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Ethical Dilemmas and Dominant Moral Strategies In Games
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Ethical Dilemmas and Dominant Moral Strategies In Games

August 18, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

The Virmire Problem

But if whether or not to include and act on this measure were the only hurdle in giving players compelling moral choices, this would be a relatively simple question of design. Even when the outcome of a player's choice is not to score points, gameplay tends to interfere with otherwise weighty decisions. Once again, Mass Effect offers a prime example.

One of the game's most memorable moments comes near the middle of the story, when Commander Shepard and his allies travel to the planet Virmire to attack the base of Saren, the antagonist. The player -- through Shepard -- is confronted with a tremendous choice at the climax of this mission: to succeed and allow the rest of the team to escape the planet, one of Shepard's teammates will have to stay behind on a suicide mission.

The two party members the player must choose between are Ashley Williams and Kaidan Alenko. There is no way to save both of them, and each character insists that the player rescue the other. There's also -- functionally -- no difference to the outcome of the mission. Without any circumstances to affect the player's decision, the choice becomes about which character the player would rather keep around.

The difficulty lies in the fact that neither character is remotely sympathetic: Ashley is "toxically racist" in a group of mostly non-humans, and Kaidan is remarkably bland. (In a survey taken in mid-2010 on several Mass Effect forums, both characters received fewer "Love" and "Like" votes than any other character in the game, and Kaidan received special mention as the "Most Meh Character" of the series.)

Plus, neither character's skills are terribly indispensable in combat: other party members cover similar bases, and more effectively. Depending on the player's build, either Ashley or Kaidan may be important to their general strategy, but likely not both. It is also possible that one character or the other could be a romance interest for Shepard, but again, not both at once. The choice is dominantly a gameplay one, not a moral one.

This choice is popularly discussed as one of the most momentous decisions a player can make in a game -- any game -- even though it lacks much real weight. Perhaps the significance of the choice arises from the very real gameplay consequences of it: since gameplay is how players interact with the game, the decision feels non-trivial. That is not an irrelevant achievement, but nor is it the same achievement it appears to be.

Only Consequences

None of this is to say that these approaches are without merit, but there have been other, more compelling approaches to moral choice. The most effective title in giving the player significant moral choices, at least in recent memory, is Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain. There are several profound moments in the game -- indeed, it is essentially about choice and consequences -- but my favorite, I think, is "the Shark."

In the game, Ethan Mars must jump through a series of sadistic hoops set up by the Origami Killer in order to save his kidnapped son. The killer tasks Ethan with completing five "trials," each requiring a greater sacrifice; the third trial, the Lizard, requires Ethan to cut off his own finger. So when the Shark (the fourth trial) instructs Ethan, not to weather more physical torture or suffer additional dismemberment, but to kill someone, one of the most compelling choices in the game rears its head.

The Origami Killer has given Ethan a target. He's not a nice guy: a drug dealer, clearly dangerous, and probably not the sort of person that anyone would miss. Ethan has his address and a gun, and the dealer doesn't know he's coming. If he kills the dealer, he's one step closer to rescuing his son. If not, he's risking his son's life.

It is worth noting at this point that, unlike the previous games discussed, Heavy Rain only has a handful of game mechanics; they don't change, and no power ups, equipment, or character statistics that affect them. These factors are removed from the equation: no matter what decision the player makes, it will not change her effectiveness in later gameplay sequences.

During the Shark scene, Ethan -- and, consequently, the player -- has several opportunities to back out of the trial. The first is at the dealer's door: the man answers and is hardly welcoming, and Ethan can pull his gun and push his way in, or he can choose not to and leave. The latter choice is self-explanatory: the trial ends, and the story proceeds. There are consequences later in the story as a result of Ethan not playing along with Origami's game, but these consequences are not insurmountable.

Oh, yeah. He's a father too.

If Ethan does force his way in, the dealer realizes that something is wrong quickly enough to pull a shotgun. The pair get into a running firefight through the dealer's apartment. After this gameplay segment, Ethan has the upper hand. The dealer is on his knees, at Ethan's mercy. At this moment, Ethan can execute the dealer -- or not. The game is clearly asking the player, "Would you kill one person to save another?"

The decision is profound, and there are valid reasons for going each way: the climax of this scene even happens in the bedroom shared by the dealer's young daughters, revealing that he has a family -- a fact Ethan did not know. The game can be completed whether or not Ethan kills the dealer, but not killing him is a risk. I've spoken to a roughly equal number of players who chose each. (I spared the man; I thought the ends did not justify the means, but more importantly it made me think about the decision.)

But Heavy Rain's approach has its problems. For one, the game is highly atypical; it has limited gameplay and no real lose state. Some would argue that it isn't a "video game" at all, but an "interactive drama." To make the Shark and other situations hit hard, Heavy Rain has to spend a lot of time on the kind of dramatic buildup and character development which fits better in film, television, or prose.

But Heavy Rain looks like a game, and thus some players expect it to have a win state, a "right answer." The game takes great pains to convince the player throughout that any outcome to any given scene is okay: later events may change, but there's no wrong series of events, and the game will not end prematurely because of any choices the player might make.

But some players -- and I can say this with authority because my parents are amongst them -- have difficulty breaking free of the idea that the goal is to win. For them, they saw Origami's trials as win conditions, as objectives that had to be completed in order to beat the game. And in the context of Origami's game, they are -- but not in the broader context of Heavy Rain. The rules of the "game within a game" are not the same as those of the game itself. Despite this, my parents didn't really consider sparing the dealer, as they were under the impression that killing him was necessary to avoid losing.

Heavy Rain accomplishes the objective of giving players significant moral decisions that feel like they are significant, that have emotional impact, and that avoid a dominant moral strategy. Clearly, though, its method is costly, and could not be duplicated in most game genres. Heavy Rain is a compelling example of a rather niche genre, but where does that leave video games at large?

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