[Gamasutra columnist Andrew Vanden Bossche examines games that offer moral choice, looking at ways games can get past the binary good-evil split that is so often the hallmark of such titles -- and how the visual novel Fate/Stay Night presents a useful approach.
A game doesn't need to have moral choices to be a game about moral choices.
Literature has done quite a fine job of it long before we had video games. Macbeth certainly didn't need a message telling him he lost karma after committing regicide. As players, we're stuck between our need for feedback and exhaustion at the lack of subtlety offered us.
In Fallout 3
, the Tenpenny tower and the way the game rated actions as good or evil did not sit at all well with a great deal of players, who were very frustrated when acts they perceived as good were marked by the game as evil. The flip side of this sort of angry reaction to the game is that Fallout 3
, succeeded in captivating players through its narrative. But it did this by offering players choices, not by judging them.
Getting away from the stark good and evil we see in so many video games is harder than it sounds. It is etched into western culture in everything from religion to film, literature and comics. From Dante (the Italian one) to Star Wars, this binary is subject everyone recognizes. It is just so easy to recognize, so ingrained in our culture, that when a video game throws throws it in a players face they know that they have a choice, and they know that their choice matters.
Good and evil choices are also character defining ones, and the ability to customize one's avatar through gameplay actions goes hand and hand with changing the direction of the story. The barrier to using anything other than good and evil for choices is getting players to recognize the difference immediately and also understand the way their character has changed in response to it.
, on the other hand, don't focus choices over good and evil, but which character the player wants to end up romancing. Fate/Stay Night
has no shortage of this, but it also has no shortage of what would be considered moral choices in any other genre. When Shirou, the protagonist of Fate/Stay Night
has the choice to kill his girlfriend in order to save many other lives, it's the fallout of his decision to stay with her. The structure is romance, but there's room for more within it.
A Screenplay You Can Play
Visual Novels are really helpful in a way, because they almost completely eliminate the "game" portion of the video game, to the point that they're only sort of thrown in with video games because that's what they most closely resemble. They are designed in such a way that makes them a great tool for understanding narrative layout and progression. It's almost like a screenplay for video games.
Routes of play can be focused on something other than good and evil, and that leaves a lot more room for depth in terms of both gameplay and narrative. That means more tools and more paths for developers to take.
also used romance to focus the storyline. On the side of good, there's Trish, the protagonist's ex-girlfriend, and on the side of evil there's Stasha, the crazy villainess who gives evil missions to the player throughout the game.
is fantasy and action, but it came out of the sorts of erotic games that Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander reviewed in her GameSetWatch column
once upon a time. So while the content is for the most part very different, the structure is the same, with the three different storylines each revolving around the hero's relationship with one of the three heroines. Each of the heroines leads to a radically different scenario, as shifting loyalties lead to unexpected twists.
The player stand in, Shirou, is an interesting protagonist. His antagonists are mages and ancient heroes, but he's terrible at the very limited magic he can muster. Since he was a kid, he's wanted to be a superhero, and has chased that childish dream even after growing older and understanding how deeply limited he is. But even knowing how unrealistic it is, he finds it to be so beautiful that he wants to pursue it any way he can. He values his own life so little that when he tries to save others he sacrifices himself in the process.
This ideal of Shirou's could be considered the real focus of Fate/Stay Night
, and its equivalent to the morality systems in western games. Although the choices revolve around the three heroines, his relationships with them determine the way he engages his ideal and ultimately what sort of person he ends up becoming. It's self-defining, and just as importantly, shows that a structure based around romance can include a lot more.
Each of the heroines forces Shirou to confront his ideal with very different results. There are three story lines in Fate, each has a different themes. Kinoko Nasu, the author of Fate/Stay Night, said in an interview with Dengeki online that "The first one is the "oneself as an ideal." The second one is "struggling with oneself as an ideal." The third one is "the friction with real and ideal"...The first storyline shows his slanted mind, the next storyline shows his resolve, and the last storyline gives another resolution for him as a human."
In the first route, the girl he falls in love with suffers from the same complex of self sacrifice that he does and in saving her from herself, he avoids suffering the same way. In the second route, he has to face the corruption of his ideal, from someone who turned bitter and cynical after following it religiously and never finding happiness in it. In the final route, his girlfriend is possessed and he ultimately decides to save her even though it puts many more people in danger. And all of these complicated choices without any sort of explicit morality system.
How to Break the Binary
is set up so that the three separate, non-intersecting stories form a trilogy. Each story develops the character and reveals new twists, playing on the knowledge of previous games. A completely innocuous friend of the protagonist becomes the main heroine in the final route, Heaven's Feel, and the transformation of her character relies heavily on how she has been set up as an innocent bystander for the past two routes.
This organization does two really interesting things. First of all, it gets out of the good/evil binary. Secondly, it presents an entirely different philosophy of the purpose of these choices. Fate/Stay Night doesn't really have gameplay to speak of, but the protagonist does end up with fundamentally different powers (much like games like Fable
). If Fate/Stay Night
is like a screenplay for a full-fledged game, it certainly demonstrates how this type of storytelling can work from a gameplay standpoint as well. The framework of Fate/Stay Night
separates the game into three clear paths and defines the protagonist in three distinct ways, fulfilling the other side of avatar customization.
is divided into three extremely different stories. Each of them is them is the length of a full sized novel and each has a radically different storyline, but all of them use the same cast. Nominally, the different stories all arise over relatively minor actions performed by the protagonist. However, FFate/Stay Night
is structured in such a way that they must be completed in order. The choices that lead to the other paths aren't even available before then.
This is because the three different paths are all part of one single story. The western approach is to use choices as a tool for players to customize their experience. While games like Fallout 3
ask players to do what they want, Fate/Stay Night
requests that they replay until they see all possible outcomes, because they create a cohesive whole of the many aspects of the main character. Fate/Stay Night
is more interested in seeing how the protagonist will change in response to different choices, which is very different than models in which the protagonist is defined by those choices (ie., "you are what you do"). Still, in both instances the player has control over how the story moves.
A western game that has tried a bit of a twist to the good/evil equation is Dragon Age
, which split much of the game into a host of mini-binaries without moral objectivism. Each of the sub-plots in the game typically had two factions, with an ending that reflected your alignment with the faction and a number of endings for it. Players are free for the most part to draw their own conclusions, rather than be subjected to a morality rating system.More than anything else, Fate/Stay Night shows that how choices are framed is incidental to their content.
[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which needs food, badly, and can be reached at [email protected]