One of the big themes of gaming recently is morality. It was squeezed into all sorts of places, but tended to force the player into a pure good or pure evil playthrough of a game, as the strict dichotomy setup between the two didn’t accommodate for the foggier choices people tend to be forced into making in real life. I find the idea an excellent one, though. A game where my decisions affect the world around me in some way inevitably draws me deeper into the narrative as I make the character my own. That is the fundamental flaw with the strict split down the middle of good and bad; if I am forced into a good or an evil playthrough, the character is not mine, but has been railroaded into a series of decisions so I could obtain the best powers, items or ending. However, it seems that 2012 is less concerned with refining the morality system and more interested in clouding the line between good and bad more than ever before…
Before we move on to that, however, I just want to talk about the morality system a little more; I really like the theory behind it and the way it means you’re more likely to replay a game and see what would’ve happened if you’d behaved differently. Each person has a different way to play. Personally, I like to either make a character who is me in the game world, where I can explore what I would do in the situations presented, or make a character with some vague personality traits and ask ‘what would he do?’ In the latter case I learn more about this character’s personality and his beliefs as I play through the game, which can sometimes be touching or surprising. For me, these characters are the most interesting of any in a video game; I know how I will react most of the time and it’s pretty easy to predict how a scripted protagonist will behave once you’ve spent ten minutes in his shoes because the whole game is oriented around his (or her) perspective. I’ve played Oblivion as a pious monk. I’ve played Skyrim as a loyal Orc who is outwardly the epitome of all that is good, but who has a darker side and doesn’t mind committing serious crimes to help attain his goals. But while these sorts of games allow for moral choices, they do not impact the player in any truly tangible way unless they are caught committing a crime (or witnessed committing a crime by a chicken!)
It might be a chicken, but it's on the front line of defence against petty theft in Skyrim.
Morality in games is not even a new topic, not really. I remember all the way back to Black and White, released over ten years ago now, where the player and his creature could follow the same spiritual path of good or evil, or take different ones, or just cruise the middle of the road. A game that introduced the idea of morality as a playing a prominent role was inFAMOUS. I played the original at release and did not like some of the decisions imposed upon the player. For example, how can choosing to save the player’s girlfriend or a bunch of doctors be a good vs bad decision? This strikes me as incredibly narrow-minded, especially when I am being forced to weigh one life against many. In this case, game and cinematic tradition state that the one life is the one that should be sacrificed, but if I remember right, letting your girlfriend die to save all those doctors was the evil decision. Way to go, Sucker Punch.
The only truly striking moment I have had thanks to moral choices in games was in Fallout 3 when I pushed the button to detonate the nuclear bomb in Megaton. I did not, at the time, feel any remorse. All I did was push a button and watch the spectacular graphics do all the hard work, wondering whether there’d be any decent loot scattered around the place in the aftermath. What I hadn’t counted on was meeting one of Megaton’s inhabitants later in the game, horribly disfigured and mutated, but still forging a happy life for herself in the wasteland that had taken everything away from her. Ok, so it was me, not the wasteland that took everything away, but that was what moved me. I had heartlessly pushed the button without considering the greater consequences and, much like that moment when Chrono Trigger brings you to account for stealing some guy’s lunch, being faced with the consequences of my actions was a little shocking.
Tread carefully, for the tiniest of actions can echo through time.
This shock seems to be what some upcoming games are trying to cultivate in the player, which will no doubt spur hundreds of whiny complaints about how gaming is deadening our emotions and destroying our souls. What am I talking about? Rainbow Six Patriots, that’s what. Details for the game show that the player will be faced with civilians in suicide vests, conflict in heavily populated areas, scenes in which the player takes the place of people whose lives are turned upside-down by terrorists and, above all, situations where there is no correct answer. By the sounds of it, civilians will be dropping like flies no matter what the player does, but what choices will he make? How will he feel, if the crossfire from an enemy aiming at him sprays an innocent bystander’s brains all over the inside of a taxi?
Similarly, Spec Ops The Line seems to want to force the player into making difficult decisions; one scene sees a choice between killing a thief, or an over-zealous soldier who killed innocents in capturing the thief. Both being shooters, I cannot imagine there will be any overbearing morality system in the games, but the setup makes me wonder how far the concept could be pushed; not ‘good vs evil’ but ‘little evil vs greater good’. A game where there are no (or few) wholly good or wholly evil choices would be extremely interesting to play if it was done properly and would reflect the decisions of real life a lot more closely. It clearly wouldn’t be for everybody, but a game where I was being faced with such difficult choices whose repercussions would spread out through the game world leaves me with only one question on my lips: when will something like this be made and where can I pre-order it?
Video games were a part of Chris's life from the Mega Drive onwards. He has many happy gaming memories, including the first time he collected all the chaos emeralds in Sonic 2, collecting all SSBM's trophies (yes, all of them) and, more recently, collecting far too many platinum trophies on his PlayStation 3. In the real world, he has a degree in French and is currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @DPrime_Chris
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