The Experience of Power, the Power of Experience

Games have learned to give us a heady experience of power, freedom from restraint both physical and moral. I spent hours a day for weeks hijacking the tank in Grand Theft Auto 3 so that I could roll down the street crushing cars and people and shooting fire trucks with 10-inch shells. Mayhem plus impunity brews a strong potion. Being a badass is about drinking deeply, f*cking sh*t up and not caring about the rules. This is wonderful. But it is not everything.

Exultant amorality does not exhaust the range of the moral sense, and games should aspire to explore more of that range. The now-popular 'morality systems' promise to help us explore moral experiences, but that promise remains unfulfilled. These systems attempt to explore morality through choice and freedom. They often fail because they are poorly executed. But they also fail because they are conceptually limited.

The truth is, choice and freedom are overrated. By focusing on them, developers embrace a kind of vulgar liberalism, a notion that morality consists in choice and consequences and no more. Whatever its virtues as a political morality, this model fails to capture many dimensions of the human moral experience, like what the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. The richest moral experiences in games have been achieved without branching storylines or 'karma,' in titles like Shadow of the Colossus.

The most common mistake in morality systems is that the choices are too easy -- They are not dilemmas at all. They feature a clear good and a clear evil option, and few people would make the evil choice and really mean it. This shatters the dream of identifying with the character you play. If you are immersed in the reality of the game experience, you will not ordinarily choose to do something horrifyingly evil; if you choose to do something horrifyingly evil in a game, you probably do not believe in the reality of the experience. Ironically, this works against one of the great virtues of player choice: Choice is a powerful way to make the player identify with the character, and own the character's actions. But ridiculous choice has the opposite effect.

A game with free choice can only meaningfully explore those choices that a player will make. The regret of evil is a potent moral feeling -- look at Crime and Punishment -- but it coexists uneasily with choice. In Final Fantasy IV, a key theme is Cecil's atonement for being the Dark Knight who massacres the village of Mist. The game does not allow the player to freely choose whether to destroy Mist. Instead, the player's hand is forced by the linearity of the game, and by deception, as Cecil is not told that his actions will destroy Mist. A player knowingly making that choice would not be taking the morality of the game seriously, and so the struggle of regret and atonement would not be felt. To make the player participate in Cecil's regret, the game must make the player own Cecil's sin, but player choice is the wrong tool for the job. Sometimes adding choice can only constrain a game's moral palette.

The problem is only compounded in those games (like Infamous) where 'good' and 'evil' player characters develop different powers and appearances. Moral choice becomes more like a tech tree or class system. You can choose to be good or evil, just like you can be a Barbarian or a Sorceress in Diablo II. This might be cool, but it doesn't engage the moral sense. Instead, it recreates the amoral experience of a GTA, giving you the choice to be good or “badass.”

The little-recognized secret of Shadow of the Colossus is that it is morally deep because it is moralistic. Shadow lets you identify with its protagonist, tempts you with power, and then punishes you for overreaching -- for the crime of striking down the majestic beasts and unleashing an ancient evil. Each Colossus battle is a microcosmic version of this morality play: You begin low, at its feet; you climb and dominate it, and revel in your strength as you strike it down; and when it collapses in death, you are pierced by a tendril of black and are laid low.

The larger arc of the game bends the same way. You begin as a weak human, but as you slay each beast you gain in strength, tenacity and endurance. As this happens, your onscreen avatar becomes progressively more grotesque until you are a hollow-eyed wraith. This represents the game taking a stand on your moral character: Your gathering power to yourself is a vile act.

In the game's conclusion, you are possessed by the demon you unleashed, and grow into a powerful Colossus yourself. The player directly commands the black beast, smashing the tiny figures of the shaman Emon and his guards. Unlike in GTA, though, this power rush is fleeting. The player is immediately robbed of his strength, literally diminished to boy-size, and forced to struggle futilely against a mighty wind. Eventually, he falls into the temple pool, where he is destroyed.

This is punishment for hubristic selfishness. The player has been set to a series of killings, and has gradually learned to glory in his power over the majestic Colossi -- and for this, he is made to fall. What sets Shadow of the Colossus apart, then, is not simply that the player behaves in a way that is morally wrong -- that's true of run-of-the-mill power fantasies. Rather, it's that the game sets out to recognize and punish this wrongdoing.

