Last week I concluded a series of posts on moral choice in games, the first three posts looking at the idea of making specific choices at specific moments and the last about the choices we make that result in our constant play behavior throughout. I identified two ways behavior acts as a moral attribute. Either the behavior reflects a moral being in the player character or it allows the player to choose a path based on a play style that reflects a moral standing on an issue, usually violence.
I somewhat took to task video games that failed to adequately reflect these stances throughout the entirety of their design. When we as a collective consciousness in the gaming community were focused on the concept of moral choices in games, we were able to discern a path for which they could be made better. We knew, if not the exact directions the journey would lead us on, we knew the compass direction in which to head. We knew better writing and better framing were the answers. The details would come later as developers would experiment and publishing. We’ve come to a point where there are several who get it and others that are following behind. Compared to where we were in 06-08, it’s like night and day. Developers, having nailed down the basics, are now experimenting with concepts of craft and delivery as much as they once did with ideas and themes.
I sigh when I think about a player’s behavior in video games. Because I feel lost in a wilderness with no tools nor ideas where to go. Riot Games is doing work with player-to-player interaction and improving their community, but that is a different aspect than what I’m talking about. How does a game reward or at least not stigmatize the idea of acting moral in a game like DayZ as is the developer’s current design problem? How do games like Dishonored or the Deus Ex series move past its philosophy of offering the player options on how to play and make that more meaningful than different ways to have fun? How do games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age make their in between dialogue and choices time have meaning unto itself?
Games like Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line have managed to make their play loops have meaning by basing their meaning on standard player behavior in those genres and building off of it. Papers, Please remove the moral equation from the actual physical act of playing and uses it instead of create an atmosphere that informs upon the choices when they come up. As excellent as all the work these games have done, we can’t keep dancing around the issue. What works once or twice, will seem more like a necessity than a creative choice if there is no other option for behavior to have meaning. It will be a pigeonholed constraint.
I don’t like being lost. I rather hate it in fact, despite how often if happens to me. In an effort to escape this malaise if you would indulge my hypotheticals.
The Linear Progression
This is for a game that does not branch and is effectively a linear experience using the actions performed during play as a reflecting of the character and to create meaning for the player.
Imagine if you will a standard action game. You are playing as a single character, with her own personality and desire. For some reason she is in conflict with some other group that have a very good HR department and has to fight and kill her way through those large number of people. Along the way events happen that bring into question her world view and her actions. At first it is just question and the standard hemming and hawing that games dabble in, a recognition of the inherent controdiction between the two parties. But it keeps going, eventually bringing about a fundamental change in her being.
She reaches some sort of epiphany and the game changes entirely. She is still the hero and her enemies are still the bad guys, but regarding the mechanics and systems it’s as if the game had started over. It would have to tutorialize a whole new set of mechanics and system. All the combat of preceding hours of game time is gone. She is no longer a violent person or even a person driven to violence. This is enforced by the player being unable to play the character taking a violent action.
She continues on her journey, now not fighting the enemy, but avoiding them, outsmarting them or even just running from them. (Mechanics and systems to be determined). Then comes the end. In the final confrontation with the big bad, she is confronted with the reality of the situation. On the one hand she is now a person incapable of violence, but the big bad needs to be taken down and violence against him is the only way to protect so much else. Finally the game gives you both sets of mechanics to work with, but once one is chosen that is all the player can use for the final confrontation. Choosing peace leaves the character alive and healthy (assuming you make it though the encounter) but the some part of the world/society/family damaged. Choosing violence overwhelms her and in the end is what does her in, even if she saved the world.
The image in my head is of her getting a gun to the big bad’s head and coming to terms with the need to pull the trigger (possibly like in MGS3) and this devastating her, not on her enemy’s loss, but what she has lost in doing so. By enforcing this, long term through actionable behavior, one can craft a narrative not just consistent with the play of the game, but actively enforced by it. It allows creators the freedom to try different things and expand beyond the need for a sole set of repeatable actions on which to base the game. And this is just a simple variation of what could be done once you accept you can change mechanics partway through the playtime.
The Chosen Progression
In thinking on this hypothetical, keep in mind that I had Splinter Cell: Blacklist running through my head. It allows the player to approach situations, either stealthily and kill people, run in guns blazing or mix and matching approaches. Essentially, the game is trying to offer the player a choice on how tackle problems it presents. And, of course, as I expressed in last week’s posts, it is supposed to be a moral choice on the nature of violence and the specifics of the character you are player, but fails to be. It fails either through a lack of complexity of the situation or through a lack of player focus and awareness of what their actions mean beyond the simple play experience.
I see a game where you are a solider/spy/mercenary/game character de juor and have to attack some enemy. You are given the standard options of infiltration. But since that always seems to devolve into do you shoot this person or walk by them on your knees I would add another dichotomy. Do you put yourself in there or tackle to the problem remotely? You can be approach by stealth, either sneaky by in person or through remote hacking. You can approach by violence, either in a frontal assault or through remote drones and bots. I know this sounds like a slightly more complex set or at least numerical options than that which already exists in Deus Ex and other such games. I’ve put little thought into this part.
Then I imagine where each of those play styles are fundamentally different animals. There might be some similarities in the base mechanics like look and move, but the feel and kinesthetic to unique to each one. Also, I imagine a system that registers how you are proceeding through each encounter space and automatically give you experience for that choice (hidden of course) that makes using that play style easier, smoother. Simultaneously it starts making the other play styles more difficult. As the character is becoming more specialized it makes their options more limited. They can shoot their way out if discovered or get caught, but their aim will be less than stellar or actions like reloading and iron aiming take longer. One could try and remain more broadly able by over the course of the game dabbling in different approaches for each encounters, but the trade off being more options, but not great at any of them.
It would enforce play behavior based on the player’s choices with how to proceed and have consequences on the minute-to-minute actions and understanding of the game world. It wouldn’t just be a player enforced challenge, but have a meaningful effect in the relation between player and system. It may not create meaning in and of itself, but it would create an awareness about the actions the player is taking rather than only going through the motions for the sake of completing challenges. At the very least it would be closer to the idea that a game allows you play differently and connect to the implicit promise of role playing that goes along with it within the actual play of the game.
There are problems with both of the rough ideas above. I knew that going in. As I was writing them out, I spotted more issues that I didn’t see when they were only formless thought masses in my mind.
Of course, the easier option is to move away from violence based conflict. But easier isn’t always better. On the one hand violence makes for easy conflict in a story, but on the other hand by not moving beyond the simple basis of player behavior could lead to simply delaying the problem rather than circumventing it. Even with a whole set of games that base their conflict on something other than violence, they will settle into best practices and not beyond the repetitious behavior cycle that can leave both a medium stagnant and a creator trapped. Violence based games have progressed so far and developed in so many different ways that there is a large basis on which to break the mold and open a wider space for thematic if not mechanical complexity that other styles and bases of play can enter.