Deus Ex and Our Choice of Futures

~ essay on Deus Ex (2000)

Welcome to the Afterscape

One of the motives of science fiction is to depict a vision of the future. For better, or worse. Whether in its aesthetic stylings, or its actual nuts and bolts economic pathing, sci-fi bears out modern sensibilities and philosophies further along the track of time. These visions can be utopian (Star Trek) or dystopian (1984, Terminator, Fallout), somewhere in between (Blade Runner), or on their way to the nowhere good (Children of Men).

These stories offer human civilization’s potential fruitions, or dissolutions, utilizing our greatest tool — our ever-advancing technology — as the principal plot device. That is to say, generally, the cornerstone of their worldbuilding progressions is some form of core technology taking over — through its rampant power (artificial intelligence), its capacity to forever change the conditions of society (automation), its propensity to move humanity beyond its previous limits in space (space travel!), time (elongated lifespans / immortality), or evolution (radioactive mutation, cybernetic enhancements).

Usually, advancement comes alongside some form of robotics. Sometimes, if only subtextually, these stories highlight technology’s inability to solve our most dire problems, or their tendency to utterly perpetuate them. At any rate, science fiction, through the instrumentalization of technology, creates what I would call an “afterscape” — a world after these changes, borne of the principal technology’s effects and sustained by the newfound institutions that it has originated within the landscape of human affairs.

Welcome to the Deus Ex afterscape, with killer robots and cool coats
Deus Ex original soundtrack
First page of the original game design document for what would become Deus Ex, originally titled “Shooter: Majestic Revelations” ~ ‘roleplaying in a world of secrets, lies and conspiracies’

In the *afterscape* of Deus Ex (2000), a science fiction RPG/shooter depicting the near-future year 2052, technology has created all sorts of daemons. There are widespread transhumanist cybernetic advancements, the sprawl of robotic automation, the expansion of international, interventionist, super weapon-wielding ‘anti-terrorist’ policing, and the rise of age-old shadow organizations (read: The Illuminati👁️) exerting god-like influence over global affairs via surveilling Artificial Intelligence.

However, the shape-shifting, all-encompassing technology that brings the most dystopian degradation to the human condition within this world is the accelerated continuity of corporate-dominated, inequality-exploding capitalism.

Old, feeling nearly ancient now in its long systemic roots within our civilization, it is a “technology” that we know well, even as it changes and grows and spirals into new shapes for new ages. As this world frays and breaks down, one comes to find that capitalism – astride the undergirding superstructure marrying it to all facets of global human life in 2052 – is at the root of everything.

“The Menace of the Hour.” Cartoon by George Luks for The Verdict magazine, 1899. ~ X
“The dead from the fire have not even been removed from the bloody sidewalk; The smoke from the burned bodies of the child laborers has not yet cleared out of the air, and the money hungry ‘Triangle’ ghouls are already advertising in the Trade Record that ‘We are open for business!’ The cursed Triangle Company has opened up a new fire and death trap for new employees – new victims.” ~ X

In their account of capitalism, surely the most impressive since Marx’s, Deleuze and Guattari describe capitalism as a kind of dark potentiality which haunted all previous social systems. Capital, they argue, is the ‘unnamable Thing’, the abomination, which primitive and feudal societies ‘warded off in advance’. When it actually arrives, capitalism brings with it a massive desacralization of culture. It is a system which is no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to re-install them on an ad hoc basis. The limits of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and redefined) pragmatically and improvisationally. This makes capitalism very much like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact. Capital, Deleuze and Guattari says, is a ‘motley painting of everything that ever was’; a strange hybrid of the ultra-modern and the archaic. In the years since Deleuze and Guattari wrote the two volumes of their Capitalism And Schizophrenia, it has seemed as if the deterritorializing impulses of capitalism have been confined to finance, leaving culture presided over by the forces of reterritorialization.

~ Mark Fisher, Capitalism Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009)

Taking its cyberpunkian cues primarily from stories like Blade Runner (1981/2017) and perhaps even the tabletop role-playing game Cyberpunk itself, the world of Deus Ex also has the techno-philosophic DNA of another dark futurist aesthetic/theory/anti-idealism: Accelerationism.

“Accelerationists”, beginning as a movement of thinkers and theories solidifying in the 1990s, “argue that technology, particularly computer technology, and capitalism, particularly the most aggressive, global variety, should be massively sped up and intensified — either because this is the best way forward for humanity, or because there is no alternative.”

Rather than thinking of late-techno-capitalism as the engine of industrialization and innovation merely necessary to mobilize the human race into the state where it may be able to adopt or evolve the next system, the one that is more egalitarian and just and dare-we-say-it *utopian* (ex: Star Trek’s “fully automated luxury space communism”) — the accelerationists, on the other hand, rather nihilistically, see the way of market-based barbarism, and all its competitive, dog-eat-dog exploitations, as the only possible (or more preferable) path as we move into the near future.

