Worth a look: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun. It’s mostly decrying black-and-white moral choices as found in Fable, BioShock, and Knights of the Old Republic; despite the title, it’s not an argument that moral choices have no place in games, only that they’re currently being done too poorly to deserve the name.
21 thoughts on “Linkage”
Thanks for the link, that was an interesting read. (It’s a bit strange that although he is obviously very interested in the RPG genre, he doesn’t mention The Witcher. It would have been a good test case for some of his claims.)
Also no mention of Dragon Age: Origins, which has a handful of well-executed moral dilemmas.
I always find it curious when people feel obligated to recast subjective views as objective truths. The article should be, “Why I no longer enjoy moral choices in video games” and it would, so recast, at least admit to being a piece of navel-gazing rather than analysis.
Based on market demand (and responding supply), it seems fairly clear that most people enjoy the kind of black and white moral choices in games; that most players enjoy having discernible consequences to those choices, rather than vague and obscure effects; and that part of the escapism of games is the “extreme” nature of the choices given to the player.
The author seems to be coming from a personally philosophy in which there are no right and wrong answers, at least most of the time; and I suppose being dissatisfied with the relatively clear moral choices in the real world, he wants to escape into a video game of murk and uncertainty. :)
Rather than escaping into a “murk and uncertainty” that is postulated by a “personal philosophy”, it seems to me that the author is harking back to the moral outlook of many of the most significant authors of the Western tradition. How much fun would the Oresteia be if the right moral choices were clear?
I don’t think this is the place to discuss whether most moral choices in the real world are “relatively clear”–although the huge disagreement about what the right choices are certainly suggests that they are not!–but you can hardly deny that most literature does not treat the choices as clear.
Which is why confusing games with literature is a serious mistake. Robert Frost can choose between two essentially identical paths, and that can “make all the difference”; but have the outcome of the player’s experience turn on a similar choice is beyond obnoxious.
But, of course, I also question the argument that “most literature” treats moral choices as unclear. Obviously you don’t really mean that; most literature is potboiler that genre work in which the choice *is* clear. I suppose you would say “that’s fiction, but not literature.”
But if you mean that most *great works* treat moral choices as unclear, I would still question the assumption. You may be right with respect to very recent great works, but certainly most of the Greek and Roman classics have simple moral codes, with moral error clearly defined; likewise the epic poems that followed (Beowulf, Orlando Furioso, the Chansons de Geste, etc.); in Dickens and Austen and the like the right choices are clear, even if the characters often don’t make them; in Shakespeare, outside of Hamlet, the same is true. That literature is still fun.
So, yes, I do “deny that most literature does not treat the choices as clear.” But, as I noted, even if your premise were true, your conclusion would be false.
certainly most of the Greek and Roman classics have simple moral codes, with moral error clearly defined
…No. As Victor points out, there’s Orestes, but he’s hardly alone. What should Oedipus have done, considering his circumstances? Was Aeneas right to kill Turnus? Of Pentheus and Dionysus, whose side would you come out on morally? And I’m not especially cherry-picking, other than to select examples that are best known to a modern audience. There is lots of moral ambiguity available in the ancient corpus.
I would even argue, in fact, that the good vs. evil question, in those terms, is not quite how the Greeks at least analyzed these issues: an action, for the Greeks, can be seen as noble or not (is it appropriate behavior for a warrior/a free man?), ritually pure or not (is it the sort of thing that causes spiritual pollution?), just or not, and conforming or not conforming to nomos, a word with a force somewhere between “law” and “custom”. The same action might pass some of these tests and fail others. In the absence of a single god determining what is Right or a Manichean division of the world into good and evil forces, this considerably complicates the moral analysis.
I’ll grant that there’s a lot of literature where the conflict has to do with the difficulty of doing the morally right thing. Games don’t always present those well because the player isn’t, and can’t be, as affected as the protagonist by temptations such as lust, greed, or a desire to protect a reputation. But that’s obviously not the only issue.
