Moral choice in video games

A few days ago, I completed Far Cry 3. Yes, I know it’s been out for ages (2 years in fact) but I, if you pardon the pun, came late to the game. And it is a very good game; its open world is beautiful, the combat is tight, the missions variable enough to add replay value and also there are wingsuits. Nothing is more satisfying than wingsuiting into the middle of an enemy compound, planting a load of C4 and then legging it out of there before blowing the whole thing sky-high in from a safe distance. It’s a game I enjoyed, and I immediately pre-ordered Far Cry 4 because it also has wingsuits. And elephants. Exciting.

If I have a problem with Far Cry, it’s a moral one. On the one hand, there a lot about the game’s story which made me uncomfortable (there’s something about a white American bro type saving all the natives from evil foreign white people which smacks of colonialism), but I also have a problem with the game’s own internal morality. Far Cry as a game series isn’t just about dropping people in beautifully created sandbox worlds and letting them wreak havoc in whatever way they see fit – it’s also about exploring the moral and psychological impacts of violence on individuals. Our hero (if we can call him that) of Far Cry 3, Jason Brodie, goes from a frightened college kid to a seasoned and effective killer out of necessity, in order to survive and save his friends, though the latter act of the game focuses around how Jason, having saved his friends and ignoring their sage advice to get the hell of the islands, then decides he quite likes being a killer and goes on a rampage to take vengeance. From a gameplay perspective, it’s interesting how this impacts on your experience (Jason starts off unable to shoot straight without taking out half the local scenery, and ends up being able to zipline onto a group of enemies, take one out with a knife, steal his gun and then blast all the others without so much as the bat of an eyelid) but the game does try to take us into a moral maze of how the human mind breaks down when faced with extreme violence. Yet it falls a bit short there – you can’t really explore the moral aspects of violence when your playing a game which is largely based on how good you are at murdering people. I have a glance at some of my game stats just before finishing the main campaign – I have apparently killed around 6,000 people, which is double the number of freshers admitted every year to Cambridge University. Of course, all of them were not very nice people traffickers (all of whom, judging by their pre-recorded dialogue, spend their free time torturing people, doing meth and lamenting the fact that they’ve got venereal disease), and I’m not able to have a moan about first person shooters as a moral quandary.  I play a lot of FPSs, and I don’t think they encourage violence or start high school massacres or have any effect on your moral life at all – apart from the Call of Duty series, which is short, xenophobic and a bit full of itself. Like Hitler. What I’m saying is I just feel like you can’t have a true exploration of the morality of violence when you’re only option in the game’s narrative is violence. There’s no way to play Far Cry where, having gotten a bit sick of the sound of constant screaming, you adapt non-lethal methods to exact your revenge, saving your righteous, murderous fury for the big bad guys and the end.

Increasingly, games feel the need to have a moral dimension. More often than not, this takes the form of a binary path (good or evil) which affects the way the game ends. I first came across this in BioShock, where the player has the option to save or “harvest” (and therefore kill) the “Little Sisters,” genetically modified little girls, whom the bizarre and scary denizens of Rapture have made the only ones capable of gathering the ADAM toxin which gives you your powers because REASONS. I’m aware that if you haven’t played the game or aren’t at least a bit familiar with the premise of BioShock, that sounds even more fucked up than it actually is. Save all the Little Sisters, and you get the “good” ending; harvest too many, and you end up becoming an evil dictator, like a kind of submerged Kim Jong Un. How quaint, this world where your moral choices are quite so binary. Again, though, playing BioShock (which is an excellent game) I couldn’t help feel that my moral standing might well be impacted upon by the fact that I just set fire to some people before finishing them off with a shotgun. Why do my actions towards the Little Sisters impact on the outcome, and not the others? The same sort of system comes across in Mass Effect; you get to make small moral decisions in conversations with characters, though these seem to come down to whether you want your Commander Shepard to be unfeasibly nice or a bit of a dickwad, but the game’s ending is determined by pre-scripted big moral decisions. In Far Cry, it all comes down to one decision at the end – do you kill your girlfriend and join the Rakyat as a sort of God, or do you free your friends and bugger off. Except, that it isn’t a very good choice, because if you do kill your girlfriend, you end up getting shagged and then stabbed (told you it was a weird game) and if you save your friends (like you spent the entire game trying to do before being faced with the sudden odd situation where you might actually have to kill them, isn’t life random) you all go away happily ever after. Sorry, I should have put a spoiler warning on that bit but the spoiler for me was the stupidity of that choice…