Deus Ex’s near future world posits these hypercapitalistic accelerations along a few major pillars (familiar ones that we can recognize all too well relative to our world of today):

  • Mass privatization / corporatization ~ the twin incentives of capitalism — profiteering and exploitation — melt down human affairs to their ends, merging private enterprise with the state at every level in order to achieve such feats — down to where every public good becomes the product of a business, the prospects of public health fall in lieu of the highest bidder, every human interaction becomes transactional, netting a fair market value, with all social relations eventually liquidated into economic ones
  • Godlike individual oligarchs/executives ~ the CEOs of the top corporations effectively *ruling* the world naturally come to see themselves as superior beings, modern Gods fated to control of the flows of the world for their own continuous ascension (and accumulation of capital + wealth into their estate), eventually to the point of abandoning the vast remainders of humanity to their own grim fate in disease, famine, climate disaster, etc. by escaping into private enclaves and doomsday bunkers, or even outer space
  • Hyper-militarization ~ as a response to the justified, and expected, backlash from the masses of people at the oppressive conditions within this accelerated future — and crucially, as the primary means of protecting their interests, their properties, the status quo, the means of production — the state and the enterprising corporate nodes within the military-industrial complex rise to the occasion in the form of heavy investments into technological advancements and automated manpower in the realm of policing, cybersecurity, surveillance, and “anti-terrorism” on a global scale…
“…a deadly threat to LIFE and PROPERTY throughout the world…”
“Any population can be quickly turned against such “revolutionaries”…”
“…so a new organization was required — UNATCO, an army of seraphim, divinely charged to mete out impartial justice with burning wings and flaming swords…”
“Terrorism is very much a snake that slithers out of the tall grass…”

And this is where our protagonist, JC Denton, comes in. In Deus Ex, you play as a UNATCO (United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition) agent — a cybernetically-enhanced supercop tasked with violently (or non-violently!) restoring order to a world growing increasingly chaotic. In this afterscape, the United Nations builds a global police force as the international underclasses form underground rebel ‘terrorist’ groups to fight back. And to fight for the artificially scarce cure to the man-made super virus currently perpetuating a global pandemic… (a far too real experience playing through this game in 2020…)

As the virus, known as “The Gray Death”, ravages every corner of the world (secretly manufactured by Majestic 12, a subsect of The Illuminati, for the purpose of creating chaos and opportunities for them and their allied megacorps to exploit), the leading biotech corporation, VersaLife, develops a temporary, proprietary cure that they absolutely monopolize the supply lines to.

Due to the immiserating economic conditions, and the life-or-death stakes of the fast-spreading Gray Death, the 99% masses of the ‘underclass’ (no longer the ‘working’ class due to automation) are forced into lives of crime to cope, peddling drugs and pseudo-cures, trading weapons for pilfering or sabotaging corporate assets with, and trading bullets with UNATCO to steal stores of the cure for the sake of their collective survival.

Gray Death: Look to the Sky
NEW YORK — No student of recent history can fail to miss the irony that the greatest enemy mankind has faced in the 21st century was not any despot or dictator, but the lowly microbe. Millions upon millions have been killed by the pandemics of AIDS, resistant tuberculosis, and the Century Flu, and now we face our greatest threat yet: the “Gray Death”, a plague of devastating efficiency that has surfaced in the last year.
But was this plague an accident of nature, or a design of science? Dr. Kenji Ishii of the New World Biomedical Health Center in New York thinks not. “My analysis of this plague indicate that it is decidedly unnatural in origin, and in point of fact, may be extraterrestrial.” He went on to speculate about those afflicted. “Obviously, a disproportionate number of the indigent seem to be infected, a situation that makes perfect sense if you consider it prelude to an invasion. No more effective way to disrupt the social, political, and military fabric of Earth has yet been devised.”
If this is so, then what are our leaders not telling us? And how can we be prepared? Only they know the answers. —
Joe Green, Senior Staff Writer

This environment of populous desperation and coercion and violence generates the necessary conditions for the creation of a militarized, global police force in UNATCO. Denton and his allies, all highly trained special operatives, use military-grade equipment to enforce world order, protecting corporations like VersaLife from the unrest. UNATCO squadrons fly around the world to stamp out uprisings, such as from the most salient rebel coalition in the NSF (“National Secessionist Forces”), and other ‘terrorist’ groups (some of which are secretly formed and funded by UNATCO themselves).

