Flicking the Switch
[i]Deus Ex: Human Revolution[/i]
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.
[i]Metal Gear Solid 4[/i]
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.
[i]Assassins' Creed III[/i]
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.