My favourite novels, movies, and games are all grey.
My long time game design plans are as grey as they come. I love moral ambiguity because I feel games should speak about the world, and that in the real world most conflicts happen without any side being evil, or crazy or destructive.
Sometimes misunderstanding, miscommunication, or lack of synchronicity can be a much more destructive force than actual rivalry, and it is often unsettling to realise that in most cases, good and evil are almost solely on the eye of the beholder.
Hollywood and maybe to some extent the whole of western philosophy have bestowed upon us a tremendous burden. There is always someone else to blame, there is always a face, closer or further away that is acting against us.
Very little thought goes into my responsibility as a social component, while we can see a massive emphasis placed on our individual self as a beacon of independence, disconnected from any group. But what are we without a group?
Anecdotes about things going wrong.
A very long time ago I met a girl in a late night screening of rather obscure films. We hit it off straight away, she was into similar things as I was, so we chatted for a while after the film. In our chat, age came up, and I told her that I was almost 23 at the time, but I mumbled and she understood I had just turned 23. I didn't correct her, because I never really know how to. But as things went on, we continued to see each other and we ended up sort of dating for a couple of months.
A few weeks later, I told her that my birthday was coming up, and she was confused. She thought I had lied to her to make myself older (thing that didn't really matter to me, and had never crossed my mind). But that was the beginning of the end, and precise incident was the first stone, that none of us threw, as stupid as it was.
The whole growing up process for most people is an exposition of this thesis. It's a generalisation, but most of us as teenagers even though we love our families, at some point in our lives, we challenge the authority of our parents, it is a normal step of growing up. Parents think they know what is best for their children, and that they can prevent mishaps, but the child needs to learn from it's own mistakes and eventually establish a sense of independence. Often this conflicts are only a phase, that disappears with time. But it may also happen that children or parents incapable of empathising end up falling out even when all the parties involved really agree on the ultimate goal.
When it comes to bigger conflicts such as war, most of us understand that the rivalries emerge generally for political reasons. Administratively one geopolitical group has certain interests that collide against another group's interests. As the diplomacy dance goes, there is symbolic chest beating, poking and negotiation, but if the knot is too tight, it snaps, the struggle turns violent.
Often looking back, we judge the conflict from the narration of the winners (a-la George Orwell), but within the fight, no one is really fighting for ideals, it is more about politics in a higher level and survival in its immediacy.
Today in the age of information, we are trained to evaluate morals almost everywhere, and our views of History are no different. And since information is often so opinionated, there seems to be a belief in the proof of moral superiority. The Germans in WW2 were evil Gengis Kahn was ruthless. The communists threaten our lifestyle, the fascists hated happiness. Even when we are familiar with the partiality of war and politics, the current view seems to justify that we are better than them. Of course, bad things are done in both sides, but the fight comes down to media exposition: the winner is the one who's got more likes in their youtube campaign, and thus the winner is mostly forgiven while the loser is demonised.
But is it true? Don't we know that the other side is often just taking care of it's own interests? Aren't all War Heroes just mass murderers seen in a different light?
We rarely delve honestly in these topics. The alternative of recognising that maybe we are actually unwillingly but inexcusably a-moral is unacceptable. Maybe we are just pawns in the big machine without any real belief other than what our media sells to us. Because really there is nothing we can do to stop it.
Where to draw the line? (Contains Spoilers).
I recently played Spec-Ops: The Line. As many of you know, the game is based loosely of "The heart of darkness" by Joseph Conrad, and less loosely of the movie "Apocalypse Now", based of that book. And unexpectedly, for the first time in a long time I have seen a piece of media that flirts with the grey area of: who is the bad guy? Sometimes in very interesting ways.
Pick up any military FPS, and look at the hordes of enemies you mow down. military shooter enemies are not people, they are obstacles that move, shoot and bleed that the player must overcome to get to the next objective. Often with the final goal being to overcome a stronger enemy that threatens your life (and many other lives) more or less directly. This makes the act of killing less disturbing, and more just a skill fuelled pyrotechnic spectacle.
As in many summer action movies, the few actual characters in these games are caricatures, which is entertaining, simple and safe. An enemy might trick you into thinking they are on your side, but in the end, masks fall off and the true evil shows, making it rather unlikely to relate.
In a base level, this idea slowly perpetuates the concept that we should expect evil from our rivals. I for one am not convinced that there is such thing as un-adulterated evil, I believe there is definitely craziness, but I have never empirically seen a true evil person, meaning evil that has no purpose other than the opposite of bringing benefit to anyone.
In my experience, I have come to observe most situations in life as a-moral. Questionable actions still respond to a person's desires, which may differ absolutely from ours, but they hold internal logical coherence for them(of course not talking about batshit crazy James Holmes, cases like those are unsettling because they are often unexpected and disjointed from the reality of the person).