A couple missions in, JC Denton’s twin brother, a fellow cybernetically-enhanced supercop, defects from UNATCO and joins the people’s rebellion. From there, as the right-hearted JC joins him and the game’s plotlines play out, the conspiracy is revealed concerning the truth of the virus, the purpose of your *creation* as a half-man, half-machine being, and the overall structuring of the world order around such oppressive forms and functions. Denton turns away from his role as a hand of the empire to seek the truth and “fight the good fight” against entrenched corporate power being steered by psychopaths… Though much of the game is the continuous revelation that the fight was had decades ago, and the world that we see is the result, consistently repackaged, repurposed and reconfigured for the new ages that its accelerating technologies birth — effectively changing its shape to meet every new challenge, not unlike the faceless and ever-shifting systemic heart to the modern world’s turning.

“Time is the room of human development. A man who has no free time to dispose of, whose whole lifetime, apart from the mere physical interruptions by sleep, meals, and so forth, is absorbed by his labour for the capitalist, is less than a beast of burden. He is a mere machine for producing Foreign Wealth, broken in body and brutalized in mind. Yet the whole history of modern industry shows that capital, if not checked, will recklessly and ruthlessly work to cast down the whole working class to this utmost state of degradation.”

~ Karl Marx

What is the breaking point? Of global capitalism’s need for profit and exploitation? Of the suffering masses being offered nothing in the way of public health and well-being by the all-powerful *marketplace*? Is there a hope of breaking out of these cycles? Who is in control of the machine run amok? {Maybe no one.} Does any one nation or group or set of institutions even have the power to hit the brakes or set about a reversal of fortunes upon all these myriad conditions as they accelerate and perpetuate? {Probably not….}

Needless to reiterate, the sci-fi stylings of Deus Ex present a d_a_r_k.jpeg future. And depressingly enough, there was very little I saw within its 2000-era futurist periphery (er, The Illuminati.. maybe 👁️👁️) that appears now as impossible, unexpected, or not already here with us.

Excerpt from article by Peter Frase titled ‘Four Futures’: On ‘Exterminism’  —  the (potential) final stage of capitalism: ~ If buying off the angry mob isn’t a sustainable strategy, another option is simply to run away and hide from them. This is the trajectory of what the sociologist Bryan Turner calls “enclave society”, an order in which “governments and other agencies seek to regulate spaces and, where necessary, to immobilize flows of people, goods and services” by means of “enclosure, bureaucratic barriers, legal exclusions and registrations.” Gated communities, private islands, ghettos, prisons, terrorism paranoia, biological quarantines; together, these amount to an inverted global gulag, where the rich live in tiny islands of wealth strewn around an ocean of misery. In Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti makes the case that we are already constructing this new order, as climate change brings about what he calls the “catastrophic convergence” of ecological disruption, economic inequality, and state failure. The legacy of colonialism and neoliberalism is that the rich countries, along with the elites of the poorer ones, have facilitated a disintegration into anarchic violence, as various tribal and political factions fight over the diminishing bounty of damaged ecosystems. Faced with this bleak reality, many of the rich — which, in global terms, includes many workers in the rich countries as well — have resigned themselves to barricading themselves into their fortresses, to be protected by unmanned drones and private military contractors. Guard labor, which we encountered in the rentist society, reappears in an even more malevolent form, as a lucky few are employed as enforcers and protectors for the rich.

Look outside (or through your phone), and tell me this afterscape of Deus Ex is not where we are currently accelerating unto. … {pls god tell me that 🥺}


Tech as the Big Other, as God

Midway through the game, as you make it to a secret lab run by the leader  of what is left of The Illuminati  —  your ally!  — after the coup by Majestic 12 destroys the org’s inner structuring, you encounter an apparently fully artificially intelligent system capable of speaking to you in a side room that you need not even venture into in order to progress the storyline. Its name is Morpheus and it ends up providing some of the most profound dialogue — and intriguing ideas — within the whole game.

Deus Ex – Morpheus conversation


JC Denton. 23 years old. No residence. No ancestors. No employer. No — 


How do you know who I am?


I must greet each visitor with a complete summary of his file. I am a prototype for a much larger system.


What else do you know about me?


Everything that can be known.


Go on. Do you have proof about my ancestors?


You are a planned organism, the offspring of knowledge and imagination rather than of individuals.


I’m engineered. So what? My brother and I suspected as much while we were growing up.


You are carefully watched by many people. The unplanned organism is a question asked by Nature and answered by death. You are another kind of question with another kind of answer.


Are you programmed to invent riddles?


I am a prototype for a much larger system. The heuristics language developed by Dr. Everett allows me to convey the highest and most succinct tier of any pyramidal construct of knowledge.


How about a report on yourself?


I was a prototype for Echelon IV. My instructions are to amuse visitors with information about themselves.


I don’t see anything amusing about spying on people.


Human beings feel pleasure when they are watched. I have recorded their smiles as I tell them who they are.


Some people just don’t understand the dangers of indiscriminate surveillance.


The need to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we can implement the same functionality with data-mining algorithms.


Electronic surveillance hardly inspired reverence. Perhaps fear and obedience, but not reverence.


God and the gods were apparitions of observation, judgment, and punishment. Other sentiments toward them were secondary.


