Morality, Choice and Literature in Video Games

Grab a brew and discover whether video games are literary devices or meaningless time-sinks. Or both.

The opening of Silent Hill: Memories warns players that the game intends to psychologically profile them, in order to alter the storyline and create their ‘own personal nightmare.’ That’s not a million miles away from the first lines in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, which explains that ‘the game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored to how you play.’

So immediately the game apparently becomes a lot more than just a cartoony point-and-click with a strictly linear story, and becomes that much more immersive, as you create your own individual experience. And at the heart of that is morality. Without laws, without recognisable institutions to uphold civility, do you become a bastard? Try to live your life according to the pre-apocalypse world? Or somewhere in between?

Check out ‘How Bioshock Savaged the Politics of Ayn Rand’

Video Game Morality

Morality is the driving force for Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series – a world where, according to creator Robert Kirkman, ‘the zombie apocalypse is really just a framework for creating extreme parameters of human drama. It’s a cauldron where people get thrown in and pushed to the limits of their psychological extremes.’ The game, like the TV show it’s based on, stays very true to this whole unfolding human drama deal (and just like the show, it also delights in offing your favourite characters), and you’re encouraged to advance the plot through dicey, often split-second choices that define your character, the world, and the survivors around you.

The Walking Dead Morality Choice Literature Mass Effect Fallout

A couple of years back, I chatted to voice actor Gavin Hammon who played Kenny in the game series – he’s a nice guy, you should check out his website and follow him on Twitter. He reckons that your choices in The Walking Dead were ‘powerful moral decisions, sometimes amoral, that will affect the outcome of the game, but more importantly, the experience of the user.’ Pretty obviously, then, to Hammon, there’s ‘a profound difference’ in scripts for those games primarily focussed on game-play compared to narrative game scripts. Scripts for games like The Walking Dead ‘contain actual scenes, more like a film or animation,’ which ‘cover a range of emotion and draw from several scenes to try and elicit a bigger and better performance from the actor.’

The result? A conscious decision by the developers to offer a game with real emotional resonance, a bit like, well, classic literature (I don’t know about you, but I sure got teary eyed playing TWD). Hammon believes that ‘some games could be considered literary, by virtue of the immersion of the user into a narrative they themselves are tailoring, whether by consciously trying to be “good” or “bad” or simply based on their own prejudices they bring to it.’

RPGing a Character

Of course, this only really works if we care about the characters our wildly instinctive and occasionally pragmatic choices affect. That’s pretty tricky in a game like The Walking Dead, with Telltale forced to craft a deep, well-rounded and accessible protagonist, in the form of Lee Everett, who, at the same time, needs to be a canvas blank enough for us to project onto him our own identity – all the better to make us care that little more, right? And this is where Telltale nails it, with strokes just broad to create a believable personality, while still letting gamers decide who he really is. IGN’s Colin Campbell put it best when he remarked on how the devs make us ‘feel for the character [of Lee] without dumping a truck-load of exposition onto our heads.’ Sure, we know that Lee is a university professor convicted of killing a man who slept with his wife. But does he feel remorse? Does he revel in his actions? Would he rather not talk about his past? It’s up to you to decide that. In discussing these choices, Campbell notes that, ‘Lee’s lack of defining characteristics allows us to experience the apocalypse, and our likely reaction to it, more freely.’

NPCs also react according to the player’s choices, creating a unique and organic story. Over at Gamastura, game designer Brice Morrison argues that developers implementing a system of meaningful choices can ’cause [players] to evaluate their character as a person, to take the lessons of the game and apply it back to their real lives.’ So while the zombies of Resident Evil draw on traditional horror techniques to stir emotions in the player, The Walking Dead provides a more reflective experience.

