Bad Choices: When Morality goes Wrong the Right Way - lmvalle Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Bad Choices: When Morality goes Wrong the Right Way

 

The problem is choice. One could say that the present console generation was the Golden Age of Choice-centered gameplay, with several franchises making a name for themselves with the allure of gameplay that has a strong impact on the story based on the player's actions. In tandem with this comes the notion of morality, which has been visited in a full spectrum of titles in varying degrees, from the classic Knights of the Old Republic to Bioshock. While some games have implemented this concept rather conventionally, others are paving new roads in the industry with narratives that avoid the typical pitfalls associated with a binary view of morality and posing new storytelling possibilities in games.

Of course, one could say that doing the right thing in games is almost universally executed satisfactorily, yet we don't see the same level of depth when the opposite occurs. The common defense is that choices come with consequences, yet consequences can be unexpected and sometimes contradictory, or in more complex situations have no rewards at all. As a result, it's easy for games to get Morality right, often operating with a reward system that often oversimplifies the game. Yet, few games make us care about the bad choices we make without becoming heavy-handed. Thus, the aim of this blog thus isn't to praise the games that get morality right, but the ones that succeed at getting it wrong without relying on clearly defined tropes. Note that given the nature of this blog, some spoilers will be present.

One of the key problems of morality in gaming involves the dualistic formula applied: choices are often presented as either good or evil. Rarely will you find games that incorporate morally-neutral options, and to be fair, getting caught up in the philosophical trappings of subjectivity and relativism isn't the primary goal of most developers, let alone writers. The consequences, as a result, are predictable and often clichéd. Yet, one game that I currently can't get enough of forces the player to consider the consequences of their actions by removing the labels typically associated with "good" and "bad" entirely. It completely eschews pretensions and holds the player responsible in a way that resonates on a level few games will ever achieve: XCOM. Threw you for a loop didn't I?

Throughout this game, players take the role of the Commander of the titular project, an organization that is charged with combating the global alien threat and is supported by several countries. You'll often spend your time researching and completing different projects, managing all of the resources you receive, hiring and training soldiers, and lastly, sending them out on various missions, whether they involve alien invasions, abductions, and other alien activities. Players however, are forced to choose which countries they'll assist, at the risk of increasing the panic levels of the countries you neglect. Those whose panic level goes too high will withdraw support from the XCOM project and in tandem, stop funding you. So how does this have anything to do with "bad choices" in morality?

XCOM doesn't tell you what to do apart from the main objectives that tie into the plot; instead, you're forced to decide upon actions that may very well yield an outcome opposite of what you'd expected. Do you assist China for $300 dollars when you could get a highly experienced soldier from Brazil? Or will you ignore the threat level of another country for the scientists you could obtain? Will you deploy satellites over one country for the additional engineers they can offer you, or do you focus on building coverage over a single continent instead for that extra bonus? What about those nav computers you haven't researched yet, that you needed to sell to outfit your soldiers with better weapons and armor? Each of these choices could be "good" or "bad" depending on the situation. Those don't even include the choices you'll find yourself making during each mission.

You'll find yourself questioning everything from the positions you place your squad in combat to the very actions you have them commit, especially when things seem to be stacked against you. Suddenly, that successful critical hit that pwned that Sectoid will be rendered void by the Muton you didn't protect yourself from. You'll find yourself wondering if you wasted a rocket when you could've simply used a grenade, exposing your squadmember to an enemy flank. Every time a squadmember dies - especially a high ranking one - you'll find yourself nitpicking every single choice you made because of the level of personal investment in each of them. Yet, the game will never decide for you; your conscience will instead, giving the game an emotional depth that doesn't need melodramatic conventions to convey morality.

While XCOM succeeds by throwing labels traditionally associated with morality out of the window and forcing players to critically re-examine their actions, other games succeed through the relationships players will form with the characters in the story. There have been previous attempts - Dragon Age: Origins - but none have been as critically-acclaimed as the relationship Lee Everett has with Clementine in Telltale's The Walking Dead series. Like XCOM, The Walking Dead doesn't attempt to decide the morality of your choices for you; instead players come to realize through the events that take place that human nature can become even more savage than the inhuman zombies they fight against. Some of the people Lee encounters will disagree with his choices, and others will support him, especially during pivotal moments in each episode of the game. However, Clementine, the young girl that Lee takes under his wing, becomes his compass.

