Monday, July 7, 2008

Easy Choices

One of the best things about Grand Theft Auto IV is that it improved some fundamental elements in its design by poaching design ideas from other games. Like Metal Gear Solid 4, it implemented Resident Evil 4's over-the-shoulder camera viewpoint and a Gears-of-War style cover mechanic, to good effect. The combat, long a deficiency of the series, is greatly improved. These are elegant solutions to managing shooting in the third-person perspective, and I believe they will come to be so widely adopted in future that they will just become how things are done.

It also adopts another design concept that is becoming fashionable recently, the integration of moral choices into the narrative. At certain junctures in the game's missions, the game explicitly prompts you (via on-screen text) to make a choice between killing and sparing the life of certain characters. I am not certain of the full repercussions of these choices, as I have yet to finish the game, but it does seem that these choices have some effect on the overall narrative. (MTV's Multiplayer blog has in interesting feature where it asked several well-known game designers about one of these choices.)

This has been a common device in role-playing games for some time, but its inclusion in the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Bioshock has renewed interest in the idea of moral choice in video games. There is an important resource in the game that you need in order to improve your character, and the only way to attain it is by taking it from the “Little Sisters,” a group of eerie-looking little girls with glowing eyes who wander the underwater city collecting it from dead bodies. When you manage to defeat the girls' guardians, you are presented with two options: “harvesting” or “saving” them:

Doing the former kills them, but it yields a greater quantity of the character-improving resource. Saving the girls gives less of the resource, but spares their life and seems to free them from whatever causes their eyes glow. The choice also affects the ending of the game; you got the “good” ending by choosing to save all or a most the little sisters. This aspect of the game played like an economics experiment designed to test the limits of the players' willingness to subordinate self-interest to morality. (The game even produced some sensible knaves who calculated how many little sisters you could harvest without incurring the bad ending-- free riders on the moral system. Charts are involved.)

Now one of the things I like about games is that their narratives, unlike those of other forms of art, can reflect the player's choices. However, the recent interest in presenting the player with moral choices has mostly failed at producing works of moral significance. Most “moral choices” in video games, like the choice in Bioshock and the choices in Mass Effect, are binary choices between a clear “good” option and a clear “bad” option. While these choices give the player some chance to craft their own character, these choices don't really challenge any of the player's basic moral intuitions or force them to think about moral questions any differently. We think art should do this, and so if we want games to have the same stature as other forms of art just asking the player whether he wants to be a badass or a goody-goody isn't gong to cut it.

One way is to make some sacrifice an intrinsic part of choosing “good” actions in the game. The choice would have some bite if it required something that would make accomplishing my other goals in the game more difficult. (Clint Hocking wrote an excellent critique of Bioshock, faulting it for failing to present a real conflict between virtue and self-interest. It is really worth reading.) Make the player who wants to be “good” face a gameworld that is more hostile towards his aims and goals.

Another way to make the choice have some actual moral charge would be by introducing a greater degree of moral ambiguity into the choice, either by forcing the player to choose between to apparent goods or forcing him to make the choice without giving him all of the relevant information. This is true to a certain extent in the case of the “little sisters,” because there is some conflicting information given to the player about whether the girls are real human beings, but the game's way of representing your choice makes it clear that there is just something unmistakeably wrong about harvesting children for resources.

Let me give an example of how some progress could be made in making games worthwhile pieces of moral imagination: In an interview with Newsweek's N'Gai Croal, David Jaffee (designer of the God of War series) described a game he once proposed for the PSP called “Heartland.” The game cast the player as an American citizen defending America from invading Chinese soldiers. Jaffee said that he wanted the game to make the player realize the parallels between his character's situation and the plight of Iraqi citizens under American occupation. In the later portions of the game, the player joins a militia and take part in a roundup of Chinese-American citizens meant to evoke the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This would be a game that actually had something of substance to say, not because it discusses a pressing moral issue of our day (the limits of Patriotism) but also becase it would present the character with situations that are morally ambiguous. Jaffee has backed off his desire to tackle these sorts of ideas in his recent work (he's become something of a game-aesthete adopting the Le jeu pour le jeu attitude.), but I wish someone would make games that manage to engage issues in this way in the context of a game that is also enjoyable to play.


jake! said...

I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on this once you've finished GTA IV, actually. I finally beat it last night (with a save for seeing both endings), and I thought the final choices, while still "binary", offered very compelling and interesting story differences.

