Friday, August 31, 2012

Deus Ex Theme Post: Messy Beginnings

[This is part of a series of posts about the game Deus Ex, which, for the record, I recommend buying.]
[The series began with this post.]

I touched on this a bit in the previous post, and was going to leave it at that but a couple of things happened that made me decide to write a post on the topic.  One is that my computer is in for repairs and this computer can't play Deus Ex, another is that when I was thinking about the next post I was going to write, and thought it might get derailed in this direction.

Beginnings tend to be messy but we like having a date, so America started in 1776, July fourth if you want to be specific.  Except the stuff at Lexington and Concord happened on April 19, 1775 and the war didn't end until 1783, the Articles of Confederation kind of sort of failed so they were replaced with the US Constitution, adopted 1787, ratified 1788, and finally taking effect in 1789.  I've just given six dates that could be said to be when the US started, an argument can be made for any of them.  Beginnings are like that.

But even though beginnings are like that, and even though we know beginnings are like that, we tend to treat them as a single event and not ask, "Which one?" when someone talks about a beginning.  Deus Ex plays with that.

The two most obvious cases are the NSF and the Illuminati.

The NSF (Northwest Secessionist Forces) was founded sometime after the 2030 quake.  The goal was for several states in the Northwestern US to break away from the US.  This probably happened in 2031 or 2032, but the exact date is unknown.

The reason the exact date is unknown is that in 2042 the NSF (National Secessionist Forces) was founded in response to national gun control legislation and by changing what their first initial stood for and opening their arms to recruits from all parts of the country, the NSF became a much bigger threat.  Which is saying something given that the initial effort to put them down was considered a war.

One organization, two foundings, and two very different goals (initially for one geographic area to leave the US, then to completely get rid of the US and return to local rule throughout.)

With the Illuminati we actually get a member telling us about it as Dowd puts it:
It's true that our organization stretches back to the Order of the Assassins, or Hashishim, but not in the way you might imagine.  The order hasn't so much lasted as been continually revived. Adam Weishaupt started from scratch in Bavaria in 1776. But so did Thomas Jefferson a few years later. It's the IDEA that has lasted. The SYSTEM. Or the DESIRE, every thinking person's desire to give the world some decent organization.
 He gives one date and three foundings.  One can look up the date of the Order of Assassins (1090), Thomas Jefferson starting the American Illuminati not so much.

In that you have the idea of multiple foundings in its purest form perhaps, continual revival.  Constant change.  It's just that something stays the same.  Or perhaps, to be like Dowd, I should say, "It's just that SOMETHING stays the same."

New organizations pick up the pieces that the old ones left behind. Adam Weishaupt may have started from scratch, but at some point someone found out about the previous iterations and incorporated what they could of them, otherwise Dowd couldn't make the claim it stretched back to the Order of Assassins.

In a certain sense, MJ12, the main antagonists, are simply the next in line, though Dowd and the other surviving Illuminati would say they're perverting the idea.  But they have taken over the system, as Dowd puts it:
[...] the Illuminati laid the foundation... the multinationals, the global structures Majestic 12 depends upon.  Majestic 12 inherited a system that took millennia to develop.
Either Dowd is overstating the time it took to develop the system, or he's giving credit to people way older for than the Order of Assassins for the foundation they laid.  From 1090 to 2052 is a millennium if you round up, not multiple millennia.  Not by a long shot.  He may well be crediting older people, or he may be prone to hyperbole, or any number of things really, but this brings us to MJ12.

When did they begin?  Setting aside the foundations on which they built their power, MJ12 was founded at least twice.  Originally founded some time in the 1950s as a branch of the Illuminati it was refounded when it declared its independence and overthrew the Illuminati sometime between 2030 and 2035.

So when someone talks about MJ12, are they talking about an organization that's about 100 years old, or one closer to 20?  It can be difficult to say.

With the Triads something else is at work, the Triads trace their heritage to Triads past, which would muck things up anyway, but they also have traditions that can't really be all that traditional.

In the game, in Hong Kong, gunfire sensors are in use.  It makes it hard to wage a turf war with guns because the police will come running.  So they use swords and have woven it into the culture or their organizations even though, as one disgusted monk (they chose his temple to have a ceremony in) points out:
The grandfathers or the Triads all had Uzis.  Tradition... Bah!
Deus Ex seems to revel in the messiness of how we got here.  The Illuminati wasn't just revived once or twice, it was continually revived, the NSF had to go through two incarnations including a name change and an expansion of its goals to get to the game.

