A call for deeper moral complexity in video games

Tomb Raider dilemma

Above: A scene from this year's Tomb Raider game.

Image Credit: Crystal Dynamics

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“Nnnyaarrwwghhhnn hh hh.”

What’s this anguished sobbing emerging from the doubled-over old man sitting underneath that giant floating punctuation mark in this impoverished and benign village?

“You … you’ve got to help me … . The uniformly evil goblin creatures took my daughter … dragged her into their cave … . [whimper] Please, you have to save her and bring her back to me.”

OK: Quest time!

First: Wait — who’s this other, lurking guy? He’s creepy looking. He wants me to wade on in there, relieve the uniformly evil goblin creatures of their A.I., and save the blubbering guy’s daughter as per the objective in my “Currently Active Missions” Start menu subscreen. But once those uniformly evil goblin creatures are but variably spasmodic turds shat out by the game engine, he wants me to deliver the girl to him instead of daddy. He’ll reward me. How do 200 units of currency sound? Objective: branched. Oh boy, moral dilemma!

OK, we get it. Video games are often crude. They are often formulaic. Their writing is often stereotypical adolescent-male-fantasy grade offensively bad. This is not a new point. What intrigues me is not the familiarity with which gamers will have likely encountered the quality of fiction outlined above but rather their familiarity with the branching format it takes — more specifically, the understanding that it tasks them with a moral dilemma with “good” and “bad” options and that this is an altogether pretty ordinary thing for a game to do in 2013.

The Last of Us morality

Above: The Last of Us.

Image Credit: Naughty Dog

Interactive “moral choice” is an interesting concept. Other media can invite us to think about difficult decisions, judge their characters, and contemplate what we would do. Games can do that, too, and then let us enact our choice within a game world that responds to it. We can carve out a personalized narrative and compare experiences. We can become invested in the fiction and emotionally attached to the characters, which may render our reactions and decisions more true to life.

This is what we know games can do, but in practice, it’s frequently less interesting than it sounds. The concept of choice often breaks down to simple black/white options: Are you a selfless hero who helps those in need or a greedy villain who goes out of your way to be cruel? Dilemmas are nothing of the sort. You have already decided whether you are playing a good or evil character and pick the corresponding option with little thought. “Well, the text is in blue, so it must be the right thing to do,” and “this character is clearly supposed to be a bad guy; I’ll do what he says.” Moral choices no more affect a player’s decision than what color hat to wear, which weapon to use, which stat to boost, or which skill tree to develop.

Again, OK — this is poorly implemented fiction, knowingly trashy fiction, purely escapist fiction, whatever. The path toward more nuanced and thought-provoking scenarios is open for games to take, and they are pushing farther down it. We’re getting games that try to tackle serious themes and issues, and we can look forward to them increasing in sophistication and potency. No need to fret over whether it’s possible. It’s already happening.

So my question is, is the apex of morally, politically, and existentially aware video game fiction a series of interactive ethical pop quizzes?

There’s nothing necessarily déclassé about writing explicit morality-flavored fiction (ie., asking, is doing X justified in order to enable Y?) or outright moralizing (attempting to convince that X is unjustified despite Y), but I think video games, like other fiction, can be more subtle. They can let us plant the seeds for questions, thoughts, and realizations rather than directly thrusting them forward. This approach resembles Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s idea of indirect communication: Roughly, that existential truths are best arrived at by oneself, and that the role of the author is consequently to set something out that will stimulate others to come to realizations and experience emotions through their own mental work.

There’s something in the idea that the truths or beliefs that stick are those appropriated through putting the pieces together and coming to understand them ourselves. How often do you think people are converted to a religion or political/moral cause with someone hollering on the street or handing them a leaflet that spells it out? I’d venture rarely. Directly illustrating something to someone is not always the best way to help them grasp and absorb it.

Infinite Jest

Above: David Foster Wallace.

Image Credit: Steve Liss/Getty/Time Life

I was considering ways in which a video game may go about doing something like this, and then I began thinking about David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan novel Infinite Jest. Wallace diagnosed our culture as one of passive consumption and sought to engage readers by writing in a way that forced them to work. The narrative of Infinite Jest is intentionally disorientating; the virtuosic language can be technical, opaque, and of varying tones and dialects.

Frequent physical manipulation of the book is required to reach the 388 endnotes (and sometimes endnotes within endnotes), and crucial information is buried amongst material of questionable relevance. Techniques such as these render the book an interactive and challenging experience for readers. Here’s a novel that attempts to engage by taking on characteristics that are important, if not fundamental, tenets of video games, and in doing so indirectly communicates big existential stuff more effectively than any other work of fiction I have encountered in any medium. Can you see where this is going? If Infinite Jest can use these techniques to such great effect, then does the video game medium hold a huge, largely untapped potential to do something similar?

Commentators seem to be engaged in a recursive dialogue over whether and when a video game Citizen Kane will arrive that artistically validates the medium to the wider world once and for all. “Is it here? I think this is the one! As good as a film!” followed by “Well, it’s not exactly fine literature, but good for a game.” I am not awaiting a phantom totemic Citizen Kane that brings artistic validation and mainstream approval. However, I am hopeful that someone may make an Infinite Jest that conveys something profound to me personally and would not work as well in any other medium. Is that an absurd expectation?

Now here’s where you come in, dear reader. I may not have experienced a video game in this way, but I have played relatively few games (especially indie games) and may have failed to pick up on something in those I have played that felt profound to you.

So: Which games have done anything like what I have discussed? Has a game ever led you to explore certain thoughts/ideas or come to a realization that could be loosely described as moral, political, or existential?

Or, in short, what should I be playing?

[If you are intrigued by Infinite Jest, you may wish to click here.]

Originally posted on Beards and Pixels.