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

gold45revolver wrote:

more madness, plus pricing scheme. Also:

Think big, like in the ending wherein the Fiatocracy's Vampires/Communists/Feminized MBA Fanboys swarm our lone rider in the mountain town, screaming/shrieking the words of Lenin/Marx/Feminism/Fiatism in Banshee voices, trying to claim his ideas and his soul.

Actually that does sound pretty cool. Any possibility of Rocket Skates of Libertarianism +3 for our exalted hero?

Also, can you quote me without context in your long list of 'references' please?

Okay, okay, I'll buy your game. But if it doesn't end with Ron Paul floating in on a steam powered blimp then I want my $179.95 $$$$ back.

Yikes.

How can someone with such a grand vision be reduced to playing message board terrorist?!

If you are what you say you are, go out there and build your industry-busting mega-game! The Leninist fiatocracy no longer(!) controls the production of games. A new, polished, glorious independent game comes out everyday, because a programmer or a small team had vision and perseverance. Make this your model!

Go away! Make the game! Come back when you are finished!

EDIT: this all went down before Certis nuked our spammer from orbit. I was getting tense.

I went and read up on that dude. Seems he used to be a physicist who worked on artificial eye technology, but now he goes around posting his moral system patents on gaming sites, where people usually a) assume he's joking, which is understandable considering the MBA Marxist Vampire stuff, or b) get pissed off and ban him. He also had a prolonged battle with the editors at Wikipedia.

Mmm, spammy. Scott Jennings just posted an entry about our troll and his patent. Weird.

That's just sad.

We dug up that one on Twitter earlier this year. Hilarious.

Back to Fallout 3: It's a matter of personal preference, but I liked the idea that the Capitol Wasteland doesn't fundamentally change based on my moral decisions. Bethesda nailed the one most important part of the Fallout experience: the ending of Fallout 1. No matter how virtuous, evil, or powerful you become, it's always the world that changes you in the end. Fallout 3, especially the main quest, was sort of an extended meditation on that idea. It drops you into a world where you can make moral choices but it soon becomes obvious that you will not alleviate the suffering of all of humanity, nor will you become the Emperor of Wastelandia. You're just a mortal wanderer in a brutal world, and someday maybe people will tell stories about your journey. I like to think those stories will mislead future generations into leaving their cozy vaults and doing crazy things.

Nyles wrote:

Back to Fallout 3: It's a matter of personal preference, but I liked the idea that the Capitol Wasteland doesn't fundamentally change based on my moral decisions. Bethesda nailed the one most important part of the Fallout experience: the ending of Fallout 1. No matter how virtuous, evil, or powerful you become, it's always the world that changes you in the end. Fallout 3, especially the main quest, was sort of an extended meditation on that idea. It drops you into a world where you can make moral choices but it soon becomes obvious that you will not alleviate the suffering of all of humanity, nor will you become the Emperor of Wastelandia. You're just a mortal wanderer in a brutal world, and someday maybe people will tell stories about your journey. I like to think those stories will mislead future generations into leaving their cozy vaults and doing crazy things.

I hope that's my final experience, too. Something of a post-apoc flâneur. As for the other half of your analysis, (" No matter how virtuous, evil, or powerful you become, it's always the world that changes you in the end."), I'd wager that Bioshock was a better treatment of that subject/object reversal.

wordsmythe wrote:
Nyles wrote:

Back to Fallout 3: It's a matter of personal preference, but I liked the idea that the Capitol Wasteland doesn't fundamentally change based on my moral decisions. Bethesda nailed the one most important part of the Fallout experience: the ending of Fallout 1. No matter how virtuous, evil, or powerful you become, it's always the world that changes you in the end. Fallout 3, especially the main quest, was sort of an extended meditation on that idea. It drops you into a world where you can make moral choices but it soon becomes obvious that you will not alleviate the suffering of all of humanity, nor will you become the Emperor of Wastelandia. You're just a mortal wanderer in a brutal world, and someday maybe people will tell stories about your journey. I like to think those stories will mislead future generations into leaving their cozy vaults and doing crazy things.

I hope that's my final experience, too. Something of a post-apoc flâneur. As for the other half of your analysis, (" No matter how virtuous, evil, or powerful you become, it's always the world that changes you in the end."), I'd wager that Bioshock was a better treatment of that subject/object reversal.

Hm, maybe. Hard to compare the two - they're two games I really love and I don't want to make them fight.

That said, I definitely felt a stronger push to get out of Rapture, cool as it was, because I believed I didn't belong there. The mystery and back story of the place is so tantalizing, but it's always clear that this place is doomed, and that there's a "real world" out there. The world of Fallout is doomed, but not much more than 20th century America. It's a really crappy but largely sustainable environment. You could settle down, raise some kids, be a brahmin farmer, water trader, etc. I would absolutely play a Fallout version of Harvest Moon, wouldn't you?

I guess my character ended up as a post-apoc flâneur, too, except I observed the world through a high-powered sniper rifle, and sometimes I pulled the trigger. And that's while playing a "good" character. I also noticed that it was the first game where I really started feeling morally iffy about killing Super Mutants, which I think has to do with the fact that they seem to have taken care of downtown D.C. pretty well, at least as well as the Brotherhood of Steel would. I'd play a Sims style game where you lived downtown in a Super Mutant apartment complex, too.

