Sprawling tech companies covertly influencing society through artificial intelligence. A lethal virus whose vaccine many people struggle to access, and violent secessionist militias who believe it's a government bio-weapon. Ordinary people caught up in shadow conflicts between plutocrats, who manipulate governments as they pursue grandiose dreams of transforming humanity.
This is not a description of our world in 2022 but of the world of Deus Ex, an acclaimed video game series that this week got an extra shout-out from the world's richest human, Elon Musk.
The chief executive of Twitter, Tesla and SpaceX has often professed his love of the Deus Ex games, which are renowned for their cerebral writing, philosophical themes, and commitment to letting players choose their own path through the story.
On Monday (28 November), Musk revealed a new level of fandom when he tweeted a picture of what seemed to be a replica pistol from 2011's Deus Ex: Human Revolution in pride of place on his bedside table, alongside a commemorative American Revolutionary War handgun and four opened cans of caffeine-free Diet Coke. "There is no excuse for my lack of coasters," admitted the thrice-divorced tycoon.
Whether real or a prank, the photo inspired confusion, mockery and psychological analysis across the world. Yet the parallels between Deus Ex's themes and Musk's own intellectual interests – from transhumanism through runaway capitalism to conspiracy theories – are so extensive as to warrant deeper analysis.
What does Elon Musk's admiration for Deus Ex tell us about his worldview? And in this dark vision of the future, would he be a hero or a villain?
At least one of the series’ creators has strong answers to those questions.
“Musk plainly imagines he’s the JC Denton of this world – a plainspoken everyman, standing up to the elite,” Deus Ex co-writer Austin Grossman tells The Independent, referring to the series’ trenchcoat-wearing protagonist. “As is obvious to everyone, Musk is the one with power and he’s just pathologically incapable of honest introspection.
“I would say Musk is like a Deus Ex villain, except that the franchise doesn’t have any villains as whiny and self-servingly delusional as he’s shown himself to be.”
What even is Deus Ex?
When the first Deus Ex hit game stores in June 2000 – sold on CD-ROMs inside big cardboard boxes, as was the style at the time – its effect was profound.
Set in the year 2052, and taking its name from the ancient Latin phrase "deus ex machina", meaning "god from the machine", Deus Ex casts the player as a cybernetically-enhanced government agent trying to unravel a conspiracy that involves Area 51, the Illuminati, and a wealthy industrialist who plans to become a digital deity by uploading himself to the heart of the internet. Its title, as this writer learned the hard way at age 11, is not pronounced "do sex".
"Deus Ex takes place in a dark near-future world where a small number of enormously wealthy people are deciding the fate of humanity," Grossman, one of the original game's three writers and now a novelist, explains to The Independent.
"The United Nations agent JC Denton" – aka, the player – "stumbles into the middle of this and winds up being a pivotal figure: the sole honest, humble man in a nest of power-mad manipulators."
Players have remarkable freedom to tackle problems as they wished, whether through combat, stealth, diplomacy, hacking, or exploiting the game's unusually detailed environment in unexpected ways. You could side with various ideologically distinct factions, change the plot by killing or saving major characters, and ultimately change the path of human civilisation.
The story is also startlingly erudite – sometimes to the point of dorkiness. "The need to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we can implement the same functionality with data-mining algorithms," a rogue AI tells you. "Corporations are so big, you don't even know who you're working for. That's terror," says a terrorist leader with your gun to his head.
You can debate the corporate funding of think tanks with an Australian bartender, or the purpose of taxation with an imprisoned insurgent. Other characters reference Thomas Aquinas and the US Declaration of Independence, while the game's three endings come with quotes from Paradise Lost, Voltaire, and Kahlil Gibran.
The result was a critical and commercial smash, earning a permanent place on "best ever" lists and inspiring a generation of game developers. It spawned a direct sequel, Invisible War, and prequel series beginning with Human Revolution, which focused on the societal impact of widespread cybernetic augmentation.
Musk’s bedside gun seems to be a replica of the Diamond Back revolver wielded by prequel protagonist Adam Jensen, who memorably sums up his feelings about becoming a cyborg super-soldier by growling: “I never asked for this.” Musk has name-checked the series many times on Twitter, ranking the original among his "all-time" favourites and saying he'd like to install it on Tesla's in-car computer systems as a hidden extra.
