As it currently stands, there are four main installments within the Deus Ex franchise. That’s not counting the variety of mobile iterations, versions, or other side content and activities. As with any good universe, there’s also a fair share of novels and fiction in regards to the Earth of the dystopian future depicted in each game. Deus Ex (2000), Invisible War (2003), Human Revolution (2011), and Mankind Divided (2016) are the four canonical entries I will be discussing to varying degrees here. I got the idea for this particular post somewhat out of the blue, and yet it is equally fitting due to the fact the series is going to be on somewhat of a hiatus whilst Square Enix decides how best to handle their new Marvel deal.
Without going into great detail and ruining the stories of each of the aforementioned titles in the series, I will say that each shares similar settings and ideas, especially in terms of overall world-building. Whether you refer to the first two titles or the most recent releases, some things have simply evolved rather than changed as the series continues on. Now what do I mean when I refer to world-building exactly?
In my mind, it is interesting to examine how a developer approaches crafting a living and breathing world for their players to exist within and for game-players to explore. This includes all of the lore in a fictional setting, the overarching design of the world and its environments themselves, the characters and how they are affected by or impact the environment, and any other details that fall into one or more of these categories. While this may seem like a complicated and extensive subject to handle, I am going to keep things simple and merely hit a few points here and there that remain largely constant throughout the series.
Deus Ex is so much more than the aesthetically pleasing triangles and grey tones that it seems to be nowadays. Rather it is a much deeper experience and one that oftentimes mirrors machinations and political or corporate ideology in today’s world as well. It is very much about corporations and secret societies influencing the general populace in efforts to exert some form of control over the world or another. And for this reason, as with the show Black Mirror, technology can be a strange and terrible thing- whether posing as an ally or used in corrupt schemes. Deus Ex is about alteration and advancement- as much of the human element as of technology.
There is such a degree of choice offered even from the getgo in the original Deus Ex all the way through Mankind Divided which released last year, that in many ways players can shape the world as much or more than the attributes of it have been altered or provided by the developers themselves. It is very much a living, breathing environment at all times and as with the augmentations that progressively alter the human race itself, the environment can be largely unrecognizable by the end of a game. Although you could boil down much of the chaos and change in each game to the Illuminati or other cabals’ influence, the player and player-character is largely the most influential aspect of all in and on the world.
In order to understand the majority of the worldview and built up infrastructure and integrity of the franchise, one must first get a handle on how each game fits into that structure chronologically. While Deus Ex and Invisible War are the first two titles, they are the last two on the chronological spectrum as it stands currently. Meanwhile, Human Revolution and Mankind Divided fall somewhere earlier on the spectrum. While the exact years are not necessary in order to understand this thought-blog, HR and MD take place in 2027 and 2029 respectively whereas DE and IW take place in 2052 and 2072.
In the world of Deus Ex, augmentation is no new thing. Both chronologically and chronologically in terms of release date, human augmentation has been an existing thing in the universe. It becomes bigger in Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, yet it is also a key component of your character in Deus Ex and Invisible War. It is more of a side-note in the original games, yet it becomes a very ethical and important factor as you progress through both of the most recently released titles. Technology rules the world and whomever owns that technology therefore owns the world- this is definitely a constant theme that Deus Ex seems to push and often goes to extremes to enforce and keep relevant.
In many ways, Deus Ex has some blanket themes that constantly overlap in both lore and actuality within all four titles. HR and MD both hint at much of the coming strife and activities of the original two titles, as would make sense in games that act as essentially a precursor or prequel to the events of the first two. Without spoiling much, there are underlying themes and additional lore to be found around the world that constantly hints at things to come. Whereas the Illuminati has always been a major player in the series, player choice largely depicts whether or not the world is plunged into anarchy and chaos, whether or not technology is heralded or despised, and how plenty of other equally monumental and important player choices pan out.
In terms of aesthetics and mechanics, the series has definitely evolved from the same core elements and still features such aspects as inventory management, gunplay, stealth, and choice-driven gameplay today. And in many ways, this ties into the whole world-development thing as well. There is a larger ability for players to determine not just the outcome but the evolution of the narrative and world today than there was when the series debuted, and yet that’s always been a constant. Whereas the original two titles largely focused players on determining the eventual endgame, Human Revolution and Mankind Divided continually place players in situations that demand determinations to be made on the fly and with unknown consequences potentially hovering down the road. Few things are what they seem and even the best of intentions, as in reality, can lead to dramatically unforeseen consequences.
Deus Ex has always fascinated me in ways that System Shock and Bioshock have managed to as well- largely due to the fact that their worlds are intriguing and believable, even for all the fantastical nonsense they also offer. Deus Ex has perhaps the darkest and most readily believable overtones, especially nearly two decades later as we come closer and closer to potentially seeing the effects of such globalized corporations and hegemonic entities today. And largely for that reason on top of the entertainment value of the series itself, the world, world-views, and choices intrigue me more than ever.