Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. – Steven Weinberg
Beliefs are funny. They make us do things against our better judgment. They make us say things that we can’t explain or substantiate. They have the capacity to make us bomb abortion clinics, fly planes into buildings, hate groups of people based on race, gender and/or sexual preference, or play obviously terrible games that are based on the Left Behind series. Our beliefs have the power to make us do things that should be considered universally evil. What’s most frightening is that our beliefs can cause us to find those actions wholly just and proper. The purpose of this entry is to examine potentially evil actions committed in-game that are motivated by beliefs and preconceptions.
Disclaimer: Spoilers for Bioshock, Oblivion, and Execution are contained within.
Let’s first examine the dichotomy between Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine in Bioshock. We can easily draw the comparison between the portrayal of extreme “fundamentalist” objectivism to that of religious extremism. That comparison echoes exactly Weinberg’s sentiment in the above quote. It is evident that Fontaine harbors no delusions of utopian idealism, and his actions are not committed in hopes of furthering the greater good. Fontaine commits atrocities to further his own power. This is why Fontaine is a fundamentally weak villain. At his core he’s just a whack job whose only purpose in life is to achieve new heights of self-gratification. Fontaine is an evil man doing evil things. Contrarily, Andrew Ryan’s villainy is much grayer. Upon finally meeting Fontaine, he appears as a monstrous, spliced up mess; but when we met Ryan earlier, we were confronted with a much more sympathetic looking villain. Certainly Ryan has committed evil deeds, which may even make him an evil person, but the impression we get is that Ryan did truly believe in his objectivist utopia and that his aim was to make Rapture a place where man could abandon the restraints of the world outside.
This outlines the problem with Bioshock’s morality choices. You can choose to play either good or evil, but you are not allowed to choose which type of evil you will become. The type of evil you become is akin to Fontaine’s evil. If you choose to be evil, then Jack's moral compass is guided by craving Adam. He harvests the Little Sisters to get the Adam, ultimately becoming that which he is tasked to defeat. The player doesn’t get to believe that they are morally right or justified in choosing the evil storyline. It’s simply a matter of instant gratification, to which no one could make an argument for moral ambiguity. If there were a version of the story where Jack could adopt Ryan’s idealism, or even champion another (socialism, Christianity, etc…), the evil storyline would become infinitely more interesting and enjoyable. As it stands, the story boils down to simply pressing ‘a’ for good and ‘b’ for evil.
Another offender is Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In terms of the main quest, the player isn’t really given that much freedom by way of determining outcome. The primary antagonist is Mankar Camoran, a villain cut in the mold of Andrew Ryan. He's motivated solely by his beliefs and adherence to the Daedric doctrines that guide the Mythic Dawn cult. Evil in this instance is a matter of prospective for Camoran. Certainly he doesn't view himself as evil, though we can state objectively that he is. What if, by design, a game were able to cause the player to harbor similar delusions? What if, through subtle branching dialog options, the game had caused the player to be sympathetic towards Camoran and the Mythic Dawn cult, or even join the Mythic Dawn and supplant Camoran as the true Daedric adherent? No, instead we’re given the same black and white story we always get. In Oblivion, the player is able to do evil things, such as killing Eldamil, the kind man who guides you through the caverns of Camoran’s paradise, but doing so doesn't alter the story’s outcome. Committing evil acts in Oblivion doesn’t really even make your character evil, necessarily, but only psychopathic or sociopathic. A person with such a conscience (or without conscience) does not have the capacity to determine good or evil. In order to experience the depths of evil, the player must first believe that their actions, however evil they may be, are right and justifiable. Only upon witnessing the outcome of those actions can the player finally step back and determine whether or not those actions were either for good or for evil.
In the indie game Execution, which you should definitely play TWICE before you continue reading this, the player is presented with a faceless figure bound to a post. This is seen through the scope of a gun and a flashlight, presumably affixed to the barrel. The player’s first inclination is to execute (as the title suggests) the figure presented before you. Aside from the title’s implications, you are never formally instructed to do this, nor are you are required to do this in order to progress or complete the game. However, none of that stops of from you from lining up your sights to execute the perfect headshot – after all, that’s what games have trained us to do. Upon shooting the defenseless figure, you receive a message informing you that you have lost. My first response was, “Screw that, I’ll just try again and see if there’s something else to do.” There wasn’t. I opened the game back up only to see a message informing me that “it’s too late.” There the man was, still tied to the post, still dead. The permanence actually shook me a bit, causing me to feel just slightly dirty. The impact, however miniscule, was more indelible than what I had experienced with Passage or any other arthouse game I’ve tried. It’s not that the person died, necessarily, but that I didn’t know whether or not my actions were evil. I believed that what I was doing was the right thing to do. I’ve been playing games for nearly 20 years, and just about every single game I’ve played has taught me to shoot first and ask questions later. I still don't know whether or not my actions were evil, but I know that it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Execution gave me more consequence for potentially evil actions than either Bioshock or Oblivion - or any of the other games that claim to allow the player to experience an "evil" playthrough.
It was my beliefs, predicated on years of gaming experience, which caused me to shoot that figure. It was Andrew Ryan’s beliefs and Mankar Camoran’s beliefs that resulted in the presentation of two interesting characters whose paths towards evil are unexplored by the player due to the limitations of the game. In order for us to truly experience evil from a player-character standpoint, the developer must first make us believe that our in-game actions are proper or justifiable. I don’t have to feel the same level of permanency that I felt with Execution, only that I need to feel like I’m doing is what I should be doing or at least more relative to what I might do in real life. Until a developer can make "evil" choices a matter of perspective, I will continue to play the "good" storyline.