Black and White – the evolution of the moral choice in games

Help the little old blind lady and her 17 ginger tabbies across the road, or blow up the kitten orphanage? Maybe I’m meddling with old lady hyperbole here, but when you examine the common trends moral choices within game plots, they are nothing short of outrageous, regardless of the emotional façade that they’re always trying to smother these absurdities in. I think everyone who has at least heard of today’s lineup of games should be more than just well acquainted with the concept since that it is often promoted as if it is running for president of the universe, and if they have experienced some of these games, can agree that they often feel arbitrary, disjointed or just unnecessary, and I think I know just why.

It would appear that the common structure for these moral choices goes somewhere along the lines of becoming a tree hugging hippie, or becoming an irrevocably evil hybrid of Hitler and Skeletor, and this is often without any further reason than “Because it makes the player feel like they’re involved in the world. Wrong, stupid bad, I hope you’re listening Ken Levine, because regardless of the commendable writing that went into Bioshock, I think we can all agree that the moral choices involving the Little Sisters might as well have not been there at all… but that’s old news, let’s talk about a solution. I can’t help but feel that it has become alright to push the player into the world where they MUST choose between joining the super sunshine flower rebels or Lord Doom in his ivory tower of malevolence, but that’s enough binary analogies for one year, I think they must be placed into a world where they can choose to take a certain route, or they can just leave it, allowing the story to dissolve into whatever the most prominent force in the game dictates, a bit like in Fallout 3, and even though the difference in moral choices was nothing short of outrageous, it handled the progression of the game quite well if the player just went off on their own tangent, ignoring whatever people insisted on you doing, and I can let it off this time because I believe it was a subtly satirical, and quite cynical game, but maybe only I picked up on that. First I think we must study how these sorts of situations arise in real life before we start insisting on how they should be implemented in games. Now, in real life, even though it may sometimes seem this way, overlords do not just sit in their castles of suffering, commanding their Legions of Doom throughout the world in order to bring tyranny for shits and giggles; they perform in, what everyone else would perceive as a classically evil way because they believe they are doing the right thing, for themselves, for their believes, for their vision of prosperity. This is where it gets interesting because a lot more avenues can be opened up once the idea for “What is right is not necessarily what is good” arises, because it can give vastly more depth to a moral choice in a game where the player is presented with a deeper range of arguments regarding the achievement of an outcome, where it be peaceful/ violent, harmful/ constructive. I think a brilliant example is in Watchmen, the novel of course **SPOILERS AHOY GENTLE READERS** In the end of Watchmen, Adrian Veidt AKA Ozymandias concludes his illusive machinations by unleashing a giant squid, imbued with the powers of telepathy, into the heart of Manhattan in order to strike the fear of an alien invasion into the people of the earth, who were engaged in somewhat of a nuclear stalemate. You could argue that Veidt’s method of killing half of New York’s citizens was radical and violent, but regardless, it was a conclusion. What was right is not necessarily what is good. **END SPOILERS** This is the kind of story writing that is more than deserving of attention in a game because it could be a serious strength in both providing a more thought provoking and morally ambiguous decision, and enhancing narrative through interesting and unexpected plot permutations that stray far from the cliché and downright black and white.

I’m hoping that through these times of formulaic experimentation with game composition, a desirable and interesting outcome will emerge, consisting of this kind of choice that will in time enrich the accepting player’s experience, allowing them to deepen their immersive connection with the game, and feel as if the story has rewarded them for the time that they have invested into playing these sprawling multipath’d journeys that we voluntarily embark on. Moral choices are really stories too people, and when they grow up, you bloody well better have a big enough cage because I envision that they will assist in perfecting the game as the perfect story medium.

Miles Newton – The Machination, Creative Director

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