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February 10, 2010


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This is a really wonderful piece, and it reminded me yet again why I am such a Far Cry 2 maniac. The game had at least half a dozen little moments in which you could make a choice about whether to kill a certain person whose death was not necessary to the mission or the story--the deejay at the radio station, for instance--and the fact that the game does not drop everything to advertise MORAL CHOICE HERE! was, for me, incredibly affecting. It was just me, my gun, and a defenseless--if icky--human being on the other end of it. And when I plugged him in the forehead, and he dropped, nothing in the game let me know that my choice had been registered by some watcher god of morality. It was just another death in a lonely place; I was allowed to reflect on my choice, before leaving the room and stepping back into a hornet's nest of relentless violence. On another play-through, though, I slowly backed out of the room and let the guy live--and my decision to spare him felt just as weirdly intense. I don't mind moral choices; in fact, they're a large part of why I like to play games. But when moral choices becomes a game mechanic, it feels somehow cheap, because my emotions are no longer ambiguously in play. I'm filling out an action rather than acting. It's amazing to me that more game designers don't recognize how much more powerful these choices are when they are handled quietly and subtly. And now I want to play Far Cry 2 again.


Just to play devil's advocate: I could argue that precisely *because* many of the kill opportunities in FC2 are "not necessary to the mission or story," they become meaningless and bereft of moralising impact.

I keep coming back to Randy Smith's MIGS talk, primarily because it perfectly articulated so many ideas that have been nagging me for ages. He spoke of the conflict of interest between Player Goals and Character Goals: what might be a moral decision for a game character is actually a completely trivial gameplay decision for the player---e.g., "Do I murder my wife or my best friend? Well, my best friend gives a perma-buff to health and mana, doubles my inventory slots, and packs a rocket launcher; my wife provides nothing and only carries a wildly inaccurate pistol. And so goodnight, sweetheart, and God bless."

I don't think a game player is ever *not* aware that they're playing a game, that they're trying to *beat* a game, and that all the elements *within* the game are simply there to either hinder or advance that game. For players like that---like me, I guess---"useless" NPCs are then reduced to simple art assets somewhere on the game disc, that do nothing to advance or detract from the story, or the mission. And this is regardless of the detail of their physical 3D model, or how deep their background story/dialogue tree may be. I shot most useless NPCs without hesitation because I was bored and wanted to see the ragdoll engine at work. That, and---judging by a few instances---anyone I left behind had the potential to pull a gun out of nowhere and shoot me in the back. I was better safe than sorry, and so murder was a matter of no consequence.

I don't meant to sound snippy of course, or to imply that I didn't enjoy FC2 thoroughly. It's just that I felt the supposed "morality" of dealing with "useless" NPCs wasn't really reflected in the gameplay in any way.

What *did* deeply affect me was the first time I lost a partner. I did everything within my power *inside the game's rules* to undo that loss: repeated re-tries, attempts at Rambo-style wild destruction, attempts at more defensive play, attempts at playing bodyguard. Nothing worked, and in the end the final gunshot of the mercy-kill felt like a huge "Fuck you" from the game world, and a huge failure on my part. There was serious Achilles-mourning-Patroclus rage after that one. Not because I was projecting humanity on an arbitrarily-designed art asset, but because the game itself had conspired to rob me of a highly beneficial resource in which I'd invested quite a bit of time.

Pardon my long-windedness. I should have made this a blog post. tl;dr -> if an asset is useless to the player, only a select few will feel morally affected by it; if it is intrinsically linked to the player's goals, it will be more deeply affecting.

I think the morality meters work for a couple of reasons. We are moral animals, first of all, and we're always making moral decisions in our lives. (Should I steal that post-it note? Do I really have to call that girl back? Am I doing anything about global warming?) So games that scratch that itch better reflect our life experience, and the more a game resonates with our real world experience -- amplifying it so it's far more urgent -- the more the game resonates with us.

Second, we get to annihilate bad guys and be told that we're being good. That's a relief. Or, we get to play with being bad knowing that even the game thinks we're bad, and that's fun, and that's catharsis.

And it's fun to play a game like FALLOUT 3 and see how being a good guy fixes the world and being a bad guy ruins it. Because rarely do our good deeds fix our world, we just don't have that kind of clout.

On the other hand, what I'm not seeing is a game where being bad gets you ahead. Because it can, you know, if you're bad secretly and good publicly. If you're bad in FALLOUT 3, you're living in a hellworld, and if you're bad enough, there's no one to buy stimpaks from. The paragon/renegade scale in MASS EFFECT seems to be a little bit more on the money. But it would be interesting to try a meter that's only about your rep. If you murder someone quietly, no one finds out and everybody still takes your bottlecaps... but sooner or later people start putting together your bad actions (hey, didn't that guy just come from there?) and fearing you. So keep your murders to a minimum ... just like real life.

I kind of find this entire idea interesting in the context of more user-directed, open games - say, for example, Skyrim. Sure, there are some obviously "wrong" choices, and you can still just be a complete asshole to everyone. However, by being ambiguous about the character as well as his/her motives, it allows the user to create their own moral standing for the character. In these types of games, hypothetically, two different players could play basically the exact same way and come up with completely different justification (or lack thereof.)

On a side note, more open games allow the player to hopefully adapt the playstyle any way they want. I have hear of people going through Skyrim and other games being complete pacifists, or the same for multiplayer shooters. So, ultimately, I think the problem of moral objectivity is not only in the hads of the developers, but largely in that of the players...if they're willing to see things a certain way.

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