Edit: This article was written in December 2015, 8 months before the release of Mankind Divided. Upon playing I discovered that the game trailer, which this article analyses, has little to do with the actual game. The Ivan Berk character isn’t even in it. It turns out that Visual Works, the Japanese studio that made the trailer, took plenty of artistic liberties with the script material they were given. Still, I’m keeping this article up as a glimpse of what could have been Ivan’s redemption arc.
I hadn’t been paying much attention to the announcement news of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Then a few days ago I collaborated with a couple other people in collecting screenshots from the trailers, for the purpose of creating an archive of stock images for art edits. In shredding the trailers frame by frame, I ended up paying a lot more attention to what was going on than I would ordinarily. Was it just me, or were patterns emerging with how male characters are portrayed in the Deus Ex trailers? What’s with all the seductive glances and shirtless scenes juxtaposed with beatings? So I did some digging to find out, and the result is this over-analysis of the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided trailer.
Before I begin, I must make it clear that Eidos are not shy about sexualizing their male characters. We should all be mature enough to understand that dudes in games are sometimes deliberately sexualized, just like ladies routinely are. This is especially true in the Deus Ex reboot, because objectification goes hand-in-hand with the issues raised by transhumanism. If you need proof, look no further than Anna Navarre, femme fatale and first mechanically-augmented character appearing in a Deus Ex game:
Anna is sexualized and violent, just like Adam. And like Adam, her traits are meant to imply she is traumatized. In Human Revolution, Adam fantasized about Megan during the painful surgical procedure of augmentation. The procedure represented the moment Adam lost everything he valued the most: his body-ableness and his kinda-lover. Even if the fantasizing is meant as self-comfort, why show this to the player if a connection is not meant to be made between Adam’s helplessness and his sexuality? Adam’s sexual fantasies were intercut with shots of him undressed and writhing in pain on a table. Uncomfortable as this might sound, this had sexual connotations. All further surgery scenes in the game feature covered-up patients, just like in the real world. Notice how he had no arms in the scene either, which meant his agency had been taken away. Robot arms might look cool, but they’re still prosthesis, and you can’t have those without amputation (disability!) occurring first.
The very first time we actually saw Adam was in the Human Revolution trailer. He was butt-naked and his body was being explored (violated?) by David Sarif analogues. In truth, we’ve been introduced to the character at a point in the story after he lost his agency. This is significant because it trained us to see Adam as helpless before we could see him as powerful.
In the very next scene, he was draped over his fancy recliner post-surgery, apparently trying to drink and smoke himself to death. Make no mistake, this is self-harm. This character does not value his own life anymore. And still no shirt. This scene is so iconic that it was depicted over and over:
The sexualization of Adam in Human Revolution illustrated his vulnerability in the face of having had his limbs amputated against his will. The game was about how violated and hopeless he felt.
In Mankind Divided, he’s apparently accepted and reclaimed his new body. This is said explicitly, but also in how he’s distinctly less sexualized. There are no more shirtless Adam scenes. However, there are these weird close-ups of his mechanical body parts that make them look like they could be any piece of machinery, not parts of someone’s body.
This tells me he replaced sexual objectification with aggressivity. He’s not cured, he just numbed his vulnerability with violence, and in a way, swapped one type of objectification with another. He’s little more than a weapon for others to use now, with even less agency than what he started with. The trailer wants you to think Adam finally has his shit together. That is not the case, and any semblance of self-acceptance comes through externalized violence. How is he going to heal from his trauma? He’s shown he can’t do it alone.
I believe this is where Ivan Berk comes in. From what can be understood in the trailers, he’s a young man who replaced his limbs with robot ones when it was fashionable to do so. When the fad died out he was left a social outcast, along with everyone else who traded their original body parts for robot ones. Unhappy with the way augmented people are treated, he becomes a terrorist.
The trailer is packed with iconic scenes, and all of Ivan’s are very charged. He’s gone through similar traumas to Adam’s, and just like Adam in Human Revolution, he too is vulnerable and sexualized. The big difference is that while Adam represses his reality through violence, Ivan accepts his and flows with it. He is the archetypal trickster, the mythological teacher character that never loses because he’s not even playing on the same board.
Ivan is first shown hiding his face from Adam with his hood and smirking like a shithead. He effortlessly messes with Adam’s head when any other character would have ended with an arm blade through their chest:
Let’s talk about his design for a second. He was likely named after the Russian folklore character Ivan the Fool, a trickster peasant boy who always gets his way in the end through luck, magic, and ingenuity. It’s also been no secret that Human Revolution and Mankind Divided draw heavy design inspiration from 15th-century Europe:
If the police exoskeletons are designed after heraldic armor, then Ivan’s hood is a peasant coif:
Could he be the archetypal trickster masquerading as a simpleton? Note how all the colors in Mankind Divided are desaturated, while everything in Human Revolution was yellow. The yellow symbolized a golden age of scientific innovation and potential for mankind, while Mankind Divided‘s greys are a metaphor for the failure in the fulfillment of that potential. Yet Ivan’s hood is bright yellow. If its design makes him look like a peasant while its colour shows he’s somehow keeping that torch of potential alight, that means there’s duplicity afoot. He is hiding a lot more than he lets on, just like a trickster.
Tricksters always transgress gender and sexuality boundaries, embodying whatever is necessary in order to get their point across. The scene with Ivan slinking away is intercut with shots of Adam desperately searching for him, with his shades down. Adam’s shades only retract when he feels safe, or when he’s interacting with a character he empathizes with. And these characters? All women. Megan, one of the Hyron victims, Malik, the woman killed in the terrorist attack. You get the point.