Nyles wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Nyles wrote:

Back to Fallout 3: It's a matter of personal preference, but I liked the idea that the Capitol Wasteland doesn't fundamentally change based on my moral decisions. Bethesda nailed the one most important part of the Fallout experience: the ending of Fallout 1. No matter how virtuous, evil, or powerful you become, it's always the world that changes you in the end. Fallout 3, especially the main quest, was sort of an extended meditation on that idea. It drops you into a world where you can make moral choices but it soon becomes obvious that you will not alleviate the suffering of all of humanity, nor will you become the Emperor of Wastelandia. You're just a mortal wanderer in a brutal world, and someday maybe people will tell stories about your journey. I like to think those stories will mislead future generations into leaving their cozy vaults and doing crazy things.

I hope that's my final experience, too. Something of a post-apoc flâneur. As for the other half of your analysis, (" No matter how virtuous, evil, or powerful you become, it's always the world that changes you in the end."), I'd wager that Bioshock was a better treatment of that subject/object reversal.

Hm, maybe. Hard to compare the two - they're two games I really love and I don't want to make them fight.

That said, I definitely felt a stronger push to get out of Rapture, cool as it was, because I believed I didn't belong there. The mystery and back story of the place is so tantalizing, but it's always clear that this place is doomed, and that there's a "real world" out there.

I suppose that's true, but the post-golfing metamorphosis of the player-character in Bioshock really felt to me like my character was buying-in to Rapture. I was a little confused how the skin-graft suit wasn't still on in the "good" ending's hand in the final cinematic.

The world of Fallout is doomed, but not much more than 20th century America. It's a really crappy but largely sustainable environment. You could settle down, raise some kids, be a brahmin farmer, water trader, etc. I would absolutely play a Fallout version of Harvest Moon, wouldn't you?

I guess my character ended up as a post-apoc flâneur, too, except I observed the world through a high-powered sniper rifle, and sometimes I pulled the trigger. And that's while playing a "good" character. I also noticed that it was the first game where I really started feeling morally iffy about killing Super Mutants, which I think has to do with the fact that they seem to have taken care of downtown D.C. pretty well, at least as well as the Brotherhood of Steel would. I'd play a Sims style game where you lived downtown in a Super Mutant apartment complex, too.

I have to agree. Since the first Fallout (and perhaps even in predecessors of the series), the setting truly is one of the classics in videogame history.

wordsmythe wrote:

I suppose that's true, but the post-golfing metamorphosis of the player-character in Bioshock really felt to me like my character was buying-in to Rapture. I was a little confused how the skin-graft suit wasn't still on in the "good" ending's hand in the final cinematic.

Nicely put! And that is how to swerve around spoilers - using the power of allusion.

Nyles wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

I suppose that's true, but the post-golfing metamorphosis of the player-character in Bioshock really felt to me like my character was buying-in to Rapture. I was a little confused how the skin-graft suit wasn't still on in the "good" ending's hand in the final cinematic.

Nicely put! And that is how to swerve around spoilers - using the power of allusion. :)

It probably helps that I'm known to be the kind of guy who speaks sideways. For example, I probably say "golfing" most commonly as a baseball reference, to mean "swinging at a very low pitch."

I have one word for you: spam. Wait, no, that's not it--let's try this again...

I have one word for you: consequences.

Games are ostensibly about choice, and yet most games do a poor job of representing the consequences of those choices. Sometimes this is a narrative consideration, to minimize the impact on the story that the designer is trying to tell. If you've ever tried to kill a plot-essential NPC, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Even the vaunted "morality" games (like KotOR or Fable) really just boil down to a final player choice resulting in either the "good" or "evil" ending.

Fallout gets a special mention. I like exploring the idea that the characters can't survive without deviating from the ideas of good and evil. It's a bit like the wild west, with frontier justice and the idea that sacrifices must be made in the name of survival. It's just that in the world of Fallout, the things getting sacrificed first are the moral values. And of course, there are consequences, even if they aren't the consequences that the player might expect. In fact, the original ending for Junktown was supposed to be a bleak authoritarian future if you sided with law and order. Sadly, the designers balked and gave it a more traditional "happy" ending instead.

- Alan

I'm always a bit confused when games want *me* to make moral choices while I'm playing another character. Maybe it's because I've never felt that the avatar was actually supposed to be *me*. I've never felt the need to relate on a personal, empathic level with "first person" characters in video games the way that I might in a paper/pen role playing game. Maybe that's because I always know that the video game world is much more limited and author controlled than other games that can offer much more flexible immersion (like the DM reacting to what your character would want to do).

So moral choices in video games always seem to be more about following different narrative paths that are just as scripted as any non-interactive novel. And I'm fine with that. I play games not imagining that I'm the actual dude in the world, but as if I'm someone else who, say, carjacks hookers or carries a bunch of guns around a wasteland looking for his dad. It seems like playing a character as if he's limited by my own moral framework would actually be a reason to avoid such games at all since the whole point of most games is to be able to do something that you normally can't (or wouldn't).

