Tag Archives: deus ex: human revolution

Masculinity and the Embodied Machine in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The following is a guest post from Kaitlin Tremblay:

Kaitlin Tremblay has a Master’s in English and Film, with a specialization in gender and genre, and is currently living the fabulous life of a publishing intern. She spends most of her time playing games, painting, reading (mostly comics nowadays), watching old B-horror films, and writing a nerd-culture/feminist blog.

For my Master’s final paper I choose to focus on depictions of the masculine body as a machine and how these inevitably intersect with madness and violence, specifically with “anti-hero heroes,” like Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. Needless to say, the moment I put on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, listened to Adam Jensen’s gruffy Christian Bale-Batman voice and watched him die, and be reconstructed/brought back to life with mechanical prostheses, my curiosity was piqued.

Adam Jensen looking down at his mechanical fist and arm.

Adam Jensen doing a damn fine Tim Tebow impersonation.

I want to talk about the male body as a machine. It’s common, but it’s a metaphor that speaks volumes about stereotypes of masculinity, especially of the “hero.” The reconstruction Adam Jensen experiences is more like a tune-up that the Impala undergoes in Supernatural than Dr. Frankenstein creating his monster. The difference is that with the Impala and Jensen, both get recreated through mechanical, not biological, upgrades.

When I had originally wrote on masculinity and the machine metaphor, I discussed it specifically in relation to violence and madness: namely, that the heroes/anti-heroes typically depicted as embodied machines are both extremely violent and extremely insane, and that the machine metaphor was the bridge between. Being a frontier cowboy like Billy the Kid, meant creating a dissonance between self and the violence necessary to survive; it is the machine metaphor that encapsulates this, holding it like a nuclear reactor.

A portrait of Malik wearing her pilot's uniform.It’s also worth noting that when Malik tries to get the angsty-Jensen to open up about how it feels to be augmented, she admits to having some neural-augs, herself. Mailk’s augmentations are discreet, hidden: they are implanted in her brain, becoming fused into her body invisibly.

Jensen’s augmentations, on the other hand, replace his biological body, literalizing the machine metaphor. This is a trope specific to masculinity because masculinity has stereotypically being defined alongside notions of physicality and violence.

In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Ondaatje, the mechanical embodied masculinity was the answer: the frontier world Ondaatje created necessitated a machine-like response in order to survive. The mechanical embodied metaphor/representation of masculinity operates no differently. It’s a dissonance, a reconfiguring of self in terms of embodied subjectivity and violence. Non-augmented Jensen failed. But new, robot-arms Jensen will save the day, repeatedly. It’s the same narrative in Mass Effect 2: human bodies aren’t up to the gruesome job, so we create new, mechanical bodies that can not only do it, but that we can safely distance ourselves from, as well. More on ME2 in a minute, though.

So what does this mean for masculinity and gender studies? Christopher Forth, in Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization, and the Body, discusses the Industrial Revolution as the real Crisis of Masculinity (never mind Fight Club), because with the advent of technology meant the eradication of dependence on a man’s supposed strength. Julien Offray de la Mettrie wrote Man A Machine in 1748, a pretty strong indication that this time period represented a shift in attitudes about bodies and their capabilities.

Simone De Beauvoir even talks about this as levelling the playing field between genders: with technology, it doesn’t matter which sex is stronger, because that bulldozer is stronger than everyone. Okay, so she didn’t say that exactly, but she did mention how technological advancements make moot the age-old argument of who is stronger, males or females. Now, I’m saying this is a good thing (unlike Guy Garcia who, in Decline of Men thinks this is the reason why America is faltering as a nation). The more we think about embodied subjectivity in non-gendered terms, the better. The dissonance created by the machine-metaphor exposes the construction and performativity of gender. As N. Katherine Hayles says, “The computer moulds the human even as the human builds the computer” in Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers. As technology changes our conception of humans, it affects our understanding of gendered constructs.

An action shot of Adam striking out with his fist, a blade protruding from his elbow over his fist.

Deus Ex: HR falls short of this, but it’s a good place to start thinking about it. DE:HR still largely stays within the confines of the masculine machine, especially when you compare Jensen and Malik’s augmentations. Malik’s augmentations don’t change her feelings of embodiment or subjectivity, but with Jensen we’re directed specifically to think about how they shape him. Malik is still separated from machines: she’s a pilot who controls her use of technology, whereas Jensen is conflated with technology.

The Mass Effect 2 example is an apt comparison here, because the character customization available is indicative of how studying represenations of femininity, masculinity and how the machine metaphor can operate to blur the gendered notion of strength and violence. DE:HR exposes the representation of masculinity as mechanized and violent, and ME2 allows for this to be taken further (sidnenote: I’m ignoring the release dates here, but just looking at how the similar narrative is operating in both).

