In most mediums of popular entertainment, viewer input is limited to the decision to ingest or not ingest. You can choose to either read or not read a book, to either watch or not watch a film, to either listen or not listen to a song. For that reason, the “morality” of pop culture consumption is usually a conversation that emphasizes the context of a work, rather than its content. Is it morally justifiable to financially support a work created by a person whose politics you find abhorrent, for example. Recently this whole debate was dusted off for the release of Ender’s Game in light of Orson Scott Card’s famously outspoken anti-gay beliefs, and the Gameological Society mulled this question over with regards to the morality of supporting a Kickstarter for Doug TenNapel, another homophobe whose views and work are difficult for some to separate.
Only very rarely does a work in a traditional medium attempt to frame the audience’s consumption of it as a moral decision. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, off the top of my head, constantly engages directly with its audience, implicating them in the violence committed against its central family, effectively rendering them participants rather than simple observers- accessories to the crime. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, as well, deliberately blurs the line between performance and reality- it contains within it the implicit truth that the title characters’ deaths are unavoidably caused by the play itself being performed, essentially rendering the entire play a massively prolonged public execution that is only put on for the benefit of a paying audience.
Video games, though, are different. Games are dependant on player input to progress. With video games, the audience is not a passive observer, but an active participant. Unlike in a film, where if a character dies that death is the “responsibility” of the filmmakers, with the audience powerless to stop it, in a game the responsibility for the events of the narrative are surrendered to the audience directly. An author or studio can craft certain experiences, can sometimes force the player’s hand, but as a completed work, the story only progresses at the behest of the player. Although total control over the content of a game is out of the player’s hands, the very interactive nature of the medium thrusts a degree of responsibility onto the audience in a way that traditional mediums have never managed.
What I want to do here is attempt to categorize how several different games grapple with that increased audience responsibility, either implicitly or explicitly. My goal here is to create several loose categories into which games can be sorted based on how they incorporate the responsibility of the player into their narrative. Mostly this is just a fun little thought exercise- I have no desire to enforce these categories, and have made no effort to be truly exhaustive in my categorizing. What I really want to do here is encourage people to think about how games frame- deliberately or by accident of their writing or mechanics- the portion of the burden of narrative shouldered by the player. If you have any categories you think ought to be added, or subtracted, or interesting examples that you think could be slotted in to my rubric here, I’d love to hear it all in the comments section.
Before we begin, let’s quickly define what we’re really talking about here. What we are NOT talking about is the use of morality systems within games. Although those systems may be included in our estimation of a game’s overall morality of play, the systems themselves are not the subject of discussion here. What we are talking about is the moral culpability of the player in their decision to play the game. There are several questions we need to ask ourselves in order to sort titles by morality of play- how much of the blame or praise do I deserve as a player for the role I played in the events of this game’s narrative? Is this game’s world and its citizens better or worse off as a result of my bringing this game to its narrative conclusion? How would this game’s story have gone had I not participated in it whatsoever? Admittedly for games with a high level of narrative interactivity there are going to be a lot of grey areas, but I consider myself and my readership up to the task of exploring them. I feel that for the majority of games, these questions have relatively clear answers, and anyway the rubric I have proposed here was created with a certain amount of moral ambiguity built in.
While we’re at it, something else we’re emphatically not doing is suggesting that a player is a good or bad person in the real world for choosing to play one of these games over another. Although the issue here is being framed as a moral one, and the entire premise of the article is an attempt to determine the moral culpability of the player in certain games, it would obviously be completely insane to suggest that the morality of play extends in any meaningful way to the real world. We’re strictly in thought experiment territory here, I promise.
Finally, since this topic requires that we openly discuss the plots and endings of several games, be warned that there are potentially spoilers afoot here. Games that will be discussed in a certain amount of detail include Bastion, Final Fantasy VI, Metal Gear Solid, Kingdom Hearts II, The Last Of Us, Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, Braid, Overlord, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, Tecmo’s Deception, Spec Ops: The Line, Suikoden II, and Mass Effect. Not every title mentioned will feature plot-important spoilers, but if you’ve been saving yourself for any of those games, keep in mind that their plots or endings are probably at least alluded to somewhere ahead.
Are we all clear? Well, whatever, we’re going on ahead anyway.
