blame placed on them for the bombing of the Statue of Liberty of New York—an act that is revealed as having been perpetrated by UNATCO precisely to justify their establishment and ill-fated expansion. During this time at least, Silhouette’s left-Hegelian motto of Tandis qu’ils dorment, nous gagnerons (“while they sleep, we prevail”) seems rather out of place, as do similarly optimistic accounts in the present day, barring the option of engaging in the revolutionary resolution at game’s end, as discussed below. Silhouette’s ties to the Illuminati, the purported group of super-wealthy elites that in fact appear in the world of Deus Ex, are quizzical, given the highly conflicting visions of the two groups: a ludic social anarchism against the restoration of “twentieth-century capitalism: a corporate elite protected by laws and tax-codes,” as Paul Denton has it. It may be that Silhouette believes it needs the Illuminati to succeed in the struggle against UNATCO and the monstrous totality it defends, but any victory in which such an elite group holds sway would surely be no victory at all; capitalists are not to be included in the multitude.1

The dreams of those who in the world of Deus Ex militantly oppose the existent—as well, indeed, as those who rage against it in the actual world—could perhaps be said to be embodied in one of the paths by which the game can be ended, when JC travels to California to liberate a formerly abandoned Air-Force base at which a group of dissident scientists have constructed an alternative Universal Constructor, one that could be used to mass-produce a cure to the Gray Death. After defeating the occupying force of robots and highly trained soldiers, JC proceeds to his place of birth, Area 51, to confront the owner of Versalife, Bob Page, who is attempting to merge his being with that of Helios, an artificial construct created through Page’s efforts to bind Daedalus to his nefarious successor, Icarus. Players are faced with the choice of killing Page and joining the Illuminati in their quest to “govern the world”; merging with Helios; or, as recommended by Tracer Tong, inducing a reaction in the facility’s nuclear core that would destroy the world’s central electronic-communications hub, known as Aquinas, which is located at Area 51. This last option would, in Tong’s estimation, radically disrupt the centralization of power that follows from the ability to control and censor global communications, as allowed by prevailing technologies; Tong states that destroying Aquinas could bring about “government on a scale comprehensible to its citizens” and “genuine self-rule.” Humanity would be afforded the chance to “start again,” to develop “a new moral philosophy.”

This third option, which borders on being primitivist, is surprising for its radicality. Confronted with the profoundly horrible nature of the world as upheld by hegemonic power, players of Deus Ex are granted the option of exploding world-destructive inequality and hierarchy at a stroke. Such a perspective militates against that of social democracy and reformism generally vis-à-vis the world’s political predicament, whether that of Deus Ex or of the present world; surely only revolution can be considered the deus ex machina by which exit and survival are assured.

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1Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (2000) and Multitude (2005)

One Response to “Is Deus Ex anarchist?”

  1. Sepehr Says:

    Quick note to moderator: please, ignore the other 2 messages I sent because I made mistakes in them. Just post this one, please. Thank you.

    I feel as if we are one of the few people that saw the anarchist message in this game. Most people just loved the well-designed gameplay and the cyberpunk aesthetics without understanding the sophisticated social commentary underlying the game’s narrative. It’s obvious the original Deus Ex alluded to the fact that all organizations eventually become corrupt due to the greed of certain individuals, and if the player spends enough time reading the comps and other files lying around in the game world, it is evident that the creators viewed bureaucracy, taxes, and so forth all as forms of social engineering. This scene of the game sort of encapsulates the anarchist message:

    In other words, nothing is what it seems in this game, but at the same time, it is. It may seem contradictory what I said, but not if viewed in two lens:

    1. The first lens is the shifting narrative in which the conspiracy always reveals that what you think is happening isn’t what’s really happening. Nothing is what it seems. Organizations (like UNATCO) are not working in the way you think you are, and the game’s narrative unveils this as the player progresses.

    2. Every organization, group, etc. is working for their own self-benefit and greed, generally at the expense of others, and what their actual goal is, is quite difficult to decipher by the individual. This is quite evident at the very beginning of the game, which is why I say “it is what it seems”. Once you understand what is actually going on at the end (i.e., Bob Page’s ultimate goal as forming the foundation for MJ12 and so forth), if you replay the game, it is quite funny seeing how very few people care about the true reasons or motives for their orders, given from the higher-ups. Scientists in Versalife, for example, obviously don’t know what their work will be used towards, and heck, not even the ones in Area 51 understand what their research are being used on. A lot of them seem amoral, but it is obvious very few people in this game are informed of all events (e.g., we know Walter Simmons and Bob Page are – but who else?). To further reinforce my point, do you think Manderly really knew MJ12′s true purpose? He obviously did not… We also see hints of Illuminati, which opposes MJ12, as being corrupt in the same way, as hinted in the Lucius DeBeers sidequest.

    This brings me to my last point: The reason why Helios saw JC Denton as special is because he was the only one who had the courage and honesty to face the truth, which is something very few people have nowadays. In the beginning we seem him arguing for democracy, but we see him slowly become more anarchist in his leaning because he sees capitalistic democratic societies as encouraging misinformation and fear in order to control the masses.

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