With videogame storytelling getting more and more sophisticated, how are the developers of today tackling the thorny issue of morality and freedom of choice? David Rodoy consults his moral compass and heads off in search of answers…
I am a story hound. It’s narrative that draws me into videogames, and narrative that has kept me as a gamer all these years. But as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to feel that there’s something missing. And that thing is morality. We are all – I presume – familiar with the popular form of ‘morality’ systems in games; usually branching decisions that lead to different endings, or various other things in Bioware games, and sometimes associated with a broader system that tallies up your various ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deeds and rewards you for both.
I find this approach lacking. Until recently, though, I couldn’t adequately explain why. Now I know what’s been bothering me all these years. The game which propelled me to this discovery was the rather excellent Papers, Please, which is far from the first game to ‘get it right’, but definitely encapsulates it most perfectly. My problem with morality systems as they generally appear in games is this: It’s not your morality that is being tested, and the results of your decisions are, likewise, not drawn from your morality. Rather you are walking through the developer’s idea of morality.
This problem was highlighted perfectly by the unholy storm that erupted over Mass Effect 3’s endings. In the opinion of many people, the developers had a definite preference and an idea of which ending was ‘the best’ (synthesis, if you’re wondering). True or not, the basic problem was that some players outright rejected all of the endings, not because of their initially poor execution, but for purely moral reasons. They detested the implications put to them, and felt morally forced to make a decision that they really didn’t want to. A common complaint was a sense that ‘their’ Shepherd was no longer theirs. It’s a natural problem in a heavily scripted RPG such as Mass Effect. Players will get drawn in and deeply invested into ‘their’ character, enough so that at times they can forget that they’re but wandering the iron tracks laid down for them by the writers. And it can be jarring when those tracks become obvious.
The original Bioshock is another example of ‘doing it wrong’, simply because the ‘moral choices’ equate to ‘sir saint the saintly, saint of all saints and hugger of babies’ and ‘SATAN, THE BRINGER OF THE END TIMES’, made even more insane by the simple fact that the two ‘moral paths’ are determined by whether or not you kill a single Little Sister at any point in the game. Never mind that it’s made blatantly clear that they are freakish abominations who lark around stabbing corpses and drinking their juices. I found the game’s heavy-handed judgement of me – and it felt like I was being judged – to be utterly unfair. I didn’t give two craps about Rapture. I wanted to get the F out of that hellhole, and never look back. It’s pretty rare that you can say murdering a child is a moral grey area, but Bioshock actually manages it by creating a situation where you can genuinely argue that you’re A) doing it for their own good and B) it’s actually the only way to stop the endless cycle of insanity since the Little Sisters are the engine that keeps the whole thing running.
It’s a shame that there’s no subtlety whatsoever in the exploration of that theme.
I’ve come, then, to something of a conclusion. The problem, as I see it, is that most games are able – if written competently – to play out a decent story with moral themes. But making the player feel it is a different and much more difficult beast. The trick, then, is to leave morality uncommented, ungoverned by mechanics and reward. Papers, Please even goes a step further in this, as good, righteous actions will, ninety per cent of the time, lead you to getting actively punished. That’s right, you’re in fact rewarded for being a corrupt bastard. And why not? That’s why people are corrupt in the first place! The reward for the player and their character is not material, it’s not a different ending (not actually true; the game has twenty endings and various choices lead to them, but there are many choices which have no impact at all) that you get as a reward, but the simple knowledge that you did good.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I rarely get much reward for being moral in real life. I am moral because I try to be a good person. I don’t expect reward for it. But in videogames, very often you are being good because you are rewarded for it. I know a lot of players don’t experience that, they’re invested and just do what comes naturally, but I likewise know that many do, who weigh up the virtual – but very real – pros and cons of a decision. And there’s of course the other sub-set of ‘invested’ players, who are brutally jarred out of the experience when something occurs that them/their character would not do. Skyrim and other Elder Scrolls games are oftentimes good at this, as are Bethesda’s Fallout games. The main plotlines are generally terrible, in my opinion, too often resorting to high-handed (and fallacious) moral posturing and other contemptible attempts at audience manipulation (Fallout 3’s ending inspired a rage in me that, were it weaponised, could have reduced the city of Bristol to a crater).
However, side quests and random encounters often allow for much more nuanced experiences. Troubles you have no need to be involved in, vulnerable people to protect, abandon or take advantage of, and very little ‘true’ consequence regardless of your decision. Generally I’ve always found myself ignoring the main quests entirely, and just wandering the wastes handling what came. This did unfortunately lead to one of my characters sliding into a sort of antihero-inspired insanity when she became targeted by the bounty hunters in Fallout 3 (can’t remember their proper names) and began collecting the bounty notes as trophies for all of those she killed, dragged into a pile and then blew up with grenades. And yet she would come to the aid of any stranger, and wander off back into the waste after mini-gunning the crap out of whatever ailed them. Her story is one that has stuck with me because of how organically it unfolded. I think everyone who plays those games has their own version of that. But I don’t think it’s impossible for tightly controlled stories to ‘do morality right’.
The Last of Us, I think, is one of those which nails it, by properly evoking that atmosphere so familiar to us of people being only as good as their environs allow and doing what they must to survive, and after doing that, having the main character perform an action (several, really) that are quite firmly over the line… but for completely understandable reasons. That moment is a powerful one, I think, because it does test your morality. Do you stand with your avatar or reject him? Do you make the moral choice he refuses to (Joel is unquestionably amoral, he does what he feels he has to in the situation) and reject him? Or do you accept what he does and forgive? You can’t change the story, but the moral dilemma plays out in your own mind, if you’re of a mind to analyse things, that is.
