Now that the Matrix franchise has collapsed under its own hype and mystical mumbo-jumbo, it’s refreshing to see a well-executed cyberpunk tale in what is perhaps its ideal medium: the videogame. Because it’s not just about the style — the leather overcoats and the sunglasses — that shit was embarrassing in the ’80s when it was still edgy. It’s about the hard business of getting by in a deeply fucked-up world. Sometimes you have to install implants that allow you to derive energy from corpses for those heavy-combat days. Sometimes you have to spend your last creds to get your sniper rifles modified so that assassination goes off without a hitch. All part of a day’s work for a corporate rent-a-cop in the year 2030.
Deus Ex 2: Invisible War (Eidos Interactive, 2003) begins with you barely escaping a terrorist attack on a future Chicago, a nanotech attack that obliterates the city at a subatomic level. Your family dead, you continue your training until attacks on your new location in Upper Seattle cause you to discover that the biological modifications you’ve been getting aren’t exactly regulation issue, and you’re in the middle of a global intrigue involving everyone from the Grays to the Illuminati.
The game takes risks. Destroying Chicago, for instance. As a science-fiction writer myself, I find that level of commitment admirable. It also risks unpopular timeliness by calling the world government agency the WTO. The WTO is at odds with the religious Order, which denounces consumerism in favour of a more balanced life. But while all of these have pretty obvious analogues to our culture, there’s a fair amount of ambiguity as to who’re the villains and who’re the heroes.
My favourite part in its predecessor, Deus Ex, was when your character decided that he’d been working for the bad guys, and defected to the other side: all the soldiers that had given you backup through the game started firing on you as soon as you were in range. They’ve taken it a step further in the sequel, where leaders of both warring factions entice you with rewards for doing their missions. At one point I had to decide between killing the weapon-making scientist for the Order or stealing the weapon and turning it over to the WTO. They’re not Good or Evil choices, they’re complex and tactical.
But in exchange for being complicit with their machinations, you get some pretty cool gadgets. Gadgets that allow you to hack into security terminals and open doors. Gadgets like the spiderbomb that self-assembles into a robot (wonderfully reminiscent of the ones from that Tom Selleck flick, Runaway) and attacks your enemies. Or a cloak-generator that allows you to slip by unseen.
And about the stealth: this game apparently can be played through without killing anyone. By sneaking, hacking and bribing your way around the environments you can avoid conflict. But, quite naturally, sticking to your moral guns — I mean, precepts — is difficult. For instance, when you get cornered by a bunch of men in Cairo who complain about the fact that you’re a tourist who doesn’t have to breathe the tainted air and how they can’t afford masks for their children. When it turns ugly, do you give them money that you might need later or do you gun them down?
You can even choose who you are, to a certain extent — you can choose to be male or female and a variety of skin shades — and even how you play the game. The interface allows for the immediate cycling through of weapons if you want the twitch experience, or you can stop the action, leisurely cycle through your range of options and choose just how you’d like to evade that gigantic bot bearing down on you: more of an RPG approach with the feeling of a chess game.
Your character goes through the game unsure of allegiances, questioning everything. Another character you run into, on the other hand, seems cocky. But when you meet him in Cairo he’s got a dodgy gig working for the Omar, the reviled insectile cyborg arms merchants. He explains that he wants to be in corporate security but the market’s too shaky now, and plus with the Omar he can get biomods that will increase his value to the business sector in the future. It comes off with the kind of awkwardness and half-truth that “What have you been up to since university?” might inspire in 2004.
While there are plenty of the funny jabs you’d expect from dystopian SF, I laughed out loud at an exchange that went a little deeper. NG Resonance, the big pop star of the day, has set up holo consoles for her fans to interact with AI versions of herself. Many of the exchanges were satirically vapid, but one went like this:
Me: I like your music.
NG Resonance: I think you’re lying.
Me: Hey, I’m a fan — you’re not supposed to argue.
NG: I’m supposed to make you like me — you like to argue.
It predicts a time when people will seek out complicated amusements, which on some levels is a comment on the game itself: it doesn’t give you the mindless entertainment that you perhaps expected, but you end up liking it anyway.