At the beginning of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the player meets Adam Jensen at what might be the most emotionally turbulent time of his life; he has just experienced heartbreak, he has been physically brutalized, he just failed to protect the lives entrusted to him, he has lost control over his own body, and, to top it all off, he has been stripped of his own autonomy and anatomy. Mechanical limbs and neural “enhancements” ensure that he will never be the same person again, nor will he ever be perceived the same way again. He didn’t ask for this. But he’s now given a new lease on life and a goal to uncover the truth behind the attacks on his employer, Sarif Industries. However, a more important goal that runs parallel to that task also exists: Adam’s goal to regain his own autonomy as a human being.
THE MECHANICS OF CHANGE
Choice defines the role-playing game: character customization, world interaction and, in some cases, story outcome are expected from the genre. Human Revolution uses the RPG structure to tell Adam’s story of reclamation on both narrative and mechanical levels.
This design works in two ways: first, it plays into the traditional RPG mold by using Adam’s situation as the mechanism driving player customization, and second, it makes those choices reflect Adam’s quest to become his own man again. For example: picking the social enhancer upgrade opens up diplomatic solutions to character interactions, thus steering Adam down a more empathetic and less overall violent narrative path. By using stealth and non-lethal takedowns, Adam becomes a man who seemingly prefers not to become a mass killer. Furthermore, combining the social enhancer upgrade with a “shoot first, ask questions later” combat strategy allows for an interpretation of Adam that is…complicated.
While the power fantasy is still the most common and lucrative design philosophy in mainstream gaming, Human Revolution manages to do something more with it. While HR undoubtedly conforms to the power fantasy philosophy at times, this makes sense if one’s reading of the story is indeed of Jensen regaining his own independence. It offers a different, narratively-motivated context for the power fantasy. It uses its own version of the power fantasy structure, the building of a character into a powerful figure, to develop its themes of self-control.
This is not a typical fantasy wherein the main character dominates everything around him through violence. Human revolution is different from Gears of War. Adam Jensen is not a tank, even with all those Dermal Armor upgrades. Power in Human Revolution must first come with autonomy. So, Adam must first become autonomous again from David Sarif, his boss and the man who saved his life with a ton of mechanical augmentations. After having no choice in the decision to augment him with Sarif’s technology, he now at least has the choice of what mechanical augmentations to further saddle himself with. Furthermore, he has the choice of what to do with those augments. This is what’s called “playing with the cards you’re dealt.” As we eventually learn, Adam has been playing a fixed game his entire life.
One of the most effective explorations of this idea comes relatively early in Adam’s journey. After getting a heads-up from Pritchard about some security issues, Adam goes to Sarif’s office to confront him about it. The problem: the back door into the company’s security system that got them compromised might have been created by Sarif a couple of years before the attacks, when Adam was first hired. This presents Adam an opportunity to directly confront the man who has permanently changed his body and his place in the world. He can finally push back against one of the external forces pulling his strings.
The argument is like a maze, full of misdirection and dead-ends if he goes the wrong way. Sarif is a slippery bastard and his slyness challenges Adam to stay on point. If he plays it right, Adam will get Sarif to show him the documents that he was sending through that back door. More importantly, he has won a battle against one of the people controlling him.
This is one of the first and largest steps Adam takes in regaining control of himself. Even better, the information Sarif was withholding regards information about Adam’s childhood.
Since the beginning of his life, Adam Jensen has been lied to. As omnipresent newscaster Eliza Cassan says, “everybody lies.” David Sarif, Adam Jensen’s parents, and Meagan Reed all confirm that. His knowledge of himself has been subverted his entire life; his parents, David Sarif, and Meagan Reed have all lied to him.
Now that Adam has begun to push back against the world and learned to control his body, he must continue his two journeys. He will gain further physical independence from Sarif with more self-inflicted changes to his body via the typical RPG upgrade system, but his next endeavor is much more challenging.
