Square Enix recently published new Deus Ex: Mankind Divided artwork to accompany a round of sanctioned media previews (such as ours!). By and large, Mankind Divided sounds like it's on track to be every bit as satisfying and exciting a game as its predecessor, Human Revolution.
But I think we can all agree that the specific piece of concept art shown here is terrible — and even worse is the company's disingenuous response to widespread criticism of the "AUGS LIVES MATTERS" banner being held by protesters in a rally in a video game called "Mankind Divided" which centers on the growing strife between two "races" of people. Somehow, someone along the publicity change for the game actually seem to think that a bland denial that the banner seen here is in any way inspired by or riffs on the Black Lives Matter movement will pave over the fact that it very clearly was. I'm not sure which is more insulting: The denial, or the implication that consumers are actually stupid enough to accept such an obvious lie. Equally worrying is the subtext: That video games are subject to the ongoing sterilization of mass media — that even if Mankind Divided's creators want to make a point or present a point of view, their publisher won't back them up.
It's not like Mankind Divided would precisely be going out on a limb by using science-fiction metaphors to explore racial tensions and inequality in America. Frankly, that's what the genre has always been about. For example, Marvel's X-Men comics have always danced along a precarious knife-edge of commentary (sometimes incisive, sometimes ham-fisted) commentary about race (and authoritarianism, and homosexuality, and AIDS, and whatever other metaphor you'd like to incorporate in there). The underlying conflict in X-Men has always concerned advanced humans struggling for their right to exist against a backdrop of fear and hatred as their baseline genetic forebears push back the specter of obsolescence that mutants represent.
More directly tied to Deus Ex, William Gibson's Neuromancer, and his Sprawl and Bridge books in general, explored the idea of augmented humans struggling to fit into society. Those book in turn were preceded by Blade Runner and its subservient Replicants androids, who struggled for the right to exist in a universe where they were treated as disposable and undesirable. And that film (along with the novella on which it was based) owed much in turn to Isaac Asimov's robot novels, wherein humans regarded androids with suspicion and contempt and are forced to refer to themselves with a the prefix R. (for "robot," as in major character R. Daneel Olivaw) like a sort of badge — a story element that carries extra impact thanks to Asimov's heritage as a Jewish immigrant who came of age during the ’30s. Science fiction doesn't have to be a lens through which to reexamine the flaws of modern man, but the idea is as much a part of the genre's DNA as Wolverine's healing factor is a part of his.
Mankind Divided appears to explore more or less identical territory to classic X-Men: Normal humans acting against Augments, who are cybernetically enhanced men and women who have surrendered portions (or all) their biological bodies for the sake of greater power, skills, efficiency, or even for the sake of simple survival. This premise could stand in for a lot of modern social issues, including transgender rights and body dysphoria, but Square Enix Montreal has clearly gone with a race metaphor — before AUGS LIVES MATTERS blew up, the game's first flashpoint of controversy came from its creators' promotion of the theme called "mechanical apartheid." It's a valid topic, one worth tackling; it may not be as new to the public consciousness as gender issues, but race in America (and around the world) still needs a lot of work. It's a topic ripe with potential for commentary... but it's not entirely clear that Mankind Divided intends to actually offer any commentary on the matter, despite borrowing the language of turbulent black/white social conflicts both in the U.S. and abroad.
Maybe Mankind Divided's difficulties stem from a disconnect between creative intent and marketing; then again, maybe it's just a chain of poor creative choices. But it's the worst kind of tone-deafness to put phrases like "Mechanical Apartheid" and "Augs Lives Matters" forward in advance promotional material, then act baffled when people respond to the troubling subtext of those elements. If metaphorical racial tension and an attempt at offering incisive commentary on real-world matters truly is a key element of the game, Square Enix needs to own it. Embrace it. Use it as a way to differentiate their creation from an industry full of shallow entertainment with no point of view to offer. Otherwise, they need to bury that stuff way out of sight rather than make it a marketing point — rather than selling pulp entertainment by turning the struggle and deaths of countless people into a punchy sales tagline.