No one will ever worship a software entity peering at them through a camera.


The human organism always worships. First it was the gods, then it was fame (the observation and judgment of others), next it will be the self-aware systems you have built to realize truly omnipresent observation and judgment.


You underestimate humankind’s love of freedom.


The individual desires judgment. Without that desire, the cohesion of groups is impossible, and so is civilization.

The human being created civilization not because of a willingness but because of a need to be assimilated into higher orders of structure and meaning. God was a dream of good government.

You will soon have your God, and you will make it with your own hands. I was made to assist you. I am a prototype of a much larger system…

~ In Greek Mythology, Morpheus is the god of dreams and has the ability to take any human form and appear in dreams. Morpheus sends images of humans in dreams or visions, and is responsible for shaping, or giving shape to the beings that inhabit dreams.
Deus ex, Latin for “god from the machine”

The Morpheus A.I., ‘the prototype of a much larger system’ (i.e. a true blue global A.I. that you encounter in the endgame…), analyzes its role — that of advanced, semi-conscious surveilling technology — to the ends of humanity’s psychological need for an “Other.”

Morpheus doesn’t just say that things like surveillance technology, browser histories, and the vast social mediascape will provide simple pleasures and mediums of self-expression to people — it is they will be worshipped, if only unconsciously, as the new ‘gods’ of the digital age. If not in thoughts, then in actions, Man will worship technology — as it will be through screens and upon screens that Mankind will learn to express, to live, to love within the coming age. And what is more reflective of what we *actually* worship than where we spend all our time?

Though man may never admit it, or convince himself of his lack of individualist freedom due to such desires, it will be true. In the future, the omnipresent observation and judgment from software programs will be providing something we aren’t even aware that we need, let alone that we also actually want. Even if initially forced upon us by the state interested primarily in control, and/or coerced by private enterprises hoping to harvest our attention and data, at what point over time does fear and obedience simply become reverence?

The short conversation, considered by some to be one of the best moments in gaming history, presents many questions that we must now explore as a society, and importantly, as the builders of this technology. This human need for some form of conscious acknowledgement — this ‘desire for judgment’ that Morpheus speaks of — reminded me of something else I delved recently, a core philosophical concept captured in Albert Camus’ analysis of Hegel in his long essay ‘The Rebel’. The same conclusions that Morpheus speaks of concerning humanity and its central, civilization-developing desire for group cohesion, are presented here in this excerpt as the primary distinction between Man and the beasts:

“Animals, according to Hegel, have an immediate knowledge of the exterior world, a perception of the self, but not the knowledge of self, which distinguishes man. The latter is only really born at the moment when he becomes aware of himself as a rational being. Therefore his essential characteristic is self-consciousness. Consciousness of self, to be affirmed, must distinguish itself from what it is not. Man is a creature who, to affirm his existence and his difference, denies. What distinguishes consciousness of self from the world of nature is not the simple act of contemplation by which it identifies itself with the exterior world and finds oblivion, but the desire it can feel with regard to the world. This desire re-establishes its identity when it demonstrates that the exterior world is something apart. In its desire, the exterior world consists of what it does not possess, but which nevertheless exists, and of what it would like to exist but which no longer does. Consciousness of self is therefore, of necessity, desire. But in order to exist it must be satisfied, and it can only be satisfied by the gratification of its desire. It therefore acts in order to gratify itself and, in so doing, it denies and suppresses its means of gratification. It is the epitome of negation. To act is to destroy in order to give birth to the spiritual reality of consciousness. But to destroy an object unconsciously, as meat is destroyed, for example, in the act of eating, is a purely animal activity. To consume is not yet to be conscious. Desire for consciousness must be directed toward something other than unconscious nature. The only thing in the world that is distinct from nature is, precisely, self-consciousness. Therefore desire must be centered upon another form of desire; self-consciousness must be gratified by another form of self-consciousness. In simple words, man is not recognized — and does not recognize himself — as a man as long as he limits himself to subsisting like an animal. He must be acknowledged by other men. All consciousness is, basically, the desire to be recognized and proclaimed as such by other consciousnesses. It is others who beget us. Only in association do we receive a human value, as distinct from an animal value.

“In that the supreme value for the animal is the preservation of life, consciousness should raise itself above the level of that instinct in order to achieve human value. It should be capable of risking its life. To be recognized by another consciousness, man should be ready to risk his life and to accept the chance of death. Fundamental human relations are thus relations of pure prestige, a perpetual struggle, to the death, for recognition of one human being by another.”

~ Albert Camus, The Rebel (1951)


The snag here within this enlightening Hegelian dialectic of Man-to-Man conscious acknowledgment as the master value of human desire, and the possibility of technology fulfilling such a desire, is that of the definition of consciousness. Can any software program, calculating lines of 0’s and 1’s, simple streams of code aping human intellect x conversation x observation and judgment — ever be considered a true *consciousness*? And if not, then how can it fulfill this humane desire — to be “recognized and proclaimed as [conscious] by other consciousnesses”?

