Flicking the Switch


Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I didn't kill anyone in Detroit.

I was less a one-man army than a one-man cure for sleeping disorders. Shortly after I left the slums, local news was reporting on an outbreak of narcolepsy in the area. I certainly wasn't about to turn cop-killer when I had to infiltrate the local police station, but neither did I walk out of there until I'd put every officer inside to sleep. It made me feel ... coporific.

Not that I wasn't tempted to kill. The difference between a non-lethal and a lethal takedown is the difference between pressing or holding the square button. In that split second, my thumb would linger and I would perform a quick cost-benefit analysis of killing the particular goon before me: Did the goon deserve to die? Would the noise attract any co-goons? Would it be cool to watch the elbow-blade stabbing animation? Invariably, my thumb would lift off, keeping my takedown non-lethal, and an XP reward notification would pop up on screen: Merciful Soul. I felt a smug tingle of praise for my forebearance and gave myself a mental pat on the back.

In Detroit, my lethal elbow blades were like the toothpick on a Swiss Army Knife: sheathed and unused, because there was generally always a better option.

I didn't even kill the first boss, Barrett. He blew himself up with his own poor strategy of standing in the middle of a room and throwing grenades at walls. Sure, I may have hoiked a few red barrels to help him along, but the explosion that brought him to his knees definitely came from his own poorly-aimed pineapple.

When I got to Lower Hengsha, things took a turn. Belltower Associates were massacring innocents, starting with some particularly egregious overkill at the Alice Garden Apartment Pods. I felt for the residents, but had to swallow my outrage in favour of self-preservation.

Then Belltower went after my favourite character. Feisty, yet fragile; flirty, but flinty like Michelle Rodriguez. I couldn't save her, no matter how many times I reloaded. I became convinced that it was impossible.

I saw red, and not just because my health had dropped low. It was a twist I should have seen coming, set up for maximum impact with a bonding sidequest just moments earlier. Even Don LaFontaine must have gotten sick of announcing this type of plot development.

After Lower Hengsha, a switch went off inside me. Merciful Soul be damned: Screw Belltower goons, I'm taking them out, plus their bosses and anyone else who stands in my way — or who stands around the corner, up a ladder and behind a punchable wall with a computer I want to hack.


Initially I heeded the warnings of the Outsider and the loading-screen tooltips. I didn't know what High Chaos was, but if killing caused it, I didn't want to find out. I committed myself to the non-lethal options.

Playing as a pacifist in Dishonored adds drudgery. Going lethal allows you to use an all-day buffet of cool gadgets and powers: grenades, spring-loaded razor traps, wind blasts, explosive bullets and, of course, summoned hordes of rats. On the other hand, going non-lethal involves eating the same old porridge of sleep darts, chokeholds and — this was the hardest for me to get my head around — sneaking past guards without engaging them at all. Low Chaos felt like a measly reward for my abstinence, as thinly satisfying as an ascetic's sense of moral superiority. Dunwall is such a bleak place that it is hard to care whether its Chaos is particularly High or Low.

Like a dieter in January, I started well with my all-porridge fare, despite the Beating Heart dishing dirt on random guards like the catty faux-best friend in high school dramas. The Heart practically begs you to kill. I was tempted when I heard about the guard who killed a man for a pair of boots, but I held off and later the Heart said it again about a different guard, then another. Either there was a lot of killing-for-boots going on in Dunwall, which itself warranted further investigation. For starters, was it the same pair of boots, or different pairs of boots? Or did the Heart have its own, twisted agenda?

Then I got the mission to kill Daud, the master assassin who killed the Empress and did me out of a cushy bodyguarding gig with hide-and-seek detail. He also stole my gear, and there are few better ways to piss me off in a game. I felt that it would be within character to make an exception to my pacifist policy for this mission. Add to that a recently-unlocked ability that turns croaked enemies into a pile of dust, leaving no corpse behind to alert other guards, and it all came down to one ludonarrative conclusion: Screw these guys, I'm taking them all out.

I happily made my way through the Flooded District, leaving little dust piles dotted throughout. Once I reached Daud, I blew the cobwebs off my R1 button, which is for sword attacks, and blinked straight in to murder him.

Next level, like a dieter in September, I returned to the oats of pacifism, but I had indulged in a binge on the High Chaos buffet just once.