If we’re thinking in these terms, then ME2 shows that mechanized metaphors for the body can expose a dependence on thinking of gender as a natural product of one’s sex. The reconstruction and augmentation Commander Sheperd undergoes is not tied to a specific gender. It is open. Technology recreates our conception of ourselves by recreating how we are represented.

This is why I enjoyed specializing in gender studies: studying representations of gender, both femininity and masculinity, work to expose these categories as artificial constructs, both with the capability to oppress and empower. We’re never going to escape representation. We are steeped in a visual culture, and representation operates as a bridge for understanding and assimilating information, for both good and ill.


A Tale of Shanghai Justice/Injustice

The following post will contain full story spoilers for a side quest in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Trigger warning for domestic violence and misogynistic language.

Lee Hong from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. He is sitting in a bench at The Hive club, wearing a charcoal shirt and a gold patterned vest.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game full of small stories. Between the main quest, side quests, and tiny tales told by reading emails on hacked computers the player learns a lot about the this game’s Detroit and Hengsha.  One of these stories is that of Evelyn Carmichael and her boyfriend Lee Hong. Their tale is one of domestic violence, corruption, and what the game calls justice.

When the main character of the game, Adam Jensen, arrives in Hengsha he is attempting to locate a hacker. When Jensen finds this hacker’s location he is stopped by his pilot, Faridah Malik, who gives Adam an optional side quest entitled Shanghai Justice. She explains that she has learned about the death of her friend Evelyn Carmichael. The official report states that Evelyn died from a drunken fall down a flight of stairs but Malik believes that this is a lie and that Evelyn’s boyfriend, Lee Hong, had something to do with the death.

When Jensen agrees to investigate Evelyn’s death the player first receives an autopsy report that contradicts the official police report. Next, Jensen arrives at Lee Hong’s apartment where he finds emails from Lee’s family, the murder weapon (an antique clock), and an answering machine message that lets him know Lee’s current location. From the evidence it becomes clear that Evelyn was not drunk the night of her death, that she was not killed from a fall down the stairs but from being hit repeatedly on the head, and that she was pregnant at the time of her murder. After the murder these facts were hidden because of the substantial amounts of money Lee’s father had invested in various industries in Hengsha. His family’s influence meant that the autopsy was buried and Lee’s version of the incident became the official facts of the case. The player can then go and confront Lee and get him to confess to the murder of his girlfriend.

When Lee is confronted with the evidence he confesses to Jensen, while Malik secretly records the audio of the entire conversation. When you exit the building Jensen says “Lee’s confession is solid. With that and the evidence from the autopsy, there’s no way he can avoid prosecution. Justice will be served.” Malik replies “Oh, justice will be served alright… You might want to stick around for a second. I’ve got one last little surprise for our friend Lee.” At this point the exterior of The Hive bar, which is made up of giant video screens, shows an image of Lee Hong’s ID tag with a red stamp of Murderer over it. There is also an audio clip of his confession that is played on loop.

Lee’s confession:
“I… I don’t — I don’t know! Evelyn… That stupid bitch! She was going to ruin me! I- I didn’t mean to kill her! Okay? Evelyn wouldn’t shut up, about us, about the the baby. So I hit her. I just wanted to make her shut her stupid mouth… but that dumb bitch started freaking out. So I hit her again, until I, until she finally stopped screaming. When I realized what I’d done, I , I panicked. She was barely breathing, so I carried her to the stairs near my apartment and… and dropped her. I had to make it look like an accident… I had no choice! She trapped me! She just wanted my money! I would have been ruined!”

Lee’s confession has a lot of the lines spoken by domestic violence perpetrators. He fully blames the other person for all the violence he inflected on them. If she had only been quiet. If she had only not been pregnant. It was all her fault. He didn’t mean it, the violence was all the other person’s fault. This man is not remorseful, he is justifying his actions. This death was all Evelyn’s fault in his mind.

I had Jensen stand at The Hive at the end of the quest. The first time I heard the confession it felt like sweet revenge on Lee Hong. His confession was out for all of Hengsha to hear. Then, I let Jensen continue to stand there. As the confession repeats I quickly became uncomfortable. What Malik did by airing this man’s confession on loop was give voice to the murderer. His justification was there for all to hear. His hatred and disdain of Evelyn was heard by all, over and over and over again. This was not giving a voice to Evelyn, but instead allowing her killer to speak his mind. She is not honored when he calls her a bitch on the loudspeakers. Her memory is not honored when he gets to yell about how she was trapping him. Lee views the pregnancy as though it was some manipulative plan by Evelyn in which he played no role. Yes, it is the confession of a murderer but it is also the rant of an abusive man that is now on audio loop. While many would see his words as despicable, there could be others that agree with his justifications. It should be Evelyn that is given a voice at the end of this quest, not Lee Hong.

