When Games Matter: Choice and Boss Battles in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say about who we are and the world we live in.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game about choices. You choose how to accomplish missions as each provides multiple paths. You choose whether to use lethal or nonlethal force with the enemies you encounter. You choose how to interact with those around you. These choices give the player a sense of ownership of your character. While you play as Adam Jensen, a man who was unwillingly augmented (genetic and mechanical enhancements to one’s limbs and mental capabilities—people who receive such treatment are know as “Augs”), you are confronted with so many choices that Jensen begins morph into whoever you want him to be.

As I was progressing through the first few missions of DX:HR, I noticed a trend of complaints about the game on Twitter. Apparently DX:HR has boss battles and apparently many players felt that these battles contradicted the central design, namely its commitment to choice. I recently defeated the first boss in DX:HR and thought it might be interesting to analyze each battle in turn as I progress through them and discuss whether these battles contradict the game’s design philosophy.

**Minor Spoiler Ahead (discussion of the second core mission of the game)**

The first boss battle is Jensen’s first encounter with an “Aug.” Given the game’s narrative, namely the presence of Augs who have special abilities and enhancements to their bodies, it follows that a battle with an Aug would be more difficult. That said, the first boss is something of a “bullet sponge,” an enemy that soaks up an inordinate amount of punishment from your gun. The first boss, however, went down more quickly than I thought he would and consequently didn’t irritate me as much as it seems to have irritated others.

The real question, however, is do these battles contradict the game’s commitment to choice by forcing the player to take lethal action? I have been playing a stealthy, nonlethal character. I try to avoid enemies altogether when possible and use nonlethal force when confrontation appears inevitable. There appears to be no nonlethal way to approach the first boss battle.

I appreciate DX:HR for making me take lethal action against this Aug. Life does not always present us with multiple choices. Sometimes there is only one real choice–survival. For a game predicated on choice to remind me that choice is a privilege seemed important, necessary even.

Where the first boss battle disappointed me was in the lack of response from Jensen. Given that I had made a commitment to accomplishing missions in a nonlethal manner, I expected Jensen to react more strongly to this turn of events. Perhaps he could have attempted negotiating with the Aug from behind cover. I would have liked to see Jensen, after the fact, at least reflect on being forced to take lethal measures. I realize that these are far-reaching demands but if games are going to feature choice prominently we should expect games’ narratives to reflect our choices more accurately.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • Steven Sukkau

    Deus Ex only gives the illusion of choice. I decided to start playing with guns-blazing but I didn’t have the health or the ammo to keep it up very long. When it comes down to it, you have to play stealthily, though you’d never know it because of all the details in your control.

    Whether you decide to purchase invisible augments or can see through walls or lift refrigerators the result is the same, be sneaky, don’t set of alarms and you’ll succeed.

    However, the illusion is completely stripped away during the boss encounters, but the game is only showing it’s true colours here, you never really had much choice.

    It’s not unlike the hacker who is remotely controlled through his augmentation, we gamers were only ever pawns in the hands of Eidos Montreal, playing the game the way they always intended.

  • http://critdamage.blogspot.com Brendan Keogh

    Hi Drew

    Firstly, a disclaimer: I had quite a lot of trouble and quite a lot of restarts on each of the bosses so that probably contributes to my hatred of them as much as your relative ease with the first boss might have contributed to your tolerance. :p

    I’m certainly not one to argue that games always have to give the player choices and freedom and what-have-you. Some of my favourite game experiences are the ones that are linear (Modern Warfare), largely scripted (Uncharted 2), or otherwise treat me like a jerk (Limbo). A huge part of the pleasure of games is not just choosing to act but being acted upon.

    For me, DXHR isn’t so much about ‘choices’ as it is about ‘options’. I think it is best played not via predetermined “I will do this, I won’t do that”, but rather prioritizing one way of play (say, stealth) and then having the option to improvise and do something else if need be. There’s always another way.

    So for me the problems with the boss battles were multiple. Firstly, not the fact they took away choice, but they took away options. There was no room for improvisation whatsoever. Either I dropped my useless weapons to make room in my inventory for the dozen or so machine pistols laying around the room, or I died. Sure, arguably, here you could say my choices of what augs to upgrade etc. did matter because they affected the outcome of this battle. But I don’t enjoy DXHR for choices I made, I enjoy it for options I have.

