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Darren Nakamura avatar 1:25 AM on 11.10.2009  (server time)
Defense Force: moral choice in games

Whenever a new game comes out that purports to offer the player moral choice, the comments blow up with one of two types of comments. People either come in with the hope that this new game will actually offer the interesting choices they crave, or they cynically have resigned to the idea that moral choice in games will never be a worthwhile endeavor.

One has to ask. What does everybody want from their games with moral choice? Is it presenting choices within a moral grey area? Is it causing deep introspection in the player? Is it forcing consequences for the player's actions? I'm here to say that all of these exist today, and moral choice in games gets an undeserved bad rap.

Defense Force mobilize!

[It should be noted that this blog contains spoilers for 2006's Splinter Cell: Double Agent, 2007's BioShock, and 2008's Fable II. Read at your own risk.]

Several games have come out this generation with interesting takes on moral choice. The recently released Dragon Age: Origins is said to exist largely in the morally grey area, but not too long ago I played a three year old game that featured a single choice in the morally grey that made me really think, and actually made me feel regret. That game is Splinter Cell: Double Agent.

SC:DA puts the player in the shoes of Sam Fisher, but unlike previous games, has him working as a double agent in a terrorist cell called John Brown's Army (JBA) in addition to his normal position with the NSA. For most of the game, the player is given a set of objectives from both organizations, and a limited amount of time so he has to choose which ones to complete and which to ignore.

These choices aren't particularly thought provoking, but they lead up to a doozy. If Sam is diligent with his secondary NSA objectives, he learns a fair amount of background information on the key players in the JBA. If the player pays attention, he learns that one of members, Enrica Villablanca, is in her position because she fell in with the wrong crowd, but she seemingly stays there for fear of the JBA's leader, Emile Dufraisne.

Sam is later given a mission to blow up a cruise ship. After completing the mission to arm the bomb, he is given three choices: either let the bomb explode, causing hundreds of Mexican police officers to die and the NSA to lose trust in Sam; jam the signal to stop the bomb, causing Dufraisne to murder Villablanca in a fit of rage, and the JBA to lose trust in him; or stop the launch with Enrica's access codes, framing her for it, causing no loss in trust from either organization, but again, the death of a kind-of-sort-of innocent woman.

When I first made the decision, I didn't know Emile would kill Enrica for the second choice (though I was pretty certain he would for the third). So I went with that one, in an attempt to preserve as much life as possible. In the following scene, with Emile shooting Enrica in the face, I experienced something that I can't remember ever having felt before or since in a videogame: regret. I immediately reloaded my save and went with the choice to destroy an entire cruise ship and hundreds of faceless law enforcement officers, in order to save a woman working for a terrorist organization.

It almost seems like a simple formula for introspection. By presenting no clearly "good" choice, I am forced to decide which of the three is the lesser evil. After consorting with my fellow pretentious jerk Anthony Burch, I learned that he would have chosen one of the other options, highlighting that there is indeed no correct choice.

What is perhaps even more interesting about this sequence is that a less diligent player might not take the time to snoop through Enrica's stuff to learn enough about her, and he may see framing her as the obvious best option, as it doesn't negatively affect his standing with either organization, saves hundreds of lives, all at the cost of a terrorist. On the other hand, I was rewarded for my completion OCD with a real moral quandary, one that I still think about to this day.

Moving forward, to another old game by Internet standards: BioShock. One of the most prominent complaints levied against the moral choice in BioShock is that it does not have an ounce of grey in it. Protagonist Jack either does good by saving the Little Sisters, or does evil by harvesting them.

The game itself tells the player that harvesting the Little Sisters results in more ADAM for Jack, and thus more cool Plasmids to splice, making him more effective in battle. But as the game moves on, it becomes clear that the delayed bonuses in ADAM given by Dr. Tenenbaum at least offset that which is lost in choosing to save the girls rather than harvest them.

Some cried foul upon learning this fact. "Why would we ever do the evil thing if it benefits us more to do good?" And to that I say, "Indeed."

As a man who likes the idea of karma, I don't quite get the notion that being a good person should make life difficult, and being evil should make it easier. Why not teach a valuable life lesson in your game? Doing the right thing should be rewarded in the end, not punished.

