It’s eight in the morning, or thereabouts, which any self-respecting writer will tell you is a rotten, despicable, ungodly time to be awake.
I’m up because I’ve got Deus Ex: Human Revolution and I want to play it before I go to work. I am a lazy, sleepy man; videogames do not usually make me do this.
I’m in the first city-hub and I’ve talked my way into a police station, to find evidence in the morgue. I need the evidence because … a girl was killed … and everyone says she must have been caught in the propeller of a speedboat, but I know it was really a great white shark, secretly terrorising our beachfront community … and soon I’ll have to ram a gas canister into its mouth and shoot it from the mast of my sinking boat.
No, that’s Jaws, isn’t it? Okay, I’ve already forgotten why I’m finding evidence in the morgue. Human Revolution does not tell a good story. You wouldn’t want to watch it on film. But videogames aren’t films, and what Human Revolution does, elegantly, is let you live a good story.
I’ve gone in the front of the police station. I could have jumped a fence into the alley next to the station and climbed the fire escape ladder and snuck in, except I didn’t take the jumping augmentation, so that was out. I could have navigated the sewers, shot or snuck past some thugs, then hacked the basement door into the station, deactivating the alarm systems on the way. Except my hacking skill is low, and besides, I hate the sewers, so screw that. I could have just unholstered my upgraded combat rifle and shot my way in, but that seemed a little gauche for a man of my unfettered sophistication.
So I talked my way in. The officer on the front desk was an old buddy, racked with guilt over a case that went sour and led to a kid getting killed, and with my knack for canny dialogue choices, combined with a little pheromone augmentation, I was able to alleviate his grief and persuade him to let me through.
Now I’m crawling through air vents into the first floor offices and hacking into computers and reading everyone’s emails. I’m a sneaky, seductive snooper. I’m ace!
So ace, in fact, that I forget about that whole “outside world” thing, and end up late for work, and receive the Disapproving Look from my boss. I know the Disapproving Look well — sometimes I feel it is my only friend — but, again, it is a long time since its cause was a videogame.
My mammoth bar shift sludges by in a slow-motion blur of scraped plates, squawking customers and abject sadness. Then I come home and turn Human Revolution back on. I eat in front of the screen and play past an indecent hour right round to a decent hour. What I mean is I play until morning. Once again: a game hasn’t made me do this in ages.
Here’s one thing I do in that time: I play a parallel universe.
In the police station I find a room marked “Armory”. It’s off-limits, protected by a guard and a security camera and a locked door. I’m playing as a good guy and the cops are my friends (I’m spying on their emails and stealing credits from their drawers, but hey, that’s what friends are for) … but even so, this armo(u)ry is enticing me.
I quick save in the corridor outside, then go for it. I sidle up against the wall and creep past the camera’s dead zone. I pull out my tranquiliser rifle and take aim at the back of the guard’s head. The camera is facing the corridor, I have a few seconds to take down the guard, rush in and drag his unconscious body out of view, before the camera arcs back round. Then it’s a simple matter of hacking the computer with the code I picked up in one of the offices, and unlocking the armo(u)ry door to get at the riches within.
Except — shit — I miss with my first dart. The guard shouts. I reload, hit, and he’s down. But too late — I’ve stumbled back in panic, right into view of the camera. It turns red, an alarm sounds, and I hear all the cops in the world rushing to my position.
I pile boxes in front of the door to the corridor, dash to the computer, shit, fumble the password … backspace, retype … and I’m in. Camera 1: shutdown. Camera 2: shutdown. Armoury door: open.
Red triangles scuttling across my radar. Cops. Enemies now. Inside the armoury I find some kind of experimental weapon — just time pick it up, equip, load ammo — and the barricade is knocked away and the first wave of cops rushes in.
I swing the weapon’s sights up and fire. A crackling ball of electricity pulses from the barrel, hits the middle cop in the chest. All three men fly backwards, thud into wall, limp bodies fall to floor.
Hell of a thing.
I grab a shotgun from the locker, take ammo from the sprawled bodies. More cops arrive. I charge them, blow one away, blast other right over balcony down into main office. Swap to my combat rifle. Take cover behind balcony and aim down into office. Headshot. Chest-shot. Headshot. Unload rest of clip into guy ducked behind desk. Reload. Barambarambaram. Bullets flying. Health low. Out of ammo. Switch to pulse gun — smash two men across room. One somehow stands back up — I switch to my pistol and take him out.
Falls quiet. I turn — two cops coming up stairs. Blam-blam-blam. More in side offices. Blam-blam. Three from corridor into main office. Blamblamblamblam.
Really quiet now. I creep down and into the main room. Bodies everywhere. Collect ammo.
Then I see the kid. A punk, a thug, just some dude, slumped back in a chair next to a desk. Arrested and halfway through processing? Or an informant, brought in under false pretenses? Or a witness? A victim? Whatever. He’s dead.
I’ve killed him. The cops were red triangles and they were shooting at me so I shot back. How animals work. How videogames work.
But this kid was just sat there, doing whatever, and he got caught in the crossfire and now he’s dead. I’ve killed him.