The Walking Dead Morality Choice Literature Mass Effect Fallout

But hey, at least you’re not alone, right? You’re guided through your choices, and the lessons learnt, by Clementine, an eight-year-old girl who, Kimberley Wallace at Game Informer reckons, acts as ‘a moral compass for the main character.’ The relationship between Lee and Clementine builds to a final confrontation with The Stranger who kidnaps Clementine. If Clementine is the moral compass, then The Stranger is the player’s conscience. At the climax, the Stranger forces you to explain, or atone for your actions: the people you let die, the food you stole to survive. Sure, you assume the role of a character, but video games like The Walking Dead ask you to take responsibility for your choices. Reminded of the permanence of your choices, like Morrison stated, you’re going to have to reflect upon those decisions. Essentially, then, only by confronting your own morals – you know, if you have any – can you complete The Walking Dead.

Morality systems also form the centre-piece of RPGs such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3, which have co-opted choice to allow the player to drive the narrative, although Hilary Goldstein on IGN argues that, ‘a player tends to make a decision early on that he will play either as Renegade or Paragon … and, more often than not, your choices are less about facing moral dilemmas and more about fulfilling a game function.’ He believes that, ‘if video games hope to achieve a level of narrative depth found in literature, then the game and the story need to merge more fluidly.’

Goldstein champions the fluidity of Heavy Rain, a game that ‘asks questions of the player and forces decisions that always feel like natural extensions of the scene. You can fail quite often in Heavy Rain, but those failures merely open new paths for you to explore. Often you’re tested to make a decision in the heart of the moment, without having a moral compass to console. In Heavy Rain, the player acts more to the motivations of the lead character.’ I know, right – you were literally just about to say precisely that. Me too.

The Walking Dead Morality Choice Literature Mass Effect Fallout

Other games prevent this all-important fluidity by presenting ‘stark and unnecessary reminder[s] that you’re playing a video game, not experiencing a work of dramatic fiction.’ Evidence of this might be the sheer volume of villains slaughtered by cowboy hero John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. It could be argued that to arbitrarily kill, even digitally, is to be immoral. In contrast, books and films rarely portray mass-murderers as moral heroes; Philip Marlowe’s killing of the evil Canino in The Big Sleep is an obviously honourable murder which saves more lives than it takes, but it is on different scale to games, which completely sane, not-at-all-violently-off-his-head anti-video game activist Jack Thompson dubbed ‘murder simulators.’ The larger the scale, the smaller the impact of each death, which risks devaluing any sense of morality.

Not that video game story-tellers are completely oblivious to this. Aware of the criticism, they tend to remedy their narrative accordingly. Consider the turning point in Borderlands 2, in which antagonist Handsome Jack kills off the game’s only two truly moral characters. Instantly players take the moral high ground because Jack’s actions make him, in the words of Nick Dinicola, ‘a worse person than [the players]. We all kill bandits because no one cares about bandits, but Jack kills heroes.’

Let’s go all ‘English Lit 101’ a second. In his essay 1975 Morality and Literary Criticism, T.J. Diffey explains that ‘the ordinary conception of morality itself rests then upon certain value judgements, for instance on the importance we place on orderliness, efficiency, and indeed on the conscientious discharge of duty.’ He’s of the mindset that our preconceived notions of good and evil are based on the binary ‘Greek and Christian conceptions’ – not that you’re simply rewarded for good deeds and punished for bad. Like the real world, video game life just ain’t so black and white.

The Agony of Choice (in Video Games)

Ok, Fallout 3 may offer you total freedom to impact or alter interactions with the inhabitants of the virtual world according to your choices, but the knock-on effect is that NPCs may become hostile or rightly fear your dark soul, which affects what kind of missions become available to you – it’s not a rewarding your awesome niceness or punishing your evil decisions, it’s just…different. So morality acts as an arbiter for what kind of narrative you experience in the game.

The Walking Dead Morality Choice Literature Mass Effect Fallout

One of the first major choices you’re going to make in Fallout 3 is whether or not to disarm the bomb in the centre of a shanty town. By choosing to detonate the bomb, you’ll earn mega-bucks and a loss of karma, the in-game morality guide. However, if you disarm the bomb you earn less money, a run-down home, and gain good karma. A third choice, doing nothing at all, results in no gain whatever. In this example, you’re more highly rewarded for the bad option than for acting as a moral hero. This is a theme that builds up to the game’s epic (read: not so epic) climax, as Fallout 3 asks of the player: what sort of person do you want to be? Would you sacrifice your own life to give purified water to the irradiated wastelands? In every way, Fallout 3 enforces each of what Morrison contends are the four tenets of meaningful choice: awareness, consequence, reminder, and permanence.

