Chutes and Ladders

Fight This T-Rex wrote a blog post a while ago all about the fact that moral choices all kind of turn into economic transactions, which is oddly parallel to a quick comment in a post on Speaking Natalie that points out the same thing regarding the primary moral decision in Bioshock.

At some point later, I added to the pile with a rambling post about Tabula Rasa main characters, and how the unwillingness to assign personal characteristics to characters without the player's input turns “moral choice” into a ridiculous parody of actual choices.

Clearly, at least some people out there agree with me that this is a problem, but I don't see much of this opinion in most of the industry blogs that I read. Maybe it's been so well established that everybody takes it for granted, or there was a two-month flurry of posts on the subject (Like Braid reviews) that I just happened to be in the can for, and am now behind on my collective internet knowledge, but it seems unlikely.

I've already said my piece, so I won't shove it down your throat again, but I think the problem is that the ultimate creatives behind a game need to trust that a well written game will drive home the magnitude of a moral choice that you make. KotOR featured a bunch of items that could only equip if you were good, because they didn't want the game to be harder for someone playing as a light side Jedi, and they needed something to make up for all the extra money and experience you got if you were evil.

I can't tell if that sprung from a misunderstanding about how difficulty interacts with enjoyment, a misunderstanding about the IP of Star Wars in the first place, or a misunderstanding regarding the motivations for ethical behavior in the first place.

Maybe it's just because it intersects with something I already feel strongly about, but I can't help but be suspicious that it's at least partially the last one. Why does a fictional character engage in ethical behavior? (The “What is ethical behavior?” discussion is for another time)

I see three main reasons why characters in the media engage in ethical behavior, and quite frankly, I haven't been satisfied with any of them for a long time.

1. For personal gain: Rarely is this ever particularly overt, but in a game like KotOR or Fallout 3, your character only has the personality that you give him/her. If you make a moral choice because you think the rewards are better if you do the right thing, isn't that just engaging in ethical behavior for personal gain? It's rarely ever addressed as such, and when doing the right thing for personal gain is addressed in games, books, movies, or television, it's usually painted in a negative light, but when it's not explicitly addressed, it just sort of hangs there, and the implicit message is carries varies from just “Don't worry, life is fair, we proimse” to “Why you do something doesn't matter”, neither of which I can make myself endorse.

2. To avoid punishment: This is great for “Dora the Explorer”, but it's also pretty much the only motivating factor in ethical behavior in any sitcom ever. The “Aww...” moment at the end of every sitcom you've ever seen is based on the bumbling husband wanting to do something nice for his wife so she stops being angry at him because of the stupid thing he did at the beginning of the episode. Not to mention the fact that it seems to do a decent job of describing the childish understanding of Christianity that only exists in the heads of nut jobs, its detractors, and the mainstream media, but that's another issue for another post.

3. A commitment to doing the right thing: This is the most amorphous and boggling to me. Maybe it's short sighted of me to think this way, but you know that conversation in a serious movie where somebody is struggling with a difficult moral choice, and the supporting character leans in and says, “You have to do the right thing”? There's always a niggling thing in the back of my head that asks, “Why?” If the “right” thing is the thing that you should do, then saying that you should do the right thing is... unhelpful, to say the least.

Without building any kind of a consensus and establishing an underlying principle to ethical behavior, or at least pointing at the grey areas surrounding most actual ethical issues, that whole avenue of inquiry is narratively bankrupt.

Or maybe I'm just a big jerk.


Ikkin said...

What about option number four - the character does the right thing the benefit of those whom he or she cares about? It might not be a perfect answer, but the character needs neither to be selfish nor to be "good" for no real reason.

There's some potential to use genuine compassion for other characters in games, though that would depend on whether the developers could instill enough empathy to make people care about NPCs in the first place.

William said...

I think there's certainly something there, but there are two potential sticking points to your comment.

First, you see this so rarely. Almost every party based RPG is about the male main character going off to save the female main character at one point or another, but aside from the most superficial level, this almost never really engages me. This, of course, doesn't mean it CAN'T be done, which is an important distinction, but there is something to be said for how rarely it happens.

Second, I think it's pretty important to ask "Well, why exactly DOES someone do something for someone else?", and unless the answer is better than "So that they will ______", I think it fits under the catagory of "Personal gain".

It is, of course, rarely ever talked about this way. The idea that the knight in shining armor is going off to save his princess because otherwise he'll be sad and have no one to keep him company is certainly less romantic, but it seems like at SOME point, someone needs to point at it and recognize that the issue of ethical behavior is more complicated.

Then again, I guess that was the point of the post in the first place. =P

Ikkin said...

In regards to the first point, I think the lack of engagement is more a result of the immaturity of the medium than its limitations. It's hard to relate to a character doing something for someone else if the person they're doing it for doesn't seem to be worth the effort, and games so far haven't always done the best job of garnering empathy for characters.

I'm pretty sure that aspect can be overcome, though - Team Ico, at least, has done a good job of showing that it's possible to make the player care about characters in games.

Of course, all the emotional depth in the world wouldn't help all too much if distractingly-cliche plot elements start interfering with suspension of disbelief - which seems likely to happen in a situation like rescuing the damsel in distress. ;)

Moving on to the second point, I think that most of the time, things done for someone else are not done only for one's own personal benefit - but, when it shoes up in fiction, the primary motivation (whether the character's conscience, or empathy for others, or a moral code) is usually just implied. Another option is to have the protagonist do things that clearly don't benefit him, usually by separating him from the person he cares about, removing personal gain from the equation entirely.

I'd be hardpressed to think of a way to actually deal with that secondary motivation, however - most characters wouldn't be self-reflective enough to think of those kinds of things, and the player's motivations have to come into play somehow as well. Getting the player to reflect on his own motivations might be ideal, but I'm not sure how one would actually go about implementing that.