Deus Ex: Reflecting on Meaning

One thing I’ve been mulling over as I start this game again: how historical and political context has changed the the experience. That’s been the case from almost the beginning, mind you: this is a game released in the year 2000, and the first mission involves a terrorist attack on New York City. A previous attack knocked the head off the Statue of Liberty in a fit of heavy-handed symbolism. This is how we imagined a terrorist attack that destroys a major New York landmark happening a year before it happened. No coincidences, really: the fiction and the reality were both planned out by people from more or less the same culture, and the differences between the scenarios mostly reflect differences in practical constraints.

But that was two decades ago. Today, we have another major world event kind of reflecting a plot point in the game: the plague. In the world of Deus Ex, there’s a deadly contagion that I think was secretly engineered by the secret bad guys — I don’t think I’ve seen definite confirmation of that, but even if they didn’t make the thing, they’re definitely taking advantage of it to extend their control. The intro cutscene shows them talking about using their stranglehold over vaccines to blackmail government officials. Now, that’s pretty definitely not what’s going on with COVID-19. But the disquieting thing is that there are people who seem to genuinely believe conspiracy theories of the sort presented here. Do we really need stories that encourage this line of thought?

And that’s the crux of it, really. Part of the premise of Deus Ex is that all the old conspiracy theories are real. That hits differently in a post-Qanon world. There are people who believe this nonsense and, amazingly, they currently pose a non-ignorable threat to democracy in America. If a game with a similar premise were released today, I’d assume it’s right-wing. What are the actual politics of Deus Ex? Can I tell? I’ll probably be returning to this.


2 Comments so far

  1. Arthegall on 24 Jan 2023

    I’ve had similar thoughts. The pandemic shed new light on many old plague stories, from Deus Ex to 12 Monkeys to Outbreak.

    What’s been hitting me even more strongly, however, is how advances in AI–particularly ChatGPT–put the lie to almost all previous sci-fi. In the Star Wars universe, droids exist, but human brains are still the most important ones, and basic AI functions like broad spectrum facial recognition are simply absent, even in the most recent material like Andor.

    Apparently, AI that processes and creates natural human language better than almost all humans is one of the easiest futurist achievements. And we never saw it coming.

  2. Arthegall on 25 Jan 2023

    I’ve been mulling over your question about the usefulness of conspiracy theory stories in a post-Qanon world since yesterday. While this particular story’s chosen matter of conspiracy (a pandemic vaccine) uncomfortably aligns with conspiracy theories around COVID-19, and while I certainly agree that unhinged conspiracy theories are exerting seriously detrimental influence on our public discourse and democracy, I actually think in some ways we may be too blind to conspiracies rather than the reverse.

    I’ve never been a conspiracy guy, but three stories in the last several years have started to shift my thinking a little bit.

    1. Epstein. I simply find it hard to believe that he killed himself. That he was murdered and that the media subsequently yawned the story away suggests ominous and shadowy realities to me.

    2. Dark Waters. DuPont’s coverups and malfeasance around PFOA I think reflect the existence of many such corporate-led conspiracies that lobby government officials and corrupt the legal process for corporate gain. QAnon’s deep state may not be real, but there is certainly a lot of “deep corporate” going on that influences the state in illicit ways.

    3. Dopesick. Basically the previous but with Purdue Pharma and OxyContin.

    So in sum, while I agree the plot of Deus Ex does seem to echo some right-wing conspiracies around the pandemic, I don’t think the issue is conspiracy theories per se, I think it’s just a coincidental alignment of specific plot points. If the subject of the conspiracy had been a sinister corporate entity covering up a harmful product with a campaign of violence and illicit money, you might not feel the same way?

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