I Curse the Meter of Morality | Heroism & How We Feel Things in Video Games
Let me set the set the scene for you. I'm a young man, cloistered in a tiny, prison cellish dorm room at a moderately-sized state college in a small town surrounded by discrete eternities of Midwestern farmland. My original Xbox console is of such an unwieldy size that parts of it stretch out over the mini-fridge it's perched upon, and its oblong shape means the crappy TV that's perched on it in turn is always poised at a slightly odd angle, as if all the characters it portrays are drunk. At the moment however, none of that matters. I'm not in a 4' by 8' room I have to share with someone who has deeply held opinions concerning the film Underworld, I'm somewhere else, a place that existed a long time ago, in a galaxy so far away it merits using the word “far” twice. Specifically, I'm on Tatooine, and I'm trying to broker some manner of peace with these here Sand People. But I've run into a problem.
As long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a hero. I may have identified more with the villains in comic books due to their narcissism, megalomania, and status as deranged social outcasts, but mine were only the noblest of Bourgeois White Male Adolescent Power Fantasies, and feeding my ravenous ego always came with the added benefit of liberating an imaginary downtrodden group from the imaginary boot of imaginary tyranny. When moral choices were introduced to video games, there was no question which end of the ethical spectrum I'd choose to reside on. Therein lay the problem.
For most of Knights of the Old Republic the choices were starkly delineated between good and evil. Enslave the Wookiees or free them? Poison the water to kill the giant fish, or destroy the kolto harvesting machine to calm it down? Kill your Sith tutor on Korriban or spare them? Don't let me mislead you, I enjoyed KOTOR a great deal—the parts that occurred between load screens, at any rate. Knights of the Old Republic let me be a Jedi, it let me be a hero, but it also placed me in a world where being a hero was relatively easy, positing choices that often amounted to “Kill Everybody” or “Save Everybody”, choices someone with pretensions as heroic as my own had no reason to agonize over. In fact, they proved so forgettable that when I set out to write what you're currently reading I had to query Wookieepedia to look up the defining moral conundrums on each of the planets my merry band visited, in spite of having played the game twice. Only one ethical problem from KOTOR merited enough hand wringing to remain fixed in my mind to this day. Like most incidents of consequence, it involved Jawas.
The problem appeared deceptively straightforward, as problems so often do. The Czerka Corporation's Tatooine concern hired me to defend their mining interests from the same race of masked savages that clobbered Luke at the beginning of A New Hope and proved vulnerable to lightsaber strikes in Attack of the Clones: Tusken Raiders, also known as Sand People. The Sand People were attacking the people people, and I had to find some way to make them stop. It turned out all I had to do was mollify them with some moisture vaporators, so I loaded them up, headed to the Tusken encampment, and made the deal. Shades of trading the Island of Manhattan for glass beads notwithstanding, everything was working out. They had agreed to stop attacking Czerka employees, and I hadn't been forced to murder every single one of them: in my book that's a win. I was exploring the Tusken encampment and luxuriating in my victory when I happened to encounter a group of Jawas who begged me to help them. They told me they were being held against their will. I said if I set them free the entire camp would attack me. They said if I didn't set them free I'd be damning them to lives of slavery.
As I sat in my dorm room hunched over the cold glow of my crappy TV I didn't know the designers had included a peaceful solution to the problem, I only knew that I was a champion of the oppressed, and the oppressed were being real dicks at the moment. Getting those moisture vaporators hadn't been easy. I had done all I could to find a peaceful solution with as little killing as possible, but it had all been in the name of doing the right thing. Now doing the right thing meant tearing down all I'd worked to build. If I set these Jawas free it would mean saving a few lives, then ending many more as the Sand People attacked me for liberating their merchandise. But what were the lives of such people worth when they were complicit in such an ethical travesty? But did they, as individuals, really have a say in who their tribe bought and sold? Did that absolve them, weren't they still complicit in an evil practice? My moral compass shattered. Black and white were intermingling into gray, and no matter what I did it was impossible for me to get out clean. Either I let the abomination of slavery persist, or I killed the entire group of Sand People I'd done everything in my power to save.
Jawas, man. F***ing Jawas.
I'd already killed hundreds of people, droids, and monsters by the time I reached the Tusken Raider camp, but that was the first time I felt it. I could almost feel the blood on my hands as I trudged away into a desert that was suddenly more stark, barren, and empty than I could've imagined. The twin suns of Tatooine glared down at me like the eyes of God. I knew in time the shifting sands would erase every footprint I made, just as they would eventually swallow the remains of the camp and everyone interred therein. Evidence of my massacre would be buried, forgotten, and if it was ever examined again it would be as an archaeological curiosity, the reason behind the bloodshed a topic of academic debate, lives reduced to trivia. I wondered how many similar horrors the sand had absorbed, how many forgotten atrocities were secreted beneath my feet, how many horrors those burning eyes had watched the sand take. Then my roommate came in to tell he'd found like three hundred French Toast Sticks in the dumpster behind the cafeteria and most of them were still pretty good if I wanted any.
I learned two things that day. One, my roommate's concept of 'pretty good' differed vastly from my own, and two, the more difficult a video game's moral choice is, the more profound an effect it'll have on the player. It's a distinction video games have grown increasingly cognizant of since Revan's heyday. Video games have had some species of moral consequence incorporated into their play for a pretty long time, but it wasn't until fairly recently that developers realized in order to make the choices they pose feel consequential, they had to take away most of the good options. The Adolescent Power Fantasy is fun and, in spite of the term's overwhelmingly pejorative connotation, it can be done really well, but games that want their stories to carry dramatic weight have to do so by strategically limiting the player's power—forcing them to make a difficult choice, then live with it.
