Postmodern Gaming, Post-E3 Rambling, and Something New

Whoa, what happened to the interface?

My newest article for The Artifice is online! Its an analysis of three postmodern games that feature metacommentary on their form! One of my better pieces I believe. I cover Bioshock Infinite, Spec Ops: The Line, and Metal Gear Solid 2 respectively in it, give it a read.

Believe it or not, Metal Gear Solid 2 shares a lot with this fountain.
Believe it or not, Metal Gear Solid 2 shares a lot with this fountain.

Also, my personal impressions on E3 and what it means for the near future.

And I’m working on a new gaming site/channel with a few friends! Check out a test preview of our podcast! We’re working out a few kinks, but we’ll be ready within the month!

I’ve been playing “The Last of Us” for a review for The Artifice next week. Let’s just say its one of the better survival horror games to come out this generation.

Have an awesome weekend!

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An Ill-Advised Rant on the Next Console Cycle

These are my gut reactions to the XBox One press conference. Forgive me if I can’t predict the future. 

People predict that this next console cycle will be the last of its kind due to the proliferation of alternative distribution methods like Steam and iOS, and that might be true with the advent of cloud computing. Outsourcing the number-crunching to powerful remote servers and having the console act only as a client for playing these games means that the only upgrades that need to be made are to those remote servers, nullifying the need to upgrade every few years. I’m excited.

Square box with sharp edges. Bleh.

That said, I can’t help but be incredibly disappointed at this morning’s XBox One reveal. Aside from its ugly design that would have been acceptable only in the early 2000s, the preoccupation with television other traditional forms of entertainment sets it up for failure. Fewer and fewer people are watching television and prefer to catch series through channels like iTunes, Youtube, and Netflix, formats that suit our increasingly busy lives and schedules. I mean, consider a number of my friends from film school, most of their goals don’t lie in theaters or TV screens, but in web series and internet video. To focus on traditional, centralized methods of media production sets us back. In essence, the XBox One is just trying to be an uglier DVR, while it is nice to have a centralized place to access all our entertainment options, I think we’re missing the point here.

 Which brings us to games.

Aside from cloud computing’s power to advance the big-budget AAA games, it would seem that indies will be the deciding factor for who wins the so-called “console war”.

Let’s back up a bit, previous generations were never decided by console specs, they were decided by price and exclusives. Consider the Wii’s $250 launch price and the casual revolution that it started, and compare it to the PS3’s incredible processing power locked away behind system architecture so problematic that the 360 ended up consistently getting the best version of a multiplatform game. Point is, the complexity and power of a console isn’t going to make too much of a difference in how this console cycle plays out.

Furthermore, another change owes itself to the “Ludus Florentis” phenomenon that I pointed out in my previous post. Consumers are beginning to get tired of the big-budget AAA games, and instead of dropping $60 on a highly anticipated blockbuster, people are beginning to prefer to put that same money to purchase a variety of downloadable games, the success of Journey, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, and The Walking Dead prove this. Simply put, its not the console that has access to the most anticipated exclusives that will dominate this next generation, but the one that has the strongest indie-outreach program and online storefront.

Nintendo and Sony both recognized this change and made aggressive pushes to their plans for downloadable games. Sony made their massive indie kick by reformatting their storefront and adopting a familiar PC-like architecture for the PS4, as well as completely eliminating their developer registration fee. Nintendo made theirs by releasing the HTML5 based Nintendo Web Framework for the WiiU and opening up their submission process. As a result, the registration and development process for these consoles will be comparable to what already exists with Desura or the App Store, which can only mean good things for the diversity of games that will exist on these platforms. The XBox One’s preoccupation with the Call of Dutys and EA Sports of the world will probably make them increasingly irrelevant as the cycle plays out, which is disappointing, considering the wealth of great indie games like Bastion that owe their existence to XNA this generation.

Technology!

But more than anything else, what concerns me about this next generation are development costs. Both press conferences in the past few months marketed incredible graphical fidelity, pushing amazing texture resolution and ridiculous polycounts for each model in a game’s world.

This’ll mean bad things for games.

Art assets are one of the most time and resource consuming components of game development, already, asset production is outsourced to outside studios for many AAA games. Increasing the graphical fidelity of each asset in a 3D game world will only continue to bloat development costs and increase the level of damage done to a studio should a project fail.

