Let's discuss this topic using four games as examples and minor spoilers:
1. Assassin's Creed - the moral game
2. Saints Row 2 - the imoral game
3. Prototype - the amoral game
4. GTA 4 - the game that tries to be moral, imoral and amoral at the same time, and ends up being a mess
1. Assassin's Creed
Assassin's Creed is a lovely adventure set during the Third Crusade. It takes place just a few years after the Kingdom of Heaven
movie, in August 1191 - between the Siege of Acre and the Battle of Arsuf.
You play as Altair, a member of the sect of the Assassins, which has to kill 9 personalities in Acre, Jerusalem and Damascus. The game presents the same pop-history view of the past as Kingdom of Heaven, mixed with a heavy dose of Dan Brown.
The catch is that one of Altair's descendants, Desmond, is kidnapped by Abstergo Industries and forced to relive his ancestor's memories through a device called Animus, which allows the reading of genetic memory.
Altair is the best assassin. He's young, arrogant and would do anything to achieve his goals, including disregarding the Assassin's Creed. He fails an important mission, mainly because he breaks all three tenets of the Creed. The leader of the Assassins demotes Altair to the rank of initiate. He can climb back to the top of the hierarchy only if he kills the nine people, key figures in the conflict between the Crusaders and the Saracens.
All these people were actually real (although some had different names) and died around 1191. Their portrayal in the game is partially based on contemporary accounts about them.
Altair is told that these men are evil and must be killed. But during his investigations, he discovers their actions are far more morally ambiguous, and he starts questioning himself, the Assassins and the real motivations of the factions involved in Crusade.
The targets are clearly painted as horrible, evil man. But their last words make Altair unsure about everything. He discusses his doubts with some of his colleagues - but their quick judgement is supposed to make Altair (and the player) even more unsure.
During the game, we witness a change in Altair's attitude and behaviour. At the start, he's pretty much a dick, a very unlikable character - although his elegance and attitude are somewhat fascinating.
You don't have to be a girl to agree he's sexy.
It's funny that so many people complain about the voice actor: he's supposed to portray an arrogant dick, so he sounds like one.
Altair even refuses to help some of the fellow Assassins, but in time everything changes. It's a clever design. He must complete a few secondary missions, rewarded with additional information, before killing his main target. There are more secondary missions available than the required number. What is Altair going to do? Will he help his childhood friend get the lost flags back? Is he going to escort the frightened Assassin out of the city?
There's a clever idea behind the missions: the player that refuses to help these people is basically a dick, like Altair in the beggining. Why won't you destroy the stands of the merchants that sell altered food and are responsible for a few kids' death? If you complete the missions, you witness a subtle change in Altair's personality: he, the arrogant bastard with disregard for anything, agrees to help those weak people he didn't care about before.
If you focus on the main targets, Altair won't appear to change that much. Yes, he'll still doubt. But you won't hear the Assassins' comments about how the mighty Altair has changed. You won't feel like doing a real, palpable good.
Unfortunately it's a half-assed clever design, because this idea of Altair's changing heavily depends on the immersion factor. If a player is immersed in the world of AC, these missions will mean something. If not - well, they're just tedious and without purpose, and here's where the idea gets lost.
So, the game is moral because it asks you to do good deeds and we witness a man's transition from a douchebag to a noble dude. Your actions are supposed to stop the Crusade. The secondary missions are mostly supposed to be helpful for other people.
The morality is further reinforced by a basic punishment/reward system. You are punished for killing innocents, no matter how much they annoy you. On the other hand, it's perfectly reasonable to kill soldiers, portrayed as soulless beasts - and you're rewarded for killing higher ranked soldiers. Helping innocents rewards you too. It's simple, yet effective. And again, a bit half-assed because it's repetitive...
Abstergo and The Templars are the main antagonists. They're the complete opposite of what Altair is fighting for. A very basic good vs evil conflict is presented during the game, and Altair represents the ultimate good. Aristotle's ideas about tragedy, good and evil are all well represented, including the portrayal of all the four possible conflict bewteen good and evil.
This guy was Altair's model. Also, I had to put a picture to make the text easier to read.
2. Saints Row 2
Saints Row 2 is racist, ultraviolent, satiric and intentionally designed in very bad taste. Really, there is no doubt that this game is 100% imoral. It encourages the player to act as the biggest sumbitch in the Universe, doing everything just for the lulz. There's almost no punishment for bad deeds and no reward for good deeds. But there are huge rewards for any bad action. Even driving on the opposite lane is rewarded, and even the simple action of hijacking a car with passengers triggers a delicious and sadistic minigame. All that matters is to help your character become the most powerful man in the city, and in this regard it's a glorious display of Ayn Rand's objectivism.
