10.12.2008

Semiotics, Extopia, and Gaming as non-metaphor - The four endings of Deus Ex: Invisible War

I recently came across an excellent book published online called Gamer Theory. It's a bit dense, a bit academic, but worth reading if you have the ability. Each "chapter"; Agony, Allegory, America, Analog, Atopia, Battle, Boredom, Complex and Conclusions; uses a different game to illustrate the chapter's central point.

The chapter that lead me to this work was the one titled "Complex", as it was linked to in a discussion about one of my favorite video games of all time, Deus Ex. The chapter in this book focuses mostly on it's sequal, Invisible War, a tragically flawed failure of a game that came as a big letdown to fans of the original.

That's not what the chapter is about, though.

I'm basically reproducing my understanding of this chapter because I feel it's significant somehow, and in my sleep deprived state I figure the best way to wrap my head around this is to share it.

I'll spare you the full intricacy of the plots and skip right to the endings, which -is- what the chapter is about. At the end of the game, the player can choose between four different endings, by following the advice/orders of one of four different factions. These four groups of people give you conflicting orders throughout the game, but it's only at the end where this really changes anything.

The backdrop is a future world in which nanotechnology is widely used to augment human physiology and create synthetic biological life-forms. A crisis event is the situation at the end of the game, as an artificial intelligence seeks to unify humanity.

It's tempting to cite parts of Gamer Theory in this explanation, but I'll try to stick to just pulling the quotes out of it that are by other people, cited in the book.

The first group is called the Templar. By choosing their ending, you kick off a holy crusade in which all synthetic life forms and nano-augmented humans are killed. Once they do that, they find some other crusade to go on.



The second group, the antithesis of the first group, is the Omar, who seek to use nanotechnology to create a sort of hive-mind of heavily modified humans. Their ending involves basically making sure that -all- of the factions fail. The war that ensues destroys all life on earth except the humans who were modified heavily enough to survive on the ruined earth, now hardy enough to survive the perils of space colonization.



The first and second groups set up two particular extremes, in the -personal- relationship between the individual and technology. Either complete rejection of the merging of humanity and technology, or embracing it fully. Either "Separate" or "Merged". This is more than merely two possible endings to the interactive story playing out, it's a cleverly crafted breaching experiment in which the player is exploring his own relationship to The Game, not just the game they're playing, but the larger game that games themselves aren't merely metaphors for.

So next, in addition to the antithetical states of "Separate" and "Merged" in the first two endings, there are two additional endings that represent "Not-Separate" and "Not-Merged". On this axis, it's not the individual's relationship to Technology that's examined, but society's.

The third ending is the victory of the Illuminati ("Not-Separate"). In this ending, the fantastic potential of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are used to create a "perfect" human world, governed by the old tried-and-true methods of authority, surveillance and data analysis. The systems of control are preserved by relatively dumb AIs guided by human overseers from orbit. Hundreds of years of peace ensue. The objective of the fourth ending is foiled.

“The delusions of paranoiacs have an unpalatable external similarity and internal kinship to the systems of philosophers.” -Sigmund Freud



The fourth ending was the only ending I saw when I played the game, because it was the only one that appealed to me. The significance of the four endings was lost on me, because I didn't experience them.

In the fourth ending ("not-merged"), a plan set in motion by the protagonist of the first Deus Ex game reaches fruition. At the end of the first game, the protagonist of that game merges his consciousness with that of an artificial intelligence that evolved from the government's attempt to use AI to monitor communication traffic for terrorist activity (the AI then classifies the government as "terrorist activity", which creates the "Crisis" of the first game that the recent film Eagle Eye blatantly ripped off"). The purpose of this hybrid human/machine intelligence is to reach an understanding of how humanity should be governed. The fulfillment of this plan (dubbed "ApostleCorp") is the creation of a kind of "cyber-democracy", in which each person retains their individuality (a point that is lost to many people in analyzing the four endings, in a sort of emerging cyber-luddite-ism that may eventually become a real problem when we reach this bridge for real), but many things are managed directly by the AI distributed throughout everyone's consciousness. Decisions on law and legislature can be truely democratized, for example, but decisions on economic production and environment are given over to the machine intelligence. A compromise, Helios says (that's the AI's name, you know, like the SUN), that is in everyone's best interest (obviously, the other three factions vehemently disagree with this viewpoint, in fact Helios has few potential allies besides the Player).

I have to say, watching all four endings, it's clear that this was the one the Designers of the game favored as well.



“One cannot go into exile in a unified world.” -Guy Debord


So we have these two axes, "merged versus separate" and "non-separate versus non-merged" The first deals with the individual's relationship to technology (panic versus euphoria), while the second relates to society's relationship to technology (paranoia versus extopia) ...but it goes even deeper than that.

“You played yourself.” -Ice T

In the "merged versus separate" conflict, we see a conflict that the person playing the game experiences every time they play a game. Are you separate from the game, mearly a player? Are you, through the act of playing the game, truly and wholly your avatar? Neither is absolutely true, that's why it's an axis, and the truth is generally somewhere in the middle.

In the "non-seperate versus non-merged" axis, we see a deeper level of conflict and paranoia. Are you really the player of the game? Maybe you're a non-player character in someone else's game? Maybe the game's playing you? On the other hand, the game can be whatever we make of it. The possibility exists of transcending all of these limits and abolishing the distinction between "gamer" and "game".

“The schizophrenic is the universal producer. There is no need to distinguish here between producing and its product. We need merely note that the pure ‘thisness’ of the object produced is carried over into a new act of producing.” -Deleuze & Guattari



The "game" we're playing now is a game of meaning-making. The outcome of the story as influenced by the player's decision is only a placeholder. What does it -mean- to you?

“Perhaps out of a desire for intelligibility, we can imagine that, in order to achieve the construction of cultural objects (literary, mythical, pictorial, etc.), the human mind begins with simple elements and follows a complex trajectory, encountering on its way both constraints to which it must submit and choices it is able to make.” -A. J. Greimas

There's a fifth ending, the significance of which I'll leave you to read Gamer Theory to work out for yourself, I'm still wrapping my head around it. Basically, it's an easter-egg in which members of all the different factions are partying together in a night club, having conversations that are actually the developers talking to each other through the bodies of all of the characters in the game.

“The prospect of becoming posthuman evokes terror and excites pleasure.” -Katharine Hayles

The relationship between merged, seperate, nonmerged and nonseperate can by represented by a Greimas Square, a tool for analysis in Semiotics



Compare that to another Greimas Square the author presents in the same chapter, relating "player versus worker" and "non-player (gamer) versus non-worker (hacker)"

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