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.
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 needed was 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
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.
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.