I would argue that the only true justice at the end of the quest would be to give Lee’s confession and pile of evidence to the police. Some public shame of Lee could have been achieved by giving that same  information to a newspaper. But when Malik broadcast a loop of the confession on The Hive’s exterior it gave voice to a killer, and that voice drowned out her friend. Since there was no platform for Evelyn to speak, why instead give a platform for her killer? That is not justice. Silencing Evelyn one final time to give Lee a voice is an additional injustice.

Recommended Reading: Making of an Ally, Female Character Design, More From Film Crit Hulk

Lightning, the main character of FFXIII, sits casually on a white couch, holding a sword and staring straight ahead at the viewer.

I told you there was a lot of good stuff recently!

First, a post at Pax Valkyrie called (Trigger warning for sexual harassment) “No Flat Girls: How Allies Are Born,” which is the personal story of one woman in the game industry whose allies failed her when it came to dealing with sexual harassment at a group for game students.

I consoled myself that we would rant about it later, maybe over a beer or two. With every additional comment about big tits and their jiggle physics, though, I found it harder and harder to reassure myself. Instead of feeling like I was sharing a bad experience with the two guys in front of me, I began to feel truly attacked.

“Yeah, so he tells me her boobs have to be bigger! There are STANDARDS in videogames!” There were cries of assent, hoots and yelps not totally unlike hyenas.

I found it hard to swallow. I had never felt so casually humiliated in what was meant to be a welcoming, safe space. How could someone sit there and spew this kind of stuff? How could he joke and laugh about how horribly women are represented in games? Apathy would be bad enough, but this kid was lauding the fact that women’s bodies are engorged and contorted and exposed, that degradation is made synonymous with “sexy.” He was being cheered like a champion.

Silence might have been protecting my friends, but suddenly it was choking me.

The author goes on to describe confronting her friends about remaining silent and allowing this sort of behavior to go on in a space they created, reflecting on how her sacrifice was perhaps necessary to show just how sexism affects women and why it should be challenged.

Next, friend of the blog Latoya Peterson has a great piece at Racialicious titled “The Tits Have It: Sexism, Character Design, and the Role of Women in Created Worlds.” Peterson attended a panel at NYCC 2011 headed by Isamu Kamikokuryo, art director for FFXIII-2, and Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete, art director for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, talking about art direction “for a worldwide audience.” It seemed super interesting until Jacques-Bellêtete admitted that the most important thing about female characters, to him, is whether he would fuck them or not:

In describing his influences, Jacques-Bellêtete mentioned he was heavily influenced by Metal Gear and Final Fantasy. Then he went into a two minute riff about “always trying to have very beautiful female characters,” noting that these were characters he would want to sleep with. After making a semi-disparaging remark about female characters drawn in a North American style, he concludes “I’d rather have female characters from Final Fantasy or Soul Caliber to sleep with.” This draws chuckles from the crowd.

And there it was, the truth about character design that so many players know but most designers wouldn’t usually articulate: most of the egregiously sexist character designs are based on fuckability, rather than playability.

His comments are infuriating, even more so when you take into account the fact that he felt this was an acceptable thing to say in front of a room full of people. To top it all off, moderator N’Gai Croal had each artist interpret one of the other’s characters; Jacques-Bellêtete decided to depict Lightning from chin to chest, wearing a lacy top with a plunging neckline. Slow clap for Jonathan. Really well done.

Definitely read the whole thing, which has typically fantastic analysis from Peterson as well as Jacques-Bellêtete’s response to her question during the Q&A. (There’s also video of the panel available here; Peterson asks her question starting at about 3:30 in the third video.)

Thirdly, commenter Medicine Melancholy linked this in my link post last week: Film Crit Hulk posted a follow-up to his original Batman: Arkham City that is more thorough and responds to many of the common defenses of the sexism in the game (seventeen of them!). My favorite is Argument #1, debunking the idea that throwing around the word “bitch” constantly is just how the enemies in the game would act:


Hulk goes through sixteen more arguments, including some of our favorite derails that we’ve all seen before on any number of topics, as well as things like “GIRLS FIGHTING BAD THINGS = FEMINISM!” and “IT’S NOT SEXIST, IT’S LAZY!”. The post ends with a rousing speech about discussion and understanding that made me applaud my computer screen. Count me as a new fan. Read it.

BONUS: Have you been reading Denis’s PokeDrag series over at Gamers With Jobs? If not, Denis has posted the first five entries in one convenient spot for you. Denis is role-playing through Pokemon FireRed as a drag queen, with a drag army of monsters. It’s really cute and funny; check it out!