Perhaps this affection goes no deeper than the fact that Musk is an unashamed nerd who enjoys video games. The Independent invited Musk to tell us about his love for Deus Ex in his own words, so far without response.
But if his choice of bedside ornament weren't enough of a statement, Musk cited the series explicitly when describing his work with Neuralink, a start-up he co-founded in 2016 to develop brain implants that could allow human beings to commune directly with computers.
Asked on Twitter in 2020 whether this could help deaf people to hear, he said: "Yes. Could also extend range of hearing beyond normal frequencies and amplitudes. Deus Ex."
And in March of that year, as Covid-19 and government lockdowns swept across the world, Musk tweeted: "Feels like the plot of Deus Ex."
Musk hopes to ‘achieve symbiosis with AI’
The most obvious connection is Neuralink, which could easily have been the brainchild of Deus Ex's pompous biotech mogul Bob Page or Human Revolution's suave augmentation magnate David Sarif.
Unlike Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who is also working on brain-computer interfaces, Musk doesn't just see the technology as a way to control devices or help disabled people but as the start of a grand historic project to transcend the limits of the human brain and body and prevent our destruction by AI.
"As the algorithms and the hardware improve, digital intelligence will exceed biological intelligence by a substantial margin. It's obvious," Musk told Axios in 2018. "We're like children in a playground... we're not paying attention." Humans, he suggested, might be to future AIs what monkeys and gorillas are to us.
He continued: "The long-term aspiration with Neuralink would be to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence... to achieve a sort of democratization of intelligence, such that it is not monopolistically held in a purely digital form by governments and large corporations."
One day, Musk hopes that these devices could not only radically speed up human thought but allow human minds to be downloaded into robot bodies, linked together in digital telepathy, or restored from a backup after sudden death.
Musk has also had a hand in building AI itself. He has donated at least $20 million to AI research, and was a founding member of OpenAI, a San-Francisco-based firm that has wowed the world with its text-generating and art-generating software. Its long-term mission is to ensure any future intelligence powerful enough to outperform humans at most jobs – known as an artificial general intelligence, or AGI – is “safe and beneficial... to all humanity”.
This is exactly the kind of future Human Revolution explores. If human bodies and brains can be radically modified, who gets to control that process? Who profits and who loses out? What happens to the people who refuse such augmentations, or who cannot afford to refuse them? Would an intelligent machine be capable of independent morality, or could it only ever be a tool of its masters?
Likewise, all the games are concerned by how AI and digital technology could allow elites to centralise power by monitoring and manipulating global communications. They ponder what might happen if the mega-rich were able to monopolise the gains of transhumanism – or even buy themselves immortality, as some tech barons are already attempting.
Musk himself has opposed that idea, mocking rival rocket builder Jeff Bezos for investing in a Silicon Valley "anti-aging" start-up – although he does plan to get a brain implant.
Such big-picture sci-fi questions are Musk's stock in trade. He has argued for a universal basic income to mitigate the mass job losses that automation could produce. He wants to make humanity a "multi-planet species" so we can survive catastrophes such as global warming. He is worried that advanced AI could create "incredibly effective propaganda", influencing elections from behind the scenes.
Implicit in these fears is a focus on technology as the driver of social change. Musk isn't trying to meet these challenges by rallying new movements or electing new politicians but by building new machines. Similarly, Human Revolution presupposes that augmentation tech will transform society – while spending little time on other factors such as culture and economics.
A growing penchant for conspiracy theories
Musk's tweet comparing Covid-19 to Deus Ex was not just a stray remark. In the game, the "Gray Death" virus really is a government bio-weapon, created and exploited by power-hungry elites in order to bring about a new world order.
For weeks beforehand, Musk had been downplaying the risk of the virus, accusing world leaders of undue "panic" and predicting that there would be "zero new cases" in the US by the end of April.
He would later denounce lockdown measures as "fascist", changing his Twitter avatar to an image of JC Denton and declaring "FREE AMERICA NOW". He promoted questionable and sometimes conspiratorial claims about the virus and its treatment, and earlier this week scrapped Twitter's ban on Covid-19 misinformation.
To be clear, Musk has never indicated that he actually thinks Covid-19 is a globalist plot. But his response to the pandemic was an early sign of his increasing penchant for conspiracy theories, which are a central theme of these games.