The games that identify morality with choice lose out on the richness Shadow of the Colossus harnesses so well. A vulgar liberalism says that a deed is right or wrong regardless of whether it's punished; Shadow of the Colossus knows that punishing and diminishing the player-character for his sins is a way of stimulating the moral sense, helping the player understand that he has sinned in the first place. In pre-liberal societies, it was understood that rituals of punishment did more than simply punish wrong, but helped to define wrong. Shadow of the Colossus also understands. Most modern developers do not.

Comments

Welcome to the fold, Dave!

Congrats!

When I make evil choices, I really mean it

Although the extra powers and equipment are also nice (evil gets the best stuff!).

Really well written article, but I'm not sure I really agree.

A player knowingly making that choice would not be taking the morality of the game seriously, and so the struggle of regret and atonement would not be felt. To make the player participate in Cecil's regret, the game must make the player own Cecil's sin.

How exactly does forcing me to destroy Mist make me "own" Cecil's sin? If anything, I personally own it less, because the game forced me to do it. My only choice to not destroy Mist is not to play.

I definitely agree that the "morality systems" implemented in most modern games are shallow and poorly executed, but that doesn't mean that the concept of using freedom and choice to define morality is void of merit. Imagine a GTAIV where killing random pedestrians had a significant impact on the character or the plot rather than just triggering an easily-escapable cop-chase? How about a Baldur's Gate/Neverwinter Nights game where you had more dialogue options than the typical "Mother Teresa/Bernie Madoff/Random Psycho" trinity they tend to offer?

Or, make it more complex. Moral choices are not necessarily black and white. Do you push the fat guy off the bridge to stop the train from running over the 5 workers? Do you prevent the baby from coughing, a la M.A.S.H.? There's a lot of room here for us to navigate. It's not easy to do. Let's not dismiss moral choices in games just yet.

[broken record]

When Achilles drags Hector around the walls of Troy in the Iliad, IMO it's the same kind of moral experimentation that goes on in both GTA and SOTC.

[/broken record]

I actually don't see SOTC as being all that different from GTA in this regard (though I think the delivery of the message is exceptional in SOTC). What the player takes away from the choice and its consequences isn't IMO "If I do bad things, I'll be punished like that" but rather IMO "If I do that thing in this game, what will happen to me is that thing."

I think it's the delivery that matters. We come to realize that what Achilles did is bad because it makes Priam sad. We come to realize that what we do in SOTC is bad because it makes us sad to lose, in the end.

Imagine a game where after you blew up a fire-truck a fireman's widow came to you and asked you to take revenge on the person in the tank who'd killed her husband. You wouldn't be penalized in gameplay, but the message would be delivered at another level, IMO.

TinPeregrinus wrote:

Imagine a game where after you blew up a fire-truck a fireman's widow came to you and asked you to take revenge on the person in the tank who'd killed her husband. You wouldn't be penalized in gameplay, but the message would be delivered at another level, IMO.

That would be sweet. I would do a huge motorcycle jump into maximum traffic, dying in a fiery blaze and cementing the widow's revenge. Then I would respawn at the hospital and go collect my reward!

Heh.

Sounds like you wouldn't really enjoy the game I'm imagining.

Like you said, it all depends on the delivery. If a cookie-cutter NPC comes up to me out of nowhere and starts rambling on about her dead firefighter husband, you bet I'll mine her for quest dollarzzz. I'll probably kill her with a fire axe afterwards too, just because I'm a bastard. It would take a pretty compelling animator / voice actor to guilt-trip me into feeling badly for this widow whom I've only just met.

Right now most game presentation is flirting with the uncanny valley; where murder seems like the only fitting fate for these digital almost-people. I felt more compassion for 16-bit sprites than I ever do for glassy-eyed plastic villagers.

TinPeregrinus wrote:

[broken record]

When Achilles drags Hector around the walls of Troy in the Iliad, IMO it's the same kind of moral experimentation that goes on in both GTA and SOTC.

[/broken record]

I actually don't see SOTC as being all that different from GTA in this regard (though I think the delivery of the message is exceptional in SOTC). What the player takes away from the choice and its consequences isn't IMO "If I do bad things, I'll be punished like that" but rather IMO "If I do that thing in this game, what will happen to me is that thing."

