Wed. August 8
So You’re The Bad Guy
Your true love is dead. Her lifeless body is borne by your horse, your only companion in your descent into the depths of an ancient part of the world, where rumor holds there is a being who might bring her back to life.
There’s a problem, though. This being is a demon, a powerful and evil one. And over the course of the game, you will realize that your mission entails defeating the very guardians created to keep this devil at bay. You are tasked with playing the role of David for an evil purpose–felling goliath after goliath in order to release this foul evil. Still, you pursue the Faustian bargain to its end, sacrificing all else in the hope of bringing her back.
The very act of playing the game sets you on a path to unleash evil on the world for purposes noble and yet selfish. As Penny Arcade’s Tycho writes:
The dread starts at the very beginning, simmering in your gut, and it never gets better ever–hour upon hour. You know immediately that you are engaged in something like evil, if not evil itself, but our appetites as players demand that we seek objectives and conquer them–and the game scourges us for this dereliction of conscience. The technology at work often obscured the game itself, but the emotional wavelength has resounded years after the fact. At this late hour, I can recall no camera foibles or performance valleys. All I can recall now is the black bargain, and concentric waves of anguish.
This is Shadow of the Colossus, one of the most critically acclaimed games of the past decade. It is also Faust, but the interactive version of it, played out over the course of hours of gameplay with the user at the controls. But there’s a problem with understanding this as “playing the bad guy”–in reality, for most games, playing the bad guy is just a tactic, not a moral decision.
Some video games have adapted this idea with morality systems. Actions are tagged as “good” or “evil” and if you commit them then the game adds or subtracts from variables that determine whether you are Jedi or Sith. The notion is to encourage the player to play in the spirit of the game, to get into the world and the story and the character and become a performer.
For the vast majority of players, however, this is not what they do. Doing good in Knights of the Old Republic is nothing to do with actually being good. It’s about killing the right sort of enemy in order to earn points and unlock powers… It’s a pretense, like a sinner saying the Rosary ten times to stock up some forgiveness from God before going out to gamble.
Why? Because alignment, morality and behavioral grading systems are treated by players as mechanistic levers and gameplay is highly literal. They are just another set of rules to be mastered, and just another type of extrinsic reward. And if they behave, then the game (be it the game master or the rules or whatever) pats them on the head and gives them treats like experience points. Good dog.
This is true for games where moral distinctions are minimized. The popular Mass Effect games offer choices not between moral dimensions, but attitude (are you obedient or rebellious? It matters only if you want a different weapon or cutscene), which colors the background scenery. Yet this strikes me as too simple a perspective for games that truly challenge the player to make a decision that ought to give them pause, and make them reconsider that skull on their helmet.
Death is at the center of most game mechanics. Even in casual action games, you will kill thousands of enemies just to pursue a storyline. In game franchises like Assassin’s Creed¸ killing is pretty much all that you do–though most of your targets are guilty of something or other. In the Grand Theft Auto series, guilt matters… a bit less. In games like Dark Souls, you are confronted again and again by the mass murders done by others. There is a level where you drain an ancient flooded city, and your steps spark wet crunching sounds as you walk across skeletons from whatever terrible calamity befell the prior residents.
The presence of death, at your hand and at the hand of other in-game characters, is common for all of these. But what is less common are the moments when you are given the power to decide who lives and who dies. And this is where things become more troublesome.
Consider Knights of the Old Republic for a moment. This game, set in a historical iteration of the Star Wars universe, puts you in the position of being an incredibly powerful amnesiac Jedi warrior. You have the power, once you unlock it, to bend the galaxy to your will or to protect it from the evil Sith. But you have soap opera-esque amnesia, so your previously decided path is now variable. Would you like to follow the light side or the dark? (The dark, for the record, has cooler powers.) It’s all just a measure of whether you’d prefer convoluted step-and-fetch-it quests or whether you like to kill things, until you get near the endgame, where choices must be made.
Earlier in the story, you saved the life of a wookie, the large furry beasts of the Star Wars universe. He owes you, in common sci-fi parlance, a “life debt” for this. The wookie has a close friend, a young alien girl whom he protects as a sister. Should you turn toward the evil path, this girl will revolt against you near the end of the game, defying you in your path toward destruction and domination of the galaxy. In that moment, you can strike her down as you would any irritant—or the game provides a more villainous option: you can demand the wookie honor the life debt by murdering his only friend. He will resist, but he will obey.
Decisions like these go beyond the steps of just allying yourself with the side that has skulls atop their helmets or hoisting the black flag. Other games have similar challenges—deciding whether to side with one race or the other, one religious sect or another, has more consequences than just what loot you get or what cutscenes you enjoy. But most of these games never show the downside of your activity. What is more interesting is the challenge created by games like Shadow, which force the gamer to make a decision based on how much evil you are willing to wreak on a virtual world in order to achieve a noble end. Would you be willing to doom the world to bring back your lost love? Would you force another to murder a child to achieve a virtual aim? Where does this cease to be Faust, and become the debate of The Brothers Karamazov?
Decisions like these have moral consequences. And if video game players take the games they play seriously, they should take the consequences of these decisions seriously as well. Do they? This will be the topic of the next entry.
Benjamin Domenech is a research fellow for The Heartland Instituteand editor in chief of The City, an academic journal on politics and culture. He edits and writes a popular daily email newsletter, The Transom, and co-hosts the daily Coffee & Markets podcast.