“The Future History of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided,” by Reid McCarter

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Jan T. Gross’ essential, controversial, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, is preoccupied with a broad, difficult, and uncomfortable question: why would a victimized people further harm another, even more dramatically devastated population? Gross, who has written extensively on post-war anti-Semitism, focuses on Poland in his work, but his effort to strip away the artifice and illusion that masks animalistic prejudice is universal. In the horrors he examines, the reader is reminded of other, similarly unthinkable atrocities—the circuitous, fraternal terror of the Yugoslav Wars and Rwandan Genocide—and the everyday brutality of the Syrian refugee crisis, police killings of Black Americans, and international LGBT-directed hate crime. The evil of prejudice, examined closely, seems eternal.

Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is set in 2029, largely takes place in and around Prague, Czech Republic, and, despite a general lack of conviction or follow through, is a story of the past, present, and future of prejudice.

Though Mankind Divided is couched in the cartoon sci-fi of military cyborgs and secret Illuminati meetings, it’s also desperate to be taken seriously. Adam Jensen is an Interpol agent set on finding the culprit behind a string of terrorist attacks in a Czech Republic where robotically enhanced “Augmented” humans are increasingly mistrusted by their completely organic fellow citizens. Following the “Aug Incident” (the climax of prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution wherein the Augmented lost control of their bodies, violently attacking others after being hijacked by a global virus) the world has begun separating the two sides, repressing the Augmented and, in Prague, exiling them to a crowded ghetto called Golem City. Those left in the city proper are shown to be thoroughly disenfranchised—made to travel on separate subway cars, harassed at police checkpoints, and frequently depicted sleeping rough in the stoops of rundown buildings.

Mankind Divided’s plot mistakenly finds reasons to remove Jensen from the heart of this setting often. Tasked with infiltrating banks, the hideouts of various political factions, and other areas separate from the streets themselves, the player finds herself caught up in action set pieces too infrequently tied directly to the fascinating implications of the game’s futuristic Prague. Tangled up in hacking computers and knocking out guards, Mankind Divided trades the thematic potential inherent to its rich foundation for rote conspiracy-weaving.

At its best, though, the game remembers that its setting’s past has plenty to say about our present and future. The Czech Republic is the country of Kafka, Kundera, and Havel—of Dvořák and Mahler. It’s also a country, like several in Central Europe, whose character is deeply affected by an impermanence caused by shifting borders and religious, ethnic, and political tensions. (Kafka, a German-speaking Jew, produced a body of work that’s made his very name a synonym for personal dispossession, internalized alienation, and endless confusion.)

Most notably, for Mankind Divided’’s purposes, is Prague and the Czech Republic’s 20th century history. Only decades after Czechoslovaki’s establishment, Nazi Germany invaded, dividing and reconfiguring territory until it no longer existed as a nation. Prague’s Jewish population was soon subject to discriminatory laws—segregation in public spaces, business and residential seizures, the closure of synagogues. Near the end of 1941, they were forcibly relocated to Theresienstadt, hours outside the city. Theresienstadt was a blend of concentration camp and ghetto—a place of isolation, forced labour, and systematic murder. One of the site’s peculiarities was its use as a “model camp” by Nazi propagandists. Before the Second World War’s end, Red Cross observers were allowed guided access to a carefully manicured Theresienstadt, many of its occupants having already been sent to Polish extermination camps. A documentary film was shot within the premises, purporting to show the ideal life given to “resettled Jews” under the Third Reich.

In Mankind Divided, the Augmented of Prague are also segregated. (The Human Restoration Act under UN consideration throughout much of the game is meant to formalize the process.) They’re also being stopped on the same cobblestone streets for interrogation by a militarized police force and being relocated to the Golem City ghetto a few hours outside of Prague. These plot elements are not coincidental, and, once the game stretches its allegory to accommodate post-WWII history, they gain thematic vitality.

The oppression of Augmented characters in Mankind Divided functions primarily as a metaphor for 20th century European anti-Semitism because of the specific forms its segregation takes, but it attempts, too, to encapsulate other prejudices. Taken narrowly, the Aug Incident that sparked the game’s events justifies some response—a segment of society instantaneously transformed into unwitting killing machines is an actual threat. Because of this, Mankind Divided falls entirely flat when it’s historic references are most exacting. (See also its hollow evocation of the ongoing, vital Black Lives Matter movement and South African apartheid.) But, if the player is willing to stretch the game’s aesthetic markers beyond the exact historic meanings its Prague setting defines, it can be read as a more generalized metaphor for prejudice.

Arresting and interning all augmented people on the heels of extremist actions is a shaky rationale, but one that resonates in a West consistently unable to thoughtfully rally an appropriate response to terror attacks carried out by Muslim radicalist groups. The Augmented dominating manual labour markets calls to mind American and British immigration panics. These modern examples taken into account, Mankind Divided suggests a prejudicial through line, from 20th century genocide to current xenophobia. The setting enhances this, Prague being a city that physically reflects the tides of history—crowded medieval streets butted up against the impersonal slabs of Soviet apartment blocks and the glowing neon of modern nightclubs.

Following the path from specific historic reference to a broader thesis on the enduring nature of human prejudice allows the game’s narrative markers to become far wider. From this viewpoint, Golem City may call to mind not just Theresienstadt, but the Syrian refugee camps of the Mediterranean. The militarized police force patrolling Prague may resemble not only Nazi occupiers, but American police in towns like Ferguson. These become examples of cyclical history that, transplanted to what’s meant to be a depiction of our future, present the powerfully disturbing notion that past atrocities are only the beginning of current ones—that our darkest historic moments can never truly be set aside as belonging to different times and removed places.

Again, if Mankind Divided was willing to focus more fully on the street level of its sci-fi Prague, it would be a lot easier for this theme to come to the surface. But, its need to conform to action game convention—bigger stakes to justify constantly escalating drama; plot convolution for the sake of a longer run time—waters down its most promising aspects. The presence of a vast conspiracy guiding the game’s fictional prejudices—the inciting Aug Incident and Prague’s discriminatory laws are spearheaded by shadowy, behind the scenes forces—takes the bite out of its message, blurring what could have been poignant reflection on the irrationality of prejudice and fear with sinister overarching plans by mysterious forces. These are concessions that prioritize series tradition and formal expectations over narrative coherency and artistic power.

Still, Mankind Divided is difficult to dismiss wholesale. As muddled (and as quick to avert its gaze from serious examination) as the game is, its pessimism for the future of humanity is a reflection of our times that warrants examination. As a genre piece, it’s of the deeply cynical school, unable to imagine a sci-fi world where technological advancement has dampened humanity’s worst instincts. Instead, Mankind Divided specifically echoes many current dispiriting trends. The isolationist politics of Brexit and Trump resound in proposals for Augmented ghettos. A train station bombing, in its limited way, evokes the surprising brutality of the Nice and Orlando massacres. The declaration of a curfew, in late-game Prague, echoes crackdowns by overzealous police in response to protests and public displays.

If Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was willing to truly engage with these narrative elements—to make them explicit; to look its cultural references dead in the eye—it would be a more valuable document of its time. As it is, the player is burdened with far too much responsibility. The game drops some of the weightiest moments in recent history on its audience’s shoulders and, unwilling to perform the uncomfortable, essential task of artistic interpretation, leaves that work for others.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.