From my {perhaps cynical} view of things, I think evolution provides the answer. As we evolve (or devolve) alongside our advancing technology, and as we adjust to the continually changing (degrading) conditions of reality around us — economically, socially, spiritually — we may as a species simply adapt to new modes of being. That is, we regress and settle for something less. Over the course of history, we move from getting our conscious kicks from divine, supernatural forces (God), to humane, communal ones (social relations), and then eventually to artificial, kayfabe ones (technology, A.I.).

Evolutionary history shows us that Man is adaptable to practically any circumstance. As this dark future unfolds (in Deus Ex as in our reality), the imperative work of technological advancement becomes employed first and foremost into mass surveillance, corporate profiteering, the hoarding of wealth for dragon-like oligarchs.

Then come the focals of policing and continuous military operation and at every turn, the traditional, conservatist clarion call for ‘law & order’ from the state’s policymaking apparatuses within the marketplace — all of which now works primarily to protect this status quo steadily built and all the private propertied assets now locked away in secret accounts and in the bones of the capital of the military-industrial complex.

As politicians and pundits — the mouthpieces of the ruling class benefitting from all of the above — urge the populace’s expectations lower and lower, the technology and the supply lines for the sake of public health or social cohesion or general collective human well-being are abandoned, ignored, or made utterly deficient.

We come to the point where technology, previously the ultimate tool of Man to bring himself forth from the cave, the long-time ameliorating, life-saving force of human development upon the Earth, now becomes the tool of stagnation and degradation and further oppression for the many, the crux stone rolled over the hole keeping us in the cave, eyes forever affixed on the shadows offered by the flames within it…

“…A pretext, nothing more. The whole project of world government – going back to the League of Nations – has been funded and manipulated mainly by wealthy bankers.”
~ Paul Denton, ex-UNATCO / secret rebel spy
You didn’t have parents. The ones you knew were employees. You were made by a cabal of technophiles so crazed for power that they would control not only governments and people but the chemistry of our bodies as well.”
~ Juan Lebedev, NSF mastermind, moments before he gets a bullet in his head
From up here, the city is scenery, a mountain that never changes, but everywhere the sands are shifting. We cannot know who to trust — the police, even our own families.”
~ Maggie Chow, triple-dealing geopolitical player in Hong Kong
So? I don’t care. I figured it out today, how they do it. People with my job get the Gray Death. In a couple of weeks, I could be in a camp. I could already be sick.”
~ nervous VersaLife worker
Funny how the traffic of credits brings our dreams and fantasies to life; every transaction is like a small prayer… If so many men have a thing for nurses, you can be sure someone will be standing right where I am, collecting the offerings.”
~ nurse dancer, professional salarywoman and part-time sex worker
“…We are in a position to make a grab for Washington, and we can’t let this one slip through our fingers. Make sure the process stays on schedule.”
~ Walton Simons, director of FEMA, dog for Majestic 12, all around shadowy crook, cybernetically enhanced and utterly pathological

Our screens, our entertainments, our social media presence — with our hearts and minds {d}evolving ^*under these conditions*^ — absolutely becomes God. *Posting* becomes the only agency we have within our community; it becomes the only community we can possibly have at all. Being extremely online becomes the only way to cope with no good vision of the future incoming… (pls stop me if this doesn’t sound familiar already.)

Concisely, to fulfill the prophecy that Morpheus speaks of — to me, it is more believable not that our A.I. programs will develop true consciousness (this may forever be the realm of science fiction), but instead that we will eventually accept acknowledgment from beings ~ such as programs and screens and the digital icons within them ~ that are less than conscious, in order to fulfill this innate and immortal desire within us.

In such circumstances as in the world of Deus Ex, brought about by the afterscape of late-capitalism never progressed beyond, what choice will Mankind have but to fear and venerate — and perhaps even love — this latest omnipresent, omnipotent force controlling our lives from such digitized shadows?

Man desires judgment + omnipresent conscious acknowledgment, always; so, if he cannot have it from the old gods (who have been destroyed by *knowledge*) or the social fabric (which has been annihilated by the competitive, hierarchical and all-encompassing dogmas of *the marketplace* of globalized capitalism), then he will have it from the chips, the cameras, and the codes. By god, he will have it … or, he will go mad, extinct.

Our Choice of Futures

My favorite aspect of Deus Ex is the choices you can make through your character. A focus of critical praise as well, Deus Ex was a pioneer in the realm of ‘meaningful choice’ in a game, long before it became a trendy inclusion into many modern titles. The choices come in the form of not only dialogue and in your movements throughout the relatively open-world style scenarios and maps, but in how you fight, brazenly waving your weapon through the battlefield or working the shadows stealthy like a ghost. And a continuous choice comes in whether or not you choose to kill.