Yes, I think my point is also that "delivery" makes a very big difference in the moral feelings a player experiences as a result of a game. You can (and to some extent must) do bad things in both GTA and SotC, but the games are very different experiences in the moral feelings they elicit.

In particular, a moralizing or moralistic delivery -- like the punishment in SotC -- is a neglected way to provoke moral feelings in the player. If the game just kills people as a result of your blowing stuff up, that may be moral experimentation in some sense. But if the game takes you aside to show you how you have destroyed a particular family, then it is beginning to moralize to you. (There are pitfalls to moralism, of course -- people don't like to feel they are being scolded or manipulated.

Clemenstation wrote:

Right now most game presentation is flirting with the uncanny valley; where murder seems like the only fitting fate for these digital almost-people. I felt more compassion for 16-bit sprites than I ever do for glassy-eyed plastic villagers.

I think this is a good point .. even in the most realistic games developers can manage with current technology, there is still a huge disconnect. It's still at some level as removed from real violence as an old Looney Tunes cartoon. And that makes it very hard to invest any kind of effective simulacrum of morality into the equation.

The only game thats even come close for me is the Witcher. Basically you fumble around, trying to survive and not be a huge asshole, but all your actions, even trivial ones, have long term consequences that are NOT immediately apparent.

Fallout 3's karma system is another terrible offender in the easy choices model. And those choices aren't even logical. How is protecting someone's property rights against lawless would-be squatters bad? How about telling some fool not to write a survival guide because it could hurt people? Or is maintaining the genetic purity of humanity so bad in the face of horrible mutations?

TinPeregrinus wrote:

I actually don't see SOTC as being all that different from GTA in this regard (though I think the delivery of the message is exceptional in SOTC). What the player takes away from the choice and its consequences isn't IMO "If I do bad things, I'll be punished like that" but rather IMO "If I do that thing in this game, what will happen to me is that thing."

I think it's the delivery that matters. We come to realize that what Achilles did is bad because it makes Priam sad. We come to realize that what we do in SOTC is bad because it makes us sad to lose, in the end.

Imagine a game where after you blew up a fire-truck a fireman's widow came to you and asked you to take revenge on the person in the tank who'd killed her husband. You wouldn't be penalized in gameplay, but the message would be delivered at another level, IMO.

James Portnow proposed back in April that we should take care to divide ethical puzzles from moral choices in games. That is, we should note that when the game's mechanics make one choice the strategically better option, it's not really a free choice anymore, but is tainted by our human desires to optimize our characters. (Thus choosing the "good" path with knowledge that it will be more materially beneficial becomes a potentially greedy act.)

Craig Stern came back and emphasized that adding lopsided consequences is part of the expression of the game's creators. Making the "evil" option more advantageous creates a more cynical world. Bioshock at least attempted to make the "evil" option seem mechanically more advantageous, but that turned out to mostly be a ruse, which creates a world that emphasizes a sort of karmic idea that selfless acts will be rewarded -- even to the point where they're not really much of a sacrifice in the long term. (If you ask me, that's at the heart of Levine's commentary about Ayn Rand.)

On the other hand, I think what Grobstein is proposing is that players aren't going to chose what's obviously a morally corrupt option without distancing themselves from the character, story or the moral or ethical issues at play, and thus distancing themselves from the impact of any consequences. I think that's a salient point.

Tangent: Not to spit on the classics, but I think there's a reason Achilles seems to have the emotional and moral maturity of a teenager at times. Dragging an enemy's corpse around like that is an extreme act -- one which I think most people would not even consider except in the most extreme of emotional circumstances (I'll leave it to someone else to say whether those circumstances existed at Troy).

I think people discount the ambiguity of Shadow of the Colossus too much. It's only strictly a morality tale to the extent that you choose to read it that way. The ending to me felt more tragic than guilty. I didn't think he was being punished for sins, but rather that he was facing the brutality of the universe. Similarly, I didn't necessarily feel guilty when I killed a Colossus - but I did feel sad.

Oh, nice write up. Shadow of the Colossus hit all the right buttons with me, except the camera. Had the gameplay been anything less than what it was, I would have stopped way earlier. But the strength of all the other parts helped overcome this broken piece of the puzzle.
However, I don't think the morality thing has yet to drive me to want to play a game or keep playing it a certain way. It's a game, so I'm not connected to it in a way that it matters if my moral choices are 'good' or not. I just do what I think will end the best way.

