Chungking Espresso

Moralizing versus Choice

Posted in Gaming, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on November 28, 2008
I’d like to take issue with Bobby’s post about “issues in games” following Rowsell’s Escapist piece. I don’t agree that “game poetry,” such as the experience of playing Shadow of the Colossus, does a good enough job of making its players more informed or better humans. It’s become a quick cliché in the indie game movement, feeding likewise into independent newsgames, to have games that teach a moral through “unwinnability.” Take, for instance, September 12th or a game made here at Georgia Tech about heroin addiction, where the only way to “win” the games is to not play it at all. I don’t think Shadow of the Colossus operates in the same way as these games, but many people seem to want to read it as one. From Bobby’s examination of Shadow, it would seem that the only way to be a good person would be to not kill the colossi in the first place. The moral isn’t that interesting: don’t sell your soul in an attempt to play at being God. Do we really need more versions of Faust or Frankenstein in our lives in order to be better people?

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The problem with these games is that there aren’t any moral choices to be made within the games themselves (the decision to stop playing is meta-game). Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t work on an ethical level for me, because simply watching a character’s forced fall from grace through plot progression is about as persuasive today as an Aesop fable. September 12th and Shadow are old games now, and it’s a cop-out at this particular moment in gaming history to create a game without a choice other than: play and be damned, or drop the controller. If only making such a statement got the mainstream game industry out of its slough of despond! (I’ll also be linking this back to choice in newsgames at the end.)

Ethical decision-making and choice are still largely lacking in most video games, even in Western roleplaying games where character development is supposed to be a key element. I saw this written on the whiteboard in our game lab the other day:

a) saintly response
b) noncommittal shrug
c) be a rat bastard

How can we even conceive of a game where someone deals with telling a partner about having AIDS, or an FPS set in Iraq (or Vietnam, if you want to make metaphors instead of open statements) where a soldier must choose to either shoot an innocent woman or disobey a direct order from a superior, when in a fantasy or scifi roleplaying game your choices are as black and white as giving what little money you have to a homeless man or stealing his clothes before shooting him? This is the real first hurdle that we need to leap before we can have “serious issues” gaming in the mainstream  (as opposed to infinitely rehashed poetic reflections on the soul).

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I’d like to invite input on where you see realistic moral choice in video games, but I’ll give some examples of where I see some glimmer of hope for the future. Despite the utter lack of meaningful choice I found while playing Fable II, I was in fact floored by the decision I got to make after the game’s somewhat disappointing finale (I’m not going to spoil). In Fallout 3, the choices one has are fairly constrained by the good/neutral/evil tree parodied above; however, there are some points in the game where collecting information provides more nuanced choices. While completing “You’ve Gotta Shoot’em in the Head,” one can gain the choice (through dialogue with other NPCs) to change one’s mission from killing three men to persuading them to part with special items they hold. Some work has also been done toward integrating consequences for one’s actions into the game. If one plays as a particularly good or evil character, then roving bands of hitmen or lawmen will pursue you. This is a small step forward from the usual consequence in RPGs of “if you kill or steal in a town then the guards will attack you until you pay a fine.” In general I’d say that Bethesda has integrated more dialogue options, choices, and character development nuances based on alignment in Fallout 3 than in their Elder Scrolls series.

My other favorite mainstream game company, on the other hand, has taken a step backward. BioWare’s Mass Effect has markedly less choice and consequence than their earlier Knights of the Old Republic titles. In the first KotOR, good and evil alignment opened up advanced Jedi or Sith force power; furthermore, the player’s ethics had a major impact on the planets they visited and their party of NPCs. Sure the choices were still largely black and white, but one could sometimes garner particularly benevolent or manipulative results through a proper handling of dialogue trees (one could force two families to slaughter each other or provide a happy ending to a Romeo and Juliet plotline). KotOR II expanded on this, by making good/neutral/evil choices more fuzzy depending on the party members currently following the player. Early in the game, one can choose to give money to a beggar. In the first Knights this would result in instant “good” points; however, if a mysterious Jedi guide character were following you, then she would show you how the beggar would go on to gamble with the money and eventually kill someone else over a debt – netting you “evil” points for not fully examining the moral quality of a man begging for money in the streets. In Mass Effect, one’s choices have little effect on the game world and none on the abilities of the protagonist. If I recall correctly, one can kill Liara and Wrex out of spite. But if one decides to off an entire race of possibly benevolent insectoids the only consequence is an angry teleconference with the Intergalactic Council (a similar action leads to quite an intense judicial proceeding in the first KotOR). There are also far fewer points in the game where dialogue trees make a tangible difference in player action.

So here we’ve got examples of two mainstreamers making steps in either direction, but there’s still probably a long way to go before we’ll see a mainstream game with a more realistic setting providing a more nuanced set of choices. Maybe HAL/Ape will give Bethesda the rights to Mother 4 in the near future and we’ll have a revolution on our hands (har har).

Let’s talk about possible integrations of choice into newsgames. I’ve already stated that while September 12th was effective at its time, it’s “unwinnable” twist has become dated. In our early examinations of games where one plays a journalist, I found Dead Rising disappointing because of its use of photojournalism as an unsubstatiated gimmick: while one does pursue “the truth” to eventually uncover a governmental wrongdoing, we never see the story published. Also, the action of taking pictures for experience points doesn’t have much to do with real photojournalistic practice (or educating the player about it). The only choice one has in the game is either to make it to checkpoints at the proper time or have “the truth” fade from history. If one could choose alternate methods of dealing with the game’s “psycopaths” or terrorists, then it would have been a much richer experience. Being able to forward pictures and stories to Frank’s editor over a cellular device would have added an extra layer: do you ultimately choose to expose the goverment secret or to turn over your evidence and not cause a public stir?

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Molleindustria’s Oiligarchy makes an interesting step forward from its previous McDonald’s game. In the McDonald’s game the only lesson one learns is how corrupt you have to be to keep a huge fast food industry profitable – the experience is frustrating and soul crushing. My distaste for the hyperbole the game frequently uses aside, it accomplishes some modicum of persuasive work. On the surface, Oiligarchy would seem to be using the exact same argument with an evisceration of a different industry; however, on viewing the game’s extensive production notes we found that Molleindustria did provide one “winning” condition where the player can cut back oil production to allow green initiatives to safely carry the world out of crisis when peak oil consumption looms. Developments such as this are crucial, in my opinion, to the future of newsgames. It’s not surprise that moralizing is so rampant in the genre, because anyone willing to spend the time and money to create one of these largely (fiscally) unprofitable games must feel very strongly about the issue or problem at hand. Being transparent about one’s bias does do some work toward making newsgames better, but I think the choice to either affect a different outcome or to see an issue from two sides in a newsgame adds to its value immensely.

Happy Thanksgiving, readers. Now go play PETA’s Turkey Cooking Mama: it gives you the ***choice*** to make scrumptious tofurkey at the end of the slaughter!

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