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Ethically designing unethical worlds
Speaking to the developers behind Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator,_ Frostpunk_ and _Terra Nil _about the ethical particulars of abstraction in strategy and simulation games.
March 29, 2022
8 Min Read
Every game abstracts what it portrays to a certain extent. Game mechanics are representations of the in-universe experience, and decisions about how to abstract an idea are ones about how best to communicate it. In other words, it’s an act of translation.
For strategy and simulation games, however, these decisions can be especially complicated: the information that faces the player can often be reduced down to numbers and structures on a significant scale, and the way those ideas are translated can communicate entirely other ideas.
For instance, grand strategy game Crusader Kings 3 has a system of hereditary traits that function as buffs and debuffs. In addition to any implication from opinion modifiers, some traits are explicitly color-coded as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This information doesn’t belong to the world (nobody while arranging a marriage can perceive someone’s genetic history), but to the player. So when you see that a trait relating to visible disability is coded as ‘bad’, and associated with population dread, the translation seems biased, and the design intent is ambiguous.
For games intentionally working with ethically complex themes, explicit communication between the game and the player is all the more necessary. In a talk for Roguelike Celebration, Strange Scaffold’s creative director Xalavier Nelson Jr. explored some of the design discussions that came about in making Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. When trying to work out how you could value an organ, he cited the example that organ size relates to health. If a gigantic heart is more valuable than a small heart then that would be an unwanted design step towards (in his words) “Eugenics The Video Game”.
In an interview, Nelson Jr. expands on his thoughts about why intentionality is a priority for him as a director and designer, even where some lines – in this instance, organ trading and harvesting – are already being crossed.
“When you’re tackling complex controversial or explicit subject material, ideally that's the conversation throughout the entirety of development. What are we saying in every element? Is it what we want to say? And how can we remove ourselves from the blinkers of development to look at our work and see what it's communicating at every stage?” Nelson Jr said. “Because otherwise you are an off-key trumpet player at the end of the world just shooting notes into the air.”
For Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, compelling players to chase the ‘numbers go up’ thrill of simulator games is a necessary layer to how the game works. If the player doesn’t do immoral things in the pursuit of profit, and if that pursuit isn’t pressing or exciting, the narrative doesn’t work. But if it only feels good to play, then it feels good without that thematic context.
For many players, there’s a moment in Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator where they realize that what they’re doing is grotesque, and it’s not necessarily in response to a specific or scripted moment. As Nelson Jr. explains it, it’s the realization that they’re trying to lowball a stomach, or being disappointed that the value of human souls has dropped. “I have been making the number go up in an objectively objectionable way. Why did that feel good? And why was it so easy for my brain to treat even things like the human soul as a commodity as soon as I had a number next to it?”
In Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, that genre tendency to let players commodify isn’t an artifact to avoid, but a necessary tension for players to have the experience Nelson Jr described. “[Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator] could have been about just stocks, it could have been about antiques out in the galaxy but if we did not give you both the tools to slip into the pattern of another world, and the ability to rubber band back into your own perspective... we would not have had the ability to impact you as a person.”
The impact of moral choices
In 11 Bit Studios' Frostpunk, the strategy game player’s tendency to reduce choices to economics was one to overcome, rather than exploit, according to lead systems designer Maciej Sułecki, who was a senior designer on the game.
“In our previous game, This War of Mine, the player has control over a small group of people trapped in a besieged city,” Sułecki explains. “The camera was quite close to those people, and we had a large spectrum of concepts on how to show the emotions of those people and to induce empathy in players. We used dialogues, thoughts, autonomous behavior, different animations, and reactions to events to show how hard it is to survive the war.”
As a city builder, Frostpunk’s perspective is both literally and metaphorically much more zoomed out, and the number of people you need to care about is much larger, but the solution ended up being similar. When you make choices in Frostpunk, you see the impact of those choices in story events to individual characters. The difference is the suggestion that each story event is an example, and that they could represent a similar impact to people all across the city.
As a result, there’s a shift from the moment where you make a choice – presented ‘objectively’ in terms of resource costs and impact on metrics – to the realized and personal impact it has.
More visibly than in other city builders, the choices you make in a campaign of Frostpunk are overtly moral, as you pass laws about to what extent child labor should be legal or prohibited, how dead bodies should be disposed of or repurposed, and the best ways to meet the healthcare needs of the seriously ill. Deciding how to communicate the value of each choice to the player was a careful balance.
“The cost and benefits of those moral related concepts had to be strictly framed in the economic balance of the whole game.” Doing the ‘right’ thing could neither be too costly or too easy, as it would bias players to make the same choices consistently.
“If the base of the game is too boring or badly balanced players can never achieve the point where interesting moral decisions are happening,” Sułecki says. “On the other hand, we cannot set only high benefits for morally good decisions and punishments for wrong ones.”
Choices have mixed outcomes in terms of short and long-term benefits, which means there’s no indicated shortcut for players to skip out on difficult decision making. It isn’t cheaper to be evil, for instance, or better off in the long run to be altruistic. Instead, each choice has its own weight, and it only really sits with the player in how they feel about making them.
Inverting the 'builder game' power fantasy
In contrast to a narrative that leans into the strategy genre’s conventions for exploitative and expansive play, or existing in tension with it to communicate something darker, Terra Nil is about restoration. It’s a city builder without people, or a colony builder without buildings, to the extent that creator and lead designer Sam Alfred partly worries that players familiar with more expansive builder games might ‘miss’ what Terra Nil is.
While the original concept was made for Ludum Dare and built in 48 hours, expanding on it has made Alfred confront ideas about what the genre is, or can be. “Sometimes it’s framed as survival, but many builder games are simply about accumulation and growth in one form, or another,” he says. “The incremental power fantasy is a really compelling one. I don’t think I realized just how ubiquitous this idea was until we were trying to make something different.”
Expanding on his original game jam concept led Alfred to the conclusion that Terra Nil couldn’t both be a restorative game and look like a traditional city builder. “Certain mainstays of city builders in general had to be discarded wholesale,” he says. Many of the assumptions baked into the genre – of an infinite world, with easily accessible resources – are counter to Terra Nil’s themes of ecological balance.
“You’ll never be able to buy more land in Terra Nil to get that wetland goal that’s just out of reach. Part of increasing biodiversity of a region is accepting it’s a balancing act. A tile covered with forest needs to be balanced against one of fynbos.” Instead, much of Terra Nil’s design looks to the natural world, rather than genre conventions, resulting in mechanics like the controlled burn, converting fields of flowers into woodland supporting soil.
When we talk about mechanical abstraction, it’s about translating a complex theme or action to actionable verbs and numbers. In the case of Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, Frostpunk, and Terra Nil, each designer found a best way to implement their ethical themes from within, along, or outside of those particular translation conventions. But Nelson Jr. raises the concern that unlike less interactive mediums, narrative abstraction is expected of games with complex themes.
“There's a reason so many game types are couched in the language of genre fiction--not just because of the passion of the developers, but because the amount of potential controversy, lack of opportunity, and overall risk you open yourself to couching your metaphors in their actual context is exorbitant in video games,” he says, in a follow up email.
“Squid Game featured organ trading and harvesting happening in 'real life', for example - I believe SWOTS and other games that have tackled this topic (Rimworld, Cruelty Squad, etc.) would've had a much harder time from a variety of angles if they attempted to do the same. As soon as a dragon or alien is present, you can say things in a game that would otherwise be deeply discouraged by potential partners, at best,” he continued. “I look forward to the day that this changes.”
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