www.GameInformer.com
Switch Lights

The lights are on

What's Happening

Is Life Or Death Gaming's Ultimate Moral Quandary?

The apocalypse is a popular gaming setting nowadays but the apocalypse is not nigh.  In fact, if the apocalypse is imminent, based solely on statistics, most of us are doomed.  In games however we are routinely placed in the pre or post apocalypse, hardly within the actual cataclysmic event, and given decision making power that determines the life or death of others.  The idea being, in the breakdown of civilization as we know it, who are we and how do we act without social norms and the certainty of punishment for misbehavior.  Often in gaming this narrative is played out with the player deciding who lives and who dies.  However, as more games have embraced a morality system I have continued to wonder whether this life or death choice is truly the "ultimate decision."

We are always concerned about the children.  The adults need to survive the apocalypse too.

Without a looming apocalypse life as we know it is the life that we have.  Daily we make small and large decisions that do not result in death but that shapes our lives, the lives of those around us, and by our actions we determine how others view us.  In a civilized world we learn that morality is not black and white. We are left with decisions required to weave through social, economic, and moral factors in our efforts to do the best that we can. 

Similarly, video game deaths are not about the finality of the character's being because the game goes on.  Instead, the death is central to how other characters react and live with the decisions that precipitated a life or death moment.  As games evolve morality systems I ruminate more about the decisions that resulted in an ongoing consequence rather than the arguably simpler question of whether a character lived or died.  Such decisions more accurately reflect decisions I must make in real life because in civilized society very few of us are charged with a life or death authority.  Instead, we must navigate societal and economic factors to choose a decision that is not outright good or bad and we must continuously make these decisions. 

Such a fight to get here only to be useless.  Currently, I am stuck on the Blue Hotel level.  

My playthrough of I Am Alive is stop and go.  The checkpoint system requires completing a level in one sitting because exiting out of the game will restart my next game time at the level's beginning, not at the last checkpoint.  This requires patience.  Yet, the game I have played thus far remains in my mind.  The gameplay is often a search of the post apocalypse wasteland and inventory management of minimal supplies is paramount.  For the player, multiple supplies serve the same purpose namely boosting health or adrenaline or both.  The NPCs however typically only want a particular item such as hungry NPC will only take a rat meat on a stick, not a fruit cocktail.  The player is constantly faced with the choice of whether to keep their meager supplies or provide assistance by handing out their provisions to beleaguered NPCs in return for additional "retries" that alleviate the setback of the player's death.  In one such instance, I wandered a dust filled town only able to travel so far until I was forced to climb into breathable air and repeating this process results in tedious exploration. 

Over and over I heard a cry for help but despite continuous searching I could not locate the plea's source.  Much later, after a level brought me back to the city, I discovered the cries originating from a woman handcuffed to a bench.  As I walked toward her about three thugs jumped me.  In this survival game, ammunition is scarce and I only had two bullets. Firing the gun takes time and melee combat is only successful in one on one matches.  Swarmed, I repeatedly died and used precious retries in my dedication not to leave the handcuffed woman.  Finally, I triumphed and ran to bench, out of ammunition and low on supplies, but celebrating my victory.  The NPC continued her pleas for help and upon my approach the game directed me to shoot her handcuffs in order to free her.  I stood in front of the bench stunned.  For all my work and use of precious supplies I could not free her because I did not have a single bullet and neither did I have the option to restart without ending up at a long ago checkpoint.  This moment faced with the reality of fighting my way to help but arriving without the necessary means to actually help continues to stick with me.      

A rare disability storyline, however brief, and no easy response.  

In the Mass Effect trilogy decisions carried over from each game into the next.  At the trilogy's end one inconsequential decision particularly stays with me.  Throughout all three games Commander Shephard observes a small scenario play out in Citadel: Family Matter.  In Mass Effect 1 Rebekah Petrovsky, a pregnant woman is discussing with her deceased husband's brother, Michael Petrovsky, whether or not her unborn child should receive in utero gene therapy for a potential genetic heart condition.  This medical decision with no clearly right answer but a choice that impacts a person's entire life stopped me in a game that had mostly "good" and "bad" choices.  Past, present, and future difficult medical decisions remains with the human race even in the advanced Mass Effect universe as long as medical treatment includes unwanted side effects and remains out of financial reach of the entire population.  As a personal side note, I recently wrestled with the consideration of a cochlear implant.  Beyond the expected social and financial factors even pragmatic considerations must be weighed such as the requirement that the magnet embedded in your head must be surgically removed and reinserted in the event of an MRI. 

