Does Non-Lethal Really Equal Moral? Reflecting on Deus Ex: Human Revolution
[WARNING: SPOILERS WITHIN. This editorial concerns a major moment in the DXHR plot that, while not crucial to the development of the game, does concern its characters. It's also a moment that hinges on player choice and reading this article may color the way you go through that moment -- which is not what I want. I don't want to ruin it for you. Read this only after you've completed the game, or at least after the (highlight to read slight spoiler) return trip to Shanghai.]
I spent the majority of my time in my review playthrough of Deus Ex: Human Revolution going out of my way to protect human life.
It’s endemic to my personality, really — I’m not a ruthless guy. Even in video games, I struggle with embracing the darkness within me. I prefer to walk the path of light and to reach for the side of myself that pushes me to be a better person, not a worse one, even in virtual worlds of no consequence.
However, despite preferring my nonlethal weaponry, for the whole of the game I carried a tricked-out, modded-to-the-hilt, incredibly deadly combat rifle. Silenced, laser-sighted and capable of putting bullets through helmets like they were made of paper, I fired the gun only on rare occasions, and almost never at living targets. It was my “emergency” weapon, for which I carried enough ammo to get myself out of a deadly situation if I should ever find myself backed into a corner, surrounded by enemies and unable to escape. If my tranq rifle and stungun failed me, the combat rifle was my lifeline.
There was one moment, outside the requisite and much-discussed boss fights, during which I pulled the combat rifle. It was the one moment in the game when nonlethal would absolutely not do the job. It was the only moment, outside those fight-for-your-life boss encounters, when I felt not only that I had no other choice but to go lethal, but that there was no time for moralizing.
That moment was during Jensen’s return to Shanghai, during which Belltower security forces fire a missile at his VTOL aircraft. Jensen bails out; Faridah Malik, the craft’s pilot, bellies it down in a construction site. Within seconds, the place is swarming with Belltower thugs, attacking the VTOL with Malik trapped inside.
There are two choices here, although they’re not both obvious. One is to use the crashed VTOL as a distraction to sneak past the guards — a course of action that results in Malik’s death. The other is to set about killing or disabling every soldier in the construction site, and as quickly as possible.
Me and my combat rifle, we chose the latter.
It’s a curious thing about DXHR, and almost no other video game, that this situation even occurred. This is a game that asks you, point blank, before you have a chance to fight anyone, what your preference would be for how you dispatch your inevitable gun-toting, shooting-to-kill-you enemies. After the first mission, the game makes you feel how people are reacting to your choices and the way you handle those who oppose you, for better or worse. This is a game that, unlike virtually every video game ever made, wants you to think about the fact that you are taking lives, virtual though they may be. It’s a game that bestows you with awesome power, and then asks you if it’s right that you use that power. The decision to go lethal colors the way the story wraps around you, affects the endings you see, and changes how some people deal with you. DXHR tries to remind you of your morality and the fact that though the henchmen you fight may be faceless, they’re still people.
There’s been quite a bit of talk about the ability to choose in DXHR, and the ability not to kill people. Complaints about the game’s boss fights — moments when you’re forced to kill or be killed, regardless of whether you taser the hell out of your opponent or not — have popped up around the Internet, and I don’t think people like the guys at RPS are necessarily wrong for feeling the way they do. The fact that we’re even having this conversation, about how some of us feel cheated that a video game forced us to kill, is incredibly interesting.
Back to Malik, trapped in the VTOL. The battle was a fierce one — there is no sneaking in the fight to save that bird. Enemies are positioned on several levels around the construction site, with heavy weapons users on the ground and snipers on the higher floors. Toward the end of the battle, a huge mech is dropped from a helicopter. Saving the VTOL and rescuing Malik isn’t just a fight for her life and yours, it’s a race against the clock. I failed it several times, resulting in Malik’s death. More than a few of those failures resulted in Jensen’s demise as well.
But eventually, I did it, sprinting from enemy to enemy, using my augmented legs to leap up to higher floors and break the necks of (or usually just render unconscious) various henchmen. An EMP grenade dispatched the mech — a handy heavy rifle was turned on reinforcements as they streamed through a far entrance way into the construction site. When it was over, finally, the VTOL lifted off and escaped, Malik having affected repairs. (Full disclosure: I also unlocked the “Good Soul” Achievement, the reading of which is how I learned that saving Malik was even possible. However, earning it isn’t the reason I fought for her, as I reviewed the game on a Steam account borrowed from Square Enix, and therefore my Achievements weren’t really saved anyway.)
I stowed my combat rifle for the remainder of the game, and I never used my augmentations to kill after that. But looking back, was the damage done? Had I tainted Adam Jensen for choosing to become the superman the game had made me — and was that okay because I had done so for the best of reasons?
I’m not sure if the ends — saving Malik’s life — justified the means that meant the deaths of 15 soldiers. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, after all. But I do know that DXHR without Malik in it would have been a world worse off, and it was my choice not to play in that world. It required sacrifices, and perhaps it resulted in a stain on my character.
I wonder where the morality of this moment shakes out, especially for players who were put off by the idea of being forced into battle to the death in DXHR’s boss fights. This was something of the opposite situation, with the choice to take lethal action my own, but the corner into which players are backed into in this scenario is similar.
I also wonder if more games might be better served by forcing these moments of reflection and decision — asking “should you kill,” rather than demanding that you do.