Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an older title at this point and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will be shipping next year (we hope, it’s been delayed until August now). I recently replayed Human Revolution in preparation for Mankind Divided’s eventual release, and because the director’s cut version which included the Missing Link DLC went on ludicrous Steam sale.
I bought Deus Ex: Human Revolution, originally, because of how much I adored the original Deus Ex. The sheer number of moments in the original game where I’d take an action I’d assume would be curtailed by the game’s design (as was so often the case in Half-Life or other titles) only to be rewarded by a fork in the story just utterly blew me away. Gaming has had branching storylines for a long time. My first encounter with it was Wing Commander. But Deus Ex had this uncanny ability to predict the moments when I might interfere with what was otherwise scripted events, and be ready for whatever I could throw at it. What it did especially well, was give me non-lethal, and indeed non-combat options to resolve conflicts.
Human Revolution carries on with this tradition, though perhaps not as well as I would’ve liked. Ignoring the boss fights, because that’s a topic that’s been covered by a whole host of other parties, Human Revolution offers us, through Adam Jensen, a broad array of tools to solve the game’s basic problem: an armed bad guy stands between me and the objective. You’re explicitly given the choice, after the prologue (where the choice is there, but profoundly obfuscated), as to whether or not you want to go in with a lethal weapon, or a non-lethal weapon. Either way you’ll be able to re-arm once you’re on site, but the fact that you have to explicitly choose the level of force you want to approach the game with is a welcome callback of the original Deus Ex’s handling of the “minimum force approach.”
Aside from the armament options, you have the ability – as a cybernetic super-soldier – to take people out in hand-to-hand combat with startling swiftness. Here, again, you have an explicit option to do so lethally, or non-lethally. Lethal is messier, noisier, and you lose the pacifist achievement… but they stay dead. Non-lethal takedowns are permanent unless the victim is discovered and woken back up by a comrade. The decision to be lethal or non-lethal has tactical, as well as moral, implications which help force the decision even if a player has already made up their mind that every bad guy needs a bullet in the head. In this way, Human Revolution does a brilliant job at encouraging the player to think about each kill. I’m not going to claim that killing some pixels in a video game amounts to murder, but a story about violent actions is richer when those actions are examined choices – the stakes for our character are much higher than they are for us.
In one sequence, you have the possibility (though definitely not the necessity) to rescue your adrenaline junkie chauffeur from an ambush that leaves her pinned and helpless while she tries to engineer an escape. She urges you to leave her and get on with the mission, but the writers have done a helluva job investing you in her as a character, and if you do just leave her, her subsequent execution scene is absolutely, heart-wrenchingly brutal. Trying to save her using non-lethal methods is especially difficult, and this is, I think, one of the game’s greatest moments. “How committed are you,” it silently asks the pacifist, “to your path of not killing? Would you kill to save Malik?”
True to Eidos’ exceptionally flexible writing, it is possible to save Malik using non-lethal force. Damned hard, but possible. Doing so feels positively heroic and remains one of my favorite gameplay experiences in any video game, ever.
Dialogue-combat is also a pleasantly welcome non-violent conflict mechanism and what’s brilliant about it is if you’re bad at it, or you just would rather get into a shootout, some opponents can be talked into a shootout and at least one can’t really be talked out of it. Even in dialogue, the CASIE module, which seems harmless enough but when you think about it is actually kinda rapey, provides a form of violence-through-words (and chemistry) nuance that a player may come to weigh as an alternative to lethal force.
The problem with Human Revolution is that unlike its ancestor, the decisions you make to kill or not don’t ever really get noticed or mentioned by the game except maybe in the form of a Pacifist achievement if you do the whole game without killing anyone. In Deus Ex, perhaps prescient of how police violence would become a focus of societal discussion, the rest of the UNATCO troopers give you shit, essentially for being ‘soft on crime’ if you aim to resolve conflicts with a minimum of violence.
But at least Deus Ex has gone out of its way to leave you the option, and for that, the choice to kill or not kill remains meaningful.