Throughout Lee's narrative, he struggles with reconciling his past as a convicted murderer in addition to making tough decisions that will not only affect him, but sometimes Clementine and the other members of the group he travels with. Several choices - such as deciding whether to save certain characters instead of others or whom to give rations to - will have no clear-cut answer. Others will have obvious moral undertones due to the severity of them, and the gravity of his actions will reflect itself in how Clementine responds. One that comes to mind first concerns a conversation Clementine and I had after Carley had confronted me about my past. I found myself torn between being honest in our conversation and "protecting" her, and, a propos, myself by dancing around the situation. I chose the latter option - one could argue a child as young as her wouldn't be mature enough to understand an act so complex; yet, a feeling of guilt never left me.

A similar moment happened at several points in the second episode of the game. The first is obviously the meat locker scene, in which Lee and the others are trapped after being taken hostage by the St. Johns. Larry, the cranky father of Lilly, has a heart attack and appears to be unresponsive. Fearing that Larry was in fact dead and could become a threat to them if he became a zombie, Kenny, a fellow survivor, asks Lee to help him. Lilly on the other hand, certain that her father is merely unconscious and not dead, asks me to assist her instead. I sided with Kenny once and helped him kill Larry, and despite all the rationalizing I tried to do, couldn't help but question my decision once I saw Clementine's reaction to it.

In another case, I was tasked with deciding whether I'd kill Danny St. John once we'd escaped confinement. The first time I did so without hesitation, and even killed Andrew after beating him to a pulp for what their family had done. Yet, the weight of my choices didn't strike me until I realized that Clementine had witnessed both of these events, not including Larry's murder. Here I was, a man supposed to protect her, caught up in a moment of selfish rage that had led me to completely ignore one very important fact: I was influencing Clementine, and her reactions always reminded me each time she questioned the decisions I'd made. The fact that I was an active participant in it, rather than a casual observer of a cutscene, engaged me in the act(s) taking place and as a result gave them personal significance usually absent from most morality-centered games. Moments like these - and there are many - felt organic and gave The Walking Dead a truly authentic sense of morality, and when my choices were bad, I always knew through the way they affected the young girl I'd become a makeshift father to. Games normally feel punishing when negative consequences happen because of our choices; yet, Clementine was a mirror probing into Lee's very soul, and with her very identity hanging in the balance, I could only condemn myself. 

As can be seen thus far, these games succeeded in conveying the negative aspects of morality both by removing petty labels and allowing the player to decide for themselves based on their decisions; also through the relationship your actions have with the characters you're tied to. These methods have yielded games that are not only enthralling, but also thrilling by actively investing the player in the events at hand without restricting them to shallowly defined parameters. However, one game that I can't get enough of epitomizes "bad choices" done the right way. In this game, the "good guy" commits some of the most heinous acts imaginable, and there are many "bad guys" in this story. Nonetheless, the actions that he makes carry consequences that stick with you: The Darkness.

 In this game, players are introduced to Jackie Estacado, an orphan raised by a mobster named "Uncle" Paulie and introduced to the "business". On the eve of his twenty first birthday however, he screws up a job for Paulie and as a result, has a hit placed on him. Yet, something equally unexpected happens: a primordial eidolon only referred to as "the Darkness" awakens within him, and Jackie is granted nearly invincible dark powers. However, Jackie soon learns that power comes at a price when his girlfriend Jenny is eventually kidnapped and murdered right in front of him. This event is one of several that occur in game that remind us of the illusion of freedom Jackie is given with his newfound powers, and as he descends further into his relentless quest for vengeance against Uncle Paulie, we witness the Darkness consume him in ways previously unexpected. One could even argue that most of the story told in the titular game is one unending result of a bad choice in itself, reflecting consequences that - as we learn - come from an action that stretches back several generations.

