The last couple of years have seen once cutting-edge franchises lose their way in the current-gen climate. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain dropped in 2015 and delivered smooth gameplay that was marred by an incomplete storyline, tacky micro-transactions and perhaps the messiest of beefs in video game history between series mastermind Hideo Kojima and Konami.
The following year, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was released following half a decade of development and one hell of an advertising campaign. From the get go, Eidos Montréal’s attempts at social commentary were a little too on the nose.
Like MGSV, Mankind Divided delivered a conclusion without resolve. In both cases, media outlets blamed the publishers (Konami and Square-Enix), hinting at cut content and a push towards micro-transactions resulting in unfinished products. Both Metal Gear and Deus Ex fans began to stir, calling out the publishers as shills.
I’m more than happy to let Konami explain their motivations, and don’t have a dog in the fight to comment on Square-Enix. However, the events raise interesting questions about the reactive interaction between mainstream media (video game journalism) and social media (the fanbases).
The way mainstream media can plant the seed for division sits at the heart of Mankind Divided’s social critique, and becomes even more relevant given our current political landscape.
Mankind Divided picks-up following a politically engineered catastrophe aimed at marginalising augmented humans: a signal was sent to the chip inside the heads of the augmented, sending them into a murderous frenzy, many awakening shortly afterwards to the horrors they had committed. The forces behind the incident were many, but by the time of Mankind Divided, it is known simply as the “Aug Incident” – an oversimplification that dehumanises “augs”.
This is the world the player enters into: a world divided on the position of augs in society. Individuals get their news from Picus, a network fronted by the AI Eliza Cassan and controlled by literally the Illuminati. The only alternative news outlet is a bunch of guerrilla journalists who operate in the sewers.
As the player knows by now, however, the “tragic events” Eliza blames on augmented communities are, themselves, orchestrated by The Illuminati for the sole purpose of Eliza reporting on them to shift popular opinion.
Walking the streets of Prague, non-augmented humans accuse you and your kind of stealing their homes and murdering innocents. Meanwhile, augmented are beaten and arrested by police, with the player generally catching only the tail end of what happened, left to wonder the legitimacy of the arrests.
You’re routinely stopped in the street, forced to endure short cutscenes in which police bark at you for your “papers”, staring in disbelief or anger at your freedom of passage (a luxury that earns you the ire of less-privileged augs).
And even though you start off with the best of intentions, understanding the fear and frustration that non-augmented are feeling towards you, those intentions soon turn sour. There’s only so many times you can turn a corner to see a seemingly innocent aug getting their arse kicked by a heavily armoured cop. There’s only so many times you’ll sit through a cutscene of someone calling you an arsehole for not breaking the law.
Through all of this, Mankind Divided gives you a choice: do you let the augs get arrested, or do you intervene? Do you subtly sneak into police territory, extract the information you need and get out, or do you cram a nano-blade into the ribcage of the first cop you see?
As you are poked and prodded by the forces around you, the game’s narrative makes you wonder if giving into your anger is really the right way to go. No matter which side you fall on, the person you’re beating has been manipulated into hating you, and you’ve been manipulated into hating them.
There’s no justification for the brutality enforced by police officers on augmented citizens, nor for the terrorist attacks augs are committing. The game demonstrates what happens when people feel marginalised, disenfranchised and threatened: they fight back. They turn their anger to the person standing next to them. And that person follows suite.
Mankind Divided wears its social commentary on its sleeve, to the point that it loses effect. But one layer deeper and the game isn’t about the marginalisation of a single group. It’s about what happens to individuals when their fears are exploited, and that those doing the exploiting probably don’t have the best intentions at heart.