Based on market demand (and responding supply), it seems fairly clear that most people enjoy the kind of black and white moral choices in games
This also strikes me as a very weak argument. There are lots of reasons why game design is not necessarily the product of players’ desires, including but not limited to
— the game industry being quite conservative and risk-averse, and therefore perhaps not trying out formats that might indeed have wide appeal;
— the game industry not having developed the craft to do things that players might like and spend money on if anyone were offering them;
— the large number of people who are not currently avid game-players and don’t form part of the market now, but who might like games if they treated different subject matter or handled that matter in a different way.
but certainly most of the Greek and Roman classics have simple moral codes, with moral error clearly defined; likewise the epic poems that followed (Beowulf, Orlando Furioso, the Chansons de Geste, etc.); in Dickens and Austen and the like the right choices are clear, even if the characters often don’t make them; in Shakespeare, outside of Hamlet, the same is true. That literature is still fun.
Emily already pointed out how moral unclarity is a large part of Greek and Roman literature, so let me just touch on some of your other examples. These are the final lines of Beowulf: “Thus the Geats mourned their great lord, saying he was, among this world’s kings, the mildest, the gentlest, the kindest to his people, and the most eager for eternal fame.” And one of the questions that the poem raises is whether Beowulf’s eagerness for eternal fame was admirable or a character flaw–did he not take it too far, sacrificing himself needlessly and endangering his people? Two moral codes come in conflict: the knight must be eager for praise, and yet the King is responsible for his subjects.
Orlando Furioso is one big hilarious joke about the conventional morality of knightly tales. For instance, one of the protagonists rescues a lady from a sea monster, and he immediately wants to have sexual intercourse with her. However, it takes him so long to take off his armour that the lady in question has vanished when he is ready to ravish her. Great book, but it hardly contains a moral code.
In Dickens’s Oliver Twist, some of the moral lessons are clear, of course: we shouldn’t let our poor starve. On the other hand, the central story seems to me highly morally ambiguous. On the one hand, the book applauds Nancy’s telling the truth as a moral high point in her life of depravity; on the other hand, her doing so has absolutely disastrous consequences, including several deaths.
And Shakespeare? What are we to make, morally speaking, of the duke in Measure for Measure? Of Troilus and Cressida and Pandarus? Of Prospero’s treatment of Ariel and Caliban? There certainly are plays where we can easily make the distinction between good and evil–King Lear, for example. But even there, was Lear’s idea of dividing the kingdom and remaining a king only in name morally defensible, or was it a betrayal of the king’s duties? I see questions everywhere. :)
First, I think a lot of what you are identifying as “moral questions” arise not from the work itself but from the disconnect between the moral code in place when the work was created, and the moral code today. For example, early in Beowulf Shield Sheafson is desribed as “scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. This terror of the hall-troops had come far. A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on as his powers waxed and his worth was proved, In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and begin to pay tribute.” This rather grisly description concludes with: “That was one good king.” But the question whether it is good or bad to inflict terror on your enemies and thus establishing your power is a modern one; the poet of Beowulf seems unconcerned with it. Likewise, while there is maybe the slightest hint of doubt about whether Beowulf should have faced the dragon (somewhat odd, because earlier in the poem it is clear that the dragon’s ravagings are on-going and that leaving things alone was not a viable option — but perhaps taking his whole warband was the real alternative), I don’t think there’s any question *in the poem itself* whether Beowulf should have risked everything for fame. (Indeed, the poet makes clear at several points that such heroic acts are the only thing that survive a man, and the only thing to give meaning to life.)
The notion that only “some of the moral questions” in Oliver Twist are clear is equally silly. The only substantive moral ambiguity (as opposed to tongue-in-cheek moments) relates to the character of Fagin. But that is, again, a matter of a modern gloss on the story. Fagin is an arch-Jew tempter; only modern audiences, repelled by Dickens’s anti-semitism (which we find in so many of his books), latch onto Fagin’s redeeming aspects. In any case, those redeeming aspects are unambiguously good; the bloom around the canker.
