Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
This post is part of a series. I mention abilities and tools but no story spoilers.
Almost every game that lets you take people out lethally or non-lethally presents it as a choice between pragmatism and ethics: killing is easier, but tranqing is nicer. That’s true in MGS V too, but it adds something else to that choice that solves a problem I’ve had with these games for ages.
The ability to play a game nonlethally lets you adopt that policy as your character’s moral code, and that makes your game persona a little more sympathetic. By the same token, it also demonises the act of killing: it’s no longer possible to claim it’s necessary, because you often have the developer’s word that it isn’t. To kill is now either the act of a sadistic monster, or an unsatisfying compromise made because you either couldn’t or couldn’t be bothered to pull off the non-lethal option.
So the ways of playing these games – including my own – boil down to:
It’s probably clear from the way I’ve phrased these that I don’t find any of them entirely satisfactory. Very few games make the purely nonlethal option inherently fun – the faint satisfaction of knowing you’ve done the ‘right’ thing is balanced against how boring and time consuming the methods were, how many cool tools you weren’t allowed to use, and how utterly fake the whole charade is – you’re usually only doing it this way because you have divine knowledge that the world has been architected to make it possible.
Mechanically, I like the third option. I like having a lot of tools. Option 1 makes lethal tools forbidden, and option 2 makes nonlethal tools pointless. But by itself, option 3 doesn’t give you any particular reason to use both sets, so it can feel kind of empty.
That’s the thing MGS V fixes. With an early upgrade to your binoculars, you can scan every soldier to see how good they are at a variety of different tasks. If they’re any good, it’s worth taking them out non-lethally, because you can then tie a balloon to them, send them up into the sky, have your colleagues collect them with a passing plane, fly them to the Seychelles, drop them off at an offshore base, persuade them to change sides to your private mercenary corp, then put them in full-time, devotedly loyal employment in the division of your base that their talents best suit.
I’ll be honest, this was not my next guess for how games would ultimately fix this problem.
But it does work.
You have to disengage with the moral aspect completely, of course – you’re now operating in a pretty grotesque fantasy land where no-one has a will that can’t be bent to serve your own. You can shoot a person 7 times in the knees and then make them work in your box-delivery department forever, and they will salute you on sight and thank you if you punch them. You could read it as parody or an ugly dominance fantasy, but I suspect it’s just where a series of cool systems ideas led them, and they didn’t much mind that it was narratively mad. Luckily, neither do I.
It works because there’s now a strong practical reason to use nonlethal tactics for some guards, and lethal for others. This guard has an A in Engineering and this one has a B in Intel, so I’ll tranq those two and kill the rest. You don’t have to kill the rest, but as in most games it’s easier: you have more powerful, more varied, and more satisfying tools to do it, and it eliminates them from the complicated patrol equation: people don’t get up from death.
Pure lethal and pure nonlethal are still options, but by fleshing out option 3 with interesting systems, it makes it clear how much less interesting they really are. Fine for an experimental or role-playing playthrough, but monotonous compared to the juice you can get out of that choice if you let it vary situationally.
In other games, the “kill or tranq?” question asks you to pick one of two possible playthroughs at the start, and it takes a dozen hours to finish enunciating your answer. MGS V lets it become an ongoing debate.
Jabberwok: I kind of had this problem in Dishonored, and my choice was option 3. However, in the first Deus Ex, the choice was much different because non-lethal was almost always quieter. Even late game, with a silenced sniper rifle, I believe a headshot would still cause them to yell when they died, alerting others nearby. So going lethal usually meant going loud as well. The first kill would be easy, but make things more complicated after that.
The Cheshire Cat: The main problem with the balanced approach in Dishonored is that the game only needed you to kill a couple of people to switch over to pure "you are a murderous monster psychopath" mode in terms of how it rated your performance and what ending you got.
It's actually really interesting how MGSV and Peace Walker before it made the choice between lethal and non-lethal meaningful because historically it has been one of the WORST offenders when it came to forcing you to either go one way or the other. Kill even one person in the entire game (including bosses)? You're now locked out of the best rating at the end. And the non-lethal options weren't nearly as varied either - you know the tranq pistol you start MGSV with? That's all you had most of the time. Even grabbing people and choking them wasn't any good in previous games because they got up much more quickly.