However, this fabled evil seems more than possible, almost commonplace now, as a trait, un-relatable isolating and hermetic, provoking the new existentialist conception that in the end it's us versus the world. Someone, somewhere is actively trying to screw me over because they can.
And before anyone jumps, I'm not saying it video games alienate us and create paranoid teenage killing machines. But, joined to deeper cultural constructs, it seems that in the occurrence of any conflict we immediately tend to ask ourselves: Who is the bad guy here?
I'm personally not sure if that is the correct question we should be asking.
Spec-Ops treads this terrain timidly, and it succeeds grandiosely as often as it fails miserably. It unexpectedly creates empathy with the enemies: at various random points in the game you run into enemy soldiers that are commenting on how beautiful the scenery is, or how much they would like to be back home with their families. This is disquieting and interesting. But the game leaves you no alternative to killing them if you want to progress. And not only that, when you blow their heads off, it incoherently triggers the well known FPS-cool-slowdown... should I care? or should I just spray their brains on the wall as your regular locust?
Is there content here? or are we going for the good old shock value?
It doesn't even give you any apparent options to do anything different, and it punishes you for doing what it is forcing you to do. It's is not like the choice you make in InFamous, to save your girlfriend, that also punishes you but feels deserved and meaningful.
It is shock, and effect but in different ways it actually translates into unexpected content too. Alike other War games, you have no control, you move from point a to b and kill. Maybe as a comment on war, why do conflicts continue? Is there a point? or is it an engine that runs itself? Is SpecOps trying to prove that when we get into the downward spiral no one is in control, and no one can predict the outcome?
To this effect, a few scripted moments work extremely well by themselves. But the situations that lead you up to them rarely feel coherently connected. One particular moment in the game is designed to cheat the character, the player, and turn against the premise of the game itself. And although it's ham-fisted, borders on cheap, and it lacks of any form of tact or subtlety, it succeeds in almost every way, giving you a deliberate and significant sense of helplessness.
Sadly, the game finally shoots itself in the foot by making it's main character go crazy. You are the evil guy, this is not ambiguous grey, this is clear and simple black. I suppose it is easier to close it up eliminating the subtlety and defining the "truth", but I hope it would have had the balls to really deliver the uncertainty it promised.
A tale in the desert
At this point for me it all related back to Journey, by thatGameCompany. Seems like an unlikely match, since in the surface Spec-ops is the complete opposite of Journey in more ways than one, but both games share a lot of implied meaning (and sand). Jenoa Chen has expressed that one of his goals with Journey was to present the idea that controls and input in regular games condition players to be dickheads, but if you are only given options to "be nice", the players will be nice. In this beautiful game the concept is illustrated perfectly. There is really no way to hamper another player's game other than just ignoring your co-op partner, but the solemnity and the solitary grandeur of your adventure effectively make you long for that companionship.
On the other side, Spec-ops is masochistic, it gives you a trigger and tasks you with killing whether you want it or not. At first stereotypical middle eastern mercenaries, then allied soldiers, and later the innocent and the helpless. You can't be a nice guy, you can't spare the innocent, if you want to get to the end of the game, you must pull the trigger when you don't feel like it. Finally, everything is corrupted, no matter what you do, you already lost when you started the game.
In Journey, you are an anonymous being, you don't belong to the left or the right, to the rich or the poor, you don't hold the flag of freedom, or goodness or anything. You don't represent anything, you are a blank slate in an unspoken path of atonement. The "bad guys" seem to be your ancestors, but there is no revenge, even though they brought themselves to extinction fighting greedily over the knowledge delivered by the gods. Your pilgrimage to the mountain shapes your new knowledge, without intending to polarise your views. It's an act of redemption to everything, not just your side.
Spec-Ops flips this around, by presenting you with a military poster boy as a main character. He knows his right from wrong, and he has his set of values. He is the generic stereotypical military marine character, that meets anyones expectations. Soon after, his heroes, his moral values and his alignments are questioned. Everything that the character held as true, rapidly descends into madness, and then further. Where Journey builds a character from dust to make amends as an avatar of life, Spec ops deconstructs a character and rapes its will, making it a force of chaos.
As I said, I find that having a bad guy makes our lives easier, and makes the narrative easier to digest, but not better or any more true. And in this sense, The Line falls short from what it could have been, dismissing it's own growing ambiguity.
However, the Line manages to present some very thoughtful questions about Players, War, and People. Of course, there is nothing wrong with light fun too, but not always do we see an intention to discuss topics further in our industry.
I wish more games spoke about this, and managed to go the full mile, like Journey. Because the truth is that life moves forward with or without crazies and bad guys.
This article and others on my blog at Myprinterbitme