All of Shakespeare’s great tragedies other than Hamlet — Lear, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, and Othello — have basically black and white moral codes. The same is true of many of his best histories — Richard III, Henry V, etc. Where there are moral questions, they are on the margins of his plays or in his marginal plays (excepting Hamlet). I happen to love Coriolanus for its moral ambiguity (although I would hazard that it was not, in fact, ambiguous at the time), but it is not a core work. (As for your specific question about Lear, I think it is quite clear from the play that an abdication and division of authority was unambiguously bad, the sort of self-pleasing whim that throws a kingdom into disarray.)
I find Emily’s points equally unpersuasive. Characters’ actions may be morally ambiguous in some cases in classical literature, but typically the right thing (remaining faithful to your husband despite all pressures) and the wrong thing (cuckolding and murdering him) are starkly contrasted. Again, much of the moral ambiguity is a matter of imposing a modern perspective on classical problems. It was quite clear what Oedipus had to do (gouge out his eyes and wander the wilderness); but not adhering to the same code today, we find that solution unsatisfying.
As for the market demand point, I would agree with you if there were some indication that some great majority of players were dissatisfied with the games being offered. But that is not true at all. Rather, forums overflow with players gushing about the stark black and white moral choices and how cool they are (typically how cool the mustache-twirling evil ones are). Really the only criticisms I hear are from the fringes — erudite game “critics” and grumpy sites like RPGCodex.
It was quite clear what Oedipus had to do (gouge out his eyes and wander the wilderness)…
Was he right in the way he reacted to the oracle in the first place, though?
typically the right thing (remaining faithful to your husband despite all pressures) and the wrong thing (cuckolding and murdering him) are starkly contrasted
Victor and I were talking about Orestes’ situation, not Clytemnestra’s –but even she isn’t actually presented in the reductionist way that you suggest; yes, she’s generally not given wild accolades, but all three surviving tragedians give her some chance of self-justification, and she has strong reasons (Iphigenia’s murder cited most frequently) for feeling justice was owed to her. For Aeschylus she remains unquestionably a villainess; Euripides actually makes her seem rather humane and reasonable, compared with the madly vengeful Electra.
Yes, a modern perspective adds further complications to the moral reading of ancient material; no, that’s not the only source of moral ambiguity. The Greeks were keenly aware of the problems inherent in judging actions (though, as I’ve already argued, moral questions often don’t resolve into the terminology of “right” vs “wrong” at all). This is true especially in the late 5th and 4th centuries; the philosophical approach of sophists does affect literary and dramatic output as well. Gorgias’ defense of Helen of Troy was in part a stunt to show off his own rhetorical prowess, but it raises questions of responsibility and self-control that are pervasive. Classical drama is full of set-piece arguments between characters about what is the right thing to do, which draw on the methods and the problematizing thinking of philosophers and rhetors.
Of particular interest to the playwrights were questions such as how to handle cases of mixed loyalty (the Oresteia, the two Electras); whether it is best to cling to a strong principle even if the results will be widely destructive and/or there are valid competing principles (Philoctetes, Prometheus Bound, Antigone); how humans should construct moral action in a context where the gods are at odds with one another, are deceptive or unjust, or simply cannot be successfully consulted (Oedipus the King, Helen, Ion, Bacchae, Hippolytus). Even comedy sometimes turns to questions of moral ambiguity, though it is most often framed around political rather than personal morals: see the complicated arguments advanced by Poverty in Aristophanes’ Wealth, for instance. Not all of these situations are explicitly resolved by the plays in which they appear.
The Aristotelian view of tragedy from the Poetics — that good tragedy will represent a virtuous man brought down by a single identifiable flaw — is widely taught without any framing explanation of Aristotle’s own preconceptions (and temporal distance from the works he’s describing). This is often to the detriment of our understanding of what is actually happening in classical drama. Almost none of it corresponds to his description of the ideal.