It just seems like the developers would have to anticipate such a mind-boggling array of options to deal with true moral complexity that the game would just look like an endless explosion of geometrically expanding possibilities. That would, of course, be awesome, but it only seems like it would be feasible if you had an actual person (or, why not, artificial intelligence) trying to sit there and react to you on a one-to-one level.

One of my favorite miniatures tabletop game is called Warmachine, and my favorite faction worships an angry Old Testament sort of god called Menoth. What's cool about the Menites is they truly believe they are the guardians of humanity and righteousness, although they have a bad habit of torturing non-believers and burning their enemies alive.

Truth be told, I would love to play a video game where I could do extremely evil and nasty things in the name of a greater good. The most interesting villians IMHO are those who think of themselves as the good guys.

Itsatrap wrote:

I have one word for you: spam. Wait, no, that's not it--let's try this again...

I have one word for you: consequences.

Games are ostensibly about choice, and yet most games do a poor job of representing the consequences of those choices. Sometimes this is a narrative consideration, to minimize the impact on the story that the designer is trying to tell. If you've ever tried to kill a plot-essential NPC, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Even the vaunted "morality" games (like KotOR or Fable) really just boil down to a final player choice resulting in either the "good" or "evil" ending.

Fallout gets a special mention. I like exploring the idea that the characters can't survive without deviating from the ideas of good and evil. It's a bit like the wild west, with frontier justice and the idea that sacrifices must be made in the name of survival. It's just that in the world of Fallout, the things getting sacrificed first are the moral values. And of course, there are consequences, even if they aren't the consequences that the player might expect. In fact, the original ending for Junktown was supposed to be a bleak authoritarian future if you sided with law and order. Sadly, the designers balked and gave it a more traditional "happy" ending instead.

- Alan

I'm not sure I follow the path of your argument here. Games that track morality via an ethical rank dynamic do have consequences, even if they're usually a little detached from the cause because the cause and consequences get funneled through the central point of that slider to more generally yield good/evil abilities (KotOR), character appearance, or a sort of secularized karma system.

wordsmythe wrote:

I'm not sure I follow the path of your argument here. Games that track morality via an ethical rank dynamic do have consequences, even if they're usually a little detached from the cause because the cause and consequences get funneled through the central point of that slider to more generally yield good/evil abilities (KotOR), character appearance, or a sort of secularized karma system.

I'm complaining about *poor handling* of consequences. My character can be a sadistic kleptomaniac with Tourette's syndrome, and yet NPC's will still somehow consider me to be humanity's last, best hope for survival. I may as well randomly choose dialog options because in the end it's all the same, except for that binary good/evil toggle to determine which outro to play. Of course, it's still interesting to see how the designers justify making you go through the same sequence of events regardless of where your moral compass points.

I suppose I would also prefer longer-term consequences. Sure, the locals can run me out of town after I shoot up the neighborhood, but chances are I won't ever see them again. I suppose this is more of a rant about how linear storytelling makes player choices less meaningful on a grand scale. Certainly choices can affect the immediate difficulty of the game, but it still feels too much like a big math puzzle and not enough like an exercise in moral judgment. That is, a good choice here and an evil choice there, all in the name of player advancement. While it's refreshing that the designers haven't prevented me from being an opportunistic bastard, it can make the "morality system" kind of a joke.

- Alan

Itsatrap, I think the problem is that the ethics models being used are simple to the point where they have obvious problems. It's something of an uncanny valley issue, except that while graphics and physics teams still churn mightily against the opposing force of that valley, ethics systems are thrown together by one or two folks and then slapped into place by the piecemeal writing process.

Beyond the reputation/faction alternative that we've already noted, I wanted to pass along this as well, which I think speaks somewhat to the idea that the answer lies in better modeling of consequences:

Nels Anderson had a good proposal a couple days ago on his blog and cross-posted on Gamasutra. He references Piaget and Kohlberg's work on how moral senses develop, and suggested that we do away not only with self-obviating "choices," but also with explicit morality scales. The idea is to clear the way for questions where, for example, morality based on social-contract theory might be pitted against morality based on consequences, which both might be pitted against ethical reasoning based from Kant's categorical imperative.

Great article, really, and I agree with you, but sometimes choices can really open us to that morality medium, though the fact that the developers throw it on our faces is what makes it hard to feel that moral itch.

I'll give you an example of how i think it should be done.
Recently, I've been playing quite a bit of Demon's Souls, in DS you have your character tendency and your world tendency, and usually they intervene with each other, though in one of my playthroughs, I've decided to go with the evil side, seeing as I knew what it would grant me in terms of equipment, though the further I went with it, the worse it felt, and then I realized why that equipment was so good. In DS you never have to choose, it all comes naturally, they dont just give you 2 options, you have to experiment, and sometimes being good also leads to some very bad consequences, so that moral "choice" isnt really there, its just us examining what we gain and what we lose with each "choice".
So do you kill that friend for a great item, or do you save him for better stuff along the road?

It really does let you connect to the character in means you couldn't in other games.