First published in CubedGamers (Printed Edition): September 2016
We all like to think that we are in control of our own actions, and this is something that video game designers recognise. In creating worlds for players to navigate, they equip players with the agency to make decisions that alter the narrative of the game and your relationship with other characters. As in real life, our decisions are led by our principles, and key among these is morality, essentially the ability to choose between “right” and “wrong” behaviour. Even in games where morality is more ambiguous, you are often guided towards doing the right thing for the sake of your success in the game.
You might, for example, play a first person shooter that gives you the option whether to shoot an “enemy” or to sneak by them, knowing that to shoot them would be deathly risk. This might prompt you to wonder, “by letting that goon live, he gets to go home to his loving family once his shift is over.” In a strategy game, you can choose to increase the taxation rate to 80% or to charge £1000 pounds for theme park entry, or simply charge a fortune for salty snacks. It can be a hard thing to judge in those situations what is morally right, but a combination of punitive actions would likely harm your chances of success.
Unlike real life however, video games are complicated by the fact that we as players might make decisions that were not intended for us by the designers, and as a consequence, the mechanics of how decisions are reached are not always satisfactory, in particularly if the moral decisions do not fit with the players own version of objective morality.
Almost universally, the objective morality of our world is superimposed onto the game world. Players that chose to make decisions that are considered in immoral in life are almost always punished, whilst those who only commit good deeds are rewarded.
The pressure upon players to be good manifests itself in many forms. Games might prevent you from doing anything that might be detrimental to another individual, openly chastising you for even thinking such thoughts, or not even making it an option. Of course, one has to be sensible and understand that the designers of a game might not have the time or the inclination to allow a player to kill a non-threatening NPC just because the player has got frustrated at their inability to solve a puzzle. If that had been an option, a generation of video gamers might have chosen to consign George Stobart (Broken Sword) to a long stint in prison for murdering the inhabitants of Lochmarne out of frustration for his inability to get past a goat.
Other games punish you. Others punish you. Choose to be “chaotic evil” in an RPG game for example, and your character will always be scalped when purchasing something in a store. If you decide to murder the shopkeeper for their insolence, not only will anyone in eyeshot take up arms against you, but you might be run out of town altogether. News travels fast in Baldurs Gate. Accidently run over a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto, and you can expect the police to be on your tail for at least five minutes. Murder the Lighthouse Keeper or the Mayor of West Shanbar in Return to Zork and you can expect a masked vigilante named the “Guardian” to come and remove all of your inventory items whilst you sleep, with the intention of making the game unwinnable.
Playing the antagonist in this sea of morality can often have its charms, though often, you might not feel that you’re playing the villain at all. In Super Mario Land 3 Wario simply wants to find a new castle to live in that is better than Mario’s, and in the end, ends up with an entire planet with his face on it. Malcolm the Court Jester might be the chief antagonist of the Legend of Kyrandia series, but in the third game, the player has to play as Malcolm, as he simultaneously tries to get revenge on Brandon, who turned him into stone, and prove his innocence of the murder of Brandon’s parents. And the unforgettable conclusion of Shadow of the Colossus, makes us ponder whether to mourn or damn the protagonist.
Playing the outright villain is actually quite rare, with the designers at giving you a choice. Even though the Overlord series casts you as a resurrected warrior in control of a horde of gremlin minions, the aim of the first game is to defeat seven corrupt heroes and take control of the kingdom, and the motivations and personality of your character are left to the player to determine. Depending on how evil you are, you are faced with a number of different ending cutcenes that determine how you are received by the populace.
Many games leave the moral choice to the end of the game. In Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, the player can choose to sacrifice themselves to save the world, or damn the world and live as the most powerful entity in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Harvester, well let’s just that the good ending is the one that is good for your karma. And it’s not in every game that a con-artist, a cannibalistic army major, and a senile Nazi scientist are given the opportunity to redeem themselves and save mankind (I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream).
Perhaps the most ambiguous example is Dreamweb, in which your character Ryan is supposedly chosen by the master monk of the Keepers to kill the seven evils, who have combined to break the “Dreamweb” and send mankind into chaos (though the diary that accompanies the game implies that Ryan is descending into psychosis and has fabricated the whole scenario in his mind). Though he has multiple visions throughout the game, it is left to the player to interpret whether Ryan has hunted down and murdered the great evil minds – a rock musician, his boss, a general, and a vicar, or whether he is a deranged serial killer.
There is nothing wrong with giving the opportunity for players to be bad, and games that present complex moral choices are often the most intriguing. However, there are a number of notable games have take the characters moral decisions out of the players hands, or presented the character as representing a series of traits, only for them to betray those traits without the players influence. We can never fully grasp what a characters inner monologue might be, but when it contradicts the actions we have taken to guide the player through the narrative, the results can be jarring.
Take L.A Noire and A Golden Wake. In L.A Noire, The protagonist, Cole Phelps spends the first half of the game being a poster boy for upstanding policing in the Los Angeles Police Department, and players are rewarded for following the correct rules and regulations. Then out of nowhere, without the player making the decision, Phelps cheats on his wife. All the player can do is press the A button when the controller vibrated. In this instance, the player has become an observer to a narrative that is beyond their control.
Likewise in A Golden Wake, the only thing the player can do when protagonist Alfie Banks decides to leave a good job to join the mob, and then subsequently leave the mob when Banks becomes disillusioned after his boss is murdered, is click the mouse. On both occasions Banks becomes disillusioned due to his employers asking him to complete menial tasks, a fact that is made evident to the player, and one that might elicit sympathy. However, the rash decisions that Banks makes mean that he becomes an entirely unlikeable character. If a player doesn’t like his character, what is the point in completing the game?
A final example is The Last of Us. Without spoiling the ending, the game poses the same particularly elaborate question asked by Star Trek that goes something like this. “Logic clearly dictates,” Spock poses to Kirk in Wrath of Khan, “that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Captain Kirk answers “Or the one?” The answer in The Last of Us, just like the Search for Spock, is answered thusly. “Why would you do this?” asks a newly revived Spock. Kirk answers, “Because the need of the one, outweigh the needs of the many.” A fascinating twist, but not the option that was best for the rest of us! At least we had the choice!