8 min read

Of Headshots and Player Agency: Epilogue

On the difference between moral difficulty and moral ambiguity.

At the conclusion of my correspondence with Mr. Jack Hoefnagel, as a sort of wrap-up of the theoretical moral situation which started the whole conversation to begin with, I was asked what my opinion was on this video from Mr. Daniel Floyd and Mr. James Portnow. The video lecture discusses various efforts that have been implemented in the past towards making moral choice in games more ambiguous.

This, then, was my response.

Hmm, that’s very interesting! Much to think and say about this. I have to admit though, I rather disagreed with a lot of the first half of the video, mainly on the grounds that while moral opacity is usually more noteworthy, it is not necessarily fun (or at least, not necessarily conducive to player retention and engagement).

(These are core design philosophy questions, so really, my comments below are purely opinion, if strongly held. I think it comes down to two different schools: those who support player agency over designer guided experiences and vice versa. Player auteurship versus designer auteurship, if you will.)

For instance, I agree that The Pitt DLC is a pretty good example of morality well done, but it’s not for the reasons he states—at least, I feel his reading of it is somewhat off the mark. The simplification he provides (that it’s the rights of the few versus the good of the many) is not really accurate. If you have played that DLC, you might notice that the real moral question is whether the ends justify the means—the one versus the many is just a particular aspect of that dilemma, not the entirety of it. And the thing is, both sides are guilty of Machiavellian morality, so the choice is actually much more clear-cut than he presents it.

Briefly, in The Pitt DLC, the player is taken to the remains of Pittsburgh, where a physically and mentally deforming disease ravages the population. A former Brotherhood of Steel Paladin (Ashur) has set up an authoritarian structure supported by slavery in an attempt to harness the pre-war industrial complexes (one of the last of its kind) to fund the development of a cure. The player is enlisted by an escaped slave (Wernher) to infiltrate the Pitt and attempt to retrieve the cure, which is believed to be held by Ashur.

[Spoilers follow] It turns out that the “cure” is Ashur’s baby daughter, who has a natural immunity to the disease. Ashur and his wife are using their medical knowledge in efforts to develop a cure based on her genes. Ashur claims that the slaves will be released as soon as the income they produce is no longer needed to fund the cure. It eventually turns out that Wernher wants the player to kidnap the baby in order to extract the “cure”. This is to be used as leverage to free the slaves.

[Spoilers continued] If the player decides to support Ashur, the status quo remains, and the player only has his word that the slaves will eventually go free after the cure has been developed. If the player supports Wernher, the end result is equally not clear that Wernher actually has the capacity to extract a cure, or that enough order remains to prevent a descent into anarchy and the loss of one of the last remaining operable industrial complexes.

Let’s take a small digression into moral philosophy. Consider this quote:

Remember the joke about the man who asks a woman if she would have sex with him for a million dollars? She reflects for a few moments and then answers that she would. “So,” he says, “would you have sex with me for $50?” Indignantly, she exclaims, “What kind of a woman do you think I am?” He replies: “We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling about the price.” The man’s response implies that if a woman will sell herself at any price, she is a prostitute.

A bad, rather tasteless joke, but nevertheless quite illustrative. When it comes to morality, it’s not so much a matter of degree as it is a matter of principle.

The question, when applied to the situation in The Pitt DLC is, if Wernher is willing to kidnap and kill—babies no less—to get the cure for the disease and gain freedom for those he cares about, how far different is this from Ashur who is willing to “temporarily” (so he claims) utilize slavery to get the cure and make the Pitt into a viable community? Unfortunately, the greatest evil here is the disease itself, so it comes down to who the player trusts, in both intent and ability to bring about a cure and end to slavery more effectively.

The whole point of this is that, at the end of the day, it is still a question of good versus evil (or perhaps, if more nuance is permitted, which is the lesser evil, and thus “more good”) where the reading of Ashur’s and Wernher’s respective intents allows the player to categorize.

My disagreement with the video, then, is the contention that a clear good versus evil dichotomy is uninteresting. I think the problem is not so much the dichotomy itself being boring as it is that there’s often no challenge behind implementing either (a point the video also talks about).

Assuming that simply providing a choice automatically makes something meaningful is wrong—and this is the mistake that is often made in moral dichotomies. There need to be obstacles to fulfilling choices, too. Again, the video also talks about this, and even proposes examples of how to introduce ludic challenge to moral choice (faction/reputation loss, resource sacrifice, etc.). But this is not the same as moral ambiguity.

The earlier point the video makes is that obstacles to choice should come in the form of moral indecision. Unfortunately, the practical effect of moral opacity in games is the removal of player agency, which is not the same as increasing challenge.

No matter what, in order to progress, a player eventually needs to make a decision. But forcing the player to make uncomfortable decisions does not always make the game more interesting. If the player loses interest from indecision—if the player can’t invest and stops playing because he feels none of his choices are really his own—then making moral choices more difficult becomes completely moot.

I would also argue the need for a morality metrics system is very real (and removing it for the sake of reducing the tactical nature of moral choice in games is a surface gesture at best). For the same reason that it’s not obvious that not pulling a trigger is just as agential as pulling it, there needs to be a feedback mechanism which alerts the player to in-game changes. The “solution” of hidden variables is absolutely no solution at all because the player either never comes into contact with it (which means it has no effect on gameplay/player experience), or when he does it has already long passed out of the player’s control.

Unless the game explicitly tells the player “this game has hidden variables” (Blade Runner, KGB, etc.), I would strongly argue that they are absolutely to be avoided at all costs. And you will notice that the examples that do feature such variables are specifically intended to create player paranoia, which requires the player to explicitly, voluntarily enter into a compact with the game to be subject to such an experience.

Again, the issue here is agency, and if the question is between artificially obfuscated morality versus player agency, I would pick player agency every time (this was the entire argument behind my “Validation Theory” and “Considerations in Narrational Navigation” posts.)

To go back to counter-balancing challenge, then, Dragon Age, Neverwinter Nights 2, even Fallout: New Vegas, all of these actually feature fairly clear cut good and evil dichotomies. What makes the morality difficult is that the player needs to sacrifice the achievement of some goals in order to support a morality goal—the design strategy that the video mentions at the end. But again, the dichotomy, if you dissect the moral situations, is still pretty clear and relatively absolute.

I think the real question, then, is how comfortable we are with making moral difficulty (which must be distinguished from moral directionality) rely on tactical choices. I argued before that game mechanics can’t or shouldn’t be used to enforce moral directionality, because using mechanics "reduces" moral choices to tactical ones. But that doesn’t mean the weight of tactical decisions can’t be used to increase the difficulty of (that is, harnessed to give weight to) moral ones. It is simply that we wish to promote game balance and player agency by not forcing certain moral "solutions" through mechanics.

Or, can we find other ways to create moral difficulty without resorting to moral ambiguity? How far can we sacrifice player agency for the sake of moral ambiguity without losing player investment? And lastly, is moral ambiguity itself actually all that important for provoking thoughtful decisions? I would argue that the argument that good and evil are not absolute in real life is an almost irrelevant one.

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