Deus Ex: Human Revolution offers a wide array of challenges in its gameplay, and save for a few boss fights the player is allowed to select the way that they play. Hacking, stealth, combat, and persuasiveness are all tools that can leverage to tackle a level, but no one approach alone is the solution. Playing DXHR is about constantly re-balancing your strategy by selecting which skills to “augment.” And while it explicitly pushes you to work between its four “pillars” of gameplay, there is always another choice the player is expected to make which is obscured by those pillars: how are you going to deal with the human beings who stand in your way? Will you kill them? Will you avoid them? How do you plan on handling them? DXHR doesn’t throw a QTE in front of your face and ask you to make a moral choice. It envelopes you as you progress through it. Your potential targets are all sorts of people – some of them are clearly vicious, others dangers, and many are innocent and just happen to be in Jensen’s way. It’s difficult not to try and rationalize your decisions in light of the controversy surrounding your abilities.
For myself, Jensen was someone who could kill but had great reservations about doing so. I used this as a guide to selecting the augmentations he would install. He needed to be able to control the situation and not have his actions dictated by targets. I reserved his lethal firepower for use against professional soldiers, and desperate situations. I found the strategy to be an enjoyable one. Not being able to rely on stealth, I found myself trying to mitigate threat environments by persuading as many people as I could, disabling security, and then using non-lethal force to subdue anyone left in the way. It consumed a lot of energy along the way to use Jensen’s non-lethal take downs, but I felt it was a sound approach to the game’s challenges.
Eventually, Jensen must travel to a sea-based science facility where a world-wide signal is being broadcasted causing those who use augmentations to be driven to homicidal madness. Jensen himself is immune to the signal’s effects at this stage in the game, so he takes it upon himself to reach the facility and disable the signal. The problem arises, however, that many of those working at the facility required augmentations by the nature of their work. The ending of DXHR is commonly written off as being lackluster, but I felt that it was one of the most interesting and cohesive examples of challenge in a game that I’ve encountered. Here, when the world has fallen into chaos due to augmentation, the player is being challenged to justify the value of the same augmentation in how he or she uses them to preserve life, or concede that they are a grave danger to humanity.
In my game, Jensen was now faced with trying to avoid having to kill dozens, if not hundreds of workers who were entirely innocent. It was the most extreme target profile the game could throw at you. These were people who had absolute no ill-intent toward Jensen, but not only stood in his way, but were ready to try to kill you on site. I worked my way through the facility quickly using up my generous supply of tranquilizer darts, stun guns, concussion grenades. I exhausted my energy bars subduing crowds in hand-to-hand fighting. And when I had nothing left, I tried to attract people one at a time so that I could use a take down and then wait until I could recharge for the person. (Jensen can only recharge one energy cell without using items.) Even with the aid of the super-human abilities I’d accumulated over the course of the game, the odds were still overwhelming. And to top it all off, the non-lethal weapons I had been carrying left little room for lethal weapons.
Ultimately, I was faced with a predicament that forced me to re-evaluate the rules I had selected for the game. I reached a bridge that was crowded with the deranged workers. Even if I had chosen to enhance Jensen’s stealth abilities further, I no longer had anything to replenish my energy with. I couldn’t even try to use taken downs against them one at a time, as I would be quickly overwhelmed and killed when I drew the crowd’s attention. To my knowledge at the time, Jensen was the only one who’d be able to stop the signal, and I did have one option left. I could hack into a turret and kill everyone on the bridge from afar. I’d somehow managed to corner myself into having to look at the situation in terms of the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, and the game had forced me to abandon my rules. The turret cut them all down, but it was my fault.
The decision was rationalized by the notion that if I could make it through, then I would save more people. Of course this is asking people to die based on the presumptions of one person. Presumptions that I couldn’t be sure of, even if the people on the bridge agreed that turning off that signal, no matter what the cost, was the right thing to do. It was murder, no matter how you choose to look at it. In the end, given what my decisions had led to, I decided that Hugh Darrow’s message about the conspiracy surrounding augmentation was the message that needed to be broadcasted, even if it did scare people into banning this technology. Because it actually was scary.
I realize that DXHR is just another game, and the people who were shot on the bridge weren’t going to be missed, but challenging the player to justify the narrative that they are constructing in their mind is a powerful tool that was well realized. The impressions that the player makes in a game make it their own, and while my narrative didn’t quite make it out in one piece, the consequences of my decisions made them particularly memorable, and made DXHR my favorite game of 2011.
Note: #BoRT stands for Blogs of the Round Table. The preceding post was an entry to the January 2013 theme: Challenge.