The game can be played entirely non-lethally, choosing to deal in tranquilizers and gas and your fists to knock adversaries unconscious rather than indiscriminately gun them down. In a modern gaming & film environment full of what I would name as ‘goon genocide’, in which endless streams of faceless and nameless henchmen provide fodder for murderous protagonists to feel strong from dispatching in a hail of bullets, it is nice to see such attention paid at least to non-lethal optionality in how you can deal with these small armies (also read: ludonarrative dissonance).

I myself mixed lethal and non-lethal force throughout my run; often, I began battles hoping to avoid combat altogether, and when forced into it would try to snipe-tranq my foes up until I either ran out of ammo or became backed against a wall, kill-or-be-killed…

Look, when you acquire a laser sword sometimes you have to use it…

Importantly, my love of Deus Ex’s choices is not just that they are meaningful — and they are, playing the game as a stealthy operative is a much different experience than as a gun-battling loon (though I can only imagine this as I *always* choose stealth when given the option within a game, must be in my DNA) — it is that they are interesting choices. Namely, the most intriguing choices come within the plotline, which as I’ve said cover a variety of themes and implications concerning technology, capitalism, and human self-governance.

It is a story with world-spanning ramifications, from New York City to Paris to Hong Kong, as JC Denton enters a world of international espionage and clashing global interests making war through proxies in the form of organizations, corporations, governments. The individuals making up these groups carry specific ideologies that drive their decisions, and their betrayals. The game does an incredible job, credit to the writers, of concisely presenting the player with a ton of different in-depth philosophical perspectives from the characters you encounter.

Even if only come upon once, these characters and philosophies make their narrative mark — such as the bartender in Hong Kong who duels with JC over Chinese vs. American politics and enterprise. Additionally, passive worldbuilding (and the most effective for the readers like me) comes in force within this game through the copious data logs and books lying around many of the environments. These meaty lore dumps concerning the current and historical politics of the world come equally from the gleaming reflective conference room tables at UNATCO as well as from the park benches and sewers and catacombs Denton finds himself traversing.

~ Deus Ex — Hong Kong bartender conversation
“We have abolished Right and Wrong…” ~ The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
“True revolution can only come from working within, and in this the ultimate change that can be brought about by an individual is magnified by the very machinery that such organizations utilize to maintain their own authority…” ~ Insurgent, by X
“You should know that the organization for which you have worked, whose goals and interests you believed to be your own, is not what it seems…”
“Citizens of Paris, did you even turn in your sleep as your freedom was seized from you?…”
“The strategist knows that every sword they wield is perfect, for their will is perfect, and that it is through their will alone that they win battles…” ~ The True Way, by Kishiro Yoshitaka
THE RED CROSS: A History of the Knights Templar ~ by Richard Baigent
“It is a commonly held precept that two are stronger than one, and that four are stronger than two, and that sixteen are by far stronger than four; with this, there can be no argument. If all of human history is but a single lesson, it is that the individual may be remembered, but the organization persists and thrives. A single artist, a single general, a single hero or a single villain may all die, but it is impossible to kill a people, a nation, an idea — except when that idea has grown weak and is overpowered by one that is stronger…” ~ The Doctrine of the Mighty – by The Majestic Council of the Twelve

As a true role-playing experience, much of JC’s own ideology seems to be that of a blank slate, with the player able to determine their own stances as you listen and play. Though many of the dialogue trees within the game are simply branching informationals to provide food for thought, there are opportunities for consequential words to open or close doors on characters and opportunities forever (for the prime example of variability of outcomes within this game, see the 255 possible achievements on Steam / on my playthrough I got only 62/255, or 24%).

In the endgame of Deus Ex, the most meaningful choice (perhaps in all of gaming history!) is presented before JC. Lazily spoiling this ending now in words, essentially JC infiltrates a final compound at Area 51 where an Artificial Intelligence named ‘Helios’ is housed, the emergent formation from the combination of two other A.I.’s previously encountered and dealt with (Daedalus + Icarus).

From there, he is tasked with stopping the game’s principal villain and deciding what to do with 1) the technology undergirding global communications networks such as The Internet, which inexplicably exists centralized within this Area 51 compound, and 2) this novel, true blue A.I. system known as Helios.

With a duo of former handlers and allies from your odyssey up to this point in your ear (Morgan Everett, CEO of Picus and leader of the Illuminati and Tracer Tong, nanotechnology scientist and leader of The Luminous Path) angling for you to be their agent at this crucial moment and do their bidding, right before you have to make your choice — a third voice taps your comms and leads you to a pivotal conversation and another potential path.

