I opened the box, and within it discovered a sheaf of love letters.
There I was, hunched in the corner of my attic storage space, the afternoon light taking on a voluminous, golden quality as it cast rays through ten years' worth of dust. The box had been pushed into a back corner, and it looked old, its hinges rusted and green-tinged. As I pried it open, the lock snapped like brittle glass, flakey bits of metal sticking to my skin. I pushed open the lid, and there they were: letters on letters, an era's worth of ink-stained adulation.
Dear Solid Snake,
My name… well, my name's not important. I just wanted to write you because you have been such a huge influence on me over the last several years. The adventures we've undertaken together, the journeys and their terrible destinations. I still remember stealing aboard that military ship, hard rain sheeting onto the deck; the panic of the guards as the militia attacked…
The letter continued like that, detailing the thrill and mechanical satisfaction of the Metal Gear series, how its convoluted story at once beguiled and charmed us, how its sandbox levels let us experiment with so many complex, varied systems. I was struck by the author's enthusiasm and skill for recalling the smallest details—minor characters I had forgotten, techniques and tricks previously relegated to the deepest recesses of Metal Gear fan forums.
I put the letter aside and thumbed through the rest of the papers, each one much the same as the last. This person loved the games that I loved, and more than that he understood them; he had lived through them in much the same way that I had. As one recollection stacked on top of the next, I realized that he was dancing about the edges of some sort of looming, universal truth, a recognition of how and why we enjoy certain video games as much as we do. It was there at the margins of his letters, too big to bring into focus but impossible to ignore.
"Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a Deus Ex game." It's a simple sentence—pointedly, ironically simple, even. Of course it is a Deus Ex game, you may be thinking. It's right there in the title.
But much like the game to which it is referring, that simple sentence is far more complex than it seems. Within those nine words lies a raft of connotations and promises, shortcomings and hopes that only a specific group of people will understand. Namely, people who played and love Deus Ex.
Human Revolution doesn't make gaming history so much as re-create it note for note.
Released in 2000, Warren Spector and Ion Storm's seminal game created a complicated, singular template that influenced a decade of titles in its wake—a combination of complex first-person exploration like that found in System Shock and Thief, the action-filled gunplay of first-person shooters, and the deep CRPGs of the late 90's. The finished product was at times a lumbering and ugly thing, but also a sublime work of design—each level was a playpen of interweaving paths, immaculately designed and wonderfully responsive.
Eidos Montreal's Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a true sequel, then; but not just to the original Deus Ex, but to that game's various progeny, too. Conversations get a dose of Mass Effect, negotiations take on a touch of Heavy Rain. The stealth mechanics are brushed up with a hint of Crysis and more than a hint of Metal Gear Solid 2, and combat and cover are helped along with a lift from Rainbow Six: Vegas. And yet Human Revolution is also something more than the sum of its storied, well-regarded parts.
I spent the next 27 hours reading through every letter, each valediction leaving me more engrossed than the one before it. The unidentified author took great pains to illustrate and recreate the myriad things he loved about every single game, and as I read his words, I began to feel a kinship with him. The ache in my lower back faded, and I fell into a sort of tunnel vision, poring over letter after letter, ignoring my discomfort as I relived the past.
Dear Mr. Fisher,
I hope this letter finds you well. In fact, I hope this letter finds you crouched in a shadowy corner, poised to incapacitate some hapless North Korean soldier! I wanted to write you to say hello, and to introduce myself. But more than that, I wanted to thank you...
Dear Commander Shepard,
I don't think I can put into words what your saga has meant to me…
Dear Mr. Chavez,
Hi there. You don't know me, but I've been following your exploits for a long while, from your time in the Army Rangers to your recent missions in Rainbow Six. I wanted to write because...
Remember the time, with the guard….
Hours bled into one another, and when I looked up, today had become tonight, and then straight on into tomorrow.
Midway through my first playthrough of Human Revolution, I found myself awake at 4:00 AM. I had been exploring the rooftops of the sprawling hub level in China's Heng Sha island for the past seven hours, lost in the satisfying *snap* of video-game pieces fitting together. I contemplated forgoing sleep to continue playing: It was only 4, I told myself. I can catch a nap tomorrow afternoon.
It had been a long time since I'd had that particular conversation with myself, and it felt good and bad in equal measure.
Eventually I did go to bed, and upon returning in the morning, realized that I was not so much playing a game as an entire collection of games, bits and pieces reworked into an interlocking pattern that was at once intoxicating and terribly addictive. To play Human Revolution was to indulge in a rich stew of my deepest gaming memories, and for a good long while I couldn't get enough.
I even found myself enjoying the game's flaws—the AI can get a little bit weird, but without occasionally weird AI, it wouldn't feel so much like Rainbow Six. The stealth is overly punitive, but as a result it hits a trial-and-error rhythm that hugely evokes Splinter Cell. The boss battles are out-of-place and odd, but the dread and frustration they inspire recalls Metal Gear Solid 2 to a surprising degree.
Human Revolution's story, ambitious though it may be, eventually replaces its focus on character with a broadly interesting but ultimately vague stew of technobabble and proclamations about evolution and mythology. But more than so many similar games before it, Human Revolution isn't a game about broad narrative scope; it's a game about details. A broken mirror. A gas station sign. A hidden email conversation. An inappropriate ladies' room visit. The clocks you didn't know were ticking, as the game measures your every action… or simply allows you to think it is.
And so to enter the world of Human Revolution is to discover a dusty box filled with letters and love, a collection of correspondence painstakingly addressed to a dozen of the greatest games of all time. It's fitting, then, that the game it channels most of all is its own progenitor Deus Ex, the one that set the rest of them in motion. The strengths and flaws of its design and story become interlocked to the point that they are oddly indistinguishable. Human Revolution doesn't make gaming history so much as re-create it note for note, a transcription so flawless that my appreciation of it is as much about the quality of the recreation as it is about the contents of the work itself.
Ten years of sneaking and hiding, of mastery and progression, of unfolding conspiracies and dark-hued sci-fi have come to fruition. The question of what's next goes unanswered. But for now, it's enough that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is in every way a true Deus Ex game.
What more could we have asked for?
A newcomer-friendly video describing the choices and mission design of DXHR, aseembled to give a sense of what the game is all about.
A round-up of five well-designed elements of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and why they work so well.
Part one of our retrospective letter series looking back at the first Deus Ex.
Our retrospective letter series continues with part three.
An index of all letters can be found here.