August 13, 2013

What I Learned About Myself from Playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution

So last year Steam was offering a 75% discount on Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It seemed like a no-brainer to download it and see what the fuss had been all about. Then I kind of forgot about it for a while...but then played it through over a few months.

As I got about halfway through, I realized something quite profound in the way I was playing the game: I was actively trying to not kill people.

Now, you have to understand that this is a fundamental shift in how I approach these games. In the original Deus Ex back in 2000, I was trying to kill things as soon as possible. I am pretty sure I killed someone before the title screens had finished running. Running around in a FPS/RPG hybrid flinging frag grenades and rewiring turrets to gun down your enemies was quite enjoyable.

But now, here, I was sneaking through vents to avoid patrols. Using stun guns to take out guards. Flinging CS gas grenades to knock out mobs of people who wanted to kill me. Gas grenades! I accidentally killed a guard in a stealth takedown and I felt bad about it.

What the Hell was going on here? It's not that I have a problem with killing in video games. Half of Skyrim is a bloody mess thanks to my character, they're never getting the stains out of my suit of armor in Amalur and I've laid waste to entire fictional terrorist groups and Middle Eastern nations in whatever latest version of Call of Honor on the Battlefield just came out. And it wasn't like I killed no one; I finished off the next to last boss by dumping a clip from a grenade launcher into his chest.

But more often than not, I was going out of my way to keep people alive.

I'm wondering how much of this has to do with my age. I turned 40 last year. I have seen and experienced a lot. Some of it very good, some of it very, very bad. And outside of gaming I find that I am often quite irritated with how we all treat each other. That in this short time we all have, too many of us seem content to spend it by making other people miserable.

So is that now translating into how I play video games? Does that mean that, when presented with an opportunity to avoid death, I am more apt to take that path now than I was 10 years ago?

I think it depends on how the antagonists are presented in the game. With few exceptions, the "bad guys" in Deus Ex: Human Revolution are passive. They are content to go about their patrols whether you are there or not. They don't hunt you down. Except for the bosses, and in those instances you are put into a killing situation.

Compare that to a game like Mass Effect 3. First off, a lot of your enemies aren't even human, so that makes it a lot easier to pull the trigger. And when they are (Cerberus), they are either coming after you or being such evil assholes that they flat-out deserve to meet the business end of an assault rifle. They aren't Johnny Paychecks walking a route in a shipping port.*

In fact, besides the bosses there is only one guy in Deus Ex: Human Revolution that you could say deserves to die. And you can't even kill him. I think...truth be told, I never tried.

The themes of trans-humanism, while interesting, weren't as remotely resonant for me as was the realization of how I played the game. And that is a huge compliment. For all the complaints about the boss battles, or the inability of the game to keep talking about trans-humanism without lapsing into conspiracy tropes, the design of Deus Ex: Human Revolution was able to reveal something about me to myself. How many games can claim to do that?


* To drive this point home even further, there is one level in Deus Ex: Human Revolution where you are hunted down. A trap is set for you that you have to escape. And on that level, I had no compunctions about killing when I had to do so. But even in that level, when I could achieve my goal without killing someone I would do just that.


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