MGSV meanwhile not only gives you the recovery/conversion option to incentivize you to use non-lethal weapons, it ALSO removes the arbitrary punishment for using lethal ones - you can still S rank any mission no matter how many enemies you kill. Being stealthy and quick matters more than lethal vs. non-lethal (technically you're locked out of the Fox-Hound codename for killing enemies during a mission, but that's it).
Iajawl: Got to be honest and say that I dont like the sound of this MGS5's fix to the problem. Slavery is more morally questionable than killing people.
Springfoot: @lajawl It's not really presented as slavery in the game though. I wish they had made it a mandatory radio call instead of an option recording, but there's a cassette tape that explains how the soldiers are simply unaware who this stealthy intruder is invading their bases. However, after you capture them non-lethally, they realize that you are the legendary Big Boss who they *all* look up to and are happy to have the opportunity to join your ranks.
It's not a perfect explanation and is really there simply to give reason for the game's mechanic to exist in the first place, but it's never presented as subjugation. After all, the vast majority of your base staff is armed and composed of these abducted soldiers, so an uprising would be pretty easy for them as they outnumber you and your close pals by 500:1. There are even recruits who you don't have to abduct and simply join your ranks because they heard that you're still alive and want to join you.
Apropos: There are more reasons to go the non-lethal route in MGS:V though.
Specifically, if a guard is found sleeping he will not raise an alarm when discovered, where as a dead body left in the open will cause alarm bells.
Stennets: Unfortunately, I don't really roleplay with CRPG's, I only really get into it when playing pen and paper (since the GM is much better at having the world change based on your decisions than a computer). I play computer games to crunch the number and find the most efficient solutions, so with MGS5 that typically meant going 100% lethal during main missions since enemies won't get up and your rating doesn't take a hit.
You can capture a lot more soldiers a lot faster by just running around in free-roam or side ops with a non-lethal kit. Run into a guard post, reflex time and headshot everyone, fulton them up, rinse and repeat. You don't have to worry about losing rank for combat alerts or worry as much about reinforcements this way either.
All in all, MGS5 seemed pretty lackluster to me. It felt like they really had to pad out the game's length and the multiplayer component is not very engaging or well-balanced in my opinion. Superbunnyhop's youtube review sums up most of my thoughts on the game.
Johnny Go-Time: Hi there, 1st time visitor who loves MGS & Snake but has always been terrible at the actual games.
Your bit about the Fulton, culminating with, "I’ll be honest, this was not my next guess for how games would ultimately fix this problem" caused me to snort Southern & Coke all over my keyboard.
How will I S-Rank with Southern & Coke all over my keyboard??
never3nder: There is a better solution for non-lethal infiltration's.
*gameplay spoilers, maybe*
If you hold up a guard then they will not get up unless you trigger a combat alert. It also seems to spook guards who spot them, giving you time to run around them and CQC them / head shot them / whatever.
Also gives excellent lols / shock when you forget you've held someone up instead of knocking them out and then fulton them and they scream to their mates to get them down!
Neoviper: Undertale has about the best lethal/non-lethal dichotomy I've ever seen in a game. Arguably the pacifist route is the actually intended one, but mixed or full lethal are both entirely valid and narratively interesting options. If you haven't yet played it Tom, everyone who says it's great is absolutely correct.
Solid Ganesh: I always liked the approach of choice between lethal or non lethal gameplay in the MGS series. Playing as a "good guy" in the former games made me try non-lethal take outs or avoiding contact as often as possible. Still, you are a soldier in the game fighting against other soldiers so you know you could die in a mission...so do you expect the others too, which made it morally okey for me to use lethal force. At the same time it intensifies difficult situations: you start of being sneaky and non lethal but when the shit hits the van you can swich to lethal methods which is an emotional climax. What is new for me in MGS 5 is that I imagine playing as a man who has been betrayed so often and lost so much that using lethal force just gets easier for him. So I decide to go lethal or non-lethal just according to the situation and what suits best for accomplishing the greater good. Never had that feeling in a MG game before.
Ben: Besides extracted troops, volunteers join your army after each mission.
I'm not certain, but I think this allows you to acquire skilled personnel even after murdering every enemy soldier during a mission, though maybe if your heroism is too low you don't get volunteers?
Anyway, it's important to note that MGSV allows you to repeat story missions, and at least some of the side ops.
There's no need to stress about your approach to any mission, because you're free to try it over as many times as you like, without reloading to an earlier save.