Is our humanity bound up in our physical forms and limitations? If you replace parts, or almost all, of your physical body with synthetic replacements, are you still human? Are you the same person that you were beforehand? These are a few of the question that the third game in the critically acclaimed Deus Ex series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, raises. As usual, there will be some spoilers ahead.
In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you play the role of Adam Jensen, Head of Security at Sarif Industries- a company on the bleeding edge of human augmentation technology (the practice of replacing body parts with prosthetic counterparts, or inserting machines into the body to provide entirely new functionality). At the opening of the game, Adam is revising his security plans for a trip to Washington D.C. that the company’s top scientists will shortly be undertaking. Adam’s plans are thrown awry when Sarif Industries’ HQ is broken into and he is thrown through a plate glass window, shot in the head, and left for dead in a burning laboratory.
Having miraculously survived the events of the previous paragraph, Adam is extensively augmented at the behest of his employer, thus enabling him to both regain some semblance of a normal life and also punch through walls with his new robo-arms (amongst other things.) You experience a confused montage of the process from Adam’s perspective as the opening credits roll, and when the game proper opens, you’re back in action- with your new and improved- i.e. more than half robot- protagonist.
A lot of the game revolves around the question of the extent to which this process changes you- not just the trauma and travails Jensen experiences, but the very fact of augmentation itself. An interesting analogy here is the Ship of Theseus- a well known thought experiment of the ancient Greeks, recorded by Plutarch as follows:
“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Adam may not have had his entire body replaced- the game doesn’t at any point raise the possibility of “uploading” human consciousness onto new hardware (unlike one of the game’s sources of inspiration, anime series Ghost in the Shell)- but at well over halfway cyberized, the effects are clearly enormously significant. Late in the game, Adam states that “every time I touch something I wonder- just for a second, every time- if what I’m feeling is real” – which is perhaps the clearest answer the game gives to the question of whether augmentation changes who we are: the jury’s still out, but to Adam himself it still doesn’t feel quite right.