Furthermore, games seem to market “emotional storytelling and characterization” with the graphical fidelity of these games. Strangely enough, “emotional” seems to have become a new buzzword in the odd era that we exist in at this moment.

But graphics don’t mean anything for emotional resonance.

The Walking Dead

Games are games, and achieve their meaning through play. The scarf-restoring cuddling and momentary escape from gravity connected to each jump in Journey made it such a compelling experience. The narrative weight lent to each dialogue option in the low-fi Walking Dead made one of the most emotionally intense games I’ve ever played. Graphical beauty didn’t make these games emotionally powerful, great ludic design did.

If anything, I’m intrigued by what this next console generation has to offer. Ludus Florentis opened up Steam, mobile, and cloud-based games to an unprecedentedly wide audience and diversified the kinds of games that could exist and succeed. The effects of what happened in these alternative spheres will mean a lot to how this next generation plays out.

And I want to try the Ouya.

Thoughts on Surgeon Simulator 2013 and The Future

So if you haven’t heard, there’s been this weird little indie game that has been going around Steam recently called Surgeon Simulator 2013. It originated as a project made at the 2013 Global Game Jam, and currently, its one of the most talked about games online, and received critical acclaim, numerically beating out recently released AAA titles like God of War: Ascension, Gears of War: Judgement, and Crysis 3.

WHOA

Let’s take a look at what I just said there. This was a game made at a Global Game Jam, a series of relatively underground 48-hour game making competitions. Most games that get created at these events get played only by the friends and family of participants (at least in my brief time partaking in these events). The game defies any notion of what we’d think would merit commercial success and critical acclaim: Surgeon Simulator 2013 is an interactive joke, much like QWOP, it utilizes frustrating controls and silly physics to create hilarity. The game is short, cheap, and deliberately makes counterintuitive game design decisions. By previous measures of rationality, the game should have everything working against it, I can’t think of any Global Game Jam project that received substantial coverage on Kotaku.

And critics are reviewing the game higher than Crysis 3 and Gears of War: Judgement. Mainstream ones too, not the alt-indie leaning sites like Polygon and Destructoid, sites like IGN and Gamespot are doling out these surprising scores. I’m against Metacritic, but color me legitimately surprised and impressed.

Maybe this is a sign of what’s happening with mainstream tastes in games. 2012, a banner year for indie games with the dominance of games like Journey, FEZ, and FTL signified that with the right attention and funding, oddball experimental games can achieve riotous success, even going so far as to sweep the GDC and BAFTA award shows. Maybe the success of Surgeon Simulator is going to push the indie games movement even further.

Surgeon Simulator is an interactive joke. A really good one.

Journey and The Unfinished Swan owed their success to an aggressive experimental gameplay push by Sony, FEZ got its start with a grant by the Canadian government, and FTL jumped into the hearts of gamers with a successful Kickstarter campaign. Surgeon Simulator 2013 got off as a game jam project developed in a span of 48 hours. Kotaku took notice and shared it with their gleeful audience. Someone posted it on Reddit, and the game went viral. Motivated by the reception, the developers decided to push the game further by spending another two months in development.

Think about that for a while. Think about how crazy that would have sounded only three years ago.

Here, we have a game produced without the funding of anyone, not even a Kickstarter campaign. Only the developer’s own funding goes into creating the game, the game is completed over the course of two months. Gamespot, of all sources, goes crazy over the game and rates it higher than the loud, expensive AAA games that people used to get hyped up about.

Cart Life: A Poverty Simulator

Things have changed.

This is the bold new world that gaming is about to enter. The mainstream success of a humble game-jam game, the expansion of mainstream tastes to encompass things like interactive jokes and empathy games, the kind of stuff that Ian Bogost describes better in How to Do Things With Videogames, the fatigue consumers express towards contemporary AAA games, the rise of alternative distribution methods, Ouya, Indie Bundles, Dys4ia and Cart Life at the IGF, and an art-game’s dominance at the DICE awards all point towards one thing.

Ludus Florentis, the movement that James Portnow predicted in his 2009 Gamasutra post. An unprecedented flowering of games characterized by a newfound diversity of developers, genres, subject matters, and development scales. While this movement has already been going on for a while, what Surgeon Simulator proves is that consumers are welcoming, even embracing, this change. In the new world that we’re entering, there will be room for expressive metaphors for life, economic simulations of impoverished people, and yes, even interactive jokes about butterfingered surgeons.

