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.

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15 Comments on Does Non-Lethal Really Equal Moral? Reflecting on Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Aids

On August 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Besides this game is about as deep as an anime().

Deus Ex: HR is perfect for Paultards. Lots of conspiracies, most people DON’T EVEN GIVE A .

Steve

On August 29, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I dunno. The original Deus Ex, Alpha Protocol, and even Army of Two: The 40th Day pretty much put you into forcable situations where there is no morally “right” choice. It’s a cop-out really. The decision tree can only branch so much before the winding plot gets out of control.

I always appreciated the cold precision the Hitman games provided. Empathy and emotion were useless to Agent 47. You didn’t need a side story or reason to not kill a target because as far as Agent 47 was concerned, it was just another paycheck. Avoiding collateral damage was the bar from which we measured 47′s almost mythical efficiency. We all wanted a Silent Assassin rating for doing a mission, but for some of us even that wasn’t enough. Doing a Silent Assassin, no shots fired, accidents only, suit only run just “seemed right”. Even if the game rewarded you abolutely nothing for doing so. It’s one of those nice things you play in your head for RP’ing a game where there is little RP’ing mechanism to begin with.

Phil Hornshaw

On August 29, 2011 at 3:40 pm

@Steve

This whole discussion is more or less in response to this: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/08/22/70336/

And this:
http://arstechnica.com/gaming/news/2011/08/in-defense-of-the-boss-battles-of-deus-ex-human-revolution.ars

Ryan

On August 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm

It can be morally permissible to take a life in order to defend another. Anyone willing to kill for profit gets what’s coming to them, not that it’s justified to cause wanton slaughter, but if stealth and non-lethal don’t work, a couple rounds through some helmets are in order.

Brandon J. Clark

On August 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Paultards? As in Ron Paul-tards? What a ing tool you are! Every single post just stinks of horse. My GAWD you are a ing moron, Aids!

Ryan2

On August 29, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Boring, pointless article. Also, Ron Paul. That is all.

justin R Billings

On August 29, 2011 at 6:09 pm

I think the people you have to kill really wouldn’t leave you another choice. If we let them live given the nature of those characters 2D status they would keep coming until one of you was killed.

About the whole have to kill them thing. a good way around it is concussion and gas grenades, with a few energy restoration bars.

doofus

On August 30, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Wow. A moral dilemma… for 12 year olds maybe!

I can’t see a trained agent, officer, marine or whatever the hell this protagonist is being gun-shy.

Kill or be killed… yeah… got over that one back during puberty.

Phil Hornshaw

On August 30, 2011 at 8:05 pm

@doofus

The entire game is technically a “kill or be killed” situation, or at least it can be taken to be that. That doesn’t mean you have to go around murdering everyone you come across. In fact, many people who have been writing about the game have been discussing the very real moral implications of killing indiscriminately in the game precisely BECAUSE you don’t have to. There’s also the consideration that, as an augmented human, Jensen has a great deal of power that normal people don’t, and how he uses it — responsibly, or not — is one of the focal points of the game. Think of Spider-Man or Batman, both of whom are constantly being threatened with death, both of whom choose not to take lives, precisely for the reasons above.

The game’s major theme is about humanity, and whether you lose your humanity through augmentation. It’s a very real moral quandary for adults, not 12-year-olds.

jobias

On August 31, 2011 at 6:29 am

So, I actually got this achievement using non-lethal methods. It is very much possible, especially after multiple tries so that you can learn where everyone is. It takes a combination of EMP grenades, stun gun shocks, tranqs, non-lethal takedowns and a lot of energy snackbars but it is very much doable. And believe me, once you pull it off you feel like the ed Batman.

Phil Hornshaw

On August 31, 2011 at 8:11 am

@jobias

Yikes. I did try that after the fact and I think perhaps you ARE Batman.

Hobo

On August 31, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I have been playing a no kill play through myself, however I found out recently that it was ruined because I did kill someone in the tutorial. :facepalm: I managed to do this mission on a no kill run through too. It was VERY frustrating because I didn’t have the sprint augments that make it worlds easier.

I was faced with a choice at one point though: I had finally saved Malik and was watching her fly away then I looked around and found one of the snipers on the ground, dead. I was crushed. I had fought so hard and won only to find that one guy had fallen to his death after I knocked him out. So now I had to decide, do I keep going, or reload my save and try again.

I tried again, and managed to do it by the skin of my teeth.

PS Mind this is all before I found out that one kill in the tutorial ruined my no kill run. :D

Rager

On September 5, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Very nice article, although the overall premise is sort of lost on your key example.

Below is a clip I took earlier today of the Malik incident. No killing, and no elaborate stash of goodies in Jensen’s inventory.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdf0rHtzFdQ

To kill or not to kill. It all depends on how hard you’re willing to work. That’s the brilliance of DXHR. Now boss fights on the other hand…

John

On September 11, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Huh, I actually did the exact same thing. Non-lethal the entire game but at this one focal point I decided, “No, GET THE AWAY FROM MY MALIK!” and just went guns blazing. I decided in that moment that these guys were no longer innocent guards or naive street urchins, they were cold blooded killers. Killing them to save an innocent life was justified.

Looking back, I wish I had also killed the men who invaded the hotel in China, killing all the innocent people to get to the hacker. I almost did kill them in disgust, but decided against it in the hopes that by only leaving them all unconscious a greater authority would discover the massacre and arrest them all and bring their slaughter public. But I came to regret that decision when I realized Belltower had enough control to keep it suppressed from the public. Next time I play the game, those bastards will get whats coming to them.

I never did, and never will, kill a person in that game who is merely doing their job as a guard, or some stupid street thug whos only trying to scrape by. But the moment they turn their guns on the innocent, they loose my empathy and get a bullet in their head. Protecting and avenging the innocent is imo of a higher moral then the desire to never kill under any circumstance period.

Paultard

On July 25, 2012 at 2:57 pm

FYI for the guys who are wondering about “Paultards” consider the context. This is politics. Paul Denton was the hero from the original Deus Ex.