2000’s Cyberpunk Adventure ‘Deus Ex’ Really Did See the Future Coming
We speak to the game's writer, Sheldon Pacotti, about its Nostradamus-whipping predictions.
Deus Ex turns 15 this year, having been released on the 26th of June 2000, but its vision of the future is startlingly relevant. It's a world of corporations being uncomfortably cosy with governments, of haves and have-nots, of high property prices, of constant terror threats, of police militarisation, of web surveillance, of increasingly sophisticated AI, of military drones. Even some of its "that will never happen" moments have turned out to have a prescience that shits all over Nostradamus' track record.
If Deus Ex is still on your "to play" list and you don't want to know any plot twists: stop reading. This piece will throw out spoilers with the zeal of a six year old who, just before attending a kids' Christmas party, discovers that Santa Claus isn't real.
Set in 2052, you play as JC Denton, a nanotech-enhanced government agent in a trench coat. So far, so irrelevant. Trench coats have become the sole reserve of Matrix cosplayers and sex offenders, and we're still getting used to the idea of wearing computers on our wrists, let alone shoving them into our brains. Where the game resonates most strongly is via its most accomplished character: the setting itself.
I spoke to Sheldon Pacotti, the game's lead writer, about its increasingly uncanny predictions.
VICE: With the recent memory of global recession and predictions that 1 percent of the world's population will own 50 percent of its wealth by 2016, it's impossible to be unaware of the growing gulf between rich and poor. But wasn't 1999/2000 a more optimistic time? The US was riding high on the dot-com bubble and video games were enjoying year on year growth. Perfect Dark came out the same year as Deus Ex and presented a future of sterility, gloss, and a ton of lens flare. In contrast, much of Deus Ex's world is slums and destitution. Why such a bleak view of things to come?
SHELDON PACOTTI: Personally, I was sceptical of the dot-com boom from the beginning. When I joined the Deus Ex team I was already working on a dystopian novel, γ, which satirised the dot-com frenzy in the context of biotech and AI, circa 2037. The game's designer Warren Spector's vision of a future in which high technology empowers the elite felt to me like sober futurism compared to the dot-com delirium.
There are always those in society who fetishise dark future visions – and Deus Ex is not immune to the tendency of science fiction to exaggerate – but throughout the project Warren and Harvey Smith, its lead designer, put a premium on plausibility. The future needed to be a believable extrapolation of the present day. To this end, the team was always emailing each other recent headlines that validated the ideas going into the game.
Since 2001, the idea of a "threat from within" is never far from the public consciousness. In the UK, for instance, increasing numbers are arrested on ambiguous "terror offence" charges, while environmental protestors working within the framework of the law find themselves on "domestic extremism" watch lists. With terrorism being one of the plot's focal points, Deus Ex feels post-9/11 despite being released in 2000. What made the team decide to make the looming threat of terrorism such a key part of 2052?
Terrorism was in the air during the 1990s, though that's easy to forget. Events like the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings, in 1995 and '93 respectively, were still fresh on people's minds, despite the booming economy and the West's presumed hegemony. In the US in particular, there was a sense of rising domestic terrorism, of a standoff between government and individualists. This feeling fed directly into the National Secessionist Forces of Deus Ex, a "threat from within" that probably felt truer in 2000 than it does today, when terrorism in the West is largely perceived as originating from outside our borders.
You once talked about us entering an age of "excess computing power". This was with regard to games, but AI is so prominent in Deus Ex's narrative that I couldn't help but mention it. The last few years have seen advances in language synthesis and decision making (IBM's Watson in cancer diagnoses), facial recognition (Facebook's DeepFace), as well as self-driving cars. When writing Deus Ex, did you foresee AI advancing this quickly?
Even as I was writing dialogue for the AI's in Deus Ex – Morpheus, Daedalus, Icarus and Helios – I was sceptical that AI would take the form of a humanoid intelligence. My feeling has been that AI would come but that it would creep into our daily lives slowly, augmenting our abilities in seemingly mundane ways while subtly robbing us of decision-making power.