Metal Gear Solid 4

The first game I played in this grandaddy stealth series was the one where you actually play as a grandaddy. It's also the game that started my whole trend of trying not to kill in stealth games. I had heard you get a cool gun if you defeat all the bosses non-lethally, plus it seemed like an extra-hardcore way to hamper myself.

But then the game just keeps giving so many flavours of gun, with mods and stocks and so on. Curiosity got the better of me. While I still defeated the bosses non-lethally, I used my deadly arsenal on the standard soldiers.

After finishing MGS4 once, I was informed by The Internet that true Metal Gear Solid players do Ghost, No Kill runs: finishing the game with no alerts and, funnily enough, no kills. The rewards for doing so are Morrissette-ironic: for a Ghost run, you get a stealth camouflage item that makes you even more invisible (which presumably you don't need if you just got through without being noticed), and for no kills you get a bandanna that gives you unlimited ammo.

About a year later I heard Snake calling to me, so I decided to try a Ghost, No Kill run. It was painstaking, requiring me to learn each level in detail, master the Close-Quarters Combat mechanics and ruthlessly save-scum. I had to reload every time an exclamation point appeared above somebody's head. The "ZING!" noise when that happens became a Pavlovian trigger to hit the load menu.

My sticking point ended up being a solitary kill that I didn't even know I'd done until hours later. Stats on kills and alerts are only available at the end of each chapter. Each chapter has a number of different stages. At the end of chapter 2, the stats screen told me I had one kill. I replayed chapter 2 a number of times, but that solitary kill kept popping up.

I deduced that I must have accidentally killed someone in chapter 1. Exasperated, I decided I didn't want to replay that chapter, just to replay chapter 2 AGAIN, and that I wouldn't play MGS4 ever again after finishing it this second time, anyway. I decided to settle for just a Ghost run and went into chapter 3 thinking: screw the bandanna, I'm taking these guys out.

It was fun to play more aggressively and advance more quickly through stages, but I felt a nagging sense of incompleteness. I also felt a second-rate gratification tinged with bitterness, like when you kick your awesome sandcastle over after realizing that you'd dug the moat too deep and it had started eating at the foundations.

Assassins' Creed III

I climb on top of a house and walk for about 2 metres when a Patriot starts giving me grief, even though I liberated this stinking town. I'd only taken to the rooftops to avoid the annoying crowds of laughing children and marching bands on the streets.

The LIBERATOR OF BOSTON goes where he pleases, pal.

I have to follow a guy to his hideout to discover the rest of his conspirators, or something. The Animus nags me not to kill anyone during the mission, or else I won't achieve full synchronisation. I walk painfully slowly from cluster to cluster of townsfolk, taking refuge in a hay bale when the mark turns around. I then follow him around a corner, straight into a squad of redcoats. A half-dozen alert triangles start filling in on top of their heads, and I pull out my tomahawk.

Screw full synchronisation, I'm taking these guys out.

I'm hiding in a haystack and redcoats just keep walking past. Apparently if I kill 25 of them like this, I get a trophy. What was my main mission again? I'm sure Paul Revere or someone wanted me to go horse-riding. Maybe there'll be time for that once I'm done killing.


"Stop making me stab you!"

Yeah, I totally recognize that feeling of "I wanted to be a pacifist. Unfortunately, you've brought this on yourself."

Going lethal allows you to use an all-day buffet of cool gadgets and powers: grenades, spring-loaded razor traps, wind blasts, explosive bullets and, of course, summoned hordes of rats.

Or as I prefer to know them: "those things that I use accidentally on very rare occasions, causing me to 'tut' disapprovingly at myself and then immediately hit the quick load button".

Then Belltower went after my favourite character. Feisty, yet fragile; flirty, but flinty like Michelle Rodriguez. I couldn't save her, no matter how many times I reloaded. I became convinced that it was impossible.

I was similarly convinced, playing on "Give Me Deus Ex" difficulty, and committed to stop trying and move on; but


then I looked it up on the internet and found out it was possible with a lot of effort. I wasn't swayed from my decision yet; I loaded my current save in the chop-shop, and one room further I saw her lying dead on an operating chair. I gave in to the temptation to re-load the old save to make things right.

In this case I almost wish I had been locked into my course in an Iron-Man sort of mode, to live with the story I had made, like you did. I feel like that's of more worth than the achievement-chasing, save-scumming behavior that ghost/pacifist runs seem to encourage. Almost.

