Watching TV last night, an advertisement for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided came on. It featured Adam Jensen facing down a series of bad guys with weapons drawn. He blasts them with telekinetic powers and they go flying through the air. He’s using machine guns and other weapons in pitched battles with soldiers. He’s walking boldly through the streets looking for trouble, like Clint Eastwood crossed with Batman. The thing is, I am currently playing Deus Ex, and I didn’t realize it was an ad for the game I’m currently playing until the game’s title came up. I honestly thought they were advertising for the next Deus Ex already. The guy in the ad I saw, the tough as nails gunslinger, is not the guy I was playing. In fact, the two are so different that it is almost disconcerting. To me, that’s the problem with the game, Adam Jensen the character would not act the way I act in the game. To say it another way: Adam Jensen is just not the right hero for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.
I don’t know how you play the game, but whenever I get out the guns, that means something went terribly wrong.
Adam Jensen is kind of a nutty character anyway. He dresses like Keanu Reeves from the Matrix. He has facial hair that would require way more attention than a tough guy like him should devote to it. He’s always grumbling and dark, even when he’s talking to long-time friends and companions. No one seems to mean anything to him. Other times he becomes excessively verbose which leads to lengthy cutscenes of conversations I have trouble investing in. He also has a weirdly gothic sensibility – his bedroom looks like Dracula’s penthouse – that stands out even in Prague. I haven’t finished the game yet, but so far he seems to have exactly one emotion (cool) and no sense of humor.
But Jensen being weird isn’t the part that bothers me; some of my favorite game characters are weirdos (Psychonauts’ Raz, Katamari Damacy’s King of the Universe, and of course, Agent York). The problem I have is that he’s a very different person than the character I play. I spend most of the game crawling through air vents, sneaking up behind armed guards, and stealing things from absolutely everywhere. My character really should look more like Mr. Robot or Gollum, not like the Toughest Man in the World. Heck, I can’t stay in a gunfight for longer than a few minutes anyway, so I sneak and hide and keep it covert, but every time I see Jensen in a cutscene, I feel like I’m not playing the game they way I’m supposed to play it. I’m not playing as that guy. Imagine a Clint Eastwood movie in which he loaded up his guns, strolled up to the Saloon where the bad guys were waiting, and then snuck around back to crawl into an airvent. Jensen looks like a tough-as-nails gunslinger, but in my game he’s a sneaky thieving pacifist hacker.
The point is that if you want gamers to play as sneaky characters, let them be sneaky heroes. There are a lot of great character types you could design that would be consistent with that kind of guy. Even better, let’s get creative with our heroes. There’s no reason to make Jensen a white, male, swaggering hero if he’s going to play more like a cross between Lupin the third and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The hero needs to be consistent with the gameplay and shouldn’t make the gamer feel like you’re supposed to be playing a different way. Playing as a sneaky hacker as Jensen feels as discordant as playing a first-person-shooter as Mario or a cooking simulator as Duke Nukem. The Deus Ex games are doing a great job providing interesting worlds with situations you can approach from many different ways. That world deserves a more multifaceted hero who lends himself (or herself) to multiple gameplay styles. And, while we’re at it, maybe he could crack a smile once in a while.