If you are immersed in the reality of the game experience, you will not ordinarily choose to do something horrifyingly evil; if you choose to do something horrifyingly evil in a game, you probably do not believe in the reality of the experience.

I suppose that's true, but I don't think I see that as a BAD thing. At their best, games allow us to branch away from our normal experiences, and step outside the comfort zones of behavior and perspective we usually inhabit. To some extent, this is only possible and enjoyable because we maintain a disconnect from the simulation - if Ender thought the Buggers were real, after all, he never would have played the game.

So yes, if I nuke Megaton in Fallout 3, of course I'm sitting in my computer chair completely aware that I'm playing an elaborate Choose Your Own Adventure game, not actually sucked into a post-apocalyptic Washington where real lives hang in the balance of my choice. And no, obviously I don't feel all the weight and horror of that action or its consequences. I would never want to, and certainly wouldn't enjoy it if I did. To suggest that crafting an experience where I am so immersed and involved in the experience that I would feel the weight of such an action - and then forcing me to do it - would somehow be a positive change seems somewhat perverse to me, but I also think it fundamentally changes the intent of the design.

When "bad" actions in a game are presented as a choice, as in Fallout 3, KotoR, etc, they have to be at least in part reduced to vicarious thrills or no-one but the sociopaths would ever choose them. When they're railroaded as the only way to progress the story (as in Shadow of the Colossus, FFIV, or maybe the end of the new Prince of Persia), they can at worst be terribly annoying and/or trite, and a best be reflections on choice and consequence - but not the player's choice, or the player's consequence, because the player simply walked a character through the experience without any other option. It can approximate watching a tragedy, but not living one. And why would we want it to?

I actually liked Mass Effect's take on morality, although it was far from perfect. The story remained the same, most situations resolved themselves in a similar fashion, but you got to decide if you were the good cop or the bad. The important thing was that you were still the cop. Granted, I still fell into that auto-pilot mode as I played where I always pushed the stick to the upper-right, "Paragon" option, no matter what the question was, simply because I had it in my head that I was playing a good character. So I guess that isn't really making a choice, I just liked the multiple solutions to the same problem that ME had.
Still, I totally get the disconnect mentioned in the article, I don't feel like I ever choose the "evil" path for any reason other than getting different abilities, or watching my player act like a hilarious douchebag.

wordsmythe wrote:

I do to, but

Oh. IMAGE(http://rps.net/QS/Images/Smilies/no.gif)

Migeul Sicart makes a very similar argument about the morality of games and gaming - using SotC as one of his examples of "ethical game design" - in his recent book The Ethics of Game Design.

(I wrote a column about it last month at Crispy Gamer.)

I am very interested to see how Heavy Rain might tackle the problems discused here.

Oddly, Colossus lost much of its power over me because of precisely what you say -- the choice offered was too evil. After I'd killed, um, I think it was about the third colossus, and I laid "my" girlfriend on the altar.... I realized that if it were real life, I would kiss her, turn around, and never come back. It was obvious that what I was doing was wrong, and that I wouldn't be willing to really do it, not even for someone I truly loved.

So I turned the game off, and I didn't play it for some period of time. Eventually, I realized that I felt like I'd wasted $50, and that if I wanted my money's worth, I had to finish the game, so I went ahead and did, but I had totally lost my sense of immersion. That wasn't "me" anymore, that was someone else. I was along to see what happened, but none of the choices are ones I would have made. So I enjoyed the game, and finished it, but it didn't have much impact. It didn't reach me the way I think it was supposed to, because it lost me so early. I actually had some residual anger when I finished it, because at no point was I ever given an option that I would have really accepted.

Compare this with Ico: that one had me by the gonads for the entire playthrough. One of my all-time favorites. I have rarely been so immersed in a game. But I just couldn't stomach playing Colossus as "me".

So I think you're right about poor choices being bad for immersion, but NO choices can do the same thing. Lack of choice is not necessarily a virtue.

Let me note from the start that I haven't played SotC. I feel like I can make a few assumptions about how the game works, though, from the pages and pages I've read about it online over the years.

