My heart was still beating a little fast as I snuck into Captain Zhao's cabin and started hacking into his computer. One of the American soldiers had heard me messing around in the medical bay and nearly caught me. They didn't know anything about the plague the ship was carrying, so I didn't want to fight them. Now, the VersaLife security from China? Oh, I was going to give them a piece of my mind. By sending bullets through theirs.
What's this? An e-mail from Captain Zhao's daughter? ". . .Today Some nice men came to school to see me. They said they were your friends and if there was ever a problem, they would come and get me so that I could see you. i told Mommy and she didn't seem to like it but I thought they were very nice . . ."
Oh! Oh, no! Zhao's message to Walton Simons I'd found earlier the one about taking care of his daughter took on a whole different meaning after reading that. Simons was holding his daughter hostage. Which means that the Chinese crew below probably didn't know anything about what they're carrying. Suddenly, the thought of killeg the Chinese soldiers seemed less like justice and more like psychotic murder. It's a good thing that I'd read this e-mail, or I might have murdered a bunch of innocent people. Of course, that left me with another moral dilemma: can I still manage to sink the ship without killing them?
Moral Choice systems are quite popular. It seems you can't walk five steps in a big game these days without running into the choice between curing a child's cancer or torturing his puppy. For such obvious and unrealistic extremes, these game often get a lot of well-deserved flack from critics, but moral choices in games aren't always so blatant.
The moral choice system in Deus Ex, for example, was so subtle that you could be excused for not noticing how much it affected the game your first time playing it. It never took you out of the game with moments where you had to press A to eat baby, or press B to give baby candy. In fact, most of the moral choice moments weren't even framed as such and it was only after you'd completed the level and seen how people reacted to you that you even realized you'd made a moral choice at all.
When you first arrive at Castle Clinton with orders to get into their base and locate the stolen plague vaccine, your partner, Agent Nevarre, tells you to follow her in the front gate and shoot up the terrorists. You can do that if you want to, but if you don't go rushing after her and instead talk to the small boy near the dock, he'll tell you that he knows the code to a secret door behind the soda machine. Whether you go in shooting with Nevarre, or sneak in quietly through the back without hurting anyone, the game continues on as normal for two whole levels three, if you do an optional mission before you are even faced with the consequences of your actions.
If you went in shooting, your brother is angry with you and the quartermaster, General Carter, tells you that you need to realize you're not playing a game when you're out in the field. On the other hand, Agent Nevarre likes you and gives a good report to your boss and Agent Gunter is more friendly to you in the break room. If you did it without killing people, Nevarre will give you a bad report and Gunter will treat you like a coward, but your brother will approve and General Carter will even throw in an extra clip of ammo along with your stealth equipment, since he trusts you'll "know when one is more appropriate than the other." Either way, your boss will pay you in full for every objective successfully completed.
This is where Deus Ex succeeds in its moral choices where other games fail. The choices you have to make in Deus Ex are mostly gray areas with different characters representing the moral views in the early levels. With your boss, completion of the objective is all that matters; it's up to you how it gets done. Your brother is the idealistic extreme where nobody should have to die. Nevarre is the opposite; to her, all terrorists should be killed, regardless of who they are behind the mask. General Carter falls somewhere between the two extremes. The mission must be completed and sometimes people have to die for that to happen, but that doesn't mean they're not human beings. It's up to you to decide which outlook you take and the game neither punishes, nor rewards you for making one choice over the other, nor does the game take an entirely different direction based on these decisions.
This is important to the game's thematic element. You are a single man in a world that moves forward as it will, with or without your consent. Your moral choices have little effect on what happens. As the game proceeds, you part ways with the characters who are obviously pleased by one moral decision over another, meaning that your choices become completely up to your conscience. It's about why you, the player, feel like making one decision over another.
The aforementioned issue with the Chinese soldiers on the ship is an example of this. You might think it defeats the purpose of having a moral choice system in the game at all, but that's where you'd be wrong. I mentioned this choice in particular because it was the one where it really sunk in just how effectively a game could make you think about yourself in a way that no book or movie could ever hope to manage.
That moment came as a real shock to me because it wasn't my first time playing Deus Ex that it happened, nor was it my second playthrough, but my third. Both of the first two times I went on a rampage, killing any Chinese soldiers I ran into. They were going to infect America with a deadly plague to help Walton Simons take over the world, so they deserved whatever punishment I gave them, right? Only on my third playthrough, reading that e-mail from Captain Zhao's daughter, did I suddenly understand that my assumption was wrong. It wasn't just the realization that I had been about to mercilessly kill dozens of people because I jumped to the wrong conclusion, it was the realization that I had done so twice before. Following that revelation was a single thought that profoundly changed the way I looked at myself: "What if this hadn't been a game?"
People had always told me that I was too quick to assume things, but it had never sunk in just how much bad decisions made on my part could destroy lives until Deus Ex made me feel like I had innocent blood on my hands.
I've read twenty page essays dedicated to discussing why comic books and video games should not be considered literature and why studying them academically is a waste of time, but I tell you that no book I've ever read had that profound an impact on me. In reading a book, I could always tell myself that I would never do that, but a video game? Every death on board that ship was the result of my conscious decision to kill. It left me no room to say "I wouldn't do that," because it's exactly what I had done. It's one thing to read stories of how rash decisions hurt people, but it's something entirely different to be the one who caused it.
The interactive nature of games the fact that every thing that happens in the game is a result of your own decisions means that instead of just reading about someone who had to make a choice between killing an innocent security officer, or letting him live and risk being caught, you are the person making that decision. When framed correctly in the game, these kinds of decisions are extremely profound. To the contemplative player, they can be life-changing.
A book can tell you something about the human condition, or provide an engaging medium to explore political, social, or religious philosophies and, yes, these are good things, but there is one thing that a book can never do as effectively as a video game; teach you about yourself. There is an epiphany out there in the future of video games just waiting to be uncovered and once we've found it, the very notion of what art is capable of will never be the same again.
It will be something much better than we ever dreamed it could be.