“A moral system valid for all is basically immoral.”
Though a bit cynical, Friedrich Nietzsche is right: morality is not black-and-white nor universal. It is shaded with grey and ubiquity, and in between the cracks is a void filled with suffering where the unfortunate, but necessary few fall in. In this way, it’s obvious that an interactive medium like videogames would have to step lightly when approaching the subject. Something so ambiguous requires nuance, with a narrative that speaks to a moral code that is engrained into the very fabric of the piece.
So far, we haven’t even come close.
There are lots of reasons why, but the most glaring reason is a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the developer about who is playing their game. The basic assumption that I can gather from games that have experimented with the subject, your Bioshocks and inFamouses and such, assume the player abandons their morality when they assume the role of another person. From my perspective, this isn’t true.
When we play games, we don’t simply abandon who we are and dawn the identity of the character. Instead, we adapt our personalities onto them. Such is the case with tabula rasas like Gordon Freeman or Commander Shepard. We guide their actions through the perception of our own personalities, morals, and beliefs, so when a game offers us a choice, we go with what we want, not our character.
Last week, I talked about the flaws of predetermined character personalities and the cognitive dissonance that arises when games attempt to push the game characters’ personalities onto our own. For example, in inFamous, Cole’s girlfriend Trish falls to her death, and based upon our morality within that game, she will either love him or hate him with her last breath. The problem is that while Cole surely cares, we as players don’t. We don’t share their love for each other and past they experienced together because we didn’t experience it ourselves. To us, shes an unlikable, idiotic bitch who we could care less about. The only thing we care about is how it affects Cole because we actually like him.
On the flipside, look at Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance. I like Alyx Vance a lot and the game doesn’t have to push me into doing this with moral choices and narrative cheating; we meet her at the same time Gordon Freeman does, so as their own relationship develops, so does the player’s. We like Alyx Vance just as much as Gordon would, meaning if and when things should happen to her or for her, we have an emotional investment in that.
In those examples lies the difference between many things. It’s the difference between, well most obviously, good writing and bad writing. Alyx is just a much more developed, likable, and better character then Trish, who barely has a personality and then dies before we could even possibly care. It’s the difference between the emotional attachment to predetermined avatars like Cole, whose choices are mute in the eyes of the player since the game expects to adopt his personality rather than our own, and Gordon Freeman, who has no personality, allowing us to provide him with our own, making the game’s narrative much more emotionally-satisfying since it has dramatic weight that affects us in a more intimate way.
It also is the difference between painting a world in grey and painting a world in black-and-white. Ultimately, moral choice systems do not do justice to the notion of ethics because ethical questions cannot be summed up in broad categories of “good” and “evil”, and those that do fail to add any moral quandary. A choice between good and evil is no choice at all.
Look at a game like Bioshock, a great, fantastic game that completely fails to deliver on its premise. For all of the terrific writing, suspenseful gameplay, and excellent voice-acting, the game fails to deliver on the premise of a moral choice system that really makes us think. Instead, we get one that equally rewards good and evil, making our choices not count at all. In the game, it is told that evil will reward us much more than good, but in the end, it turns out that good actually gets us more. So what choice is there to make? The easy option is also the just one, making the question rhetorical.
A game like Fable 3 tries to fix this with a moral choice system that forces the player to make the tough decisions; the good option is almost always the one that is tougher to make, raising the stakes as the game goes along. Unfortunately, since we know that at the end we will be rewarded as long as we stay the course, the choices lose a lot of their gravity. The game tells us it’s the “good” option and that making those will save people, so we do it. Why wouldn’t we?
Ultimately, most people will always choose the good option; those who don’t are usually just experimenting in role-playing or trying to get a different ending. We need a game that paints a world of gray and then asks us to make difficult decisions, ones where evil is rewarding and easy and good is tough and unrewarding; after all, altruism is based on the idea of good being its own reward.
Although, this begs the question; what about games that lack a moral choice system at all? Games like Fallout 3, Skyrim, or even Minecraft? While I think there is a value to this kind of approach, ultimately it fails because of a lack of consequences on the part of the game. In other words, both the reward and the punishment are not effective enough and often fail to illicit emotion, but rather a Darwinian survival instinct that has nothing to do with ethics in general.
When you steal something in Fallout 3, the reward is often junk and the punishment is often being chased around by people you could easily kill or fend off. It’s a choice between a penny or the wag of a finger, which lessens the dramatic impact of the theft itself. We don’t need a binary option, but we need an emphasis on choice, one that has dramatic weight and emotional attachment that goes beyond the typical “getting the ending I want.”
It all begs the question whether or not a game could do moral choice correctly at all, but the answer itself lies in the fact that there are games that have in their own ways. No More Heroes is a game about the nature of morality in a game world with no consequence; there’s no choice system, only a narrative that explores the notions of violence and its effect in a world without morality. More aptly, a little indie game called Passage did it with a delicacy that is rare in games. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say it’s the best metaphor for domestic partnership and its effects on the path one takes in life I’ve ever experienced.
Morality is ultimately a subject that cannot be defined by a binary choice, especially when the choices have no weight behind them. Videogames are still growing and changing as a medium, and as such we are still working out the kinks when it comes to narrative complexity and the relationship between the player and character on-screen, both of which are fundamental to the exploration of morality in games.