Let’s start things out really quite simply. In games where play is morally good, the act of playing the game pushes the narrative towards an unambiguous victory for the forces of “good” and defeat for the forces of “evil.” These games typically feature a hero and a villain, and the defeat of the villain is dependant on the deliberate actions taken by the hero as controlled by the player. In a game in which play is morally righteous, the hero (and player) refraining from action would result in either the continuation of a despotic status quo in need of overthrowing, or the continued degradation of a peaceful status quo that needs to be restored.
This category is extremely popular, and accommodates games from all throughout the history of the medium and from basically every conceivable genre. The simplicity of the moral stakes makes this category a good fit for basic morality tales in which good must triumph over evil. A huge majority of stories in any medium typically feature a hero overcoming a villain, so the extension of this paradigm to the world of games is understandable. In fact, the use of this relatively uncomplicated moral rubric is doubly useful in interactive stories, since the player’s responsibility in progressing the narrative means that a more morally ambiguous story could potentially be interpreted as somewhat accusatory in nature (as we’ll be exploring in a little while.)
It’s worth noting here that games in which play is morally good don’t have to have narratives that feature a total and unblemished victory for the heroes. In any good story the heroic party must make sacrifices and face catastrophic loss before earning victory against the antagonist. Games in which main characters tragically lose their lives, in which dozens or even hundreds of innocents are killed, in which injuries and losses are suffered by the heroes can still be categorized as containing morally good play so long as the heroes succeed in accomplishing their morally righteous goals. The question that’s most important to ask here is not whether the things lost on the quest “outweigh” the victory at the end, but whether the villain would be defeated, or the princess rescued, or the kingdom saved without the intervention of the hero. These caveats are most important to consider when dealing with relatively narratively rich games, though, and I would say the overwhelming majority of games in which play is morally sound don’t wrestle with such questions through either their narrative or their gameplay.
Examples of games with morally good play are all over the floor. Super Mario Bros. presents play as morally good, since it’s only through the intervention of Mario and the player that Princess Peach is rescued from Bowser. In the Sonic the Hedgehog series, only Sonic and the player can stop Dr. Robotnik from transforming innocent animals into robots. Castlevania presents a world in which Dracula would have dominion over all of mankind if he were not stopped by the Belmont Clan every now and again. It is up to Mega Man to stop the machinations of the evil Dr. Wily. And so on, and so forth. In most examples of games with morally good play, the player is the hero, defeating the villain is the morally just goal, and that goal cannot be accomplished without the input of the player. At the end of the story, with the day saved, the world is demonstrably better off for the player having progressed the narrative to its conclusion.
For my money, though, the ultimate example of play as morally good is Bastion. In the above mentioned games (and hundreds of others), the moral righteousness of the game’s play comes from the end result of that play- the state of the game world at the narrative conclusion, as helped along by the input of the player. In Bastion, though, straight from the beginning of the game the very act of play itself is a curative act. In Bastion every step the Kid takes under the guidance of the player restores previously lost segments of the game’s destroyed world. At the game’s end you are offered two potential solutions to the game’s central crisis, but really the very act of playing the game is morally sound straight from the start. In Bastion, play and world healing are conflated into the same act.
For examples of games with morally good play that include some element of sacrifice or struggle, you need only look towards games that feature narrative through lines rather than focusing exclusively on gameplay. Final Fantasy VI is probably the granddaddy of these stories, as it features a de facto apocalypse part of the way through its narrative, but resolves with the villain being defeated by the heroes. In this game the status quo gets worse before it gets better, but ultimately the denizens of the game world are better off for the intervention of the player than they would have been without it. What’s important to note though is that although the game’s narrative gets bleaker before it gets light, the involvement of the characters and the player’s progression of the narrative isn’t what causes those events to happen. Although the player progressed the narrative to the point of Armageddon, neither the player nor the characters are responsible for Kefka’s destruction of the World of Order. If the player or characters had in some way been directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds or thousands of citizens then we’d be talking about a very different category of play morality altogether.
And oh look, what do we have here.
Moral ambiguity has been explored to some terrific ends in traditional mediums, but the meaning of moral ambiguity with regards to play is slightly more complicated. The way I see it, play can be a morally ambiguous act under two conditions. First a game which, as a direct result of the actions taken by the player and character, resolves in an ethically unclear conclusion, a pyrrhic victory, or a severe moral compromise, could be said to have morally ambiguous play. Second, a game in which the player and character’s intervention in the narrative directly causes the situation to get worse before it gets better can be said to have morally ambiguous play. Since it follows neatly from our above discussion of morally good play, let’s start with this second class and work backwards.
As I mentioned above, although it’s up to the player to progress the narrative of Final Fantasy VI to the point of Kefka’s destruction of the World of Order, neither the characters nor the players are directly morally responsible for that event. The heroes of the story are committed to preventing Kefka’s actions, and their failure does not morally implicate them in the world’s destruction. Some games, however, present a situation in which the hero is unwittingly used by the villain to aid in the accomplishment of the villain’s goals, or in which the player character switches to the side of good partway through the story, or otherwise accidentally causes things to get worse and commits themselves to fixing their own mistakes. In these such stories, play can be said to be morally ambiguous because the player and character cause things to get worse before they get better, meaning that the game’s world and its characters would have been just fine even if the player never bothered to progress the narrative at all.
In Metal Gear Solid, for example, player character Solid Snake spends the majority of the game being unwittingly manipulated into activating the superweapon he intended to deactivate. Even though Snake eventually accomplishes his original goal by destroying the weapon, it doesn’t change the fact that the weapon was only usable by the terrorist unit Fox Hound in the first place thanks to his intervention. In this case, if Snake had not participated in events- that is to say, had the player not progressed the narrative of the game- Fox Hound would have been unable to follow through on their threats, and basically everything would have been fine. A similar situation occurs in Kingdom Hearts II, in which player character Sora is, against his will, helping antagonist Xemnas in his progress towards his goal by defeating Heartless with the Keyblade. Sora eventually triumphs over Xemnas, but if he had basically just taken the day off and stopped fighting Heartless altogether, Xemnas would have been stopped in his tracks. In both examples, progressing the narrative inadvertently aids the antagonist, and stopping play would represent a de facto defeat of the villain.
The other kind of morally ambiguous play is, perhaps appropriately, a little bit amorphous. In these games, play is considered morally ambiguous if the result of progressing the narrative to its conclusion is not a total victory for the heroes and the forces of good. These endings can take many forms. Perhaps the heroes win a pyrrhic victory, defeating the villain and accomplishing the goal but losing too much along the way to have made the journey truly “worth it.” Perhaps at the story’s conclusion, rather than good defeating evil, the two are forced to compromise and co-exist in a matter that is not strictly mutually beneficial. Perhaps at the end of the story, it’s no longer clear who is good and who is evil at all. Perhaps the heroes believed they were on a morally righteous journey, but brought destruction rather than salvation as a result of their quest. It would be difficult (or rather, impossible) to concretely list a number of circumstances under which play could be considered a moral ambiguity in this sense, since the whole point of this category is that moral righteousness is, in the end, unknowable and uncertain. In a lot of ways, conclusions like these are also open to the interpretation of individual players, rather than being absolute. In general, though, they do have one thing in common: the characters, and often the players, believe they are progressing the narrative as or for the forces of good. Generally the righteousness of the quest is only doubted in the endgame, if it’s even explicitly questioned at all.
We were recently gifted with a great example of a game with morally ambiguous play of this sort in the form of The Last Of Us. Joel and Ellie have a concrete goal (to reach the Fireflies) spurred on by a morally righteous motivation (to develop a cure for the infection by researching Ellie’s immunity). Throughout the game they are forced to make difficult and dangerous choices and behave in ways that are, arguably, morally reprehensible. If, though, at the end of the journey the two of them were met with a safe and reliable procedure for immunizing humanity against the infection at no cost to either of them, then play could still have been categorized as morally good. After all, in that scenario, progressing the narrative to its end would have resulted in the salvation of all mankind, effectively absolving Joel and Ellie of the sins they had to commit to get there. Instead, though, they are faced with a procedure that would result in Ellie’s death, and Joel chooses Ellie’s life over the potential answer to infection. In the end, everything is left uncertain. Joel’s decision may have doomed humanity, or it may not have. Ellie may have contained the secret to curing the Cordyceps, or she might have had to die for no reason. Joel and Ellie’s relationship may continue indefinitely, or the lie Joel tells her may be the first step towards the erosion of this friendship. At every level- from the universal to the personal- the narrative conclusion to the game is deliberately uncertain. For this reason, progressing the narrative to its end is neither morally just nor unjust. It is open to interpretation- ambiguous.
