BioShock 2 director talks about moral choice in games

BioShock is a game about moral choices. Well, it actually isn’t, and that’s the problem. BioShock‘s moral choice system was, to put it bluntly, about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the bollocks. Deciding between killing little girls or saving them didn’t really work as a moral dilemma, and we asked BioShock 2 creative director Jordan Thomas why these moral choices struggle to succeed in videogames. 

“Well, that’s a long conversation,” warns Thomas. “Part of it descends from the way humans regard simulacra vs. other live humans (who could affect their status and survivability). Empathy responses involve a number of sophisticated truth-checks against the subject thereof. Mirror neurons fire in response to smells, facial and vocal cues, all designed to ensure that you’re not actually wasting your cognitive energy on a socially irrelevant non-human. Or, for that matter, to help you avoid boinking a corpse. Moral reasoning all follows from that quick calculus we’re running against every social experience we undergo.

“Now enter a video game, where objectively you know without question that none of this is real — so at best, you’re a gentle solipsist, willing to suspend disbelief and play nice for the fun of it. At worst, you’re a freaking sociopath. You start thinking about gaming the system, not about how a live human might feel about your choices.

“There’s also a heavy interactive fidelity burden — many moral acts are subtle or deeply situational rather than general purpose slappin’ or gunfire, so you get a lot of quick time event abstraction, which lessens the physicality of the act and robs it of some power. Development constraints also tend to lead to broad good / evil choices, which some people find a bit flip.”

And what of BioShock 2? How did 2K Marin tackle the idea of morality in the new Rapture? Hit the jump for more.

“In BioShock 2, we’ve taken a tack that puts the burden on the content – meaning interactively, the choices are very simple, and in the case of the new adult choice-characters, entirely in the simulation,” he explains. “But the moral context of each is highly gray and arguable from many perspectives. And by the time you’re asked to make one, you have a lot of personal exposure to that character to help offset the ‘who cares’ effect. We feel they’re an interesting counter-balance to the Little Sisters and certainly help to seed the ethical terrain with more subtlety, but I wouldn’t claim that we’ve solved the problem now and forevermore. If anything, the interesting bit is how they affect the story later — but that’s spoiler country.”

Our BioShock 2 review will appear like magic on the frontpage this very morning! Keep reading Destructoid for the lowdown!

Jim Sterling