“Friends, the most important moral decision a man can make in the course of the day is ‘Who am I gonna kill?’ It’s a decision you should agonize over for minutes or hours… a man’s killing list is a very personal matter between him and the voices in his head.”
A. Whitney Brown spoke those words years ago in his hilariously appalling “I Support the Troops” video, and I think they pretty much sum up the moral depth of choice presented in most interactive narrative games. Fallout 3, for all of its deeply developed story and setting, presents players with binary options such as “Am I going to become a cannibal bandit?” or “Am I going to tirelessly slaughter cannibal bandits for hours on end?” Unfortunately, even games that feature a diverse skill set for player characters often end up necessitating a combat-focused protagonist. If you walk into a lair of cannibal bandits intending to impress them with your sharp wit and toaster repair skills, your own ass will promptly be served to you on a platter. Players who wish to confront the violence of a game’s setting with anything other than a superior level of violence have few avenues. Additionally, moral decisions are often worked into some sort of scoring system of absolute good and evil, meaning players only benefit from the extremes of behavior. As Brandon Purdue observes in his excellent essay “Ethical Dilemmas and Dominant Moral Strategies in Games,” “Compelling moral decisions seldom survive contact with the mechanical elements of many games, resulting in a sort of ‘dominant moral strategy.’”
Gamers decide if they are going to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy” and then play accordingly. The player’s consideration of the story then falls to the wayside and the protagonist becomes static. When the decisions themselves do occasionally become more complex, they usually involve some sort of violence, and there is usually a “good” or “evil” answer that can be puzzled out. These moral decisions are only compelling when they dominate the simple achievement/victory motivation of gameplay, subvert the good/evil dichotomy, and force a player to take actions satisfying to them from the narrative aspect.
What got me thinking about this is a recent series of YouTube videos a co-worker referred me to in which someone is attempting to play Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a massive fantasy RPG, without killing anything. Playing a character he’s named “Felix the Cat,” he’s refusing to partake in any quests that demand any creature’s death. By using pacifying spells, stealth, theft, and occasionally running like hell, he achieved Level 8 in the game. This system is contrary to the game’s mechanics—it would be easier for Felix to drop some fireballs and lightning to get the job done, but the player has opted to try another way. Why? I assume because he finds it more interesting. Unfortunately, there is no other reason for the player to interact this way. The game has not really taken such a moral strategy into account, and I assume in the end he will be unable to complete the game’s “main quest.” He can play that way, but he can’t win. Which is too bad.
Some of the most compelling virtual moral decisions I’ve witnessed have been in games that didn’t really allow their potential to be explored due to a lack of context in the game’s mechanics. Old school gamers might remember the 1987 RPG game Wasteland, a post-nuclear war game in which the player led a party of Desert Rangers through the irradiated American Southwest in what is clearly a spiritual ancestor of the Fallout games. Early on in the game you encounter a child named Bobby who has lost his dog, and the player sets out to find it in some nearby caves. The problem is, ol’ Rex is rabid, and the player has to put him down. When you emerge from the caves, little Bobby then turns a rocket-propelled grenade on you for killing his dog and you have to kill him. While this certainly sets up the gritty atmosphere, it’s pretty upsetting, especially for me when I was ten. I tried playing through it several times with no change in result. Developers received a ton of mail, not necessarily complaining, but wanting to know if there was any other way to play the scenario. Unfortunately, there wasn’t. This is a minor part of Wasteland’s plot and has no real affect on the overall game, but it dominated the players’ attention more than perhaps any other aspect.
Another point I remember is in the classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which I played as a through-and-through evil son-of-a-bitch, hoping to get the cool black capes and powers of telekinetic strangulation loved by Sith Lords throughout the galaxy. I won’t bore you with the details, but at certain point in the game I was unable to kill a friendly wookie’s dad and help an evil corporation dominate their homeworld. Even though I had decided that I was going to maintain my allegiance to a code of evil, and my “Dark Side Points” would suffer, I just couldn’t do it, simply because I didn’t want to continue to play a character who would do such a thing. I called a friend who was playing it at the time and said, “I sold out the Dark Side today. I couldn’t kill that wookie’s dad.” “Don’t feel bad,” he replied, “Neither could I.” This point of the game could have provided my player character with an actual arc. Instead, it became a fluke, because changing sides would have done nothing other than lower my “Dark Side Points.”
Game design continues to evolve and hopefully the narrative mechanics will continue to do so as well. Perhaps the obsession with balanced gameplay will in time turn into an interest in varied gameplay, allowing the player and the story to move beyond the scenario of “Who should we kill in this world?” and instead consider “How should we live in it?”