Sci-fi with a point can be truly transcendent. The same day the Augs Lives banner debate flared up online, I happened by chance to watch a striking counterpoint to Square Enix's dysfunctional (or disingenuous) marketing: The classic Star Trek episode "A Private Little War." I've been working my way through the original Trek catalog, watching one episode per day as I exercise, and a lot of these shows are new to me. I'd definitely never seen "A Private Little War," and it would have been a remarkable episode even if the Deus Ex controversy weren't fresh in my mind.
Star Trek often worked as a social or political metaphor, but this particular episode offers a far more nuanced (not to mention uncertain) perspective than usual. The series had its roots in producer Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision of the future, and Captain Kirk in particular often served as Roddenberry's mouthpiece. His was a well-meaning moral perspective — eager for peace, coexistence, an end to war, the elevation of knowledge and discovery — but one rooted in the gentle cultural chauvinism of the '60s and the early days of the Pax Americana. Trek's spacefaring morality can be decidedly imperialistic at times, but it's usually wrapped up in a sense of do-gooding that makes Kirk's perspective easy to swallow.
Not so in "A Private Little War." This episode sees a primitive culture corrupted by the Klingon Empire, given weaponry far beyond that society's current state of development and wrenched from peaceful coexistence into a state of war and conquest. This bucolic planet and its peoples become the stage for a proxy war between two empires forced into a cold war by the threat of mutual annihilation — real straight-from-the-headlines stuff in 1967 — and Kirk advocates mutual armament as the only solution to the Klingons' interference. Equipping the planet's other society to the point where they have the war technology necessary to hold their own against the Klingons' proxies, he argues, is the only way to prevent genocide. It's an unusually hawkish perspective for Kirk, whose reputation as disciple of two-fisted diplomacy has been greatly exaggerated over the years.
Even more remarkable is the show's refusal to necessarily endorse Kirk's argument. He calls for armament with an unusual fervor, but it never convinces his devil's advocate (his chief medical officer, Dr. McCoy) — and, honestly, it leaves the viewer with the distinct impression that Kirk isn't fully convinced, either. The episode ends on a melancholic note rarely seen in classic Trek, as the crew departs knowing they've been party to the effective destruction of a culture but uncertain of the alternatives.
I can only imagine "A Private Little War" made for a powerful hour of television back in 1967 when it first aired — a damning statement about the United States' actions in Vietnam (actions that, about a decade after the episode debuted, culminated with our military beating a hasty retreat) and the futility of cold and proxy wars. Nearly 50 years later, "A Private Little War" still resonates, though this time the metaphor lines up more with Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the sequences of events that have led to the rise of Daesh, not to mention the countless European civilians who keep dying in terrorist attacks precipitated by actions America took decades ago. That is great science fiction: A story that functions as a powerful statement about politics half a century after its debut and still manages to be unsettling.
Not every work of sci-fi can hit as hard, or for as long, as "A Private Little War." Certainly most episodes of Star Trek didn't. But it was an hour of television with a point of view, with a statement to make; it stuck to its guns, and it's become a timeless classic as a result — terrible makeup and special effects notwithstanding.
Video games have the potential to do that, too, but something tells me we won't be talking about Deus Ex: Mankind Divided half a century from now. And it's not because it's hitched its wagon to a social movement rooted in the here-and-now of 2016, because sadly I suspect race will still be an issue that divides America 50 years from now. No, Mankind Divided will have trouble lasting because its creators and publisher appear to be afraid to make a real statement about the terminology they've borrowed from the news. Whether or not the game actually does something meaningful with the social metaphors the development team has adopted — I hope it does, and I look forward to seeing it for myself — for many, it's already been cut off at the knees by what amounts to either corporate timidity or creative cynicism.