A similar design ethic is behind the stunning popularity Roguelike video games have been experiencing lately, along with permadeath in general. Like a good moral quagmire in Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, the permadeath in a game like Spelunky or FTL seeks to provoke a response in us, even if that response is a gasp of horror or wince of outrage. No matter how bad it is when a game indifferently erases everything you invested in it like Godzilla stepping on a three bedroom duplex you're locked into a ten-year fixed rate mortgage with, it has nonetheless successfully made you feel something, a claim few entertainment experiences can legitimately make in our chronically benumbed era.
Media companies believe the sensibilities of today's modern consumer have been dulled to the point that everything we take in needs to be enhanced somehow. Our romances need vampires and werewolves. Our fantasies need betrayal and incest. The heyday of torture porn has mercifully come and gone, but its sadistic attitude regarding its audience has bled into other genres, giving Man of Steel a body count experts estimate at 129,000 dead, 250,000 missing and 1,000,000 injured. It's what the people want—or so goes the argument, anyway.
“The public craves Grand Guignol.” is an intriguing thesis, but it's impossible to apply consistently. Yes, our Batman is a sad and angry Batman, but our pop music consistently ascends to new heights of insipid disposability every year, and television shows that pedal nothing more than cheap shocks tend to either disappear quickly or attract a purely ironic audience. A brief glimpse at history validates such skepticism, with the likes of King Lear and your average Greek Tragedy putting the tepid horror of something like AMC's The Walking Dead in context. The Death of a Salesman and The Metamorphosis reside in dimensions of horror and pain never glimpsed in something like The Vampire Diaries, which is precisely why they're beloved works of literature. Be it good or bad, people have always wanted their entertainment to make an impact. A fiasco like The Room inspires wonder and awe, while inert filler like the films of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are just depressing. (Though I seem to recall Spy Hard had its moments.) Nothing is worse than mediocrity and indifference. Insult me and exalt me, comfort me and cajole me, debase me and enrage me, just don't leave me numb.
Stories can be reassuring, or they can be cathartic. Just as a meal can either be comfort food or a game of Russian Roulette you play with your colon, we seek out stories to either be placated or challenged. There's a natural tendency when looking back at even the recent past to single out one type of story as typical for the entire era, but in reality the reassuring and the cathartic have always coexisted. In the 80's Steven Spielberg existed alongside David Cronenberg. In the 50's simple morality tales like High Noon existed alongside Science Fiction horror like The Thing From Another World. During the festival of Dionysus in ancient Athens, it was customary for an author to submit four plays: three tragedies and a comedic Satyr play. The one whose four plays were judged to be the best won a goat. I am not making this up.
In spite of their coexistence, we usually like to keep some kind of barrier between our reassurance and our catharsis, since when they intermingle the effect can be jarring, even violent. It's why flying monkeys tearing Scarecrow apart and Bambi's mother getting two in the head have proved such rich founts of childhood trauma. It's why Banksy tried to put a dummy representing a Gitmo detainee in Disney World, and why what I've come to think of as The Jawa Incident had such a profound impact. I thought I knew the rules of the world I inhabited and how to play by them in order to be a hero, but things abruptly shifted, revealing what we think of as heroism to be largely a product of circumstance. It wasn't just the violence of what I'd done that made such an impact on me, but the revelation that the world was a chaotic place, and I wasn't the person I thought I was.
There's an argument to be made for breaking up Telltale Games like The Walking Dead into discrete episodes, since when you play them all at once a kind of grim determination can settle over you as successive abominations occur and their impact diminishes. I think a similar process is intended in The Last of Us, where Joel's successive acts of violence are supposed to so inure the player to carnage that when he finally turns against the Fireflies to save Ellie we're right there with him, even if we don't necessarily want to be. When the turn came I was so desperate to salvage some last vestige of heroism that I drove myself to the edge of madness trying to get through the hospital without killing anyone. Of course, I couldn't. I was trying to play against the game's story, which made no more sense than writing “Then aliens rescued him and after many long years of therapy he was able to recover some semblance of humanity.” at the end of 1984 in ballpoint pen. Joel kills them all. If I want to see the end of the story, I have to play along. There are no heroes here.
I'm not the same man I was in that dorm room, in that desert. Though I still think of myself as a card-carrying member of the Altruism Fan Club, my view of traditional heroism has only grown more jaundiced with time, and when I encounter a classical, two-fisted, lantern-jawed hero in a video game the whole thing strikes me as kind of silly. (Unless it's in a flamboyant game like Vanquish, where it's all part of a rich tapestry of camp.) The only heroes I know are either dead or in prison, to quote David Hayter as Solid Snake. If I see heroism portrayed uncritically I immediately assume someone's playing an angle. (In my defense, I'm usually right.)
Video Games have many reasons for adding dark moral dimensions to their world: advances in technology, a more discerning audience, and speaking to the public's generally grimmer outlook, to name a few—but the best reason by far is that it works. There'll always be a place for the comforting formula of one princess and one plumber, and we're unlikely to see Mario forced to confront his crippling mushroom addiction anytime soon, which is well and good. Waiting for video games to mature, whatever that even means, is an inherently futile practice. It's much better that we mature ourselves, and bring that maturity to bear on the games we play. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have several hundred French toast sticks to hose down.