Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Social Satire of Deus Ex: Human Revolution: The Missing Link

Warning - this portion of the review will contain spoilers for "The Missing Link" DLC of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

    Mercenaries, extraordinary rendition, and secret prisons. Sounds like pages ripped from the headlines, doesn't it? Well, at least, circa 2008.

    Part of the problem with being timely in video games is that by the time a game reaches the shelves, the topics raised will seem like old hat. I think the subjects invoked by Deus Ex: Human Revolution DLC The Missing Link are still relevant and should not be dismissed. These subjects included issues of terrorism, detainment, Habius corpus, and other things you normally wouldn't find in your average console game.

    Deus Ex: Human Revolution, itself, included large numbers of references to the privatization of the military. This is a controversial subject in our own world and one when I break from my usual limousine liberal ways to say I actually support. I believe there's substantial numbers of jobs which can be ethically done by mercenaries and if people want to make their living as soldiers of fortune, it's their own business.

    The problem, of course, is supervision. In real life, non-privatized militaries are supervised by their governments. England and the United States, for example, have centuries of legal precedent for how to deal with misbehaving soldiers. Mercenaries, by contrast, have significantly more gray area in how they're to be treated under international law. Furthermore, since at least the Thirty Years War, mercs have had a reputation as atrocity-prone extremists.

    In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the corporation known as Belltower Inc was created as a moral alternative to the previous unethical private military corporations (PMCs) of the setting. Given Belltower serves as the chief source of mooks in the game, it's fairly obvious this didn't work out too well.

    The Missing Link doesn't forget Belltower's roots with its main NPC, Lieutenant Commander Keitner, being horrified by the actions of her fellows. Given she is a leading force in Belltower, it is implied the corruption of the group has more to do with its extra-legal backers than it does any inherent evil in being a mercenary. Indeed, the actions of Belltower in Deus Ex: Human Revolution are not the doings of a rogue military unit.

    Belltower engages in massacres of civilians, kidnapping, torture and worse but all of this is authorized by the governments which employ them. A major revelation of the first half of the game is that FEMA is being used to build camps where dissidents can 'disappear'. One needs to look no further than the CIA's own real-life prisons in Romania and other countries to know this is not too far removed from reality.

    Belltower, far from being the instigator of atrocity, is just following the orders of its employers. While it is still a partner in the terrible actions it perpetrates, the real cause lies with the people paying them to do it. As mentioned in the The Missing Link, Belltower is only a security company, look to the people who employ them to find the real villains.

    In short, The Missing Link maintains the not-unreasonable position that the behavior of mercenaries can and should be dictated by its employers. Keitner and her rival, Burke, represent two extremes of real-life militaries. Burke, despite being the very model of a rogue military officer, is mostly operating within the authority he's been given by the Illuminati. While the Illuminati, itself, is an extra-legal organization within the setting - it is clearly operating within the accepted bounds of the governments it controls.

    This brings us to the issue of extraordinary rendition. In today's global society, let alone Deus Ex: Human Revolution's, people can hop from one country to the next without difficulty. This makes issues of criminal pursuit and prosecution difficult. The method used by the second Bush administration to deal with this was to target individuals deemed to be threats and capture/eliminate them. Fair enough. As proven with Osama Bin Ladin's termination in Pakistan and Adolf Eichman's capture by Israeli agents, there's some argument to this approach.

    Heck, it would be hypocritical not to point out that the hero of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is engaging in his own personal crusade to rescue kidnapped US citizen, Megan Reed. We could be here all day listing the various crimes Adam commits in his pursuit of justice.

    The difference, of course, is what happens when a subject isn't guilty. The Missing Link's prison for Belltower detainees is filled with hundreds of innocent women kidnapped for the Hyron Project. In a nice subversion of everything you know about video game villains, it's obvious that the Belltower employees have no idea that the people they're kidnapping aren't terrorists. Bluntly, the mercs are told they're criminals and have no reason to believe they're not. It puts an interesting spin on the deaths of any Belltower operatives you may been responsible before finding this out.

    Audiences familiar with Belltower's treatment of the female prisoners may argue that they go beyond what is professional treatment for them (if I may dance around the issue). I think that just highlights an all-too real problem. In plenty of societies, when men are put in positions of authority over women they consider inferior, the results aren't pretty.

    While the characters of Commander Keitner and Doctor Kavanagh have moral reasons to act the way they do, the treatment of female prisoners undoubtedly played a role in their defection. Let's face it, it can't exactly be a comfortable place for them to work.

    In short, Belltower's prison is a place rife with potential for abuse. You have prisoners who have no way of proving their innocence, people who consider them scum irregardless of their guilt or innocence, and no way for them to serve their sentence or atone for any crimes they may have committed. In short, arrest by Belltower transports a person to a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a place you may or may not be eventually used for medical experiments. It's pretty much a fate worse than death.

    Adding further moral ambiguity to the story is the presence of the terrorist organization, the Juggernaut Collective. One of the things I always liked about the original Deus Ex was the moral ambiguity. While Bob Page was unambiguously evil, your allies were decidedly less than heroic. The New Sons of Freedom, for example, was a collection of paranoid right-wing nutjobs who were probably hording guns in a bomb shelter before the game started.

    In this case, the Juggernaut Collective and their leader Janus wants to recruit Adam for their organization, but are very clearly the sorts of terrorists Belltower is supposed to be fighting. Only the fact they're helping you against your current enemies makes them the kind of people Adam wouldn't want to take down. Certainly, it was only gratitude towards Quinn that prevented me from shooting him in the head. Like in real-world politics, morality can get very gray when the bad guys want to team up with you.

    Overall, The Missing Link is a very socially conscientious  work that contains many interesting ideas about real world political questions and ideas. If video games wrote more material like this more often, the medium would be much better respected.

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