Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Prague, and Setting Games in Beloved Cities

The most exciting thing about Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is that it takes place in Prague. It is the first time a videogame with such a budget has been set in a place that I know very well. The excitement of to see and inhabit a futuristic, cyberpunk Prague is what compelled me to play the game.

There is something special about seeing a place you have lived in be represented in a big release of media. The places we inhabit become anchors for our memories, which lingering in parking lots and on street corners. Whether we enjoy the area we live in or not, it still leaves an impression. To see that presented in a game validates our feelings for it. Surely it must be special if it caught someone else’s attention! And then we get to dive in, and see a familiar place from a new set of eyes.

Of course, sometimes it goes a bit sideways. Maybe the place was not adequately represented. The director or developers did not see what we see in them. The research into the location and its culture was poor. Sometimes, this still feels good. We know the truth about the place and we can prove everything that the movie or game got wrong. This can make us feel closer to the places we inhabit, as we defend them.

How Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Accurately Depicts Prague (or a Random European City)

I expected Ubisoft’s portrayal of Prague to be mostly garbage. It would be easy to say “This is Prague, but in the future!” and have it be very disconnected from the city I live in today.

Thankfully, it looks like the team at Ubisoft actually visited Prague (or spent a lot of time in Google streetview). They at least visited a European city. The roofs of the city, the colours of the bricks, and how the buildings are constructed is very familiar. Even the house number plates look like the ones used today. Compare the below screenshots with a Google Street view of the Vinohrady district

prague corner in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
new style buildings in prague, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

The problem is that this district is one of the “newer” districts in Prague. The buildings look different than the buildings in other areas of the city. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, mixes these styles together without historical consideration. There are also no landmarks that distinguish Prague from other similar looking European cities like Budapest. But it definitely looks like a European city, and it looks like it could be Prague.

The Many Things that Went Wrong

Czech is a notoriously difficult language for non-Slavic people, so that there are language errors is understandable. What is not understandable is how many simple errors made it into the game. There were at least two native Czechs working on the game (they did the majority of Czech voice lines) but they must not have been involved in proof-reading.

Some names have letters that do not exist in the Czech alphabet. Characters will mispronounce their own names in Czech. In some places, it is hilariously obvious that the team used Google translate to find certain words.

The biggest mistake when it came to displaying the written language is the use of fonts. Anyone working in the Czech language on computers knows that the number of fonts available is very limited. When you use a font that does not support Czech characters, whatever programs you are working in will default to a standard font. What happens then is you get text where certain accented letters look dramatically different, usually smaller. It makes what you are working on look horrible.

font not cleared for czech alphabet

I will not go through each wrong detail, but there are plenty of others who have.

It is disheartening to see so much attention paid to superficial detail but so little to the language and the people.

It is disheartening to see so much attention paid to superficial detail but so little to the language and the people. This can be waved away by budget, laziness, not enough time, or just ignorace. However, some depictions of Prague by Ubisoft are borderline offensive.

Some characters will speak fluent Czech but then switch to English with an accent that sounds more Russian than Czech. In English, these characters will mispronounce Czech names that they said correctly while speaking Czech. What’s worse is that the character’s English is often delivered with a Russian accent.

Russia and the Czech Republic have a long history and most of it is not good. Confusing Czechs for Russians is insulting to many for good reason. It also plays into the Western impression that any country that was behind the “Iron Curtain” is basically Russia.

I didn’t like the game’s portrayal of the red light district either. It was too flashy, too loud, something you might have seen in Amsterdam ten years ago. Brothels are nothing new to Prague, but they don’t take over an entire city block and turn it into a party every night. Part of Prague’s charm is due to the basement bars and clubs, which keep it tame outside. Kind of have to, since there is a 22:00 noise curfew in most parts of the city. The red light district as presented in game feels like an indulgence by the creators, rather than a reflection of Prague.

Prague’s History is not Present in the Game

There is no location within Mankind’s Divided Prague with a direct correlation to Prague as it exists today. If you look across the river, we have the skyline.

prague skyline Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Besides that, the monuments in the game don’t exist in the city, and the monuments in the city don’t exist in the game. Without the skyline and the Czech written on the walls, the city in the game could be almost anywhere in Central Europe.

In the end, the game’s version of the city is just a digital duplicate. A copy of a copy that was created by someone without any connection to the place.

So why base it in Prague to begin with? In an interview at Fenix Bazaar, the game’s producer Oliver Proulx says

This time around, we knew we wanted to go in Europe. Prague is a wonderful city with a very rich history. Its lore and contrasts all seemed to perfectly match the themes we wanted to explore in the game. Visually, it also works well with the juxtaposition of the old architecture and near-future design.

– Olivier Proulx, Fenix Bazaar, July 20, 2016

However, where is that lore and history in the game? There’s a nod to Karel Čapek’s plays which coined the word robot in the English language, and a nod to the story of the Golem but that’s about all.

It’s even hard to imagine that Prague would turn into the battleground for Aug rights as depicted in the game.

Prague might not have Berlin’s startup culture or compete with Silicone Valley, but it is a centre for people working in pharmaceuticals, robotics, and information technology. It’s also the main city of Czech protests against Soviet influence and to this day is the main convergence for the country for protests against the current prime minister and president.

Compared to the US and other Western countries, Czech people, especially in Prague, have a very “live and let live attitude”. The country, like any other, still struggles with racism and prejudices but the city is, on the whole, more publicly tolerant than most other places I have lived.

So to see a city of publicly tolerant, technologically minded people in a growing economy, used to protesting against government, become a slum city under authoritarian rule didn’t make sense. Looking around today, I feel it would be much more likely for Prague to be a city who developed augs, not hate them. I don’t remember the game ever explaining how this happened in Prague.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter. What we see in the game is an impression of Prague. Prague as a canvas for a commercial product, seen through the eyes of a tourist.

If this is all we can expect from games set in real locations, does it still have any value to set games in real locations?

My answer is a tentative yes. Despite expecting the game to fumble its representation, it is also the only game that I know of where I can walk around in a high fidelity version of an imagined cyberpunk Prague.

It’s an experience I would rather it exist with its many faults, than not exist at all. And when I come across the next poorly translated Czech cafe menu in the game, I will look out my window and ask the city I live in, “have you seen this shit?”. The city will smile back at me because we are connected, we understand each other, and a videogame will never change that.

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