• 09.14.11

How Real Science Shaped Game “Deus Ex”‘s Tech Magic

The popular game series Deus Ex taps real-world science for its latest installment of a transhuman dystopia.

How Real Science Shaped Game “Deus Ex”‘s Tech Magic

Will Rosellini is a science fiction purist. So much so that when his favorite video game–Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex series–started phoning in the science, he offered to consult for free so their next venture would ring a little more true and present a plausible future of enhanced humans.


Will Rosellini

Rosellini helms a research company, the Dallas-based MicroTransponder, that develops implantable wireless neurotransmitters to help control disorders such as tinnitus, pain, stroke-induced motor loss, and post-traumatic stress. The technology uses tiny electronic devices inside the body to electrically stimulate, reset, or override faulty nerve cells.

“I was a fan of the first game, which was based on a lot of these ideas,” says Rosellini, a former pitcher with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who went on to get a master’s in computational biology, law degree, MBA, and, soon, PhD in neuroscience. “It’s a thinking man’s shooter game in the sense that it responds to a player’s strategy in different ways. The second game [Deus Ex: Invisible War] was less popular, and I think one of reasons was it got lazy on the science side. When I volunteered to be a science consultant in 2008, I said, ‘Let’s imagine where today’s research can go in 20 years.’ I have a sense what’ll be out in the next 10 years, so the 10 after that wasn’t too difficult to extrapolate. A lot of that science is intertwined with the plot and explained within the game.”

The result–Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a role-playing shooter that comes out August 23–extrapolates MicroTransponder, prosthetics, robotics, and other current augmentation technology into a vision of how technologically enhanced people might gain superhuman abilities and at what cost. Human Revolution is the third in the series, but a prequel to the first game, Deus Ex, which takes place 25 years later and features characters further augmented by nanotechnology. Human Revolution‘s time line is close enough–the year 2027–to plausibly depict how today’s technology might evolve to optimize human performance.

Sarif Industries

“Will came along at the right time and opened our eyes to things that we didn’t even dream possible,” Human Revolution‘s lead writer Mary DeMarle told a San Diego Comic-Con audience last month. “We built a timeline that traces the history of augmentation, creating new things, and predicting how would it get out into society. We wanted to ground it in today, and make something where everyone could say, ‘I can see the world going that way.'” The game’s protagonist Adam Jensen works security for Sarif Industries, one of the biotechnology companies behind the futuristic tech, and becomes enhanced himself after surviving an encounter with violent intruders.

Mary DeMarle

Merging real science into science fiction entertainment is an increasing trend as audiences become more tech-savvy. For the game creators, learning about existing mechanical augmentations opened up a flood of creative possibilities in character design and story. DeMarle and her team created a wish list of character abilities–such as super strength, X-ray vision, the ability to turn invisible, and high-speed healing–and tapped Rosellini to explain the science behind it to facilitate more credible incorporation into the plot.

“We would turn to Will and ask, ‘How feasible is this and, if it isn’t, how do we justify it from a technical or scientific basis?'” DeMarle later told Fast Company. “What was most amazing to me was that Will’s response was usually akin to: ‘Oh, researchers at such-and-such a university or company are already working on projects similar to that.’ He would then provide us with enough scientific and technical information so we could turn around and describe, in a very technical way, how each mechanical augmentation works. So you might say that every augmentation in the game has some basis in reality–even the most far-fetched ones!”


Deus Ex: Human Revolution

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.