Moving into vaguer territory, Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus are both games which very heavily explore moral themes, but they do them in very different ways. I and a fellow player of SotC took a great deal of time to write up a complete FAQ on the plot and story of SotC, mostly dissecting and analysing the dozens of theories bouncing around the Gamefaqs board at the time to come to something approaching a consensus on what the story is about. It’s very vague and impressionistic. But morality runs deeply through the story, such as it is.
It’s clear that the main character has transgressed from the beginning, and even clearer that what he’s doing may well be a Very Bad Idea. In fact, it’s so bad that the at least superficially evil Dormin out-and-out inform him that it may well be a Very Bad Idea. Which you have to admit is very kind of them. Of course he’s not to be swayed and off he goes. The issue of course, is that his quest, whatever its motives, requires the brutal killing of all the colossi who in the vast majority are passive and only attack once they are themselves attacked. Several of them don’t actually have any significant attacks. Over the course of the story it becomes increasingly clear that he’s sacrificing his own humanity, at the very least, to try and bring a dead woman back to life. Emphasis on try; he has no guarantee that this is going to work out.
And it’s that ambiguity, compared to the unambiguously violent means of carrying out his task, that led a lot of players to be rather confused about the whole thing. It’s hard to tell, really, whether or not Wander is even a hero, whether the Dormin are villains, and whether or not the entire thing was a terrible plan from beginning to end. My own personal interpretation of the story was that it was a religious allegory (which resulted in at least one angry e-mail from a Japanese person). Again, the moral decisions are out of the players hands. There is only one way forward. But the player’s interpretation of those decisions is completely up to them, with room left free for almost any interpretation you desire.
Dark Souls takes another tack. Ostensibly, there is no morality in the story. It plays out like a relatively straightforward – if exceptionally dark – RPG. There is a bad guy, you shall stab the bad guy in the face with a sharpened bit of metal until he stops being bad. But if you start digging around in Dark Souls you begin to see all kinds of moral quandaries and questions emerging. Without spoiling too much, the main thrust of the narrative involves two opposing perspectives, that of Frampt and Kaathe, both of whom are campaigned for one of the game’s two possible endings. You would assume that one of these endings is a ‘good’ ending and one is a ‘bad’ ending…Except that they’re not.
In fact, both endings are completely ambiguous. There’s no moral judgement inherent in either of them. The particular choice centres upon the lighting of a central flame that lights the world, and whether or not you decide to in fact light it – sacrificing yourself in the process – or choose to let it burn out and rule the world in its eternal darkness. Ostensibly the self-sacrificial ending should be the ‘good’ ending, and the other the ‘bad’ ending.
But reading between the lines it becomes clear that it’s not so simple. In fact the non-sacrificial ending can validly be interpreted as the destiny of humanity itself, set in motion from the game’s titular beginning of time, and the lighting ending as merely carrying out orders from above that do nothing other than delay the inevitable (it’s explicit that the flame will always be dying out, bit by bit). In other words, depending on your own take on the world and events, both endings can be the morally correct thing to do. Frampt is superficially a ‘nice’ creature, Kaathe a superficially ‘evil’ creature, but scratch the surface and, like everything in Dark Souls, you begin to see another side to things.
I think I’ll wrap it up around here.
I wanted to discuss my opinions on a few prominent games and how morality winds its way into them and how it tends to affect the players playing the games. Obviously your mileage may vary and your responses may be completely different to the ones suggested here. But I hope my general analysis of the thematic mechanics makes good sense, and that you can at least see how the concept has often been misused and misapplied, and how it seems more and more it’s being very effectively worked into game narrative. We don’t need games standing in high judgement on us for making x choice or y choice. Nobody wants that. Players who don’t really care aren’t affected by it, and players who do care are offended by it. What we need are games that give us the chance to explore our own morality by presenting us with situations that test it. Incentivising us to do the right thing removes any real moral question. It’s easy to do the right thing, especially if you get snacks for it. The moral decision is doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
What I think we need, as videogames mature, is more games that give us the chance to do that, and fewer games that offer a token choice just so they can shout at us for taking it. As outlined above I’m in no way against an auteur approach, and indeed these work perfectly (if they didn’t the novel wouldn’t be a very effective art-form), but they need to be handled with care. Gamers are maturing, and our needs are maturing with us. Those that play just for fun will always get their money’s worth, the vast majority of games are made for those people. But those looking for a good story are going to get more and more picky, and if games don’t step up in general, the fringes are going to fade out as their audience drifts off to the movies or whatever else fills their fancy.
The PC has always been the real home of deep stories and gaming in general, and Papers, Please (the genesis of this article) is just one in a long line of thoughtful games effectively exploring a difficult concept. But my thoughts are often for the console market, because that market houses a lot of older gamers as well, and I feel that those of us with a narrative interest often get the short shrift.
Morality is a key idea, an unavoidable need in any serious story. Without it, decisions have no weight and no impact, and the whole thing becomes forgettable. We need less forgettable games.With luck, this article will at least spur some healthy debate, and make you think of a game or two that really put your feet to the fire. And maybe it’ll inform your own thinking on the matter down the line.
Fair thee well.