I totally did the same thing in DXHR, having got to the point danopian mentions and finding it an unacceptable situation. It took me about an hour of trying but the sweet, glorious victory-through-devastation was totally worth it. 2013's finest gaming moment, for me.

I haven't started AC3 yet, but I imagine my response to those damn full sync options will be much the same. "f*ck it, I'm just gonna have fun".

I have a feeling games put in these achievements and then test to see if they are possible, but not to see if they are pleasurable to play. Something can only be so difficult before achieving said object goes from satisfaction to exasperated relief that you don't have to do it ever again. Or at least the sort of "finally!" you get after putting off doing your chores for a while.

This describes my first run at every game like this I have ever played. I go in with the intention to not kill anybody... and then somewhere in there somebody does something in just the wrong way at just the wrong time and I lose my compassion for digital enemies.

In the past I've always tried to play these kind of games this way - maximum stealth and minimum killing. What I've come to realize is that I should play as it comes. Stealth, assassin, massacre. Whatever seems appropriate to the task at hand or to react to events as they unfold. Get spotted? Don't reload, unless it's your gun after killing the guard.

It makes for a more fluid, interesting gameplay experience and reduces save-scumming to mission fail events.

I sort of try to play as a pacifist in games that allow it, but how hard I try depends on how much of a difference it makes in-game.

In particular: seeing the high-chaos versions of Emily's drawings in Dishonored made me go back to an earlier save and be more merciful. In Deus Ex HR, though, I got the impression that killing people didn't matter to the game beyond locking me out of an achievement, and switched from dart gun to sniper rifle after I ran out of darts.

Then Belltower went after my favourite character. Feisty, yet fragile; flirty, but flinty like Michelle Rodriguez. I couldn't save her, no matter how many times I reloaded. I became convinced that it was impossible.

When I got to that section of the game, there was no way I was going to let her die. Just was not going to happen. Either I figured out how to save her, or I died too, accepting permadeath because I just wasn't sufficiently skillful to avoid it.

Fortunately, after a number of tries, I figured it out, and was able to finish the game. I tend to hoard consumables like a miser, and realizing that this was maybe the end of the game for me was motivation to blow everything in my inventory. In 'real life', of course, I wouldn't have had time to understand how serious the threat was in time to make that mental adjustment, but that's the miracle of Load Game.

And I didn't kill any of them.

In general, if I have the option of not killing, I always try to take it. I suppose I'd be willing to change my mind sometimes: I don't really do it for the achievement, I do it because I would rather not kill even virtual people, when that's allowed by the game. I'm sure I could be pissed off sufficiently to change my mind for a given person, but it hasn't happened yet.

You know, after thinking about it, that would be a harder decision if I knew the person I wasn't killing was going to make more trouble. I'm reminded of the early Firefly episode, with the guy who starts spitting threats at Mal.... I think I might have kicked him into the engine, too.

But in games, by the time you get to a Big Bad Guy/Gal, their plan is always finished already, and you're just neutralizing them. There's almost never an actual reason to kill them. The moral calculus would change a lot if you knew that being merciful would mean more civilians would be harmed when they started up their next Evil Plan.

And, of course, there's the simple fact that game villains are always caricatures. There's never any real complexity to them, or at least I can't think of any examples.

I made no effort to spare anyone in DX:HR. I shot, blasted, and stabbed my way through, using stealth only to set up better attacks. I play like a spider, not a mouse.

I started Dishonored, kept trying not to kill guys. Realized I was quick saving and quick loading over and over... gave up after an hour or so.

Thin_J wrote:

... and then somewhere in there somebody does something in just the wrong way at just the wrong time and I lose my compassion for digital enemies.

Scurvydog: losing compassion for digital enemies since Wolfenstein3D.

I always think that I'll be happier doing stealth runs, getting fancy achievements, basking in the adulation of lesser men.

Then I almost inevitably re-realize that a) I'm not that good at stealth runs, and b) vengeance-with-cool-toys is fun.

Good article, I've experienced breaking points just like this in most of the stealth games I've played, too. At some point, Sam Fisher has to take the Fifth Freedom, right?! Only so many jerkface terrorists can shoot at me before I finally decide I'm sick of either creeping by them at a snail's pace or subduing them with a lawn dart when I've got a backpack stocked with more weapons than Q's basement in a James Bond movie. It's almost like the developers say, "sure, you can play this without killing anybody...but it'll be boring."