An explosion goes off, implying Ivan planted a bomb. In the very next scene he is tortured by the authorities, just like Adam was in The Missing Link chapter:
One one hand that scene is there to justify/explain to the player Ivan’s motives in being a terrorist, but it also serves a hidden purpose: to portray him as vulnerable and sexually submissive. This becomes a recurring theme through the rest of the trailer whenever Ivan shows up. As I’ll explain better further down, his submissiveness is not genuine, just like Adam’s empowerment isn’t either. With tricksters comes inversion: Ivan appears oppressed yet in truth he is in control; Adam appears in control but in reality he has relinquished his agency. Ivan can bend but he can never break. He “tops from the bottom”, so to speak.
When the torture scene begins, Ivan is being dragged by his mechanical legs. Just like with Adam, Ivan’s dehumanization focuses on his transhumanism. And it’s his legs specifically, because legs are a sexual symbol. He is overdressed from the waist-up, but he’s wearing nothing at all from there down.
Another thing about Ivan’s prosthetics: While his arms can pass for organic, his legs are digitigrade and animalistic. It makes him look like a number of different mythological characters, such as Pan and Robin Goodfellow. And all these characters are tricksters and also very promiscuous. See a pattern emerging?
Ivan transcends personal identity too. At times he blurs with other characters and he’s hard to pin down. While Ivan’s being beaten up, the trailer cuts to a closeup of his eye, just like the Human Revolution trailer did in Adam’s shirtless scene. The closeup reveals that Ivan’s eyes are the same make and serial as Adam’s (SARIF XB71). That’s three parallels here: The character’s vulnerability and sexualization during a scene depicting helplessness, the eye closeup itself, and the same serial number.
Then Ivan begs Adam for help and the scene shifts to Adam’s perspective. The background audio cuts until all that plays is Ivan’s pained groans – another sexual stand-in. Adam flashes back to Megan’s kidnap scene. Not only was Megan Adam’s lover, but female kidnap scenes in fiction are an euphemism for sexual possession. So now Ivan is simultaneously Adam and his sexuality. Think that’s a little bit gay? Well, remember what I said about trickster characters not giving a shit about gender boundaries?
If sexual objectification in Deus Ex is a metaphor for transhumanism, then it’s clear that despite Adam and Ivan’s similarities, they handle their augmented nature in very different ways. Adam violently represses it while Ivan embraces it. Like all tricksters, he is both a fool and an oracle. They always have something to teach. It could be, then, that Ivan will be the catalyst for Adam’s real healing.
Later in the trailer, Ivan stands beside the guy in charge of the terrorist organization he works for, Victor Marchenko, as Victor records a propaganda video. This scene plays out in a theatre that appears to serve as the terrorists’ headquarters:
There’s the submissiveness again. Both figures on the stage are illuminated from above, with Victor standing over Ivan, and Ivan quietly looking up at his master. The lighting and poses remind me of classical depictions of the Crucifixion, with Mary Magdalene gazing up at Jesus and feeling very bad about having been a hooker:
If you think I’m looking too deep into this scene, consider Eidos’ track record of hiding religious and allegorical imagery in the Deus Ex games. You could make drinking games out of the all of times Adam is compared to the mythological Icarus, and how many times JC Denton is compared to Jesus.
Victor certainly sees himself as a Biblical savior of the oppressed and not as the terrorist he is. I think it’s significant that when we’re shown Adam in this scene, he is watching from the shadowy seats, undetected. Victor might stand in the light above Ivan, but Adam stands above them both. Could it be that this is because Adam is still capable of being morally redeemed, while Victor is not? Don’t forget that this is Deus Ex, the bad guys are the Illuminati, or “The Enlightened Ones”. Their “light” really means knowledge of how to control, manipulate, and oppress. Adam might be standing in the shadow, but at least he’s not bathed in fake light.
Then this happens. In a total of about 10 frames, Ivan bows his head by just a degree. His brow furrows slightly. Adam proceeds to unleash a can of whoop-ass on the terrorists in the theater. I think that by this point in the game, Ivan has switched sides and is helping Adam. The nod is a signal to him. If I’m right about the painting reference, then Ivan fits as the allegorical Mary Magdalene – his regret about having been a terrorist mirrors Mary Magdalene’s of being a streetwalker. Ivan’s hood even invokes the headcovering she’s traditionally represented with. And, look, bonus gender boundary blurring.
(Bonus theory – The Virgin Mary is also commonly depicted standing next to Jesus in Crucifixion scenes. If the painting reference puts him in her place instead of Mary Magdalene’s, then that opens a whole can of worms’ worth of possibilities regarding Ivan’s relationship with the Dentons. Either way, we are moving out of Human Revolution’s classical myth allegories and towards the New Testament metaphors of Deus Ex 1.)
Footage of Adam murdering terrorists in a flurry of augments and blood is intercut with a painfully slow zoom of a placid Ivan kneeling and kissing Victor’s hand. This couldn’t be more sexual if he was wearing a leather gimpsuit and Victor had a whip. And it’s all out of Ivan’s volition, because Adam is already there and he could just run away. Ivan most likely does this to buy time and because he owns himself so hard that he doesn’t mind doing it. We never see Ivan’s lips actually touch Victor’s hand, which tells me that yep, he’s submitting but he’s still in control.
The final scene of the trailer begins with Adam defeating all of the terrorists with ease, until he meets Victor. Victor has no trouble wiping the floor with him. Adam is finally forced to face his hidden vulnerability.
The trailer ends as he turns into metal to protect himself from Victor’s fired bullets: a visual representation of his repression.
Considering this game is set during the birth year of JC Denton, it might be the finishing of Adam’s story. And if he is to heal and find true self-acceptance, then he will need help. I’m curious to see if Ivan will truly have a role to play in this, and to find out what happens to both characters at the end of the game.