Deus Ex Memories

I’ve just finished my final training run as a nanotech-augmented super-agent. Nasty terrorists holed up in the ruins of the State of Liberty have captured one of my fellow agents, and it’s my job to get him out.

In real life, it’s 2002, and I’m just a guy in Wisconsin. My four-year-old son is asleep upstairs, and my very pregnant wife is about to go into labor.

She’s dealing with the stress her way — by watching videos and thinking calm thoughts.Me? All geared up and looking pretty bad-ass in a trenchcoat, I’m strutting through a military complex in New York of the near future.

I hear a mechanical whirr, and some stomping noises. There’s something at the other end of the dock. Something huge. It’s a two legged mechanical beast, looking very much like one of the hulking mechanized sentries from RoboCop.

Call it a robotic tank… call it an autonomous cannon. Whatever you want to call it, it’s massive, it’s menacing, and it’s between me and my goal.

I have never much cared for shoot-em-ups. I’ve hacked through many fantasy dungeons, in games such as Baldur’s Gate and Daggerfall, where exploration and travel, buying and selling, and conversation with in-game characters (NPCs) provide enough context to give meaning to the combat sequences. I have also played many “God games” (top-down strategy and resource-management games, such as Civilization and SimCity) and cockpit simulators (Flight Simulator, various X-Wing and Tie Fighter titles). I probably spent the most time with adventure/puzzle games (the one most people have heard of is Myst, but my history with that genre goes back to text games in the 1980s).

My encounter with the robot sentry in Deus Ex looms large in my mind, in part because it took place within the context of the first action game I played that attempted to simulate realistic present-day (or near-future) environments that I was expected to recognize. I’ve never touched a real handgun in my life, but here I found myself asking myself, “What good would tranquilizer darts do against that thing? What I need is a hand grenade, or a bazooka.”

After fruitlessly emptying the second or third clip into the sentry’s unyielding metal hide, I hear my wife calling from the next room.

It’s time.

It was weeks before I actually had the chance to fire the game up again, but during many a sleepless night with my beautiful baby daughter, I pondered what I could do in order to get past that sentry.

I guess I must have missed the part of the tutorial that said my target would turn red if it were pointed at an enemy, because when I finally got back to the game, I realized the sentry was on my side.

NSF terrorist on fire!  Napalm is good.At first, I tried to play each level in stealth mode, avoiding confrontation whenever possible. A few weeks later, I was deep in an underground complex, armed with a flamethrower and a chainsaw, hacking and burning my way through waves of enemy minions, when my wife came into the study to ask me something. Her jaw dropped. She had never seen me play anything like this before.

“But you like war movies,” I said. “You watch all kinds of make-believe death and destruction, and you can appreciate when the violence advances the story, can’t you? This game has a plot, there’s a moral issue at stake, and you’re encouraged to weigh the consequences of each action. Every level encourages you to find a way to avoid confrontation by sneaking in and out, even if only to save your big ammo for the climactic ‘boss battles’ that end each chapter.”

But my wife just stared.

After she went to bed, I replayed that level, trying to avoid killing anyone. I failed. Again, and again, and again. Finally, I had to go back for the flamethrower. After all, the fate of the free world was at stake.