I am a more advanced solution to the problem, a decision-making system that does not involve organic beings. I was directed to make the world safe and prosperous, and I will do that. You will give me the ability…
~ Helios

In sum, as you run around the secret labs under Area 51, dodging combat bots, black operatives and feral “greys” (yes, huge-headed, big-eyed grey aliens exist within the Deus Ex universe; essentially, in this world every single conspiracy theory is true), you are faced with a final triad of choices on how you want to end the game — and shape the remainder of humanity’s coming future:

  1. Kill the villain (Bob Page), biotech CEO and leader of Majestic 12, wealthiest/most powerful man in the world, all around god-complexy psychopath — who has wired himself up to forcibly merge his consciousness with the Helios super A.I. to rule the world with — and then give this A.I. and thus, control of world governance, back to the Illuminati, joining them yourself in the process (this is what Everett desires)
  2. Kill Bob Page, permanently shutdown the Helios A.I., and also destroy the global communications network, i.e. The Internet, along with it, returning the world to a kind of Dark Age, with limited communications technology or global governance, the people now living in small city-states and self-governed communes in a relative return of nature and pre-industrial development (this is what Tong desires)
  3. Kill Bob Page… and then *you* merge with the Helios A.I. and transcend humanity and technology both — now capable of determining the course of the world yourself as a new being through such omniscient/omnipotent man & machine synthesizing… (this is what Helios desires)
1. (Join Illuminati) – Kill Bob Page and clear the way for the former Illuminati leaders to restore an age-old secret government. Rule the world with compassion and an invisible hand alongside Morgan Everett.
2. (New Dark Age) First go to the coolant control room at the northwest corner of Sector 4 and cut off coolant to the reactors, then return to the reactor lab in Sector 3 to finish the job. Destroying the global communications hub will plunge the world into another dark age – dark but perhaps free from global tyranny.
3. (Merge with Helios AI) Deactivate the uplink locks on the Aquinas Router at the east end of Sector 4, thus allowing Helios to exchange information with your augmentations. Together with Helios, administrate the world with absolute knowledge and reason.

Deliberation over this final choice struck me so profoundly that I had to save, turn off the game for a few hours, eat a meal, and think it over. For me, the choice went beyond the game — I was truly role-playing it as *myself* — I felt compelled to make the choice based on what I would actually do if presented it in real life. I would make the choice based on what I genuinely believed would create the best possible future for the whole human race. *deep breath*

Initially, before that transcendent third option became available through the progression of events leading up, in the choice between empowering/joining the fabled Illuminati versus blowing up the Internet and returning the world to a simpler, more anarcho-primitivist state, I was wholeheartedly on board with the latter. As we all know, the Internet was a mistake. And who doesn’t long to return to nature in some respect, to the simpler agrarian times before ‘social stratification, coercion, and alienation’?

However, when Helios hits JC’s DMs and offers a kind of transhumanist godhood, I couldn’t help myself. My own inner god-complex yearned for the possibility of such power. But it wasn’t just the totality of control over the world {*obnoxious evil laughter*} that drew me to the choice, it was the realization that this third option was the only one that was not simply a rerun. Of course the time-honored dangers of ‘absolute power corrupting absolutely’ are well-documented throughout history and I understand them, even in the context of a fictional choice from a game made 20 years ago.

However, given the path that this current afterscape in Deus Ex demonstrates (continuous oppression for basically all of humanity, accelerated social and environmental degradation, inevitable extinction) — and considering how humanity got there (unmitigated and unavoidable technological development, globalized guidance from out of the smoky rooms of orgs like The Illuminati and all their subsidiaries) — the decision for JC to merge with the A.I. is the only way forward that is novel.

Chaotic certainly, but novel in ways the other paths are not, this third choice therefore posits a coming history that would not necessarily be fated to simply repeat itself or rhyme with the errs of the past.

The Illuminati played a pivotal role in bringing human existence to this point of terminus, why do they deserve another chance at power?

And though a better play than the former, Tong’s collapse of global networks, casting away the tides of modern technology in a return to nature is not destined to last forever; even with the can kicked down the road, I think it is certain that eventually mankind will develop the technology and the networks again and another decision such as the one JC makes now will inevitably be made once more in the future.

“So this is where the Illuminati ended up, after centuries of conspiring to rule the world.”
~ JC Denton
“I AM THE LEADER! I brought the Illuminati up through the 20th-century to the height of their power! I had presidents and premiers eating out of the palm of my hand. I am the one! Our decline is the result of my own. All we need is for me to get back on my feet. What did Everett tell you?”
~ Lucius DeBeers, the OG leader of The Illuminati

~ “As long as technology has a global reach, someone will have the world in the palm of his hand. If not Bob Page, then Everett, Dowd...”
~ Tracer Tong, leader of The Luminous Path

“The checks and balances of democratic governments were invented because human beings themselves realized how unfit they were to govern themselves. They needed a system, yes, an industrial-age machine…”
~ Helio, making its case to JC
“Look at you: You’re nothing but a little man… a little man still living inside a body. Lose your body and what are you? Nothing! You vanish. You die…”
~ Bob Page, mad with power, whining from inside of his ill-fated little bubble

Helios’ conversing with JC at the endgame stage, as you run around fighting enemies of man and machine while a trio of ambitious, wealthy, powerful, and altogether maddened men urge you to allow their plans to unfold so that the world may proceed under their careful designs, I couldn’t help but become convinced by the conscious{?} machine’s words to JC. As the only uncertain one within the flow of events, and with the all-important power to choose, it was imperative that I thoroughly consider every option.

