-- Coletta Factor AKA Spoiler Warning: GTAIV--
Most modern games tell a story by superimposing a narrative logic on the logic of gameplay. The latter consists of the rules in the game-world that define “progress” in the game: how you control your character, how you get to the next level, how you defeat enemies and avoid dying. The former consists of the conventions of storytelling: making characters with cogent motivations and giving them a plot with includes difficulties to be overcome. Because these two governing logics work side-by-side in most games, the player can give two sets of explanations for why she is doing what she does in a game. On one hand you are flipping out and killing hordes of ninjas because it will allow you to clear the next door and move further in the level, and on the other hand you are flipping out and killing hordes of ninjas because those ninjas stole your girlfriend.
Games are successful to the extent that they are effective at conveying (with some degree of subtlety) what you are supposed to do (what counts as success in terms of gameplay) and offers you a set of interesting scenarios in which you pursue that end. For this reason, getting through a game-- figuring out its gameplay-logic-- involves some complicated pieces of means-ends reasoning. You know that you are supposed to reach some room or platform, it's all just a matter of how, and reasoning out the means to that end can be tricky. The story logic, on the other hand, is usually not left in the player's hands. The designers and writers give you bits of story in cutscenes between stretches of play that indicate why the player's character is so bent on killing that horde of ninjas or getting to that platform. Because story isn't left in the player's hands, games are very good at inculcating good instrumental reasoning (how to get ahead in the game-world) but are bad at making the player reflect on the exigencies of character and fate that make for a story.
I bring all this up because I read an interesting article on MTV's Multiplayer blog about a central decision in Grand Theft Auto IV. In the course of the game, the player becomes embroled in a conflict between two of the major supporting characters in the game-- an ex-con named Dwayne and an up-and-coming street hustler named Playboy X. The protagonist, Nico, spends some time assisting each of the two characters in some criminal activity during the game but tries to avoid taking sides as enmity grows between them (Playboy had taken the reins of Dwayne's criminal enterprise while the latter was serving a bid, and Dwayne becomes jealous and depressed when he is not given his leadership role back upon his release) Each of the men asks Nico to kill the other, and then the game tells you that you are to make the choice.
What I admired about this scenario is that the choice carries a surprising degree of moral subtlety. Unlike the clear-cut binary decisions in games, which I decried in a previous post, room is left for ambiguity in the game's presentation of this decision. Both characters are portrayed as men with recognizable virtues and flaws as human beings-- this speaks to the general strength of the scripting-- and the game provides you a well-fleshed-out picture of each character's perspective on their conflict. When I was faced with the choice I thought about how I would make sense of that decision in terms of my understanding of Nico's character and motivations. Maybe there is something inherently corny about buying into the game's fiction this way, but Duncan Moore of Insomniac took the same tack: “I felt a certain empathy towards Dwayne and felt that ‘my’ character was a man who upheld a certain moral code. As cold, decisive, and murderous, as he was, Nico was a man who related to the suffering of his fellow man (at least this was the side of his character I chose to relate to). I just couldn’t put Dwayne down.” I thought that the very fact that the game could prompt this sort of reasoning was an achievement.
The game rewards the player for killing Playboy X: after you kill him, you get to use Playboy's apartment as a safe house. Killing Dwayne gets you nothing. I thought this decision to attach a reward to the choice represented a failure of nerve on the part of the designers; by wedding a gameplay-reward to a decision that ought be governed by one's sense of character and motivation, it turned a moral decision into a straightforward piece of instrumental reasoning. As Tim Schafer reported, “My moral choice was corrupted by [gamefaqs, a site that offers how-to guides for games]. I heard that if you kill Playboy X you get his apartment. So I did, and you do. I have no regrets.” Most of the interviewees mentioned that they thought this gold star affixed to the act of killing Playboy X marked an endorsement of their moral choice, and I thought this gesture ruined the game's otherwise laudable attempts at narrative ambiguity. And it also revealed how much gamers, as a class of people, seem to be guided by a purely instrumental imperative: when presented with a narrative decision, gamers find out the consequences of that act by going to the game's walkthrough and then make the choice that helps you win the game. It's what we've been trained to do.