Anyway, my aim here isn’t especially to claim that, across all literature, the majority of it is concerned with moral ambiguity — that’s Victor’s claim, not mine. I was merely quibbling with your characterization of the classical corpus.
As for the market demand point, I would agree with you if there were some indication that some great majority of players were dissatisfied with the games being offered. But that is not true at all. Rather, forums overflow with players gushing about the stark black and white moral choices and how cool they are (typically how cool the mustache-twirling evil ones are)
Bad use of evidence! What you’ve got here is evidence that some people, namely those who are enthusiastic enough to post on the games’ forums, enjoy toying with the options for villainy. (And, for exactly the reasons the original poster describes, this is often more of an aesthetic enjoyment than a morally engaged one.) That evidence doesn’t tell you about most people, or even most players, nor does it tell you whether a different treatment would appeal to a larger or smaller audience.
At the same time, we do have large groups of people who think video games are inherently a juvenile medium, incapable of addressing the human condition in a significant way. You don’t find them on gaming forums, for obvious reasons. Conceivably a shift in how games treat morality would allow them to speak more meaningfully to such potential players.
All that said: I do grant you that “this is not fun” is necessarily a subjective call, and it’s fair to point out that you think the poster is in the minority in reacting that way. I happen to share a lot of his reactions, but that may just mean it’s a minority with at least two people in it.
In any case, it is obviously not my burden to establish that “no great literature has moral ambiguity.” Rather, it seems it is Victor’s to show that “most literature does not treat the choices as clear.”
Indeed, the poet makes clear at several points that such heroic acts are the only thing that survive a man, and the only thing to give meaning to life.
But that is an incredibly powerful example of moral ambiguity! Don’t forget that the poem is explicitly Christian, and that the author (probably a monk) and the audience will also have been Christian. Thus, neither the author nor the audience believe that heroic acts are the only thing to give meaning to life–at the very least, dedication to God also gives meaning to life! So it seems to me that here we have evidence that Beowulf struggles with differences between the Christian moral code and the heroic moral code.
Anyway, rather than do a piece by piece analysis which cannot possibly come to a conclusion (since no matter how many works either of us comes up with, the other can always claim that those are the exceptions) perhaps we need to do a bit more general analysis.
What we are talking about is choice. When moral choice is an important part of games, is it more powerful to have the choices be evidently good and evil, or to have the choices be morally ambiguous?
I transferred this to literature with the remark that “most literature does not treat the choices as clear.” This remark is somewhat unclear; what I should have said was that in literature in which moral choice is important, the choices are generally not treated as clear. There is of course a lot of literature in which moral choices are not at the centre of the narrative, and that literature is irrelevant to our discussion. If this unclarity in my remark was the cause of our quarrel I’m sorry–or actually, I’m not, because it was an interesting quarrel.
We can presumable make the following division:
1. Literature in which moral choice and morality are unimportant (except perhaps as a subject for satire). Examples: Orlando Furioso, The Golden Ass, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The vast majority of computer games would also fall into this category, from Tetris to Civilization (except for the nukes, maybe).
2. Literature in which moral choice is unimportant but morality is clear. Examples: The Divine Comedy, Oliver Twist (on your reading), anything even remotely like a James Bond book. Most computer games that don’t belong to the previous category belong here, namely, all games where you don’t get to make moral choices but are fighting the evil guys (or the good guys). Examples: Half-Life, Comand & Conquer, Dungeon Keeper.
3. Literature in which moral choice is important and morality is clear. This is the category that I claim to be mostly empty if we restrict our vision to great works. There are quite a number of computer games that fit here, though: all those that track the player’s “karma”, such as Fallout 3, Fable, Baldur’s Gate.
At this point, it is interesting to talk about King Lear. Let’s say that the morality in this piece is clear. Is moral choice important to it? Well, obviously, everything hinges on the moral choices made by the main characters; but on the other hand, all those choices have been made in the first 15 minutes or so. The interest in King Lear does not lie in what choices will be made, but in the results of those choices. It seems to me that King Lear is not a very good analogue to Fallout or Fable, and closer to Dickens.