It makes sense, in a way, that moral action in a game affects the ending – we tend to conceive of moral choice as a narrative of itself, albeit a very long one. If I do X action, will I be a “good person”? Morality in this sense has a horizon, an end point where we hope, by the time we reach it, we’ll live up to a standard set by ourselves, by our politics, by our religion, and so on. But at the same time, while we might agonise over big moral decisions (do I tell my boss his flies are undone just before the important meeting, or do I silently giggle while everyone in the room gets a glimpse of his rather fetching boxers – yes, there are more important moral decisions than that but I’ve just drafted a piece about mental health so I need something with a sense of humour today) we also are on some level aware that all our actions do, in some way, contribute to our moral character. Religion is a big fan of this idea – if you’re Catholic, fasting on a Friday or only eating fish (depending on how extreme you like your Catholicism. I like mine like I like my coffee: overly sugared and ultimately disposable) might seem like a silly little thing you do, but it is taught as part of the fabric of “being a good Catholic,” as much as going to Church or making up things to tell the creepy old priest at confession (the last time I went to confession in my life, I told the Priest I always replaced the lyrics to the hymns to the lyrics from Slayer songs when signing at mass, and would this make me go to hell, before having to explain to the old fart what Slayer was and no it’s not the same as Buffy the Vampire Slayer but I hear that’s quite good as well). In more secular ideologies, the same principle can apply – a common ethic of emancipatory movements such as feminism is that the personal is political – the way you interact with others is politically important and can impact on your ability to be a “good feminist.” Problems is emancipatory movements seem to arise when this principle isn’t followed – I just finished writing my Masters Thesis on such a movement, where the SWP suddenly decided that it was fine to talk about how feminist it was while persecuting a survivor of rape. It’s certainly a moral principle I hold to. But drawing this back to video games – the artificiality of the moral choice comes from the fact that only set actions at set plot points impact on the outcome, rather than a more fluid category of continuing action or inaction.

Now, I suppose it could be argued that I am asking too much of a game to give you total moral freedom. Certainly, games with this kind of freedom do exist – in Skyrim for example, you can do basically whatever you want. Hunt dragons? Bugger that, I’ve got buckets to drop on the heads of shopkeepers while I nick all their stuff. Except in Skyrim there isn’t really any moral impact to your actions – yes, you can go to prison or get killed by the guards if you do a bit of gratuitous murdering, but ultimately the way the game concludes is the same (partly, because important main quest giving characters are unkillable. Believe me, I’ve tried). I suppose what I’m looking for is a game where there is a dynamic moral world, where I have the freedom to depart from the parameters the game world has set me, which has a strong narrative, the outcome of which is based on my choices. And I think I’ve found it.

Dishonored is a stealth game which is excellent fun for a number of reasons. It’s set in a vibrant world, the “whale-punk,” (think steam punk with whales) world of Dunwall, which is a bit like a cross between Victorian London and Edinburgh, but with more whales (seriously, there are lot of whale based things in this game, except, sadly, the ability to ride whales); its plot is intriguing – you play as Corvo Attano, the bodyguard to the Empress, who was so good at his job that she gets bumped off within about five minutes of the game starting, you get framed for her murder and the kidnap of her daughter, and then manage to break out of prison and join an aristocratic conspiracy to unseat the new dictatorship. It’s all jolly atmospheric. The mechanics of the game play is largely stealth based – your goal in each mission is to sneak across the city, picking off key targets in the new regime in order to weaken it. However, the game does allow you to be innovative in how you tackle each mission. You are armed with a host of deadly weapons, from swords to grenades to a pistol and crossbow, and you can, if you like, lay waste to everyone and everything in your path. Though difficult, it is possible play the game as a FPS and still satisfy the goals. On the other hand, a more radical option is available – you can play each mission by stealth, avoiding guards and enemies and then…you don’t have to kill your targets. Each mission offers you the chance to get rid of your target without shedding a drop of blood. For example, in the second mission, you have to assassinate a pair of debauched and sadistic aristocrats who are holding the late empresses daughter hostage in a high class brothel. The first time I played this mission, I snuck into the brothel, located both brothers, took them out with well placed crossbow bolts and then rescued the little girl and made it back to base without raising the alarm. However, on replaying the game, I stumbled across a side mission – in return for investigating the death of one of his men, a local crime lord offered to dispose of the targets without violence, and to make them “disappear.” I took him up on his offer, rescued the girl and then make good my escape without being noticed or shedding blood. And this was something I could accomplish without being forced by the game to take a particular moral path for the sake of the plot. Dishonored also rewards the player’s moral choices as the narrative progresses. Should you become more bloodthirsty, the game responds by increasing the number of “weepers” (zombie like plague victims) in the player’s path. For someone who likes a fight, this isn’t really a barrier, just more corpses to pile up. Should you avoid death dealing, your way is clearer, and certain NPCs are more likely to interact with you, giving you access to extra missions and rewards. The moral choices you make affect you throughout the game, rather than in the final moments, and in the choice of which cutscene you get to watch before the credits roll.

I hope more games pick up on Dishonored‘s innovation on this score – it creates a more interesting and immersive gaming experience. Not to say I always expect my video games to make me mull over the depths of moral dilemma. Sometimes I do just want to unleash mayhem while riding on the back of an elephant. Did I mention I was excited for Far Cry 4?

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