This particular notion of AI has arrived more quickly than I expected. I can't count how many times I've listened to people say how "the GPS" made them take a wrong turn. We are ceding control to software, not wanting to be troubled with things like reading maps or, perhaps soon, driving. Yet these advances always seem mundane once they become part of our lives. The pace of AI innovation has surprised me, especially in the area of brain research and modelling, but even with these accelerating developments I think software will continue to fit itself to human needs.
Though AI will be running our world, especially in the area of business, its only ideologies will be macroeconomics and logistics. A truly autonomous, self-motivated electronic intelligence remains as distant today as it was in 2000, probably beyond the 2052 timeframe of Deus Ex.
Towards the end, Denton discovers that all internet traffic is routed via a government surveillance facility. Over a decade ago, this seemed implausible. "The internet's just too vast to be monitored," I thought. Cue Snowden. Did you ever see web-monitoring facilities becoming a reality?
To me, a database providing "total awareness" of human activity seemed quite plausible, extrapolating from the web crawlers of the time, Moore's Law, and the universal hunger for information. What has surprised me is the eagerness with which Western governments have embraced such technologies to anticipate rather than just investigate wrongdoing.
I always expected that in a computer-mediated society our lives would become inherently public, but the voraciousness with which governments (surveillance), companies (targeted ads, recommendations), and all of us (social media) have vacuumed up this data has taken me completely by surprise, though in retrospect these developments sure seem obvious.
Denton has a conversation with Morpheus, one of the prototype surveillance AIs designed to monitor this sea of hijacked data. Morpheus has drawn some conclusions from its voyeurism binge, resulting in one of the game's most perceptive moments:
"Human beings feel pleasure when they are being watched." This is truer than ever. Many of us chose to sacrifice privacy and put a version of our lives in front of an audience. Yet the theme isn't touched upon again, and social media is conspicuously absent from Deus Ex. I'm being unfair, considering that the game hails from the age of GeoCities and HamsterDance.com. However, if you were to approach Deus Ex once more, would social networks have a place in that world? If so, what would they have looked like?
If I were approaching the Deus Ex universe today – and I must admit that I have no insight into what Eidos is planning for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – I would have to accept social networks as a physical fact of the world.
I think conspirators would concern themselves with personal identity and public opinion, constructing false personas and sabotaging the identities of real people. We've seen a single tweet ruin lives. In a story about truth and falsehood, the public personas of the characters would be a key battlefield.
That said, how would a game depict social media? Would some poor intern need to write mile-long Facebook feeds? I wonder if, mechanically, the impact of social media would need to come through in traditional news stories, cutscenes, murmurings of a city's inhabitants. In that sense, barring a game mechanic that allowed players to actively manipulate social media, I think social networks would simply amplify the power of media and public opinion, already a strong presence in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. But I would love to see a game mechanic that allowed engagement with a social network. You could have a lot of fun with a man-in-the-middle attack on an Illuminatus's LinkedIn profile.
More on technology and science and oh-god-we're-all-going-to-die-at-the-metal-hands-of-what-we've-made at Motherboard
In a Kotaku interview, you cited the devaluing of the human being as a theme you'd explore if you were to reimagine Deus Ex. Any other themes that you would like to get your teeth into?
Not that this theme isn't present in Deus Ex to some extent, but the dehumanisation of warfare through automation is a trend I would want to explore. The calculus for using force changes dramatically when you don't have to risk your own people's lives. We're familiar with this from governmental drone strikes, but imagine what an organization willing to use suicide bombers would attempt with drone technology.
Cyberwarfare between nations – and the success of governments in suppressing aspects of the internet they don't like – is another realm of societal conflict that suddenly seems like a plausible part of the world's future. In a Deus Ex game, I would be tempted to touch on cryptography, dark nets, and the accelerating arms race between secret subcultures and the governments that would observe them. To create a truly "secret" society in the future, you'll need to be a master of cryptography and computer security.
More from VICE Gaming: