I don’t think anyone can deny that the moral compass of today is spinning out of control like we’re all standing at the top of the world. When I was young the bad guy was always clear: he wore a black cape, had a scar on his face, or had an epic mustache that he twisted while plotting his next conquest. Today the idea of good and evil exists in a hazy ethos of gray on an etherial plain populated by wisps of smoke and funhouse mirrors. As simple times of light versus dark has given way to complicated and unwritten rules of religion versus politics versus rights and law, we are trying to find our way in the world as people. As a nation we are trying to walk the knife’s edge of morality and necessity while talking out the sides of our mouths like we never learned our lessons from the pages of high school history books. What is most interesting is how this new morally ambiguous era has found its way in to the entertainment juggernaut that is video games and gaming entertainment in recent years.
Growing up video games were clearly set out as good versus evil and this was apparent in a game start to end. In Super Mario Bros. you were just two lowly plumbers setting out to save the princess from the evil King Koopa. From castle to castle and level to level you sought out your beloved, to save the damsel in distress–could there be a more classic tale of woe–and to save the day. In Zelda was a similar story of destroying evil and saving the day from simple character constructs that set one side against the other to overcome the bad guy. Continue on to looking at Sonic the Hedgehog, Contra, Goldeneye 007, et al, and you will see the clear outline of good set against seemingly unbeatable odds to “save the princess,” to stick with a Mario theme.
Starting a few years ago the gaming technology and the creative minds behind design reached a critical mass and were suddenly able to create “open world” paltorms where a player was not on rails throughout a story, but was able to act independently and actually “decide” for the first time; These decisions would sometimes have dire consequences in the short term AND long term ripples; even across titles years later, but we’ll come back to that. Today a player is able to choose a path and not only is there choice, but the thematics and story lines of games operate in an odd place between good and evil, that place where game designers can ask “who do you trust” and “who do you want to be?” What would you do? Will you save yourself or sacrifice a people? Not only are these questions posed, but the outcome of the choices play out in full 1080p and with a mastery of storytelling that you, the player, can really feel the weight on your shoulders or have to even justify your choice to yourself after you make them.
It started many years ago, but a few of the most recent titles, possible video games of the year, have posed these questions and choices to gamers of all ages and have played the possible ramifications out in masterful manners. Take for instance the case of maybe the clear front runner for the GOTY, Mass Effect 2. A game where the very conversations you have, the responses you choose, will have an effect on the compliance and trust of those you encounter. Set aside the improved combat systems and the nuts and bolts stuff, but you must gain the loyalty of your team, and this very interaction and successful relationship building can have repercussions in the survival of yourself and members of your team at the climax of the storyline; this will undoubtedly effect the next installment in the series, just as your actions from the first effected your characters life in ME2.
This is not the only example this year that bares visiting. Maybe my favorite game of the year was Fallout: New Vegas. Not really a sequel, but a companion to the last, this game operates independent of the last or any other game in the series, but it still bears all the characteristics of player choices that can come to effect both short term and long term life and outcomes in all of New Vegas based on how the player wants to interact and what persona they want to take on. From the very first interaction in this game you can cast yourself as a vigilante with no conscience or you can become the self-sacrificing hero out to do good and right wrongs. At first these choices can be clear cut, good or bad, but as the game progresses and the player uncovers opinions, facts, truths, and information, the players choices can become less cut and dry and have farther reaching consequences among groups and even in whole towns as you begin to feel a little weight on your shoulders. Nearing the end where you must make your choice for the fate of the Wastelands you realize that there is, in fact, no “right” answer. In New Vegas the creators did a great job of illustrating that you are not making heroic choices for the future of the land, but you are simply having to make a difficult decision between factions who all possess positive and negative outcomes; New Vegas shows you most definitely cannot have your cake and eat it, too.
In Fable 3 a player at one point finds them self King–or Queen– of Albion and must decide to either break previously made promises in their adventuring, or to break those promises for the good of the people and their survival in a fast approaching and unavoidable war. Earlier parts of the game allow the player to decide to kill or show mercy on individuals. Throughout the game a player can horde their money or can give it to beggars on the street or donate it to the war fund as king. All throughout the game your decisions have a profound effect on whether people like you, hate you, or simply think you’re funny. Interactions with characters go as deep as holding hands, marriage, and even having children. The focus of personal interaction and doing everything from defeating monsters to making pies creates for an engaging story and allowing a player to truly decide the eventual fate of 6.5 million people. Always in the back of your mind you will hear, “you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
In another game that I feel needs mentioning is the very hyped and hungrily awaited COD: Black Ops. This is a little change in the franchise. This game, as the title outlines, is about the true “wet work” and the operations during Vietnam and the Cold War that did not really fall in to any good or bad category. These were the dirty missions of a morally questionable ambiguity in a confusing and scary era where decisions just had to be made. The main character, Mason, relives different stories under great duress from an ambiguous interrogator torturing and drilling Mason for information. There is a great twist at the end and a cliched kind of “what the fuck?” moment, but throughout the game the position of good versus evil is a little bit out of reach. This is a game that mirrors the era of warfare we find ourselves in today; there are times we have overstepped our bounds and broken both literal and moral rules of engagement, but we felt at the time that we were doing what was necessary and will tell ourselves anything to justify the lines that were crossed.
What do these types of morally-open games mean? It comes from a place of youth. Children that grew up with games, grew up in the eighties and nineties, like myself, have seen that generation X was the warless generation ,the free generation grappling with not the choices of right and wrong, but trying to find our way and identity in a time that brought about the unfathomable questions and almost psychotically weird times in America and the world. Without the Iron Curtain and no great Nazis or Japs to fight, we began to look in to a place that did not offer the simple answers; we began to look inward for guidance. The game creators today have an experience coupled with a wealth of technology in which they can play and pose these tough questions and fantastic adventures where a player, some very young, can be exposed to ideas and questions that might make them think and examine their own sense of right and wrong.
I for one am so excited and always enthralled in the idea of being put to decisions of a vague and difficult nature and living the outcome of those decisions. Fallout puts an entire land’s outcome in your hands, Call of Duty takes the all-american shine off this country’s perceived air of moral superiority, and countless other gaming titles leave the fate of countless numbers up to the will and whim of the gamer. Young people find themselves at tough crossroads where they can play out a game in fantasy as a great villain and antihero, others will choose a path of righteousness, while still others will walk a fine line in the middle always teetering from one side to the other. No matter a player’s choice I find it very inspiring to see that even in our gaming down time young players can realize that not everything is cut and dry, and what you decide now may come back to haunt you in the future; whatever gets them thinking, after all.