I think that the article might be confusing a depiction of a moral world with acting in a moral system, aka "choice." Neither SotC nor GTA really allow me to refrain from wrongdoing: there is no button for "I think I'll pass on taking over the city and murdering tons of dudes, and I will just drive cousin's taxi." I have to act to play the game, and these games set rules for my actions. GTA has a world with rules, and those rules seem to me to be written with a moral code, which is that of the gangster. Just because none of us would really live that way doesn't make it nonexistent. I think that both GTA and SotC depict worlds with a set of existential rules and force the player to witness the character's living or dying by those rules. Because we cannot choose whether to break those rules, except to turn off the game, we can never act in the fashion that the word "moral" would seem to imply.

grobstein wrote:

Yes, I think my point is also that "delivery" makes a very big difference in the moral feelings a player experiences as a result of a game. You can (and to some extent must) do bad things in both GTA and SotC, but the games are very different experiences in the moral feelings they elicit.

What does "moral feeling" mean here? I don't understand how a game can make me feel as though I have done something wrong if I had no choice in the matter. Take the "Heat" mission in GTA IV as an example. The mission involves killing dozens upon dozens of police officers to rob a bank, which I would never do in real life. But if I want to experience the second half or so of the game, then I have to finish the mission. I will never feel as if I've "done" anything wrong by playing that mission, because there is no alternative. I have "done" nothing at all, only witnessed a set of scripted behaviors by a fictional character. In this regard, playing SotC or GTA IV is no different than watching No Country for Old Men. I am no more Niko than I am Shugare (sp?).

If the only true choice in (the vast majority of) modern gaming is whether to play the game at all and there are no true choices within the game, the more interesting question to me would be the ethical question of gaming at all. What dilemmas do we enter by spending many thousands of dollars and hours on electric beeps and boops? Because that has the possibility of truly being an ethical wrong--again, because it's something I choose to do every day--whereas a young man who kills to revive his girlfriend is merely a script someone else imagined.

Edit: I think that Malor and I are saying similar things.

Oh, and: Hey! That's not Elysium! Welcome, and congrats on winning. I see why they picked your entry.

Dysplastic wrote:

How exactly does forcing me to destroy Mist make me "own" Cecil's sin? If anything, I personally own it less, because the game forced me to do it. My only choice to not destroy Mist is not to play.

Except you don't know beforehand that the mission will involve destroying Mist. So okay, maybe you don't "own" Cecil's sin, but I think grobstein's point is that you take responsibility for it--i.e., the game gives you the responsibility for it because you chose to play the game--and since Cecil regrets it for the rest of the game, it gives his story some weight. Thus having the choice to destroy Mist is not the issue: the decision is made (for Cecil and so for you), Cecil has to live with it, and so the player does too.

Contrast this with the choice to nuke Megaton, where guilt is left up to the player and can't be meaningfully invoked by the game, and so no moral consequence or narrative weight.

I always felt that the character of Achilles was about pure unfiltered passion. He excels because he holds nothing back, he acts purely out of instinct. He sulks, he wars, he mourns, he dresses like a woman, all as a pure reaction to his environment. He was the embodiment of a hero, doing everything with the purity of self. Even when accused by other Greeks of cowardice, he maintains his boycott. He does what he does because of who he is, not because of the image he wants to project.

I feel that Homer intentionally contrasted him with the proper Hector, the man who did what was "right". He's true to all but himself. He is restrained. He does what he does because he ought to, not because it's who he is. And when the telling moment comes, the man who was accused of cowardice stands tall, and the man who bravely fought for his country 10 years breaks and flees.

In the end, we all simply are who we are. Our crafted images disintegrate.

I always appreciate when game makers take the time to craft a less-Disney version of evil in a game and wish it happened more often.

For instance, Achilles' act of evil (dragging Hector's corpse) was in a fit of passion, lashing out because his enemy fell before he had exhausted his emotion. How many times have you finished off that frustrating boss with a special attack? You know he had 10 HP left, yet you unleashed the rest of your magic/stamina/etc to hit a critical special attack for 9999 damage. Just to make sure he stays dead. Is that not the same? Humiliating a defeated foe in a fit of passion simply because he dared to impede your progress?

More calculated evil ought to be incorporated as well, but that's a tough road to follow because if we've learned anything from drama 101, it't that villains only work if you can provide believable motive for their actions (goth angst need not apply).