In Mass Effect 2, a simple overheard conversation alerts Shephard that the child is doing well or that Rebekah is considering further modifications to the child.  In Mass Effect 3 Shephard is again called over to settle a dispute on how best to socialize the child either by attending daycare or staying home.  Certainly the decision is set against the backdrop of safety concerns during the intergalactic Reaper War.  However in the context of a child with a medical condition I read this moment as the choice whether or not to mainstream the child, which is a major milestone for children with disabilities.  Again in my personal experience, the decision whether or not I would attend public school or a deaf program was revisited frequently throughout my time in school. 

Despite Shephard's "creep" factor of butting into the lives of strangers, after this story I always stopped to listen in. 

Over the course of the trilogy Commander Shephard makes a multitude of these small scenario decisions.  Ultimately, these choices only impact the larger universe my contributing to Shephard's "Paragon" or "Renegade" scores and by doing so these decisions creates the overall environment around Shephard. This particular brief moment is set in the larger Mass Effect universe that includes one of the only disabled video game characters, Joker, who has a brittle bone syndrome that results in limited mobility.  I still think about Mass Effect addressing disability without the added layer of the supernatural or magical either mitigating or "curing" the symptoms of the disability or providing alternative superpowers as side effects of the treatment.  The overall inconsequential moment with Rebekah and her child gave me a momentary opportunity to decide my Shephard's stance on disability related moral questions. 

Softly sleeping guards during third shift.  Each one will surely awake with no back or neck pain.  

2012's new IP, Dishonored, is an assassination game that offers the option to play as a nonlethal assassin.  My mind still reels.  Whether or not the nonlethal gameplay is as varied or satisfying as its lethal counterpoint is immaterial when solely considering the oxymoron option itself, a nonlethal assassin.  Therefore, Dishonored provides creative options for neutralizing the political targets without requiring the targets' deaths.  Interestingly, the nonlethal option at times made me pause and consider whether the target's crimes merited the severity of any given nonlethal punishment.  A deathly assassination is final, the target absolutely incapacitated from committing any further crimes.  The nonlethal punishments ranged from a lifetime slaving at hard labor to a discredited and ruined reputation resulting in lifelong imprisonment.  Death, by whatever means, ended the discussion with finality but ongoing punishment for the remainder of the target's life caused me to question my decision each time I finished ruining their lives. 

Beware of the masked assassin.  Take your favorite pillow to your guard post, just incase. 

Additionally, I appreciated the concept of high and low chaos as a reaction to my choice to pursue either the death of all guards or sending the guards into a sweet slumber.  Perhaps simple in execution but the concept that the citizenry is calmer when guards and high ranking public officials are not mysteriously murdered at their posts or in their homes and offices is a creative approach.  Wanton destruction begets general mayhem as panic rises due to the sudden and brutal deaths of public figures with bodyguards.  Impacting the environment's mood and atmosphere is an inventive concept.  My criticism is that the impact was lessened with the lack of NPC interaction to convey their sense of safety or fear by a masked murderer systematically removing important political figures.  Instead, we are limited to the rats swarming and the infected moaning. 

The young gaming industry continues its evolution from Pong to Mass Effect and back to Fruit Ninja then to Telltale Game's The Walking Dead.  The sensation of interacting with a game, of being involved and impacting its characters and universe brings us into the digitized world projecting life both as it is and as it should be.  We do not spend our days deciding the life or death of those around us or even ordering about those around us but doing our best to repeatedly make decisions from what to eat for lunch to medical decisions with no clear answer in order to shape our own worlds into miniature worlds that we want to reside within.  Gaming allows us to both test out theories and live vicariously.  With more options to steer our characters I cannot wait for what is developed next past the concept of dead or alive.

Are life or death or non-life or death decisions more meaningful to you?

Does any gaming decision particularly remain with you?

What game do you think has given the gamer the most impactful decision making gameplay?

Once again, than you all for reading and enjoy your game time this week.

 

 

comments