4. Literature in which moral choice is important and morality is unclear. Examples: the Athenian tragedians, the Iliad, Beowulf (on my reading), Paradise Lost (on Empson’s reading, not on Lewis’s). (I actually find it harder to name example among recent writers, since most recent writers are less concerned about morality or hide it deeper.) In computer games: only a handful, including The Witcher.
The original author argues that 4 is better than 3. I am tempted to agree, partly because it seems to me that there is more great literature doing 4 than doing 3; partly because in games like Fallout 3 and Fable, I just play good all the time and the addition of evil choices fails to add to my gaming experience. It perhaps adds a bit replayability–you can play the game again as an evil character and see some different things–but it does not affect my experience right now in any serious way.
You gave another argument, namely:
Which is why confusing games with literature is a serious mistake. Robert Frost can choose between two essentially identical paths, and that can “make all the difference”; but have the outcome of the player’s experience turn on a similar choice is beyond obnoxious.
Could you perhaps rephrase it? I don’t see what you mean. (I’m all against “identical path” choices, of course.)
Interesting discussion. About games, I agree that “fun” is dependent on our individual responses, and that what McCalmont is complaining about is something more like a lack of weight to our moral choices. (I think I’m agreeing with at least one thing everyone’s said here.) It seems like it might be fun to try on a different moral persona, but it’d be fun precisely because it’s not a moral choice, or even a convincing simulation of a moral choice. Though I suppose one of McCalmont’s complaints is that it’s not really fun to transgress where the game has carefully set up mechanisms and rewards for transgression, because then it’s not transgression any more.
Making “fun” out of a choice to be virtually immoral perhaps requires hitting a spot between the game’s actually encouraging you to be bad, thus taking the sting out of what you do, and the game’s making moral choices no fun at all, either by disabling them, by making it harder to progress if you do, or by giving the choices so much weight that only a psychopath could enjoy doing the wrong thing. (As in Power Kill, which Victor and I were discussing a little while ago.) Of course this raises the question of whether it’s a good thing to make choosing to be virtually immoral fun.
There’s some other interesting stuff around, too, about the complaint that choices keep you from seeing all of the game’s content; McCalmont complains that Deus Ex “attach[ed] different endings to certain in-game outcomes. This meant that a lot of gamers were forced to replay sections of the game in order to see endings they had paid for.” And Fabulous, is your complaint that to “have the outcome of the player’s experience turn on a similar choice [between similar choices] is beyond obnoxious” that a shades-of-gray morality would take away the player’s control over the outcomes of the game? I have a few more thoughts about this, but I’d like to hear what other people have to say about it (which is a fancy way of saying I keep getting distracted from typing and should just post what I have, already).
“one of McCalmont’s complaints is that it’s not really fun to transgress where the game has carefully set up mechanisms and rewards for transgression, because then it’s not transgression any more.”
When I read that I thought, for those of us for whom that’s true, we aren’t interested in exploring the gameworld; we’re exploring ourselves. This seems to leave the door open on true moral choice in games. And like a teenager who tries on different identities when away from the family & role within, we players cannot explore ourselves when an author is leading us by the hand.
. . . I have trouble seeing “author” distinct from “narrative structure” there.
My thought was that true moral choice depends on making the consequences felt by making us care about the characters in the game world — which may just require ordinary suspension of disbelief. McCalmont’s complaint about closing off content doesn’t go through if there’s content that you actively don’t want to see, or actively don’t want to play through. There are some endings to Galatea that I know exist and that I’m not going to see, because they involve intentionally being horrible to her (as opposed to all the times when I’m thoughtlessly or tactlessly horrible to her — I think I understand why “sorry” is a default verb in I7).