While I personally like the Shadow of the Colossus method of linearly controlling the moral choices to be made in the game, I would only say that this is one of the right ways to do it. It's not for everyone of course, but that's to be expected. The problem is that the binary morality as it is presented in current games only serves to underline how very limited our choices are.

An example of a binary choice that was recently refreshed in my memory is The Dig. The good me said not to use the life crystal on Maggie and he's usually right so I followed his advice. In all my play-throughs I've never used the life crystal on her, can someone tell me if the ending is dramatically different enough to justify there being a choice at all?

Clemenstation wrote:

Congrats!

When I make evil choices, I really mean it :cool:

I do too, but Dave's right that it's usually in a way where I'm less connected to that decision. I feel like I could jettison it if I really wanted. I suppose that's the heart of why Manveer Heir recently proposed design changes to discourage take-backs.

They are not dilemmas at all. They feature a clear good and a clear evil option, and few people would make the evil choice and really mean it.

This is a lesson I learned from my DM way back when I played D&D in high school: "I don't want to play with anyone who identifies with an evil character."

Although I want to go back and see what nuking Megaton is like, or being a meanie in Mass Effect, every time I re-start those games I wind up playing 'good' again, completely straight. I don't WANT to be an asshole.

In fact, this sets up a very strange reward system: I feel I've been cheated. I don't get the full $60 worth of game, because there are experience in the game I can't have without being a dick.

On the other hand, I LOVED Dungeon Master. (Overlord less so, but mainly due to execution.) Being evil is fun.. but only when I'm playing an evil game.

I think the best system is simply to have real consequences to actions, and consequences that are not obvious. Saving the damsel by killing all the guards is fine, until you meet the wife of one of the guards. Or somesuch.

Troy Goodfellow wrote:

Migeul Sicart makes a very similar argument about the morality of games and gaming - using SotC as one of his examples of "ethical game design" - in his recent book The Ethics of Game Design.

(I wrote a column about it last month at Crispy Gamer.)

Thanks for dropping in, Troy. I really should be better at checking Crispy, but this certainly is a big conversation right now.

Shivetya wrote:

I actually liked Mass Effect's take on morality, although it was far from perfect.

It's been proposed that a potential way to avoid the silliness of forcing everything into a 2-d ethics spectrum can be combated by adding multiple spectrums, such as the matrix used in Mass Effect. I, for one, appreciate any and all steps toward confusing views of morality as a simple dichotomy.

Ravenlock wrote:
If you are immersed in the reality of the game experience, you will not ordinarily choose to do something horrifyingly evil; if you choose to do something horrifyingly evil in a game, you probably do not believe in the reality of the experience.

I suppose that's true, but I don't think I see that as a BAD thing. At their best, games allow us to branch away from our normal experiences, and step outside the comfort zones of behavior and perspective we usually inhabit. To some extent, this is only possible and enjoyable because we maintain a disconnect from the simulation - if Ender thought the Buggers were real, after all, he never would have played the game.
...
When "bad" actions in a game are presented as a choice, as in Fallout 3, KotoR, etc, they have to be at least in part reduced to vicarious thrills or no-one but the sociopaths would ever choose them. When they're railroaded as the only way to progress the story (as in Shadow of the Colossus, FFIV, or maybe the end of the new Prince of Persia), they can at worst be terribly annoying and/or trite, and a best be reflections on choice and consequence - but not the player's choice, or the player's consequence, because the player simply walked a character through the experience without any other option. It can approximate watching a tragedy, but not living one. And why would we want it to?

+

Malor wrote:

Oddly, Colossus lost much of its power over me because of precisely what you say -- the choice offered was too evil. After I'd killed, um, I think it was about the third colossus, and I laid "my" girlfriend on the altar.... I realized that if it were real life, I would kiss her, turn around, and never come back. It was obvious that what I was doing was wrong, and that I wouldn't be willing to really do it, not even for someone I truly loved.
...
So I think you're right about poor choices being bad for immersion, but NO choices can do the same thing. Lack of choice is not necessarily a virtue.

You're right, I think. I've felt put off by characters acting against my wishes (or even against my mental model of the character). Perhaps the best case I've witnessed is when I'm actively trying to play a role that's radically different from my own point of view. That's a struggle, but I think it's worth trying that sort of RP from time to time.