Reverting to English Lit mode, Diffey states that, ‘if a reader’s concern for literature is serious, he must be responsible in action. Otherwise literature is an indulgence.’ Obviously, then, literature’s goal to force its reader to focus on the moral impact of a character’s choices, in the same way Fallout 3 constantly forces the player to question what is the right thing to do, even if they then decide against taking that course of action. Books similarly demonstrate moral/amoral choices, in a bid to create emotional response. But while, with a book, the reader is an impartial observer, in a game they become an active participant. That’s not to say video games portray morality better, just differently.

Immersion and Literature

Players not only makes decisions which determine how the story of Fallout 3 or Mass Effect proceeds, but also decide the history of their character, and customise their character’s attributes. There is an obvious limitation imposed on any customisation: the choices are programmed by the developer. In ‘The Spiky-Haired Mercenary vs. the French Narrative Theorist: Final Fantasy VII and the Writerly Text’, Benjamin Chandler notes of Final Fantasy VII: ‘I can’t make my Cloud into a staff-wielding pastry chef; however, I can take the preset Cloud I start off with and make him into my Cloud.’ Despite the narrative-drive of these games, the player is encouraged to identify with, and even become, the protagonist, whether hero or villain, renegade or paragon, unlike readers of literature who, Casmir Dailey reckons, ‘see the complex motivations of the character as those of the character, separate from themselves.’ Ultimately this allows players to craft a hero (or villain) they identify with, and experience the repercussions of their choices in a way no other literary form can offer.

The Walking Dead Morality Choice Literature Mass Effect Fallout World of Warcraft Character Customisation

It’s this identification which Chandler believes, ‘leads to greater immersion in the game world’ – essentially, character customisation increases ‘the likelihood of player/character identification as players start to see themselves as their characters.’ Once players become their character, they engage with, and actively produce, the text ‘through their interpretation of what the characters ultimately are.’ This can be witnessed in MMORPGS such as World of Warcraft, whose players, Mirjam Eladhari in the ‘The Player’s Journey’ contends, ‘do not role-play a fictive character but instead play themselves in another world.’ If, as she says, ‘the character is an extension of a player’s self,’ then players are able to ‘learn about [themselves] all the time, but especially in situations that are comparable to those in which fictional characters show their “true character”.’

That, in essence, is the defining motive of pure literature, an extension of English Lit luvvie Matthew Arnold’s view that culture is ‘a pursuit of our total perfection,’ and is well-suited to the video game format. There exists no mechanism in other existing cultural forms in which readers may self-identify as the protagonist. You might read The Catcher in the Rye, but that doesn’t make you Holden Caulfield. That said, although the words describing Holden Caulfield are identical, he exists differently in the mind of every reader because written literature plays into the imaginative, fantastical dimension of our minds.

Another literary favourite, the chain-smoking Roland Barthes, wrote that readers become ‘someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.’ Video games, as with films, present environments and action with identifiable limitations. The player is not forced to imagine the visuals of a game-world or given true and total freedom; everything on-screen is pre-designed by developers. It is only their actions within those parameters which define their experience.

As gamers, we enter into a covenant with the game-authors and the text itself to create our own meaning, our own narrative. In becoming a medium where ‘the true locus of writing is reading’, or, in game-speak, ‘the true purpose of developing is playing,’ then video games are able to act as literary devices in return.

After all that, here’s a fun video that shows just how meaningless it all is anyway…

Be honest now, what’s the worst decision you’ve ever made in a video game? Comment below, let me know on Twitter and like the gamespulp Facebook page for more gaming thoughts, ramblings and scribblings.


One thought on “Morality, Choice and Literature in Video Games

  1. Even if you decide to play as renegade or paragon in a game like Mass Effect, its not like later there wont be moments where you question that choice. You may decide to go Renegade, but then, you will take decisions that will make you regret that, and stirring of feelings is awesome.


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