Bioshock Infinite is a Metacommentary on the Nature of Video Game Storytelling

I’m going to spoil a lot of Bioshock Infinite for all of you, so beware this blog post if you’re planning on playing this game. 

Bioshock Infinite is a game about a lot of things.

Bioshock Infinite

Religious zealotry, American Exceptionalism, theories of space-time and interdimensionality, patriotic jingoism, the inevitability of economic disparity, Occupy Wall Street, colonialism, and problems faced by political radicalism. While few of these plot threads arrive at a productive conclusion, it piques interest, causes uncanny discomfort, and provokes conversation and interpretation within its colorful fan community.

However, my view on the meaning of Bioshock Infinite, which has conflicted with the interpretations of the many friends that I have discussed the game with, involves a subtle level of self-reflexivity that I saw pervading the game’s entirety. Bioshock Infinite is about the nature of narrative in games and the conflicts between emergent and fixed narrative, returning to the conflicts between ludology and narratology that had died down years ago.

Before we begin, let’s go over some key terms necessary to understanding this argument, not everyone is a game designer. Emergent narratives are unscripted stories that come out of a game’s play, they may include dramatic character arcs in The Sims, and alternate histories created by Civilization V matches. Fixed narratives are stories determined by the game designer, and are most prominent in single-player narrative games such as Bioshock Infinite

Constants and Variables: Emergent and Fixed Narrative

Single-player games like Jak and Daxter are comprised of both fixed and emergent narrative elements. Fixed narrative in these games amounts to preset moments that occur between or during moments of gameplay, and may manifest themselves as cutscenes, background chatter, or narration. Games like these are also comprised of emergent scenes, which can vary wildly depending on player choice. Game narrative is not entirely dictated by the author, and exists as a strange amalgam of both embedded and emergent narrative. Game writers do not have complete control over how a game’s story will play out due to the nature of interactivity and player behavior. Even a single-player narrative game like Half-Life 2 can have an infinite number of narrative permutations dependent on how players approach combat and exploration sequences.

Which is a topic Bioshock Infinite addresses in its brilliant, mind-bending ending. Booker and Elizabeth escape Columbia through an interdimensional portal into the Sea of Lighthouses, a mysterious world beyond the constraints of time and space where every possible permutation of the universe at any possible time in history can be accessed through an infinite number of doors. “There are a million, million worlds. All different and all similar. Constants and variables. There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city… Sometimes something’s different… yet… the same.” says Elizabeth.

This scene is soaked with metacommentary about the distinction and conflicts between embedded and emergent narrative. Everyone who plays Bioshock Infinite will be telling a different story in their playthrough. Combat situations will play out differently depending on player strategies, Booker may or may not find all the collectible upgrades in Columbia, he may spend hours playing carnival games at the fair, he may ride the carousel in Soldier’s Field, and he may scour every trash can in Columbia for food. These are the “variables” that Elizabeth is talking about, the “million, million worlds” that are all different and the same, Bioshock Infinite‘s story is comprised of an infinite number of permutations coming out of the game’s emergent nature.

Decision time!

And yet, the rich range of narrative permutations that come out of interactivity is mooted by authorial intent and traditional narrative. Bird or Cage, ride the carousel or ignore it, fight with guns or Vigors, Bioshock Infinite‘s overarching narrative will always play out the same way regardless of player choice. All this is reinforced by the game’s single ending. While many games try to make player choice meaningful by providing a variety of outcomes based on player’s participation in the story, Infinite mocks the idea by making players powerless over the progression and ultimate outcome of the game’s plot. These are “constants”, the elements of a game narrative that are “always the same”.

The Illusion of Meaningful Choice

Bioshock Infinite is peppered with moments where players have to make a split-second binary choice, such as a decision to threaten or press a ticket seller, and the decision between two different brooches for Elizabeth. While most games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain hinge upon these moments as an integral part of their branching storytelling, these moments in Bioshock Infinite make no meaningful difference to the overall outcome of the plot.

Games are characterized by having quantifiable and variable outcomes, and player choice in gameplay dictates these outcomes, leading to meaningful play. Bioshock Infinite challenges the notion that binary choice is meaningful by making its choices meaningless, that is, if meaningful choice is to be defined as a choice that influences the game’s outcome. The first Bioshock had a rudimentary morality system where player’s choices in dealing with Little Sisters influenced the plot’s variable conclusion and marketed this system as an integral part of the game’s appeal. Infinite subverts player expectations by making these “moral choice” moments irrelevant to the outcome of the campaign, at most, leading to a minor cosmetic difference on a character or two.