    But the boss battles were frustrating for other reasons, to. Firstly the bullet sponge one. It’s inconsistent with the rest of the world that ten shotgun blasts to the head won’t kill a dude not even wearing a helmet, regardless of how augmented they are.

    Secondly, if you had been playing stealth, the cut-scene before each boss battle verges on insulting. It seems as though the boss is waiting for you, has been watching your entire journey so far. In a Metal Gear Solid way, this is just jerky and undoes all your hard work in getting that far on the mission. Plus, it makes no sense for Jensen to just wander down a dark hallway whenhe has been so careful while you were controlling him.

    So yeah, I hated the bosses. I won’t go into more detail as you have not done the later ones yet (certainly, the first boss is the least guilty of all these things I just ranted), but I find them frustrating not because they are difficuly, but because they are insulting, as Katie Williams said so succinctly here: http://alivetinyworld.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/bossed-around/

    All that said, I am glad that some people don’t hate the boss battles. I honestly envy you. The rest of this game is so beautiful and brilliant and I love it, and I wish the boss battles didn’t mar it for me like they do. Really interested to see your takes on the upcoming bosses.

    Brendan

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Steven Sakkau,

    I think Brendan (comment below yours) makes a good point that sort of answers your complaint when he says the game stresses options. Choice may be the wrong turn of phrase.

    I have talked to people who have played and enjoyed playing as a tank-type character that goes into missions guns ablazing. I can see this being difficult but I think its doable. I personally, I am a big fan of stealth games so I was immediately drawn to playing stealthily.

    I think with regard to hacking–I think you may have a point–given how much hacking I have had to do in the early stages of the game, I don’t really see how anyone would get away with not spending points on that ability.

    That however does not make DX:HR a bad game–in fact in some ways it makes it a good game–its core mechanics are teaching you how to succeed at it. You are going to be frustrated if you don’t utilize some of its features.

    I would have to play through again as a tank-like character to confirm whether its not giving the player the “options” that it advertises.

    Anyway–thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Brendan,

    I appreciate your comment about Deus Ex:HR being more about options than it is about choices. I think that a more precise phrase for what I am trying to get at.

    I completely understand your frustration with the boss battles and I expect the next two to get more frustrating. If I had had more trouble with the first one, I would probably be singing a different tune–though I think in my post I expressed frustration with the first one even. Its certainly frustrating for a game to encourage the option of stealthy, nonconfrontational, nonlethal play and then force the player to use tools which she/he has not made a practice of using and has not developed.

    I am going to sound like a jerk for saying this but I had carried an assault rifle and had been collecting ammo for it on the chance that I was forced into a significant lethal encounter–so I suppose I was more prepared for it.

    I am totally with you on the cut scenes–the cut scene leading up the first battle was ridiculous and broke the immersive feeling that I had devloped from being meticulously careful to avoid detection up to that point. The bosses being bullet sponges is also understandably frustrating. This reminds me of significant “battles” in the original Splinter Cell trilogy–those battles were always the complete opposite–big name enemies in Splinter Cell always went down the exact same way as any other enemy–I loved that about the SC games.

    I am still a little on the fence about these battles though–because part of me appreciates the game forcing you to use tools with which you are not entirely comfortable. I agree with most, if not all of your complaints, I just wonder if there isn’t value in game taking you out of your comfort zone. I suppose it brings up the question of when a developer crosses the invisible line of expecting too much of a player.

    Anyway, thanks for the feedback–I look forward to writing about the next two. Hopefully this week will open up some more time for me and DX:HR!

  • Peter

    I haven’t played this game at all, so I could be totally off with this statement, but it could just be a matter of experience. I know that when I played the original, my first run through was extremely choppy and I found many aspects which I considered annoying or didn’t make sense. A lot of those turned out to be a result of just not being very good. You are given so many choices in how to build your character that a series of bad choices over time can lead to you being very weak at a point in the game when you should be much stronger.