That’s what puzzled me about Josh G.’s response to Black and White. Josh complains that the game is equally playable as good or evil, and that the only difference between the paths is essentially in how they look. And Carl Muckenhoupt responds that “Every villager you throw off a cliff decreases your population a little, thus weakening your position.” But I’d have thought that the drawback to the evil path is not that your position is weakened, but that you killed your villager, which you ought to feel bad about. Virtue is its own reward. Perhaps the game doesn’t make you feel any compassion for the villagers, which would make it a bad vehicle for exploring morality, but I wouldn’t think that exploring morality would mean making it harder to win the game as an evil person. Though perhaps my position is what Josh means by expressing moral indifference — I don’t believe that God punishes evil in this world (except insofar as evil harms your soul, and that’s really self-punishment) or that evil people are damned to hell, and though I don’t know what Josh thinks about these questions we definitely have different theological beliefs (he’s a Christian, I’m not).
I’d also say that making the player unsure about which choices will make a difference, which I think is what Fabulous was complaining about, might give the choices more weight. I was just reading that in Chrono Trigger there’s eventually a trial in which you’re held to account for seemingly insignificant actions. But that seems to me like moral choices in the real world; you can’t count on getting called out for all the things you do. But this depends on whether you care about getting called out.
But most video games, as far as I can tell, make it harder to suspend disbelief to the extent that you care about the NPCs, because you’ve already had to suspend disbelief in order to think that the way you’re behaving is acceptable. Shooting or hacking your way through the landscape is basically a psychotic thing to do (see Power Kill again). And making the choices weighty is basically the opposite of making them fun.
Back to Ron’s point, it seems to me that letting you explore yourself, at least where it means letting you explore your dark side, again requires hitting the sweet spot where you don’t care too much about the effects of your choices. And that again requires some suspension of disbelief; you know that the game is letting you do this, but if it actually puts up a morality slider, that makes
[Sorry, my laptop seems to be trying to imitate the the functionality of a cat walking across the keyboard. When the mouse button is semi-stuck, it’s not a good idea to hover over the “submit” button.]
…that makes it too much as though you’re exploring choices the author has laid out for you, rather than your own choices.
An underlying theme might be that it’s a lot easier to ramify choices in IF than video, so video games are a lot more likely to try for emergent effects based on things like sliders, which push everything onto one axis. (But I haven’t actually played these games.)
“There are some endings to Galatea that I know exist and that I’m not going to see”
I’ve had a similar experience with Bronze.
“which may just require ordinary suspension of disbelief.”
Well I agree caring about the people within the magic circle is important. I was just adding that in order to touch the player in a deep way, perhaps the player needs to keep one foot outside the magic circle. Like, if he’s completely immersed in the game, then any difficult decisions would stay in the game. But, if he’s playing -with- the game (rather than -within-) and a character calls him on his actions… I don’t know. That thought seems to be in line with yours Matt, re: a sweet spot between caring not a whit for villagers, and caring too much to be able to continue playing. Maybe we’d need another thing for the player to genuinely care about, which would motivate him to continue playing through those hard choices.
But I still don’t see how that guarantees any regret on the player’s part.
“I’d also say that making the player unsure about which choices will make a difference might give the choices more weight.”
Having played Façade, I disagree. Being unsure about which choices make a difference equals a lack of control, and a lack of control mitigates any feelings of accountability. (Or agency, for that matter.)
If we’re interested in weighted decisions, let’s subtract the morality from it completely for the moment and just consider: what makes -any- decision within a game hard? Well, a tradeoff of resources that will profoundly affect gameplay, of course. How do we cast that economic stuff as moral stuff? A choice between two NPCs we both care about? Eh… I’m not sure.
That’s an interesting point about the degree of suspension of disbelief. I’m not sure of the proper terms here, but it seems as though in books and movies suspension of disbelief often involves a lot of identification with the protagonist, if there is one. But games offer a whole different kind of identification, and maybe distancing your action on to the PC (“It’s OK to kill all these monsters, because I’m not doing it, it’s my nethack character, Dudley”) is an extreme kind of suspension of disbelief. There may be two different sweet spots here, one where the choices have weight because the player is identifying with what the PC is doing, and another where they’re fun because the player is distanced from the PC and able to playact at being evil or what have you.