One of the “decision-time” scenes

The artificiality and insignificance of these moments reinforces the notion that Bioshock Infinite is about the conflicts between player-generated and designer-dictated narrative and the diametrical opposition between ludology and narratology. Players are led by prior experiences with similar games to think that these binary choices matter with respect to the game’s narrative, and by subverting these expectations by making these choices almost irrelevant to the game’s conclusion, Bioshock Infinite raises questions about whether or not truly meaningful choice can really exist within a designer-driven narrative.

Does Autonomy Exist in Narrative Games?

The Lutece “twins”, the memorable and quirky duo of scientists lost everywhere in spacetime,  provide perhaps the most thought provoking insight on game narrative in Bioshock Infinite. The Luteces are fourth-dimensional beings, and simultaneously exist in all places, at all times, in every possible universe. Adam Sessler of the fantastic Rev3Games channel likened them to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for their self-referential nature on the nature of fate and free will. This is fitting given their role in the game’s narrative.

Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead retells the story of Hamlet from the perspective of minor characters. The play deals with whether or not free will can exist within the world of a play, amongst other meta-things. The titular characters, doomed to die in the original Shakespeare play, attempt to defy their fate by escaping to England in one scene, but are rendered incapable of doing so by virtue of existing in a world dictated by an omniscient, godlike playwright. Video games are said to break from this problem by having the player enact the narrative by assuming the role of a character, thereby imposing free will into a universe traditionally thought to be dictated by an author. Bioshock Infinite challenges this idea in an early scene.

Upon arriving in Columbia, Booker encounters the twins blocking a doorway. They walk up to him and give him a coin, “heads, or tails”, they ask. Booker flips it, calling heads, and it lands on heads, like it did for the last 122 times.

Bioshock Infinite’s coin-flip scene is not a “decision-time” scene

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a similar scene occurs where a coin lands on heads 92 times in a row. This leads the characters to wonder if they are under the control of a supernatural force. In real life, coin flips are determined entirely by random chance, and exist as a fair and impartial way of making binary decisions. This cannot exist within the constraints of a work of fiction, even computers at a machine level are incapable of simulating randomness. The coin-flip scene in Bioshock Infinite is not determined by random chance, and is scripted by the developers to always land on heads.

What this means is that autonomy and procedurally generated narrative cannot exist within a narrative game like Bioshock Infinite no matter how hard developers attempt to give the illusion of an open-ended narrative. The coin-flip scene represented an ideal point to give the player the decision of calling heads or tails, but Booker is scripted to always call heads. This is done purposefully, as removing player autonomy from this scene tells us it is impossible for a game with scripted elements to be truly player-driven.

This notion of the impossibility of autonomy in single-player narrative games is reinforced immediately after the player regains control over Booker. The Luteces walk to the side and open the doorway for Booker to proceed and stand there. If the player stays near them, Rosalind will tell the player to leave several times before saying “If you don’t go, I’ll be forced to start repeating myself.”, after which, she does.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

This interactive scene is a prod at the artificiality of NPC’s in video games, and despite attempts at creating rich and realistic characters in fiction, characters are ultimately fictional constructs created by authors devoid of autonomy and drive. Lutece is scripted to repeat the same limited number of prerecorded lines until the player inevitably leaves the area and continues the game. Despite the fact that players regain control Booker in this scene, it is impossible for players to do anything but proceed down Infinite‘s narrative path.

Look past Freudian interpretations, and this play has interesting things to say on free will.

Bioshock Infinite‘s themes of the illusion of free will extend from the artificiality of NPCs to the very nature of interactivity later on in the game. In the game’s final sequence, Booker finds himself reliving the moment he sold his daughter to repay his debt. Booker tries to resist, and players, disgusted at this grim realization, will too.  “You can wait as long as you want, eventually you’re going to give him what he wants. You don’t leave this room until you do.” says Elizabeth. At this point, the only option available to the player is to pick up the baby and hand it over to the man at the door, players cannot fight back or escape the room. Players will inevitably surrender the baby, since they cannot progress until they do. Both Booker, and the player, are rendered incapable of making any other decision by the very nature of Bioshock Infinite‘s method of storytelling. Aside from surrendering the baby after waiting for an indefinite time, the only other option available to the player is to quit the game.

