We all become parodies of Sherlock Holmes when left alone where someone else lives. We draw conclusions, make inferences based on the inanest details. We analyze tiny details. The kinds of soaps, the number of pillows on the bed, why are there so many clown figurines? In the owner’s absence, our imaginations breathe life into the space.
That’s why Adam Jensen’s apartment in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is so heartbreaking. It makes no sense. It’s a parody of a caricature of the apartment a violent, single man might live in. Aside from the water out of the sink, the only liquid in the apartment is alcohol.
There is a coffee machine and a kettle, but no actual coffee or tea. Various pills can be found in every room. Money is stashed away in the kitchen cabinets, between the floor boards, and on bookshelves. Jensen’s in the process or disassembling or repairing no fewer than eight watches. He’s bought no fewer than four copies of every book he owns. Titles like The Miracle of Life and Super Electro Magnetic Fields jump out from almost every set of books.
For some reason there are 60 rolls of toilet paper.
The issue is that the game invites you to believe that Jensen exists when you weren’t looking at him. It begs you to consider that he has normal days where he buys cereal and toilet paper. But when and why did he buy 60 rolls of toilet paper? His mail can be found in every room in the apartment along with discarded cardboard boxes but he had time to fold and store his prodigious collection of towels?
Though I thought the game design of Uncharted 4 was weak overall, there was one element that stood out to me. Nate and Elena’s house. To say that it was a loving creation that conveyed more about its characters than any line of dialogue in that game would be an understatement. If Gone Home taught us anything, it’s that you can learn a lot about someone you don’t know by rifling through their stuff and where they live. (If this is the lesson you took from Gone Home you maybe should play it again.)
It’s a shame that the developers didn’t take the opportunity to build the mythology of Deus Ex or give some meaningful insight into Jensen. Sure, there are some readable documents in the apartment but these could have been anywhere. It might have been heavy handed but the broken mirror in Jensen’s first apartment says a lot about him. Jensen is uncomfortable being augmented, he can’t stand to look at himself, he’s frustrated by his failure at Sarif Industries, and he’s quick to anger.
Hub worlds in games like Mankind Divided should feel special. There should be little details to discover. Where is Jensen’s pile of cigarette butts? Is a few boxes and bowls of cereal the only evidence of his bachelor lifestyle? Cut scenes and dialog can define the world in broad strokes but these small, private spaces should tell us something about a character. They should work to shape the world, not just be a part of it.