Broadly speaking, transhumanism is the ideology behind improving and transforming the human body using technology to overcome biological weakness and increase intellectual and physical prowess. Widely represented in works of science fiction, many games portray transhumanism either as the core of the story, or simply an element present in the lore.
Hearing the term “cyborg ninja” is bound to make your 12-year old self jump (unless we’re talking about Kai Leng. Even your 12-year old self hates Kai Leng), but there have been mature depictions of augmented martial artists in gaming.
Some of the earliest, literal “cyborg ninjas” appeared in the Mortal Kombat series, in the faces of the cybernetically enhanced Lin Kuei warriors, Cyrax, Sektor and Smoke. Though their high-tech suits hide their enhancements, their fabulous tactical-dreadlocks are in full display. Wearing identical suits in the original game, differentiated only by colour, their designs deviated over the course of the series and started looking less like flesh-blood people with colourful clothes and more like the deadly half-machines they laud to be.
Another letter-to-letter bearer of the title, Metal Gear Solid‘s Cyborg Ninja (also known as Grey Fox) is a wildly popular character. Along with his augmentations and skills, he bears the necessary plethora of psychological issues every character in the franchise simply must have. Not a single sliver of flesh can be seen on the glistening metal body, and the entirely featureless faceplate with the single red eye insinuates his decreasing humanity.
From the same franchise, Raiden is famous (or infamous, depending on which game we’re looking at) for his cybernetic enhancements. With an almost entirely cybernetic body, leaving less and less of his face untouched, he is known for unceremoniously wrenching the spotlight in MGS2, and then saving face (no pun intended) in Revengance. Both of the aforementioned MGS character also utilise nanomachines (detailed below).
Though not a ninja, Adam Jensen has become synonymous with cyborgs and augmentation. The mechanically enhanced protagonist of Deus Ex: Human Revolution keeps the shades of his past-future counterpart JC Denton, but ditches the nanomachines for cybernetic implants and mechanical limbs. The aforementioned shades, which are welded to his face and can slide into his skull, are on par with the tactical-dreadlocks regarding stylishness, but at least they incorporate a HUD. Also, lore-friendly wall-hack.
I would have mentioned Nathan Spencer from the NES and arcade classic Bionic Commando, but after the reboot stuffed his dead wife into his mechanical arm, I feel dirty just for mentioning him.
In the case of nano-technology, rather than listing characters I will discuss two franchises in which it is a core theme.
In the Metal Gear universe nano-machines have been separated into three generations, each improving the features of the previous one and adding new bonuses. Initially the nano-machines served to inject adrenalin, nutrients, sugar, nootropics, and Benzedrine. These machines also had the ability to either restrict or stimulate muscle function. The second generation added hacking capabilities and monitoring of vital signs. The third generation added water purification and alcohol negation, along with a battlefield control system by the name of “Sons of the Patriots”.
The other major franchise dealing with nano-augmentation is Deus Ex. JC Denton‘s sunglasses do come off his face, and he looks entirely human. Nano-augmentation is entirely painless, though very few people are compatible with it, and all unsuccessful operations are fatal. Nano-augmentation works on the basis of the nano-machines replicating within the host body. The nanites are not directly responsible for the enhancements, rather they allow the body to create new, organic proteins which provide abilities and attributes not naturally possible.
The Spartan-program of the Halo franchise is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of bio-engineering in gaming. The operations are performed on the candidates at a young age and carry much risk. Material is grafted onto the skeletal structure to increase the endurance of bones, but this can cause growth-defects. A protein-complex is injected into the muscles to increase mass and density, but this can cause fatal cardiac increase. Hormone regulation increases growth process, but suppresses sexual drive. Boosting of blood vessel flow near the subject’s retina increases visual perception, but can cause permanent blindness. Altering nerves to greatly increase reflexes can potentially cause Parkinson’s disease. The augmentation process is incredibly painful to the subject, and the results vary greatly, with low success rate.
Appearing across many mediums, not just video games, the iconic Space Marines of the Warhammer 40,000 universe are another example of bio-engineering. While instantly recognizable by their powered armour, underneath the metal plates lies extensively modified superhuman flesh. The Adeptus Astrates, as they are otherwise known, go through a rigorous set of trials after which they are implanted with nineteen unique bio-engineered organs to complete their transformation. Possibly the most important of these implants is the so called “Black Carapace”, a hardened plate placed directly under the skin layer on the initiate’s chest. Besides lending additional protection, the device connects to the nervous system, and can interface with Space Marine armour, allowing for additional battlefield analysis and info.
Prominently shown in recent movies Elysium and Edge of Tomorrow, exo-suits are also the main new gimmick in the latest installment of Call of Duty. Rather than a suit of power-armour, exoskeletons are more of a frame. They attach to each limb as well as the spine, and have points of articulation at each joint. They increase the user’s physical abilities such as strength and speed, as well as contain cloaking technology. Exoskeletons are depicted as either ergonomic, thin metal structures, closely hugging each body part of the user to allow for manoeuvrability, a complex net of hydraulic pistons anchored a few centimeters away from the skin, or as the less-colourful little brother of the loading-mech from the Alien franchise.
The Nano-suit of Crysis fame is more of a second-skin than a suit per-se. The powered, tight-fitting combat suit was engineered with alien technology, and it bonds with the wearer on a genetic level. The suits granted their wearers superhuman strength and speed, contained a cloaking system, could drastically increase durability and, through a high-tech visor, gave the user night-vision and real-time battlefield data. Due to the alien technology involved, some unforeseen side-effects came from wearing the nano-suits. The suit is semi-organic, constantly evolving and bonding with the user, first achieving symbiosis, then reaching a point where user and suit became a single entity.
It became increasingly harder to remove the suits and could only be done through surgical means, often resulting in permanent (must be emphasized due to other side effects of the suit) death for the wearer. Due to the merging of operator and suit, should the wearer die but the suit remain undamaged, the deceased could live on as the suit. If the suit is then donned by another, over time the initial wearer’s consciousness would be imprinted on the new wearer, and eventually even the body would morph to resemble the appearance of the first soldier. The nano-suit could just as well be considered an entity on its own, but since it is technically worn and increases the wearer’s various abilities, it fits the exo-suit criteria.
Transhumanism is a staple of contemporary science fiction, and the wide variety of its depictions stimulate the imaginations of gamers and movie-goers alike. The idea that we can improve ourselves by way of technology has captivated us for many a year, and with the rapid technological advancement of today along with numerous projects currently under way, some of the technologies listed here may become reality sooner rather than later. How terrifying and wonderful.