Consider UNATCO, the organization you start the game as a part of.  When was it formed?  Well we just talked about the intro where it says it was formed by executive order in response to the Statue bombing, but no.  That can't be the absolute start of UNATCO because UNATCO is secretly responsible for the bombing, as part of a successful ploy to get the US to join.  UNATCO was re-formed there just as the NSF was re-formed when it changed from Northwest to National and MJ12 was re-formed when it went from being a branch of the Illuminati to being at war with the Illuminati to overthrowing the Illuminati.

I'm not sure why there's this tendency toward messy beginnings, but given that it is called out in the game, as with the NSF's name change and the Illuminati's continual rather than continuous existence, I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt that when we see signs that point to a thing having multiple beginnings, that's intentional rather than inconsistency.

One possible reason for this that the game's setting was built out of 1990s conspiracy theories, and those probably tend to lead to rather convoluted histories.  I especially imagine that was the case in the '90s with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Balkanization of the Balkans.  A phrase I steal from Fred Clark:
It must have been hard to keep oneself fearfully confident of an impending one-world government while watching the Balkanization of the Balkans unfold. How do you manage to stay frightened of the coming OWG when even a unified Yugoslavia proves impossible to sustain?
Those invested in the conspiracy theories, those that the developers would look to when researching their setting, probably were getting very much into a messy beginnings state of mind: sure, it looks like things are falling further away from One World Government, but the conspiracy will just be reborn and that time it'll happen just like I told you.

That's one possibility.  Another is realism.  Note what I said about dating the start of the US, and note that I could have thrown out a lot more dates.  Then realize that the design team was working in Texas.  When did Texas start?  That's like trying to say how old France is given the stages that place went through.

Another is that they just liked it.


The messy beginnings extends beyond organizations.  When was JC created.  We know when he was born.  He was born in 2029, but the year before that the embryo that would become JC was implanted into his mother.  Said embryo was a clone of Paul Denton.  Was he created when he was born, when the embryo was implanted, when the cloned embryo was created, when the project to do these things was greenlit?

Consider this: the project that created JC had to first lead to identifying Paul as a viable subject, and before that may have even led to Paul's parents getting together with MJ12/the Illuminati* playing secret matchmaker, and the information on which this project was based dated back to the 1940s.  So when does the story of JC Denton begin, really?


The reason that I thought I might derail on to this topic on the next normal post is that JC and Paul's parents are soon to come up, and I see a similar thing going on there.  They had two sets (biological parents of Paul were murdered, then the second set adopted them.

Like the issue of foundings, no one ever stops and asks, "Which one?" when talking about the sets or parents.  On the one hand, there's probably a certain amount of realism to this.  Both sides probably assume the other knows which set is being talked about and it doesn't come up that often.

But I feel like the parent situation is handled less well and I can't help but wonder if the way multiple foundings were handled, which seems to have been, "We'll just throw them in and trust that the players can sort it out for themselves provided we give the occasional reminder that we do this sort of thing on purpose," played a role in the less than good handling of the parent situation.

I have not personally spoken to a developer about this, so this could be wrong, but as near as I can tell the idea of adoptive parents was added to the game later than a lot of other stuff.  There's no mention of them in the continuity bible, for example, instead it says JC ended up a ward of the state.

The only information outside of the game we have about the second set of parents is when someone wrote an email to one of the developers directly asking a question about parents and the developer responded that the person had confused the adoptive parents with the original set.

It doesn't seem to be something that was thought about long and hard, it seems more like someone said, "It would be great if we could say parent did X and Y," and someone else said, "Yeah, but parent was dead for 15 years by the time the opportunity to do either X or Y came up," and at this point someone, perhaps a third person, said, "What if they were adopted after their original parents died?"

And then everyone said, "Yeah, let's do that," and the result is a muddle where sometimes you don't know who they're talking about, and sometimes you know they're talking about one set but it really feels like this would make more sense if they were talking about the other.

And I wonder if the apparent decision to throw in two sets of parents with little explanation about which is being discussed at any given time was related to them already having built in several organizations with multiple foundings with little explanation about which is being discussed at any point in time.


Anyway, I think having messy beginnings where it's hard to pin down a single point where something started is generally a good thing in Deus Ex.  It lets you know that this is not a closed world where everything can be cleanly pigeonholed, instead you're standing in the middle of "It's more complicated than that" and you get a sense that not all loose ends can be tied up and not everything revolves around you.

I think that the similar ambiguity with the parents doesn't work as well.  It feels more like inconsistency in the game than the game faithfully creating a world where things are more complicated than you might like.


*With both on the same side at this point it can be difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins since, in fact, MJ12 is a part of the Illuminati.



1 comment:

  1. I'll be faintly surprised if the NSF doesn't turn out to be operated by a different ancient conspiracy. I've played Illuminati - I know how this goes. [grin]

    (All things are true. Even false things are true.)