CONTROLLING THE NARRATIVE
Even before the beginning of the game, Adam is given directives from higher up. He goes from taking orders as a cop to taking orders as corporate security and is just a pawn in a greater conspiracy. One of the ways he regains control is how he makes the decisions in the field. The one aspect of Adam’s life that he has unmitigated control over is how he conducts himself in matters of combat and diplomacy.
Adam can kill every enemy he meets or let all of them live. He can also just kill and spare where he sees fit. His actions can come across as contradictory if there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to his killing, but human beings are contradictory creatures.
Beyond his combat decisions, Adam can affect how people perceive him in the world. A violent Adam, who disregards the safety of others, can get people killed. He can also try to talk his way in and out of situations. This will open or close off certain tangible benefits to him, like weapon upgrades or discounts, But it also closes off people, sometimes literally. Greg Thorpe won’t give him shit if he didn’t save his wife from the terrorist Zeke Sanders; Tong, the head of the local gang of Triads, will not willingly give Adam information if he can’t verbally convince him.These interactions are the consequences of Adam’s chosen actions, and thus the consequences of how he utilized his freedom. Positive or negative, Adam exerts his personal sovereignty in their radius and the consequences reflect that.
As Jensen regains control over himself, the Illuminati seek to gain control over everything. And this is why which ending him choose is so important. There is a way to side with the Illuminati which signifies that him fell under their control, in a way. It doesn’t mean anything Adam did before doesn’t matter; it just means that Adam is still fighting for his human sovereignty until the credits roll.
A core aspect of power is the ability to control the narrative. Those in power can spin the events of the day to make themselves look better and line their pockets. Adam’s main enemy in Human Revolution represents the apex of power: the Illuminati. He fights against his boss, against mercenaries, and against a giant corporation. But a nearly omnipotent group based on a real-world conspiracy theory is his greatest adversary. In Human Revolution’s world, the Illuminati is a real thing that individuals must stand up to, which Adam does. He fights their grasping of power. He fights for power over himself and over the events and situations under which he has been placed and which the Illuminati seek to influence
To me, there are two choices that complete Adam’s arc and two that betray it. The two that betray it are given to you by Bill Taggart (a noted piece of shit) and David Sarif. Taggart, an Illuminati member and aforementioned P.O.S. asks you to blame anti-rejection drugs on the bloodfest that has just occured at Panchea, an ocean-based installation and the final level of the game. As Jensen regains control over himself, the Illuminati seek to gain control over everything. And this is why which ending you choose is so important.. So, choosing to side with the Illuminati signifies that you fell under their control, in a way. Sarif asks you to blame anti-augmentation extremists. Both of these men have been trying to influence the world and him since before the beginning of the game. Acquiescing to either of them sounds contradictory to Adam’s arc and goal.
However, Hugh Darrow’s request does line up with Adam’s initial goal. He wants Adam to simply broadcast the truth to the world and reveal the Illuminati.Sounds kosher, right?
“However,” says Eliza Cassan, “there is another option.”
Adam could destroy Panchea and kill everybody onboard. “That’s an option?” he asks, outraged. With this decision, Adam Jensen hasn’t just taken control of his destiny, but thousands more. He has ended their lives and taken their voices. While nobody can now “spin the story,” nobody can make their voices heard because of Adam’s decision. Arguably a monstrous move, but it’s also a move that puts the future of humanity back into the hands of the masses. He takes away a few voices to give more room for the billions of others, who now don’t have these powerful people taking up so much space. After making his choice, Adam reflects on his actions and asks “does this mean I have the right to choose for everyone?”
It’s the ultimate middle finger to the men who so desperately want to control the world and influence its future. It’s also the culmination of Adam Jensen’s journey towards true independence. He disobeys orders from Sarif, Taggart, and the game’s father of augmentations, Hugh Darrow, to make his own bold, definitive choice and solidifies his autonomy. With his journey complete, he returns the favor and brings freedom of choice back to the masses and gives them their own freedom to choose.