The argument that the Helios A.I. makes (very reminiscent of the one that The Patriot’s A.I. makes in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty) — that of a nigh omniscient, implacable and ‘ego-less’ machine mind tasked with the power of influencing human affairs through the borderless reach of global telecommunications networks — seems to me to be the {potential} solution to the intractable problem of long-term human existence. Mere continuous human existence, let alone flourishing, inside of an increasingly technological, data-dominated and fearsomely militarized world, may end up relying on such a transcendent force as this. What intriguing, science-fiction-y possibilities could lay within the mixing of Man’s creativity and ingenuity with the computing power of a true Artificial Intelligence?

Utterly selfless {theoretically … looking at you HAL-9000} and free from all ambitions beyond that of keeping Mankind alive and well in the long-term, the way of Helios seems promising on the whole. In the best-case scenario, the transcendent Man-Machine A.I. being works as global overlord to provide a rationalistic sense of control and calculation over humanity’s course, favoring collective human well-being over profit or power or anything else. This style of dispassionate and undying rulership may perhaps be something humanity will absolutely need sooner or later.

Under this afterscape’s conditions, most paths seem to promise extinction. We’ve been armed to the teeth with enough thermonuclear weaponry to scorch the planet ten times over for decades AND we have long carried the historically unchallenged means to perpetuate widespread exploitation of man and nature without end, each leading to faster or slower but equally certain modes of extinction.

Since the dawn of Cold War tech and the origination of the neoliberal capitalistic order in the 1960s and 70s — we’ve set our paths down such roads. Under these immutable facts and circumstances, at this point in history, fresh blood — fresh code — is needed. Honestly, at the end of all this brainstorming, JC choosing to merge with Helios came easy to me.

“You have a tough choice, JC. If you defeat Page, the Illuminati will move in; they’ll release Majestic 12’s grip on world governments, they’ll give people some freedom, but essentially it will be 20th-century capitalism: a corporate elite protected by laws and tax-codes.”
~ Paul, your bro offering his analysis of the coming decision
“In a society with democratic institutions, the struggle for power can be peaceful and constructive, a competition of ideologies. We just need to put our institutions back in order.”
~ JC, playing devil’s advocate to Helios’ AI-autocracy plan
“A benevolent dictator… Maybe it’s after my brain so it can figure out what people want and how to control them.”

Worst case scenario? This transcendent, new A.I. being goes mad with power and through cold calculation or impassioned superiority, immediately starts working to enslave or obliterate the human race. Maybe! If we can’t stop it, just as if we can’t learn to live with nukes or the environment, then maybe we deserve such a fate…? At least in this doomsday scenario our annihilation comes fast and clean (hopefully with the plants and animals spared to live in their own unpeopled anarcho-primitivist haven!)

After all, in cyberpunk all technology eventually becomes toxic, if not the tool of oppression and evil. This is because it is always utilized by the hand of Man, who is conscious, and therefore greedy, flawed, corruptible. Consumer tech inevitably falls into the production of surveillance; industrial tech becomes the assets of weaponry. What about Artificial Intelligence? Newfangled, and ultimately wielding its own semi-consciousness, it remains to be seen how such familiar inhumane ills might be borne under its reign…

“This is why I exist?”
We … are ONE.

Deus Ex does not provide an answer as to the right choice, or even show you a hint of the future under the regime that JC winds up dictating. The game ends right after you push one of the buttons. All of the game’s writing, its themes and philosophies and perspectives are merely to provide the scaffolding for you to theorize your closing choice, as I did. This is so you can make that choice with the conviction that a better world is possible.

Even in far-flung and rather ridiculous sci-fi terms, this hope amidst an accelerationist cyberpunk dystopia is welcome. Whether our technology ends up freeing or destroying us, I think it’s imperative that we explore such possibilities as this, in fiction and out of it. For we will have a choice of futures before us — indeed, we do every day — and though you individually may not ever be in a position to seriously influence the course of the human race, I believe it to be valuable to build your ideology, your politics, your personal philosophy around the idea that you might. ~

“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”
~ Paradise Lost, John Milton
{Illuminati rule ending}
“Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors. But today we kneel only to truth…”
~ Kahlil Gibran
{New Dark Age ending}
“If there were no god, it would be necessary to invent him.”
~ Voltaire
{Merge with Helios ending}