"The original Deus Ex had one core premise: 'it'd be super intense if every conspiracy was true,'" says Robert Yang, an independent game developer and scholar who has written extensively about the school of game design that inspired Deus Ex (known as immersive sims).
"What if the UN has a secret SWAT bunker under the Statue of Liberty? [That] originally might have felt like 1990s hacker stoner slacker philosophy, but now smells like alt-right memelord paranoia."
Like The X-Files, Deus Ex is a grab-bag of every conspiracy theory going: staged terrorist attacks, men in black, and even grey aliens (sort of). The Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and Majestic 12 are all real, and the US Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) really is planning to take over the country using a plan called REX-84. In Invisible War, both of the world's most powerful factions are secretly run by the same shadowy group – as are a pair of rival coffee shop chains.
Even before the pandemic, Musk would often claim that negative rumours or news stories about Tesla were orchestrated by investors who had financially bet against the company, or even by the oil industry. In 2018 he suggested in an email to BuzzFeed that one of his critics was a "child rapist", giving no evidence.
He also had a playful interest in popular conspiracy theories, joking that aeroplane exhaust trails are "actually a message from time-travelling aliens" and tweeting (probably in jest) that "aliens built the pyramids, obv".
These days it's not so clear that he's joking. He promoted groundless innuendo about the attack on Nancy Pelosi's wife Paul. After taking over Twitter, he claimed that "far too many" of the social network's "verified" blue checkmarks were "corrupt" or "bogus", apparently believing that a significant number were improperly acquired by bribing Twitter employees (not impossible, but he offered no evidence).
He now regularly interacts on friendly terms with far right activists who traffic in hoax claims about the 2020 US election. In the past week he has begun complaining about "psyops", or psychological operations – a term for covert government influence campaigns that is levied promiscuously among more conspiracy-minded left- and right-wingers.
As it happens, Deus Ex's lead designer Warren Spector has said that he might not want to make the game today, admitting: "The conspiracy theories we wrote about are now part of the real world. I don’t want to support that.”
Spector declined to comment on Musk's views, telling The Independent through a spokesperson that he didn't think it would be a "fruitful discussion".
‘He’s like a Deus Ex villain, except whinier’
For Austin Grossman, Musk’s statements about Deus Ex betray a gross misunderstanding of its story – which he sees in part as a warning about letting people like Musk run the planet.
“It’s no surprise Elon Musk likes the Deus Ex franchise,” Grossman says. “I’ve met more than one billionaire, and they’re all like Musk... they can’t look in the mirror of fiction and see anything that doesn’t flatter them.
“Tech-industry entrepreneurs like him love fictions that glamorise hacker heroes with guns, but their brains seem to shut off once they’ve assimilated that first tiny thimble-full of story.”
He compares it with the way businessmen such as Zuckerberg are trying to build the “metaverse” depicted in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, apparently without realising how dark and dystopian it is.
Indeed, when Musk made Denton his Twitter avatar in 2020, many fans avowed that he was actually more like series villain Bob Page – a celebrity trillionaire whose face gets put on magazines while he covertly climbs towards apotheosis via political corruption, genetic engineering, and control of the internet.
Like Musk, Page is working towards a future which technology allows humans to merge with machines and become artificial gods. Like Neuralink, his plan would let him escape the limits of the human body, becoming “a new life-form, everywhere and nowhere”.
Both men are fond of boasting and taunting their critics, as well as making lofty pronouncements about the future of humanity. Musk says his mission is “to extend the light of consciousness to the stars”, while Page says things like “let me bring infinite power to the human body!” and “soon I will become pure energy – I will burn like the brightest star!”
To Grossman, Musk and Denton couldn’t be more different. He describes the first game as inheriting its sense of morality from film noir, in which “people without power are doomed but have occasional moments of honest, dignity and kindness” while the wealthy are “vicious and empty and undeserving”.
Denton, by contrast, is a descendant of Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe: someone who “actually asks questions and is capable of hearing the answers, and even being a little shocked and saddened by them.”
In the same spirit, Deus Ex’s three endings were never meant to feel satisfying but to make players uncomfortable, provoking them to ask questions about their own biases and beliefs.
“Musk,” Grossman concludes, “obviously never did.”