“I didn’t have a choice!”

It’s a common reprise, presented primarily as an excuse for making what was, in fact a wrong choice. This phrase is recalled after one is caught cheating on a test, after a spouse files for divorce, after compromises are made by church leaders, after a scared young woman seeks out an abortion, etc. Each and every time, the phrase is used to assure others and oneself that their respective choice was not merely reasonable, but inevitable.

Justifying the various wrongs we have committed in our lives (of which I have committed many) is one of the things we excel at as human beings. Because we are both intelligent and sinful, we are incredibly deceptive, not only fooling others but ourselves into feeling that certain moral choices are actually just inevitable results of circumstance. We see this attitude running rampant in various films, television shows, and novels that point out just how hard the sinner’s plight is. We are told that things are never black and white, that we live in a world of grey areas. And because it is film and television, we have to sit there and take it. Sometimes we can write articles about it.

This is not the case with the new medium on the block. Video games, as they begin to mature into something that has the potential for true artistic expression, have begun to challenge the mainstream in various ways, intentionally or not. With the recent flood of games that advertise the ability to make various moral decisions, the concept of choice is being clarified for anyone who will take the time to play them.

Three games in particular have become known for the ability to make such choices. In Bioshock, you are forced to choose between “harvesting” (or killing) little zombified girls in order to further your own goals or rescuing them. In Fable 2, you face a more arbitrary and vague, but nonetheless gutwrenching choice between (spoiler!) saving your family, friends and dog, or saving millions of those who have died previously. In Fallout 3, well, you face a myriad of choices. Some of them are easy and some are not.

These games, and their treatment of moral choice, are not flawless. Often the choices seem a bit too black and white. The systems that decide whether or not you made an ethical choice are obviously not based on a strictly Christian ethic, and it goes without saying that anyone who doesn’t agree with the developer’s ethical system will find themselves frustrated that they are losing karma, or purity points for what they have deemed to be the right decision.

Further, the concept of karma, morality points, or purity points illustrates another disconnect: in real life, we never really know if we made the right decision. In the game world, however, it tells us immediately whether we are a good or a bad person. We walk through our video game lives with a very certain sense of either self-righteousness or regret. Pull up a status screen and it will confirm our moral status. Fable 2 told me I was angelic. Fallout 3 told me I was “very good.” So, awesome. I won’t have to worry about that.

What I would like to see instead is for games to present us with these moral choices that have real consequences on the game world and the gameplay, but that don’t have an opinion on whether we did the right thing or not. If I kill everyone in Tranquility lane in order to put them out of their misery, I want to have to live with that choice without the game telling me I’ve gotten 2% more “good” because of it. I want there to be the possibility that everyone will hate me for doing the right thing, rather than magically sense how good I am. In short, I want to struggle with the human condition, and I want to do it in a video game.

Some will bristle at these ideas. They want video games to be purely an esapist activity. They don’t want to have to deal with the real world when they’re playing these games. To that I say: there are games for that. But a steady diet of escapism isn’t healthy for anyone, and the Christian needs to be thinking hard about the games they play, not ignoring reality.

I don’t believe these ideas to be pipe dreams. They will become realities in the near future, and video games will continue on the road to becoming more serious and having even more potential to make us think critically about themselves and our own lives. This is, after all, what good art does: it forces us to reflect seriously about the choices we have made both in the game and in our lives. We simply don’t have a choice.


9 Comments

  1. The Witcher pretty much already does what you want. There are game choices like let the angry mob rape and kill the herbalist-slash-witch or threaten the mob ’til they relent. In either case, the game doesn’t judge your choice and in either case, the game’s citizens probably will.

    At one point, I accidentally participated in one side of the gameworld’s brewing civil war. Nothing immediately changed, but down the road it became clear that I had screwed up my relationship with a friend who was a supporter of the side I had accidentally helped thwart.

    One’s moral choices in this particular game don’t seem to make the game harder or easier to complete, but they do alter story-direction more or less significantly. Of course, your character’s story takes place before the backdrop of a larger story, so many of the world-events are the same—it’s only your involvement in the events (and sometimes their outcomes) that changes.

    In any case, there’s no overt karma stat.

  2. The Dane, that sounds awesome. I’ve heard rumblings of this game before, but a quick search of my google reader yields some bad news.

    I almost certainly would have snatched that game up when it became available. Oh well. Anyone know of any other games that do what I’m calling for here?

  3. One thing I liked about the morality of Shadow of the Colossus was that the entire time, you feel pretty bad for climbing up and murdering these majestic creatures who were really just ambling about minding their own business. But you were doing it for love, so you could raise your sweetheart from the dead. And besides, the mysterious voices in your head told you that these were evil monsters.

    So you go about making this choice (to kill quote-unquote bad guys) and at the end, when you find out that you were the bad guy, that’s a bombshell. But then when you reflect on all these gentle giants that you mercilessly slaughtered. Well, that right there is pretty heavy.

    Of course, in Shadow of the Colossus you really only have one choice: kill things, progress the story, and end/win the game OR ride around on your horse until you get bored and put in Katamari Damacy. So not really much of a choice, but for all its limits, the consideration of morality that the game engenders is definitely worth reflection.

    Now, let’s see what other games I can talk about that you’re completely unable to experience…

  4. Bit after the fact here, Richard, but the link you found has to do with the console port of The Witcher. The PC version has been around for a few years and has been well worth a look (although do patch it to the latest version because it was very ambitious on release, and therefore buggy).

  5. The Witcher? Seriously? With the rampant adultery and the pornographic cards earned from each “conquest”? No thanks, I’ll pass.

  6. @xian
    I think you only get pornographic cards in the European releases of the game. There weren’t any such cards in my game. And opportunity to adulterate does not equal adultery (though I think you mean fornication); so far as I got, Geralt only pursues romance if you play him to do so.

    So, you can both play The Witcher and pass on adultery (and fornication), if you so choose.

  7. Nice article! Some good points – you articulated some things I’d thought about before but never could really put into words. I think, when it comes to morality-based gameplay, a little ambiguity could go a long way.

    BTW, it’s nice to see an intelligently-written Christian approach to gaming, one that doesn’t condemn blindly :) Thanks!

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