For another example of this type of morally ambiguous play you can look to- at least in my opinion- Shadow of the Colossus. In Shadow of the Colossus the player’s goal is hypothetically a morally righteous one- saving Mono’s life. However, the method of accomplishing this goal involves breaking his society’s taboos and potentially unleashing a terrible evil back onto his world. In the end, his quest is partially successful- Mono’s life is saved at the cost of Wander’s own and the evil is sealed away once more, but Mono is now trapped in the Forbidden Land, and the innocent and non-violent Colossi have been slaughtered. The game’s conclusion represents neither a total victory for “good,” nor a total defeat of “evil,” and the player’s goals are only partially accomplished, and only got that way through the use of morally dubious tactics. In the end, progressing the narrative to its end represented a lateral movement in the status quo- neither a provable improvement nor a degradation, some lives improved and others ruined.
Okay, this is getting a little bit heavy, and it’s going to get heavier still before the end. Let’s take a breather with a look at this next category:
A game in which play is morally neutral is pretty easy to recognize. Essentially, any narrative game in which the forces of “good” and “evil” are not recognizable or relevant elements, or any game in which there is simply no narrative, is a game that has morally neutral play. I have difficulty deciding whether the majority of games feature morally good or morally neutral play. I’m willing to say with some confidence that the majority of games with a story feature morally good play, but if all games without stories are included, this category may be the most highly populated.
What’s worth mentioning here is that even in narrative games with morally neutral play, there is still an inherent value in progressing the narrative to its end. Frequently these games feature stories which are meditative or personal, rather than traditionally plot driven. A narrative game with morally neutral play may feature a story that concludes with no major shift in the game world’s status quo, in which no wrongs are righted and no major epiphanies are reached, but which was still the conclusion to a worthwhile journey that was worth experiencing and participating in. Often narrative games with morally neutral play are about small moments of realization or the pursuing of a deeply personal goal of low or non-existent universal stakes, and these stories are still totally worth experiencing even they don’t resolve with any days being saved or princesses being rescued.
A good example of a narrative game with morally neutral play is Journey. Journey certainly has a narrative- it’s a classic Hero’s Journey from start to finish. But the stakes for the story of Journey are small and personal. Rather than being about defeating a villain or overthrowing a dictatorship, Journey is a story about self-discovery, death, and rebirth. The consequences of the narrative of Journey are not widely felt, the status quo is not changed for either the worse or the better, and there is even sufficient evidence to suggest that the story itself is cyclical- meaning that even the ostensibly permanent death and ascension of the player character is only a temporary beat in an eternal sequence of reincarnation. A narrative has been progressed to its conclusion, but concepts like good and evil or hero and villain have not entered into it. Another strong example of a game with both a narrative and morally neutral play is Braid. Braid’s story is presented out of sequence and from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, the end of the game is not necessarily the end of the story, and the story itself is left deliberately incomplete and unclear. The game has an ending that can be reached, but pushing the narrative to its end doesn’t change the game’s world for better or worse. All that changes by progressing Braid’s narrative to its conclusion is the player’s understanding of the character and world, and possibly the character’s understanding of his world and himself. This represents neither a moral good nor a moral evil, nor a combination of the two- it is absent of traditional morality, and for that reason is morally neutral.
Mind you, if you really want to talk about morally neutral play, the best places to look are narrative-free puzzle and sports titles. You can play all the Tetris or NBA Street you like, but even “beating” those titles doesn’t change anything about the game world. If your conscience is bothering you and you just want to play something that won’t affect the cosmos-spanning battle between dharma and chaos, feel free to play all the Bejeweled you want.
Right, now that we’re a little bit refreshed, let’s tackle the big one.
Put simply, in a game with morally evil play, the act of play pushes the game’s world and its inhabitants towards a degraded, unnatural, or unpeaceful status quo that would not have arisen without the intervention of the player and/or player character. This degradation of the status quo can come about either as a result of the good intentions of would-be heroes going horribly wrong, or as a result of a player character who tries and succeeds to commit acts of evil. Either way, the most important element is that the actions of the player through the player character directly wreak chaos and evil on the game world, either accidentally or deliberately.
Ethically speaking, progressing a game with morally evil play to its conclusion could be said to be a morally evil act, since the player is directly responsible for the disintegration of moral order in the game world. Mind you, in a lot of cases, the opportunity to role play as a truly evil character in order to deliberately wreak havoc is the major attraction of games like this. Games in which play progresses the world towards degradation and horror are not always attempting to judge the player for indulging in their taste for evil, some games which feature morally evil play are borderline celebratory of their inherent moral cruelty. The idea here is not always to criticize the player, to accuse them of being a bad person for having the audacity to play such a title- but some games deliberately do just that, and to tremendous effect.