This connects to the bit about control below too, but some of the more uncomfortable moments I had with Galatea had when I couldn’t get the PC to be nicer to her. Because at that point, he thought of her as a machine even though she was really human (whereas as the player, I think of her as human even though she’s a machine. Emily lampshades this a lot; when the PC reflects on her limited knowledge base he comes across as a real jerk.)
Being unsure about which choices make a difference equals a lack of control, and a lack of control mitigates any feelings of accountability.
Well, I didn’t get very far into Facade because of a lack of control of a different sort — I couldn’t get the PC to do anything. (Had the same problem with Rameses.) Anyway, that’s a good point, but… well, not having played the game, I should just quote the description of Chrono Trigger (a spoily bit redacted):
“in the Super Nintendo RPG Chrono Trigger…, the game holds you accountable [much after the fact] for several of your seemingly-pointless choices during the beginning of the game (such as whether or not to eat an old man’s lunch, if you check on the Princess before grabbing her amulet, and even how you answer a certain question. This was done mostly as a way to tell the players “Yes, this game is that complex”.”
Which sounded like choices whose morality was obvious, but which you wouldn’t be able to anticipate that someone would call you to account for them later. And that seems realistic to me. (I’m reminded of what Emily said about her playthrough of Blue Lacuna, where Progue seemed happy that she wore the itchy sweater he’d made for her.) And when the game signals its complexity, part of what it’s signaling is that your choices matter. But I take it that eating the old man’s lunch doesn’t close off one of the paths later.
Though in Cave Story, I’m given to understand that if you trade away a gun that isn’t yours, it prevents you from getting a much better gun later on, and maybe affects the endings you can get. Which just makes the moral choice into an economic one (and maybe if I had traded that stupid gun away, I’d be able to beat Monster X). Which brings up your point about resources — sometimes, it seems to me, hard decisions reflect uncertainty rather than a tradeoff. In nethack, again, do I want to try to take on Master Kaen, running the risk that he’ll pull off one of his more devastating spells (or that I’ll miss with the attack that I need to take him out), or do I want to try to brave the Castle without magic resistance, hoping that there won’t be any arch-liches with the touch of death or soldiers with wands of death? Which can work in morality too — if I cut this corner, will it really have a devastating effect? Will anyone notice if I borrow this thing that’s lying around? But it has to be done very well to avoid being unfair.
OK, so I’ll amend this:
“what makes -any- decision within a game hard?”
Caring about the consequences. A trade-off implies that the thing not taken incurs dire consequences. Uncertainty regarding which decision is right is hard because we’re worried about the consequences. A lesser-of-two-evils choice is hard because we see with certainty that both branches have bad consequences.
So far, moral choices seem to need 1) choices which we care about the consequences, 2) characters whom we care about, and so 3) bad consequences happen to characters we care about if we choose wrong. That seems to match perfectly with trad fic, where “we” is replaced by the protagonist we just read about.
Then we bring agency into the equation.
Emily brought up a term once: “agency gap”. Normally, the PC is the player; he (it) is a stand-in. But sometimes the PC does have a will of his own, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with the player’s. You saw a little bit of that in the PC of Galatea. Other games really showcase such a thing (especially ones with unreliable narrator-PCs.)
The problem with agency in Façade wasn’t an agency gap. The PC is perfectly the player; there’s no separate willpower there. Rather, the game, which was primarily controlled by a parser, pretended to understand all English when it didn’t. Players noticed this, and couldn’t be sure if what they typed in was understood or if the game just faked it with a bland response or change in subject. Players felt they had little agency, little control. That was bad. So when you wrote:
“I’d also say that making the player unsure about which choices will make a difference might give the choices more weight.”