    DX:HR could be totally different but that was my experience with the first game, and other similar games.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    If it helps, I saw a video of a guy one-shotting the second boss unarmed.

  • Steven Sukkau

    Ahh, options makes a lot more sense. It’s just too bad so many of the options seem trivial, like running faster, jumping higher or having a timer so you know when the guards will stop looking for you.
    At first I hoarded praxis points because I wanted to spend them wisely, now I don’t know what to do with them because I have maxed out stealth hacking and completely expanded my inventory. Also i highly recommend upgrading your legs so instead of falling to your death Jensen creates a parachute force-field. so cool.

  • David

    I have only played through the first boss as well. I started the game on the medium difficulty setting and played loosely, meaning that I was playing re-actively rather than proactively. I got very frustrated when I felt that every mission devolved into a shootout and overwhelming backup leading to my death. After a couple of hours I restarted the game on easy because I wanted to enjoy the game rather than rage quit.

    Once on easy I also chose to go the deliberate, proactive route of stealth, non-lethal traversal. I love the feeling of sneaking around and choosing not to kill anyone. I like your take on the boss fights as compared to real life. In some circumstances the only real choice is survival.

    What I don’t like about the first boss fight is that it devolved into a circular chase through the room you are in. I would wait for him to reload and take my turn unloading on him until he began shooting at me again. At this point I would run to the other side of the room and wait for him to reload again. It just feels very lame. I don’t mind the boss fights but I wish they could have at least found a way to make them more intense or cinematic like the rest of the game.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @David–I could be totally wrong but I thought you could change the difficulty level at any time.

    I agree with you though, at times the game feels inordinately difficult–like when someone sees you–immediately every single enemy soldier knows your exact location. In fact recently while playing I was seen by someone and then I ran away and crawled through a ventilation shaft several hundred feet away from my previous location and there were soldiers waiting for me at the other end!

    That said–I am learning to play much more carefully–playing that game trial and error style is NOT fun but learning to use your augments to move successfully through a level is.

    I didn’t care for the first boss fight, I just didn’t hate it as much as others seem to. I expect to grow increasingly frustrated with the next two though.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    I had a horrible experience with the first boss, until I explored a back room and found a gas tank. I threw it at the boss, shot the tank, and it exploded and he died of poisonous gas/bullets in his face. I have to admit… it was pretty satisfying. That’s probably the sort of thing they were going for.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    You win Rich. You win!

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Steven Sukkau I agree that its quite hard to decide what to decide how to spend praxis points. I am tempted to get the parachute ability as well because I have died enough times on accidental falls that that sounds really great.

    I am also kinda dumb when it comes to these things–I only recently noticed that you could increase your inventory. As soon as I noticed this, I maxed it out ASAP. So much more enjoyable to traverse levels this way.

  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    I know it’s been a few months now since the game came out, but I’m just now about half-way through and found the second boss encounter to be (contrary to others’ experiences) much better than the first.

    Also, I’d have to disagree with Brendan here. There are still plenty of options when it comes to boss encounters. However, like Drew said, the game does force to engage in combat. For instance, during the first boss encounter, there are actually several ways to win. Like Richard pointed out, there are gas tanks and explosive barrels lying around all over the place. It took me a few attempts to realize I could use these, which was a huge part of what made it so frustrating. During the second boss encounter, on the other hand, I knew to look around the environment for various options. As it turns out (minor spoiler), my stun gun and silenced pistol were the most effective means to dispatch this boss.

  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    ** MAJOR SPOILER **

    It’s probably been long enough since the game came out to let this out of the bag, but just in case you haven’t made it back to Hengsha yet (for the second time), you might want to skip this comment.

    Upon arriving at Hengsha for the second time, when your VTOL is struck down by a homing missile, you have a significant choice to make: you can save Malik by killing everyone at the crash site, or you can try to eliminate them using stealth. This was one instance where the game forced me to leave my comfort zone in order to save Malik, as every time I tried the stealth approach it resulted in her death. While the game gave no indication that my character struggled with the fact that he just killed a bunch of (albeit corrupt) cops, I certainly did. This was a powerful moment and is one of many that have made the game so endearing to me.


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