Or, in the (paraphrased) words of Aaron Linde, BioShock asks the question, "Is it okay for you to sacrifice the lives of these children in order for your own personal gain?" and then it quickly answers for you, "No, you stupid idiot, of course it's not okay. Why would you even think that for a second?"

And finally, a game that as released just last year: Fable II. Say what you will about Molyneux's overhype and the many black-and-white choices that exist in the game, but I personally think that Fable II presents multiple choices that not only cause one to pause and reflect, but possibly to agonize over a decision.

The most famous of these decisions comes at the end of the main story arc, after defeating Lucien. The Hero is granted a single wish, with the choice between one of three options. The first is resurrect the thousands of people who died at the hand of Lucien, the second is to resurrect the ones the Hero loves, including any family he has and his dog, and the third is unimaginable wealth.

Truly, there are only two viable choices here, as the Hero ought to have more gold than he can possibly spend at this point in the game, and has no need to choose the third option other than to net the Achievement for it.

But the remaining two options are difficult to pick from. The first is obviously the more virtuous of the two, but the second might hold more weight. I personally had three wives (though only one I cared about) and one daughter, and while the news of the murder of my families was a bit saddening, the real draw of the second choice is to bring back the Hero's best friend: his beloved dog.

The dog is there throughout the game with the Hero, and unlike husbands and wives in Albion, the dog will never leave the Hero, no matter how fat, corrupt, or evil the Hero becomes. But if the sentimental attachment isn't enough for you, the dog also acts as an irreplaceable asset with actual gameplay advantages.

Unlike the wish for unimaginable sums of gold, the wish to return the Hero's family provides something that the player cannot acquire by any other means. And because of that, I chose it, despite playing through the game making all of the obvious "good" choices.

And it got me thinking. Did I actually make the most selfish choice of them all? Was I playing a good character throughout the entire game, only to sacrifice the lives of thousands for something that truly benefits me and only me? Is it evil for me to have done that?

Another choice that had me contemplating it for days afterward appears much earlier in the game, but is interesting to me for largely the same reason. It sounds unlikely at first, but this came with the option to sacrifice people to the Temple of Shadows.

Now, I won't argue for a second that the whole Temple of Light/Temple of Shadows dichotomy in Fable II is particularly interesting in itself. Donations to the Temple of Light do nothing but augment the Hero's virtuous standing in the world, while sacrifices to the Temple of Shadows don't benefit the player enough monetarily to make them a logical thing to do for any reason other than to become more evil in the game.

But then, that isn't entirely true. I really can't commend Lionhead enough on the decision, but they also included an Achievement in the game for sacrificing ten villagers to the Temple of Shadows. There is no corresponding Achievement for donations to the Temple of Light.

Think about that for a moment. Fable II is offering real world rewards (insofar as Achievements are real world rewards) for evil deeds in game. By going for this Achievement, I get to permanently add a nice little 10 Gamerscore to my total, but at what cost? A little bit of my soul?

I like to think that in general, I am a good person, but with these two examples, Fable II has shown me that I am not as altruistic as I once thought. Twice in the game I chose to do something self-serving, at the cost of many virtual lives. And if this blog is any indication, I agonize over that fact.

So if you say we have no interesting moral choices in games, then I must disagree. If none of these (or any of the many other examples out there) give you any pause, then you are either not thinking about them enough, or you have no interest in moral choice to begin with.

And I'm not saying that there aren't examples of uninteresting moral choices in games. When you're given the choice to murder a little boy's puppy or cure his leukemia, it's easy to write off moral choice as an unworthy endeavor. But even in this case, on the most superficial level, it gives the player two ways to play through the game, where a game lacking moral choice only has one. Sure, you might only play good or evil, but it's not like options are taken away from you with respect to games with more traditional narratives. In other words, adding elements of moral choice to a game can't possibly subtract content that would be present otherwise, it can only add.

So to complain about the state of moral choice in games seems silly to me. At best, it shows ignorance of some great examples of thought-provoking gameplay. At worst, it shows that some people want less interaction with a medium whose major defining characteristic is interactivity.

Your thoughts?

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