..I was thinking in terms of Façade’s brand of agency-lack — no will at all — versus Galatea’s PC’s brand of agency-lack — two wills in the same character. I see now that you meant “difference” in the sense that the player doesn’t know who, or whether, he’ll have a confrontation about some earlier exercised agency (of any brand, but preferably the player’s will).
So OK, we’re pre-supposing long-term agency in our game of real moral choice(tm). Our game simulates it in a way at least as complex as Chrono Trigger.
When I add that to the 1, 2, 3 above, it seems that.. what? The player can feel regret if hurting an NPC he cared about was an unintended side-effect of his decisions? That the player won’t ever recognize a moral choice when he’s making it, but only in retrospect? That doesn’t jive well with what I know of trad fic. Granted, sometimes it plays out that way, but sometimes, the protag knows darn well he’s having to make a hard choice. There’s something in trad fic’s construction of moral choices that doesn’t stretch well across the fourth wall.
Maybe it’s a squid-on-the-mantlepiece problem? Just as the author can’t dramatize dad’s overdrawn bank account while a giant kraken is attacking the city, the I-F author can’t create player-NPC emotional bonds while there are keys to find in other people’s houses. The traditional gameplay stuff is “too loud”, and overwhelms an NPC’s mild disappointment in the PC’s conduct.
Nice analysis, Ron. I do think that there are some cases in trad fic where a moral choice that may not seem momentous can be seen to be a big thing in retrospect. George Saunders has some Stanley Milgramesque stories where a character who’s just trying to get along and not think about moral issues gets sucked into a downward moral spiral — “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” might be the best — and (in a slightly different register) in Order of the Stick a character kills a monster in a fairly routine invade-their-lair-and-get-the-treasure situation, and later gets called out on this in a big way, which leads to a pretty severe moral plunge off the cliff. Which is related to gaming, since OotS is a D&D-based comic that started out very light-hearted and pulled the drama tag in a big way, which means it has to do something about the typical D&D psycho-hack behavior. Here’s one place it gets discussed. And I think that the little step which starts you on an evil path is pretty common. (And D&D players being what some of them are, some fans argued that the wanton slaughter of a bunch of non-agressive sapient creatures is a Good act if they’re a type that’s Always Chaotic Evil.)
But the one-little-step problem would be a pretty nasty thing to do in a game. Tapestry does something similar, but it has to try to signal what’s happening, and so I found it pretty heavy-handed. Plus it takes a lot of supernatural cosmic machinery for that game to make one single choice irrevocable.
The squid on the mantelpiece point is also very good. Maybe that’s why so many games do their storytelling in cutscenes, and why characterization can happen more in things like Galatea and the Sims 3 (going from Alice and Kev and Emily’s entry about her play), where there isn’t so much squid stuff.
Re: the D&D, I think using a fantasy game with a well-established good/evil divide only to revoke it for a gotcha moment is a cheap trick. That’s not to say a moral choice couldn’t happen in D&D, but it would have to happen within the fiction D&D sets forth, not from the DM springing a silly surprise on his players.
Re: enticing the player to the dark side one slippery slope at a time, I believe that’s a valid tack. But players will catch on sooner or later, so it’s a gamble if the story derives its power from the player’s continued unawareness.
I do believe that agency is needed for a player to feel much weight from a moral choice he or she is asked to make. (Without the freedom to choose, the player shrugs his shoulders and says to himself, “oh, I’m supposed to do the wrong thing here for the sake of the game’s story.”) While we can certainly feel the weight of a choice non-interactively, namely, vicariously as in a short story, I believe this dodges the question of how to do it in an interactive format.
Caring about the characters takes time to develop. Long-term agency takes time to come to light. Avoiding undue hand-holding from the author implies unscripted events. And the removal of traditional gameplay elements begs for something, probably non-physical, to replace it. But I’m unsure what.
Not having played it, I’ll agree The Sims leans in this direction. Interactive dialogue is a problem.