Very few games inventively venture as far as The Darkness does into the nature of evil, revenge, and the consequences that come with fulfilling it. Most narratives play it safe by turning the protagonist into a caricature with each immoral act they commit. With Jackie however, the game encourages the player to embrace the obscene, profane, and visceral power that comes with what would normally be considered evil. The Darkness manifests itself in a vicious twin-headed wraith emanating from Jackie that's empowered by the veil of the shadows and nighttime, and weakened by any form of light it encounters. Even when the faceless mobsters you encounter are killed, you're given the option to consume their hearts in a disturbing display of brutality.

As the narrative continues, Jackie earns even stronger and more destructive powers to use in his journey, from tendrils he can impale his enemies with to miniature singularities he can create to send his foes to oblivion. Jackie can even summon different demons known as Darklings to wreak mischief at his command. Indeed, the ancient spirit inhabiting Jackie seems to offer the player and Jackie himself unlimited freedom whenever he openly embraces its nefarious powers; it even resurrects Jackie whenever he's killed with its ancient magic, essentially making him immortal as long as it inhabits him. The consequences of Jackie's - and by extension, the player's - chaotic and vicious campaign for revenge however first manifests in one critical moment.

I remember blazing my way through countless goons and corrupt cops, although I preferred the stealth route - sending a tendril of the Darkness to hunt them down like injured prey. Paulie was holed up in a place of great symbolic importance - the very orphanage where I'd grown up with Jenny - and with my new powers and a wave of destruction ahead of me, I prepared to confront the deranged mobster. Yet, when I finally spied Paulie holed up with Jenny hostage, something completely unexpected happened: the Darkness dwelling within me assumed control of Jackie and forced me to watch as Jenny was brutally murdered. "You are my puppet," the entity hissed, and then I realized that all the freedom I had been given was merely an illusion; the Darkness dwelling within Jackie wasn't a symbiote, but a supernatural parasite gradually consuming Jackie each time he embraced its power. What makes the consequences of these bad choices so gripping involves the very human portrayal of Jackie Estacado himself.

We're shown a glimpse of him struggling to reconcile his mobster life with his relationship with Jenny prior to her kidnapping, and later during his experiences in the Hell created by the Darkness within him. Instead of becoming a mindless killing machine, he holds on to a single thread of hope through the love he shared with his girlfriend; with it Jackie even seems to overcome the Darkness within him. His desire to avenge her death by killing Paulie however, eventually fails to stop him from becoming consumed by the Darkness' corrupting powers, and with the fulfillment of his revenge, the Darkness assumes complete control over Jackie. The single shred of hope Jackie had is lost; we witness her spirit say goodbye to him, and they are separated forever. However, instead of feeling like a punishment for all the evil done - much of it justifiable given the circumstances - we're shown a glimpse of morality few have refused to entertain: one where we're ruled by the choices we make.

In closing, these are just a few of the games that successfully get morality "wrong" the right way. We gamers can sometimes be a little overindulgent, basking in every grotesque beheading or curb stomp in the games we play with relish. We sometimes enjoy being the good guys playing the bad cop routine, because we still get the girl at the end of the day or save the world. Or, we play the bad guy and commit every crime short of genocide - unless you're Commander Shepard - with impunity, only to see predictable cookie cutter end results. We can still turn off our consoles without a second thought about that innocent lady we just robbed or the noble we framed for theft, even the guard we shot in the knee with an arrow; yet, there are a growing number of games that have begun to challenge this convention.

Storytellers are realizing that morality isn't just a bar tallying the predetermined positive and negative choices you make with the typical results; that the best ways to convey morality are through allowing us to judge ourselves through the choices we make. Morality, after all, comes with consequences that are more complex than endings corresponding to them. These games make us think critically, whether they eschew conventions entirely, draw us into moving relationships, or beautifully illustrate just how self-destructive and consuming a lifetime of wrong decisions can become. These mistakes are the moments that I'll remember most, more than any princess I saved, or tyrant I eliminated, because they actually matter.

What are games that get morality wrong the right way? Any moments where bad decisions you made resonated with you emotionally? Share them!

 

 

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