This particularly struck me when you mentioned having a choice between two morally ambiguous decisions as being a potential improvement on the current way of things. I think both finales really subvert all the themes of the prior GTA games.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the binary choices in most of these choice-filled games aren't all they claim to be. Bioshock, Mass effect and it's ilk seem weighed down by a need to make both options or powerful. They make it equally attractive to choose either option, or else make the "right" choice also the most economically sound. Mass Effect in particular seems to penalize those who waffle or lurk in the gray area.
MMORPGs are an interesting arena for moral choices. I was quite fond of Ultima Online, which (at first) allowed players to murder and rob one another, but penalized them by making them attractive targets for other players to attack without penalty. Though flawed, this social system worked like the real world: immoral choices are profitable if you can be discrete, and social forces keep actors in check. It also allowed violent players to channel their aggression in a "good" way by hunting theives and murderers, another fun gray area.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@Jake!: I'm really eager to see how the story pans out, it has taken me forever to push through the second half. That said, every time I pick it up I am impressed as hell by that game; I liked the portions on Algonquin with the McManus family a lot, and I am interested to see what direction they take the "moral choice" dynamic.

@anon: I think you are right, and I also think that from the need to limit the number of morally significant options comes from the need to keep the number of possible outcomes of these choices to a minimum. You have to create more game for every outcome, and making game content is expensive and time-consuming.

Also, as I pointed out I think the RPG games have really been the first to treat moral issues in any level of depth. They've been doing this stuff forever; I was really impressed by the way game "Planescape: Torment," handled matters of ethics and I'm told that there are other games that are just as good.

MMOs raise all sorts of other interesting ethical issues, because they really are social systems. The situation you describe in Ultima Online is a real philosophical problem in political theory, which David Hume called "the sensible knave" problem.

Chester Dunham said...

It's hard for me to think of Bioshock as successful in presenting the player with a true moral dilemma. While I appreciate the semblance of choice, the problem was that, in the end, the player was actually rewarded far more by saving the girls and doing the "right" thing- and not just with the "good" ending. The girls start giving gifts to the player that more than make up for what would have been harvested, and I'm pretty sure there's an ability that's only unlocked by saving a certain number.

Great article though- I enjoy your stuff!

belgand said...

Indeed, the simple moral choices of many games (e.g. Bioshock, Knight of the Old Republic) are often pointlessly simple and designed to give the impression of a quick, easy self-interest, but usually in such a way that you know they will be weighted down with long-term problems. Add to that that both are usually cartoonishly excessive: be nice to someone or shake them down for more money, turn down a reward or demand more, save someone's life with the medicine or sell it to them at a high price. More than anything the obvious nature of these also make them pointless. My choices are between a complete saint and a mindless thug. This ascribes little to no moral feeling to either action. In KOTOR I actively wanted to move to the Dark Side, but not by acting like a petty thug and shaking down people on the street.

For this same reason Bioshock (which, I should say, I felt was a vastly inferior game to the earlier System Shock games and greatly watered-down into a shooter for the console crowd) had no feeling whatsoever for me. Do I really, honestly, care about the little sisters in the slightest? I don't even like children in reality so does it even begin to bother me that I'm sucking out resources from fake ones? The choice is simply between gratification: do I want to hold off on getting slightly more XP now or do I ultimately want to get much more reward, but it'll take a little bit longer and I'll get the better ending. For anyone playing the game that realizes it's a fictional game (I have the same thing with all fiction, no character's actions disturb me or affect me morally... they're just telling an interesting story, it's not real) the answer is obvious: get the greater reward and do what the game clearly implies to be the "right" choice by letting them live.

Games need to start acknowledging that unless they really, really, really work hard on characterization I'm unlikely to ever care about the characters in the game enough to have it affect my choices. I'll choose the game-defined "correct" choice or the one that gives me the best ending, or turn down that reward because I know I'll get more XP instead of more gold. We need choices that comment on out-of-game ideas and experiences, not in-game ones.

As it currently stands it just feels more like a lame trick to try and make me play through the game a few more times to see all the choices of my actions. As someone who feels compelled to explore, see, and do everything on the first play-through (although I never, ever sell back games and play them through more times in years to come) this bothers me more.

The Iraq game sounds great though. Since the war started and talk about "insurgents" began I started wondering how Americans could act that way. How would they react if a hostile force invaded this country? Even if they did claim they were doing it for our own good? I suspect the most hawkish now would be the ones supporting violent retribution the most. It's ok when we do it to someone else, but not when they do it to us.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

You're right about the excess simplicity of Bioshock's moral choices. I enjoyed it, and I liked being presented with options for how to proceed through the world; what's more, it was a fun way of integrating the critique of Objectivism into a game, as well as making you identify with the people of Rapture through your repulsion and need for the Little Sisters.

But ultimately, it was just a binary choice, which is something of a lowest common denominator of choice-making. Much to my surprise---here comes the shameless blog plug!---I ended up concluding that Dead Rising actually did something more interesting with gameplay choice and narrative; you can read my whole spiel on the subject at