I’m very happy to say that my many years of evil deeds, malevolent decisions and shooting at orphans has paid off. Yes, after years of sowing more evil than a farmer possessed by Satan, yesterday it all came to fruition when I woke up, looked down at my clawed hands and realised I could now shoot hellfire out of my palms at will. Hooray for the forces of darkness!
But don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want to do all those evil things because I wanted to. I never would’ve been motivated to do any of it, if not for that fiery superpower as a reward. And all a lifetime of good deeds would do is give me the ability to heal people with soft-scented lullabies. No thanks, I’m specked into ranged damage, not a white mage build.
Play video games long enough, and you’ll get this sort of thing coming up, usually in Role-Playing Games. Imagine a villager wants you to persuade a merchant to lower his prices. You’re most likely to get three options regarding how you want to do this. The good choice would be to give him some of your own money to supplement his lost earnings, and respectfully decline any fee from the villager. The neutral would be to diplomatically convince him and to claim your agreed-upon cash prize afterwards. And the evil would be to intimidate the merchant, steal his stock to drive him out of town, before going back to the villager and claiming both his yearly salary and his daughter for a reward.
The more I play games, the more I find this kind of thing aggravating me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no problem with putting the player in ethically complex situations. I love games like Telltale’s: The Walking Dead and Spec Ops: The Line for viewing morality as something more than a binary switch. These games put you in various situations where there were no easy outs, and that in itself was interesting. The one that always sticks with me is the choice in The Walking Dead where you come across a man with his leg stuck in a bear trap, and enough zombies to occupy a Romero-themed marathon making straight for him. You could leave him, and make an easy escape, or try to bring him with you. Of course, there’s only one way to get him out of the trap, and it involves that fire axe you’re holding. How brave are the two of you feeling?
On the third swing I heard his tibia snap, and to this day I can’t eat a breadstick without feeling slightly ill at the noise. But at least this game understood that there was a choice to be made here, because the kind of choice we saw above, re. villager and merchant, makes no sense, and yet it’s so often allowed to go uncriticised.
I first noticed this when playing the old Fable games. I’ll be honest, if any series could get away with binary, black and white morality, it’s Fable. The campy heightened reality, mixed with an Arthurian knight aesthetic seen through the filter of Monty Python and the Holy Grail – well, it did seem tonally consistent when enough angelic decisions caused your character to sprout a halo, or enough wicked actions caused him to start growing a fine pair of horns. Classic fantasy and “Ye Olde Tales Of Knighthood” rarely have any moral complexity to them, they’re simple, unapologetic “Hero and Villain” stories. Alright, fair enough, but it still made the experience worse, and I’ll tell you why.
First of all, I never felt any affection for my character, or any of the other dopey-looking mannequins that wandered around Albion (with the exception of Reaver, because Stephen Fry improves everything he touches, like a Cambridge-educated Midas). First of all, the black and white nature of the world made everyone seem pretty bland and uninteresting. This person is good. This person is bad. This person is neutral.
This was at its worst for the hero you play as, for whom I cared nothing for at all. Even with a good/evil choice, so few of the options made sense at all, and you can’t relate to something you don’t understand. Do I want to kill my companion for a few measly coppers that ultimately don’t do much? Not really, no. Do I want to donate all my time and effort to an evil or good religion, when I know nothing about either and know it’s just an easy way to tweak my alignment? Sounds kinda dull, truth be told. Do I want to slaughter my sister for a legendary sword, even though I’ve just defeated the final boss and I don’t need it for anything now? I think I’ll pass, thanks.
Some of this is down to the impressive lack of impact that any of Fable’s characters had on me, but the other problem is down to the fact that your morality effects gameplay and statistics, and that is ALL wrong.
For this example we need to go back to an almost equally old game, the rightly-celebrated Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. KOTOR was famous for writing a story with a morally-grey cast and plot. Characters have conflicting motivations and are often doubtful about their actions, making them well developed. They have engaging arcs that change with the story, partly dependent on your actions, which is always a plus.
Even the Jedi/Sith clash is presented a little murkier, with the former being shown sometimes to be antiquated and overly pious, and the latter getting a more nuanced view regarding their desire for perfection and a Darwinian approach to their hierarchy. We even crash one of their Universities at one point, under the guise of a student. The duality of the whole thing is an idea that makes sense to me. After all, the Star Wars movies always blathered on about “the balance of the force,” but it was a little hard to take seriously when it would then immediately turn around and give two fingers to every Sith in the vicinity, all of whom are shown to be so evil that they couldn’t go to a PTA meeting without first disintegrating Mrs. Mulberry two seats down.
But the constant irritation throughout the entire experience was this – KOTOR has a binary moral choice system, and it made me want to tear my hair out. Not only that, but as you do good or bad actions, you gain “light side points” and “dark side points” respectively, and you get some pretty major upgrades when you get to the highest of each. Sure, you get all the powers regardless of alignment, but without the light points or dark points backing them up, they’re embarrassingly ineffective.
God, it made it annoying. Hearing a character speak with consideration, with detail and complexity, before looking at me and asking my opinion was a fascinating thing to go through. You really do have the power to change their lives dramatically, and you don’t always know if it’s for the better, which makes it all the more interesting. The high point of this was when a Jedi turned to me, torn between her loyalty to the Force and her unbearable passion for another. Should she give up love for honour, or were the Jedi asking too much from a woman who’d already endured so much in their name?
I bristled immediately, wanting to tell her to pursue this feeling in her heart. The combination of a romantic nature and a deep-seated dislike of organised religion awoke in me, and I was about to tell her to throw her arms around her beloved and live happily ever after, when suddenly, a thought occurred.
Do you want to risk those light side points by arguing against the Jedi order? You’re so very close to that healing power maximum you’ve been trying for…
This was not right, not OK. Games like this emphasise choice within the story, are focused on your actions depending on what you want, but this mechanic was being an absolute pig and getting in the way. Suddenly I came over all mercenary, and had to fight an urge to tell her to go and say seven “Hail Jabbas,” or whatever the Jedi equivalent of confession is.
Perhaps this was the intention – after all, one of the principle themes of KOTOR is temptation and the dangers of being weak-willed, but I doubt it. You still get rewards for becoming completely evil as well, powers that are just as effective as the angelic ones, and whilst being a bastard does effect the story, it doesn’t make it shorter or penalise you for it. Hell, you might as well go for all of one or the other, because there’s no reward for being in the middle. When you’re neutral to both sides, the powers that are specific to both are suddenly useless in an equal degree! Hooray! Who needs chocolate or strawberry when you have nice, safe vanilla? Bleagh.
Of course, the final nail in the coffin for moral choice systems is how it can essentially hold the story hostage. For this we need to leap forward a bit in time to 2012, and to Dishonored, a reasonably good stealth game made by Arkane Studios. It’s a kind of gothicky, steampunkey, dark and grim affair in which you sneak around with a set of magic powers and a sword, slicing people up and teleporting away afterwards. Ok, that’s an apple I’m happy to eat, but I think you have some rather large worms in there too.
Dishonored did its best to hide its moral choice system, but what it basically came down to was how many people you had to kill as you went through the game. The state of the city, as well as the ending, changed as you either went around slaughtering people like the offspring of Jack The Ripper and Freddy Krueger, or cuddled them to sleep with soothing song and the occasional neck-squeeze. And the second I knew this was the case, I tried to avoid killing people, because I knew that every time a guard got a crossbow bolt in the eye,the game would be tutting and making a little note on its clipboard. Come on, I didn’t want the thing to give me the fail grade at the end.
See, I happen to know that myself and quite a few other people dislike being given the “evil ending” in a video game. It always feels like a non-standard game over, you know what I mean? Being told that your entire experience with a game added up only to darkness and misery within the little digital world, it all feels a bit cheap, a bit anticlimactic, a bit – well, like failure. But killing people, the very thing that Dishonored sold itself on, is suddenly frowned upon when you start playing. The additional survival mode it had (cheekily released as DLC) showed how fun it was to take the restraints off, and without consequences too. But the main game wouldn’t tolerate it, much to the audience’s disappointment.
So that was frustrating. But the other casualty of the game’s moral choice system was the protagonist’s personality, probably one of the most common fatalities we see from these mechanics. The story has to stretch – there’s no other word for it – to accommodate both potential concepts of hero/villain Corvo Attano. It has to allow for the sweet and saintly Corvo, who never hurt a fly as he went through the game, but it also has to compensate for the version in which he drew his sword in one hand, a pistol in the other, rammed a grenade up his arse, and ran screaming into battle cutting down everything he saw. The end result of this is that the protagonist ended up having no character whatsoever, because any inclination either way runs the risk of contradicting one of these two possibilities.
Some say that the silent protagonist, the voiceless man with no obvious traits is a good thing, something that allows us to project ourselves onto the character. And I can see that it’s true with examples like Link, or the real classic, Gordon Freeman. But it’s different this time. Freeman had no option but to do the actions necessary for survival in Half-Life, allowing us to still put our opinions upon him. Yes, he’s killing aliens every time, but maybe he gets a wonderful rush from the fighting, or maybe he’s terrified and wants only to escape. It’s all down to our perception of him. Perhaps when he’s done stamping on headcrabs for the day, he goes and brags about it at the nearest bar and tries to pick up chicks with his crowbar-waving skills. It’s all up to us.
But it doesn’t apply in the case of Dishonored, which had a strong focus on a linear plot pushed by the implied desires of Corvo himself. He might not say what he wants, but the fact that he always willingly goes along with the instructions means that he must want this to happen, otherwise we’d be getting a variety of choices. Not to mention the fact that he has an established history and relationship with characters, just to finish off any point there would have been to making him a silent protagonist. So he IS a character, but has been essentially hobbled by this choice given to us.
Basically, the point is this: Morality in games is a good thing. Even a simplistic “forces of good against the wicked rise of evil” legend is fair enough. Many great stories and classic myths have had such an angle, and we love them for it. That said, I still think there’s a need for a more complex view of ethics within games – we still coo over titles that focus on both sides of an argument a little more than they deserve, simply for being more detailed than a bloody chessboard – but it’s OK, we can still keep the heroes and villains ideal, as long as we COMPLETELY purge this sort of thing from any and all mechanics.
Choice is fine, but it’s no choice when we already know the answer before we’re asked the question. Right at the beginning of KOTOR, I knew that I was going to pick all the heroic options, because that’s how you get the cool powers. As I was let loose in Dishonored, I understood that to be a killer was to be a failure, regardless of how I wanted to play it. And in Fable, it dawned on me immediately that nearly everyone I met was going to be less interesting than a piece of dry bread in a lecture on mathematics.
Well, that’s about all I have to say on that – Oh, bugger. I just made a huge mistake and put some money in a charity pot, so there goes my hellfire ability. Guess I need to make a baby cry before I can get it back, so I’ll be gone for a while.