So is Booker an autonomous being, or is he controlled by an omniscient force called the Player? Perhaps the question being raised here is whether players are autonomous beings or simply actors controlled by the invisible hand of game design. The interactive nature of the medium would suggest that players are truly autonomous and capable of making rational decisions that influence the world of the game, but all this is an illusion. It is impossible for true, meaningful autonomy to exist in a single-player narrative game because the authored nature of fiction prohibits players from making choices outside of the ones that a game’s system allows.

Heavy Meta

Its totally possible that I’m reading way too deep into Bioshock Infinite. However, even if my interpretation of the game strays far from predominant interpretations of Infinite, the questions raised by multiverse theory, the illusion of meaningful choice, and the myth of autonomy in single-player games raises interesting questions about the nature of video game storytelling. Just like how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern raises questions about the nature of fictional worlds dictated by authors, Bioshock Infinite raises questions about universes collaboratively authored by both designers and players.

I Like Games

One thing that has sat on my bucket list for a while is to give a TED Talk. If I were to do one, it would be on video games and how awesome they are and why everyone should at least care about them.

I think that after the casual revolution that came around 2006, video games have infiltrated the public consciousness and stayed there. Add the proliferation of iOS and Facebook games, then everybody’s a gamer. I don’t want to get into the whole “Are Games Art?” argument here, since that argument was already settled decades ago, and any further attempts at justification in this day amounts to nothing more than self-aggrandization  Instead, I just want to say that I love games.

Darfur is Dying

Games give us empathy, they allow us to share the experience of another individual by simulating their identities and lives. By actually experiencing the struggles of another person through interactivity, we can comprehend how other people experience the world more intimately than in any other medium. For one, Darfur is Dying allowed players to understand the crises facing those affected by the Darfur genocide, tasking them with protecting their family from insurgents and managing the limited resources of a refugee camp, risking their own lives to get something as simple as water. Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia shared the experience of being a transgendered person in contemporary society with its players, a kind of life that I, a young, straight, privileged, male, cannot naturally relate to. Yet, through interactivity, this alien experience can become relatable and understandable, and as a result, we can empathize with people whose lives are radically different from our own.

When teaching about the Holocaust, most schools go to Elie Wiesel’s Night or Anne Frank’s diary to allow students to observe the dehumanizing effects of oppression. If we were to take students out of the role of a passive observer of someone else’s story, and instead place them in the shoes of a Holocaust survivor in a simulated reality, imagine how much closer to home the messages of these stories would hit. Games have aspired to become more emotionally involving in recent years by asking players to make increasingly difficult ethical decisions in their virtual worlds. Perhaps asking players to sympathize with the victims of unimaginable oppression would be a step in a bold new direction for such a movement. If anything, such a game, if done artfully and tastefully, could instill understanding and sympathy within its players.

Games become even more interesting when we consider them as an interactive storytelling medium. By letting our own identities bleed into those of our in-game avatars, as in Mass Effect and Skyrim, we become more intimately attached to the stories that we can create through our participation in a game’s world. Already, games such as Half Life and Bioshock have exploited the perks of an interactive, explorable, medium by using virtual environments to tell immersive stories with rich, imaginative, universes. Things get even more interesting when you approach more experimental games, Spec OpsThe Line self-reflexively questions our enjoyment of violent video games through its subversion of gaming tropes. Journey abstractly touches hearts using a subtle, unspoken language transcendent of cultural boundaries. As a narrative and artistic medium, gaming becomes increasingly hard to ignore.

Pokemon

Looking beyond the potential of games to let us empathize with others, games most importantly serve as a social framework through which relationship can be made. Over a decade ago, Pokemon served as a social framework that united us all, and despite our diverse backgrounds and peripheral interests, most kids in my third grade class had a common interest in Pokemon. We would discuss the teams that we had assembled during recess, surreptitiously sneak our Game Boys to school to make trades, and be envious of the one kid who had that Shiny Zigzagoon. Ask any gamer you may meet, and s/he will recall fond memories of elementary school and the friends that they made playing it. Games unite disparate people, their play serves as a common language through which we bond with each other. Chess leagues, FPS clans, DnD groups, ARG communities, nerdy fandoms, MMO guilds, athletic teams, political parties, games have done an immense social good by allowing us to form authentic relationships with each other and become part of a larger community. If to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human need, then games serve this purpose admirably.