He didn’t even have time to stand up.
I stay there a long while, looking at him. Then I press Escape and Load and Load Last Quicksave, and I’m back in the corridor to the armoury, and none of the last twenty minutes has happened.
I turn back, let the armoury go, and head downstairs. Cops chatting, laughing, smiling at me. In the main room I walk past the punk in the chair. “You my lawyer? You don’t look like a lawyer,” he says. He’s got attitude, sounds like a dick. But he’s alive.
And yet … I can still see him, slumped, lifeless. And I get this weird sensation, as if that parallel existence is still going on somewhere. Shudder down my spine. I feel, momentarily — and it’s gone before it even registers — like I’ve just touched some great truth, been close to the movement of the universe, seen the hidden world that exists behind our world.
And I think that’s pretty cool — that a game can do that. I really do.
I’ve been struggling with the concept of reviews recently. I hate reviews, they bore the utter hell out of me. It’s not the fault of the writers — many of whom humble me with their talent. It’s the form itself — the idea that a good review must list all features of a game, appraise the implementation, give a mark out of ten.
Writers shouldn’t list. Writers should use combinations of scratches on a page, or a screen, to uncover truth that alludes the common eye. As simple, and as gloriously unattainable, as that.
Here’s why reviews bore me, why I never read to the end of them, why this thing deep inside me flares with anger at them: videogames are alive; reviews assume them to be dead.
A microwave oven is dead. It is a utensil, a functional object designed to make our lives easier. Videogames — and movies and books and paintings and songs — have never been about making life easier. They are the very reason we live.
Games are raw, fleshy things, brought to life when they are played. Not corpses to be dissected on cold slabs.
I could tell you about Human Revolution’s inventory system. I could bullet-point the transhumanist plot, give you the lowdown on protagonist Adam Jensen, comment on how the game is set in Blade Runner, but not as good.
I don’t feel the need to do any of that though. You’ll figure that out if you play the game, and explaining it all first lessens the mystery, cheapens our medium, sends out the message that games aren’t magical pieces of art, but fucking toasters or something.
(Incidentally, neither will I refer to Human Revolution as DXHR, like the rest of the gaming press does. That type of shorthand is so esoteric and inscrutable, so off-putting to outside audiences. CoD, GoW, BFBC2 — writers are supposed to love words, not codes.)
Anyway. Here’s what I want to tell you about Human Revolution:
It is a sequel — but from an entirely different team — to one of the most highly regarded PC games of all time. The original Deus Ex had that Velvet Underground thing going on — little mainstream appeal, but influential to people who really knew games. Its freeform structure, emphasising player choice (short version: kill people or talk to them or sneak past), inspired many of the game designers working today. The entire industry, in fact, is still learning from the innovations Deus Ex (along with bedfellows Thief and System Shock) made over a decade ago.
Human Revolution isn’t as fresh or as exciting as the first Deus Ex, but it’s more polished, more approachable. As a Guns & Conversation game I prefer it to Fallout 3 and Mass Effect. As a role-playing game I believe in my role more than in The Witcher 2 or Dragon Age.
And that polish — I think that matters. Critics often lament that videogame architects rarely use their medium to design towering monuments to the human spirit. Where are our Angkor Wats? Our Hagia Sophias? Our Parthenons?
Except I’d argue we have more prosaic worries for the moment. The Taj Mahal can wait — right now we’re struggling to even get buildings with windows at the right height to see out of, with doors that don’t scrape across skirting boards, with walls sufficiently insulated. We’re still, to be honest, wrestling with what a building is, and what it should do.
Human Revolution makes strides in the right direction. There are occasional missteps — the equivalent of the odd plug socket placed awkwardly, say — but by and large this is a confident construction, enjoyable to move through, entertaining to live with.
It may not thrust its delicate minuets as far into the sky as the original Deus Ex did, its buttresses may be less ornate — but at the subterranean level, the foundations are pleasingly solid.
As for my role in recommending the purchase … I’m not convinced that should be my role at all. There is no objectivity. I don’t know you, or your tastes. Maybe you hate games that give you freedom and ask you to take responsibility for your actions. Maybe a plane will drop out of the sky and squash you on your way to the game shop, and I’ll have caused your death. Maybe you live underwater and have no thumbs.
Who knows? What I do know is that I’ve been feeling shit recently, deep down glum, drowning in self loathing — probably because I lie awake half the night worrying about dumb things like whether the game review is a valid form of expression — and in the depths of my despair Human Revolution has been a life raft to carry me through.
I’ve lost myself in it, forgotten my woes and really enjoyed sneaking and talking and shooting and exploring. For all the highfalutin intellectual discourse within the gaming press, it’s this that I play games for. I want to lose myself. I want to stop worrying about life and just live life — even if it’s the simulated life of a biomechanically-augmented security specialist embroiled in a globe-spanning conspiracy.
I can’t speak for any of you, I wouldn’t want to be that presumptuous — but for me, just for me, at this moment in time, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is my game of the year.
I reckon you should play it.