It's hard to find anything moral about the game. Even the supposedly good characters would be bad guys in another game. It's like playing the gaming version of Bad Boys 2.
/b/'s favourite game.
You're Alex Mercer. You wake up in a morgue and don't remember anything. You discover you're the strongest character in the history of gaming.
So what do you do? Anything.
There are no clear antagonists, only things that can hurt you: the Army, that created a biological weapon which gradually destroys Manhattan, and the mutants resulted from the contamination. The game world is a hellish version of New York. During the 18 days of the game, you witness horrible abominations taking control over Manhattan. The Army desperately tries to contain the infection, without success. And they hunt you too, for reason which I'm not spoiling.
Mercer wants to find out what's going on with him and get some revenge. But he finds out he's a pariah. It's not clear at all who's your enemy: is the Army entitled to destroy you? Why are the mutants attacking, even though you're one of them? Everybody and everything is painted in shades of grey. The game lets you play it as you like and do what you want, and the obligatory reward system (which is what drives us to play games) doesn't make a clear distinction between good and evil.
Alex Mercer, saving private Ryan.
You can stealth your way through the entire game. On consoles there's an achievement for not killing any civilians.
Or you can use your incredible powers and destroy everything you touch.
There are optional targets, people you find and consume to learn more about the story. But this isn't obligatory. Some targets are obligatory and grant you new skills - like flying a helicopter or using a certain weapon.
But are these people good or bad?
Prototype doesn't tell you. Yeah, the military created that virus and the cutscenes are spooky... but were they right when they created it? Were those experiments good or bad? What happened to Mercer... was it good or bad?
The whole game walks on the middle ground between moral and imoral. It ends up not making any distinction between good and bad. There's no evil and no good to be found here. Your actions are entirely amoral. You're a god among men, and choosing to create chaos or being peacefull have their own set of equal advantages and disadvantages. It's only a matter of preference, and the story never implies that Mercer is following the good path or the evil path, like in KOTOR, inFamous or so many other games. Mercer and the player are simply amoral. The Army and the mutant population are again amoral, it's impossible to decide which one is right and who is wrong.
The side missions reinforce the amorality idea. Some of them are random mayhem. Others are using the brilliant parkour system. Sometimes you help the mutants, in other missions you help the army (and you can do this in the main game too). The best thing about these missions is that they don't represent an anarchic mess, like in Saints Row 2: they're all amoral. Every action is somehow disconected from our views of right and wrong. You don't fight for something good, and you're not an evil guy. The reward is always abstract and never necessary.
Prototype doesn't make any judgement on the matters of good and evil. It leaves all the decisions to the player. It's a completely amoral game, there's no difference between playing a good or bad character and there's no active belief driving Mercer. And unless you're a very sensitive person, there will be no belief leading you either, just a set of objectives that are never clearly good or bad.
4. GTA IV
Niko Bellic is a war veteran that moves to Liberty City to live the American Dream, but he ends up getting involved in the mob life.
Maybe because there are two writers, the story never decides what it wants to be.
On one hand, Niko always complains about his life in Ąthe old country" and the horrors he witnessed or was forced to do. He's a traumatised man, which clearly wants to forget his violent past and live a good, honest life.
On the other hand, he immediately accepts any mission and does anything he's required to do. Now, I would understand that he'd do this if the Russian mob would ask it. But 80% of the game is composed of missions received from random douchebags.
Oy, Niko, would you kill 20 people because they own me money? Why, of course!
There's something fundamentally wrong here. The story contradicts itself, and it contradicts the actual gameplay too. Sometimes it feels like it's trying to portray Niko as an amoral character, which is caught up between two worlds (the honest guys and the bad guys), and must do whatever it takes to survive. But this illusion is shattered when Niko offers to kill the boyfriend of the ex-lover of a dude that he met two minutes ago.
It makes absolutely no sense. It's as if Leonardo DiCaprio's character from The Departed would start taking drugs and killing everybody, like the mobsters among whom he lives, while keeping the same dialogue.
Also, it's weird there's no mention of Niko's movie career
Can a game be moral and imoral at the same time, thus being amoral? No. If you have one foot in a bucket of ice-cold water and the other in hot water, do you feel good and warm overall? Of course not.
So tell me, why is such a self-contradictory story hailed as one of the best ever?
I originally posted it on Gamespot. read