Which is why the reignited controversy over violent video games perturbs me. While I welcome an impartial study on the effects of violent games, the inflammatory accusations that I see from pundits are disturbing. I owe myself to games: they were my childhood and their play served as a fundamental building block to my character. In the brief time that I have spent on the side of the developer, my affinity for the medium has only grown. Being part of the USC Interactive Media Division, I stand at the very edge of a rapidly expanding universe, and the future for the medium that I see being constructed by my friends, mentors, and colleagues thrills and inspires me.

Indiecade

I see that future in Reality Ends Here, a pervasive alternate-reality game that has facilitated collaboration and creativity in the students at the School of Cinematic Arts. I see that future in Project Holodeck, a experimental, motion-controlled, virtual-reality interface for playing games. I saw a lot of that future at IndieCade, a festival to celebrate the creativity of independent games. We stand at the dawn of an incredible new age for games, and a vast uncharted future stands in front of us, to step towards a broader, richer, world of games is both thrilling and terrifying, to step back out of unfounded fear of the unknown would be a disservice to the world.

Issues with Morality Systems in Video Games

This was a piece that I wrote sometime in my junior year of high school discussing my thoughts on morality systems in video games at that time. Like the games themselves, my views on these systems have changed. Nonetheless, the points I raised in this piece warrant discussion. 

Since their inception, narrative-focused role-playing games (RPGs) have concerned themselves primarily with player interactivity with the game-world and the freedom to interact with virtual worlds and their inhabitants in any number of ways. Inherent to this aesthetic of immersion is player morality and his/her relationship to the artificial inhabitants of these virtual worlds. In the past decade, a scintillating crop of games has arisen from studios such as BioWare and Obsidian; these games turn morality into a central mechanic through which fun is derived. By presenting an ethically ambivalent game-world wherein player choice dictates the very fate of these virtual worlds, questions of the reward-punishment nature of these games, as well as the games’ strongly deontological inclination arise. Morality in video-games is thus a rather problematic aesthetic with its own share of contradictions in player-agency, subjectivity and moral absolutism and relativism.

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An Introduction

BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), while not the first game to have had an integrated morality system, has one of the most historically significant. The game immersed its players in a rich sci-fi universe set 4000 years before the events painfully depicted in The Phantom Menace. Its narrative revolved around the adventures of an amnesiac republic soldier trying to prevent a great evil from unleashing an ancient superweapon. The game carried with it a great sense of player-freedom, allowing the player to approach story-situations in any number of ways. When on a mission to rescue hostages from a Sand People enclave, one is given the choice of killing the Sand People and saving the hostages or trading moisture vaporators for the hostages. While this concept of player-agency is admirable, the stark black-and-whiteness of the game’s philosophical position seems rather shallow and un-nuanced.

star-wars-kotor-cover

Perhaps what made KOTOR such a great game was its consistent ability to give the player the illusion that his/her moral choices had major consequences and ramifications. The strong writing gave the player an illusion of importance, and despite the superficiality of the player’s actions in the real world, the decisions that the player had to make had real weight and impact on the gameworld and how NPCs (non-player characters) react.

Nonetheless, how NPCs react to the player and the direction of the ludonarrative (the part of the game story that the player can control) and subquests seemed to be the only impact that the player had on the game. Ultimately, KOTOR still follows a fixed linear narrative with multiple endings. No matter how good or evil a player is, the game will always reveal its major twist on the Leviathan, and it will always conclude with an epic showdown on the summit of an ancient space-station. While NPC perception and ludonarrative nuances could be impacted by the player, KOTOR lacked the range of narrative and moral dynamism expected from the best RPGs. As a result, KOTOR’s vision of moral freedom remained rather constraining in comparison to other games.

fallout-3-20080715091724357_640w

Deontology, Moral Absolutism and Games

Perhaps the most appalling ramification to come out of integrated morality systems in role-playing games is the starkly deontological approach to ethics that these games take. (NOTE: I by no means mean intend to portray deontology as a black-and-white affair in this post, ethical approaches in reality represent a more nuanced balance between deontology and teleology, these games however, seem to take a stance of moral absolutism) In the vast majority of morality-centric games, a player’s ethical choices take the place of a sliding “morality meter.” Player actions add or subtract points from the “morality meter” and depending on where the player stands on this “morality meter”, specific dialogue options and narrative paths might open or close. Fallout 3 puts this mechanic in the form of “Karma Points” and Mass Effect in its “Paragon/Renegade” system.