A good starting place when looking for games with morally evil play is to look for any game in which you play as the “bad guy.” Triumph Studios’ Overlord series, in which you play as, not surprisingly, an evil overlord, could be said to feature morally evil play. In Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain you play as a vengeful undead assassin and conclude the game by wholly accepting your own vampirism and ruling the doomed land with an iron fist (canonically, at least: you have the option of sacrificing your own life to save the world at the end of the story, but the events of Soul Reaver make it clear that this isn’t the ending Silicon Knights intends for you to take. More on this later.) You could even look to one of my favourite PS1 classics, Tecmo’s Deception, in which the goal of play is to lure people into your mansion so that you can kill them as part of a ritual to bring Satan into the human world. The game has six possible endings, and only one of them results in anything resembling redemption for the main character.
Games in which you play as an “evil” character are not the only games to feature morally evil play, though. There do exist games in which the main character is a well meaning, even heroic character whose actions, by accident or twist of fate, end up doing much more harm than good. The ultimate example of such a game came out a couple of years ago and sent the gaming corner of the internet into a storm of critical discussion- Spec Ops: The Line. In The Line, you play as the clean-cut, all American soldier Martin Walker, who together with a small crew is traveling to Dubai to aid in the evacuation of civilians after a massive sandstorm essentially wipes the city off the map. Once there, though, he gets embroiled in infighting with the CIA and the rogue and insane American 33rd Infantry. As Walker penetrates deeper into Dubai he commits greater and greater acts of cruelty and becomes increasingly unhinged. Ultimately, Walker is confronted with the truth of his journey, that he has spent the game’s story going on a deranged killing spree, slaughtering American soldiers by the dozens or hundreds, leading his own men to their deaths, destroying the city’s water supply, and committing war crimes against innocent civilians and refugees. Spec Ops: The Line features four programmed endings, none of which absolve Walker or the player of the acts committed in order to progress the narrative to its ending. Walt Williams, the lead writer of the game, claims that he considers the player putting the controller down and refusing to continue to play to be the unofficial “fifth ending” to the game, every bit as legitimate as any “ending” achieved by playing the game until the conclusion of its narrative. This is one of the fundamental elements of a game in which play is truly morally evil: the only genuinely “moral” decision is to stop playing.
Finally, there are a couple of games worth mentioning that don’t quite fit into the already fairly accommodating rubric I’ve created. For the most part, I’m talking about games in which the player has the choice to progress the world towards either a “good” or “bad” ending, specifically an improvement or deterioration of the game world’s status quo. Note that not all games with “good” and “bad” endings fail to fit into the system above. Suikoden II for example has a breadth of different endings, almost all of which are variations on the same general, morally good outcome- the overall status quo is improved by the actions of the player, and the game’s various endings simply represent different outcomes for the main character’s personal arc, some considered “better” than others. Also worth noting is that games with moral choice systems don’t automatically get exempted from the above system. The Mass Effect games are a good example of this- although you can play the game as a Paragon or a Renegade, you are always working towards the morally righteous goal of defending the galaxy from the Reapers. Whether you’re a goody-two-shoes or a self-serving jerk about it is irrelevant, morally speaking, since even if you’re a dick about it you’re still leading the forces of “good” against those of “evil,” and triumphing.
The real grey area crops up when games offer multiple endings which are truly morally different from one another. Above I briefly mentioned Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, in which the canonical ending features Kain coming to terms with his vampirism and being a huge asshole about it forever. What’s worth exploring here, though, is that the player does have the option of choosing to sacrifice Kain’s life to bring peace to Nosgoth, and if the player chooses that path you could argue their play was morally good all along. The two conclusions to the game represent two irreconcilable paths- good and evil- and the choice is presented to the player without judgement. Games like this tend not to be belong to any one category for certain. Instead, it is up to the player to decide whether their participation in this game’s narrative is morally good or morally wrong on a case by case basis.
So there you have it, my little thought experiment about the morality of play. Take it as seriously as you like, I certainly don’t intend for it to be a dogmatic structure for the categorization of all games or anything. In fact, this article began its life as a simple compare and contrast between Bastion and Spec Ops: The Line, the two games that I consider to be the most morally righteous and morally repugnant to play, respectively. All I wanted to do at first was compare Bastion, a game in which play itself was a curative act of moral goodness, to Spec Ops, in which the longer you play the dirtier your hands are the worse a man you force Walker to become. As these things tend to do it… spiralled out of control somewhat. Anyway, food for thought, my lovelies. I’ll see you in the next one.