CptGlanton wrote:

I don't understand how a game can make me feel as though I have done something wrong if I had no choice in the matter. Take the "Heat" mission in GTA IV as an example. The mission involves killing dozens upon dozens of police officers to rob a bank, which I would never do in real life. But if I want to experience the second half or so of the game, then I have to finish the mission. I will never feel as if I've "done" anything wrong by playing that mission, because there is no alternative. I have "done" nothing at all, only witnessed a set of scripted behaviors by a fictional character.

There certainly is a choice to create your own rules for what the game is and how you'll play it, like folks that play ironman in Bioshock or Far Cry 2. The problem with a design like the recent GTAs is that it's really hard to just be a taxi driver without accidentally killing people. (I think there's meaning in that GTA4 doesn't let Niko truly escape his life.) But on the other hand, if SotC had really put work into making a way of "winning" by refusing to go on slaughtering colossi, wouldn't it have been wildly derided as being "cheap," "gimmicky" or otherwise "lame"?

Gravey wrote:
Dysplastic wrote:

How exactly does forcing me to destroy Mist make me "own" Cecil's sin? If anything, I personally own it less, because the game forced me to do it. My only choice to not destroy Mist is not to play.

Except you don't know beforehand that the mission will involve destroying Mist. So okay, maybe you don't "own" Cecil's sin, but I think grobstein's point is that you take responsibility for it--i.e., the game gives you the responsibility for it because you chose to play the game--and since Cecil regrets it for the rest of the game, it gives his story some weight. Thus having the choice to destroy Mist is not the issue: the decision is made (for Cecil and so for you), Cecil has to live with it, and so the player does too.

Contrast this with the choice to nuke Megaton, where guilt is left up to the player and can't be meaningfully invoked by the game, and so no moral consequence or narrative weight.

I'm still not buying it. Cecil has to live with it, sure, but why do I? I didn't do it - Cecil did - in a cutscene in which I have no control. All I'm telling Cecil to do is kill the various monstors he comes across. That is the extent of my control over Cecil. When I played FFIV, I never once felt that I really had control over Cecil or needed to take responsability for his actions.

Just because the choice to nuke Megaton wasn't invoked meaningfully by the game, doesn't mean that it can't be invoked more meaningfully in another game - and I'd argue that because of the agency involved, a lot of people did feel the guilt left to the player.

Welcome, Dave!

I wasn't all that crazy about the very end of SotC, because it seemed like a simple narrative decision, a way to wrap up that kind of arc. At that particular point in my gaming career, I'd had my fill of endings where the player character dies. I'd also played Ico just before, and been more invested in the outcome of that story. In SotC, I'd already realized that the colossi didn't deserve to die, and I figured there was some sort of "you played me for a sap" ending.

Switchbreak wrote:

I think people discount the ambiguity of Shadow of the Colossus too much. It's only strictly a morality tale to the extent that you choose to read it that way. The ending to me felt more tragic than guilty. I didn't think he was being punished for sins, but rather that he was facing the brutality of the universe. Similarly, I didn't necessarily feel guilty when I killed a Colossus - but I did feel sad.

That's exactly how I read it. I will never forget the moment when that last colossus lifted me up and I looked into its eyes. I had no idea what I was, and I realized that I had no idea what was going on behind those eyes. Did it deserve to die? I doubt it. Was it wrong to kill them? Well, someone would have, eventually. What kind of suicidal creature walks around with a bunch of handholds and glowy weak spots strategically placed on its body? Yes, they live in a big, empty world with only one human and a horse, but no reason to get cocky.

Very well-written and thought-provoking, sir.

Nicely done!

Personally I don't mind the clarification of moral decisions in games. I wouldn't want to have to deal with the send the kitten to college scenario. If I send that kitten to college, I want to know he's going to have a great time and graduate Manga Cum Laude. What I find frustrating is the sense that some games pay only lip service to real player choice. IE: "It's the same game, only you're evil!"

Fallout 3's moral choices, for example, fundamentally impact what happens in the game. Being a dick to Moira Brown in Megaton, for example, can crush her hopes and dreams and completely block off a quest line. What's great is that the developers reward you for that with a special perk! Fantastic.