mass-effect-

The sliding “morality meter” mechanic represents an overly absolutistic approach to ethics that ultimately renders choices as black and white, universal laws being given without understanding or context(albeit, most such games draw such universal law from the real world). By rewarding or removing morality points from the meter, the game developer essentially decides what is moral and what is immoral. Thus, being an ethical person in these virtual worlds requires absolute conformity to the universal laws set forward by the game developers. Dissent from the moral norms established by developers results in punishment by morality point loss. While in other genres this may be acceptable as it expresses the developer’s worldview on ethics, in a genre as grounded in the mechanics of self-expression, exploration and moral freedom as the RPG, this sense of deontological moral absolutism is heavily problematic.

Nuke-Megaton-Give-water-beggar-a-bunch-of-water-to-bring-karma-to-neutral

Spoilers ahead. At the climax of Fallout 3, President Eden gives the player a vial of an anti-mutagen agent to insert into Project Purity. The anti-mutagen agent will eliminate all Super Mutants and Ghouls from the Capital Wasteland, thereby restoring the area into a pre-war state. The game considers this to be an immoral decision and deducts Karma from the players that take this course of action. The moral decision in this case would be to sacrifice oneself in order to activate Project Purity without the anti-mutagen agent, giving purified water to mutants and non-mutants alike. In this context, Bethesda, developer of Fallout 3, advocates a Peter Singer-esque form of utilitarian altruism, that philosophical worldview being the universal law that the game advocates and judges its players actions on. Approaching Fallout 3’s situations from any other kind of ethical worldview, say, Randian Objectivism, could result in the player losing Karma for an action that they believe to be moral. Fallout 3, a game which in many ways, offers unprecedented freedom to the player, ultimately judges the citizens of its virtual world by its own categorical imperative. While the player might be free to “be the bad guy,” the philosophical motives of the player remain rigidly entrenched in the beliefs of the developer.

Moral Relativism Much?

A great ideological conflict between gamers and game-developers arises over the definition of morality. Even then, a totally teleological approach to ethics would defeat the purpose of morality being a central mechanic in role-playing games, relegating gameplay to no more than moral relativism. How then, can a logical balance be made between ethically challenging gameplay without demanding the player abide by unfamiliar ethical systems?

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Bioware answered this question by offering a wider range of possible quest-arcs and endings in Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, each of the possible paths of action offering its own pros and cons and none of them offering a specifically clear-cut ultimate good or bad decision. One KOTOR side-quest revolves retrieving a runaway droid for a mentally unstable owner. Upon finding the droid, it argues that his escape was for the good of its owner, who had grown anti-social and insane upon growing overly dependent on its companionship. At this point, multiple Light-Side solutions can be reached, allowing for the player to express their view of the situation through their own moral perspective. One can kill and loot the droid for Dark-Side points, release the droid and hope the owner can become socially independent or capture and return the droid to its owner. While the outcomes remained black and white and the conditions players are judged by strictly deontological, the player is given a degree of flexibility to explore the nuances of moral dilemmas.

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Other recent games have aggressively distanced themselves from moral absolutism. Another BioWare game, Dragon Age: Origins, addressed the problem by making its moral choices “aggressively grey.” Atari’s The Witcher (both games I have not yet had the opportunity to play) was marketed on “shattering the line between good and evil in a world where moral ambiguity reigns.” While deontological/absolutist games might squelch out dissenting worldviews with their view of “universal principles,” games that experiment with a teleological ethic remain just as problematic.

According to Michael Campos, my Junior philosophy teacher, such games “tend to take extreme positions of deontology and teleology.” Extreme deontology has the effect of predetermining what is moral, thereby categorizing contrary actions as immoral.  According to Mr. Campos, “our society is to an extent afraid of universal moral principles because it assumes static ethical standards, not taking context into consideration. Thus, attempted advancements remain problematic, The Witcher’s catchphrase of moral ambiguity being synonymous to moral relativism.”

Escaping Moral Constraints

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Ever since playing Pokemon, the role-playing genre has always been my favorite type of game. Fallout 3, in particular, stands out as one of the most immersive and engaging experiences I have ever had in a game. However, the root mechanic in the role-playing game is “role-playing,” that is treating the game world as our own and acting as a citizen of these virtual worlds. In order for these games to matter on a philosophical basis and be more narratively engaging, game developers need to re-evaluate the moral systems implicit in their games and the philosophical, not just moral, freedom that they offer.