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K Daryanani
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A very interesting discussion. I feel we need to move away from the good/evil dichotomy, or at least throw shades of grey. Most ethical dilemmas in games really aren't, they're simply ways of asking the player 'how would you like to portray yourself for the purposes of the outcome of this story?'. I think the main reason for this is the way games end. Usually, after the player completes the game, they are shown a cutscene that wraps up the story - and, more and more commonly, presents the cliffhanger that leads to the sequel. Thus, the dilemmas we present players are simplistic, because they must necessarily lead to one or more predetermined conclusions. Now, in videogames, unlike in movies, we have the capability to have a variety of endings, usually based on how the player navigated the content of the game. So, as one way of creating a narrative more unique to videogames, I'd propose a solution used in film that games can probably make more of. I'm sure it has a name in film, but it's the epilogue at the end that shows what happened to the characters in the movie after it ends (see Animal House, for example). An ending like that - and indeed events in the sequels - can probably be tailored to the player's actions during the game. The ending could be composed of several short 'epilogues' for each important decision in the game. This would allow the player's actions in the game to have the obvious immediate short-term consequences seen in the game, both narrative and mechanical, as well as long term consequences, which a lot of dilemmas in games nowadays seem to lack. From there, it probably wouldn't be too big of a leap to have these choices recorded in the game's post-ending scene save file. This save file could then be used to check what choices the player made during the game, and be used as the basis for certain events, quests, or interactions in the sequel. Finding a way to deliver such an ending and sequel to the player in time and on budget is another matter entirely, but that's not the subject of this discussion. So I'll move on. In my mind, the lack of long-term consequences is crippling to ethical dilemmas in videogames. In meatspace, two strong emotions associated with dilemmas are doubt and regret. Doubt of whether the choice made was the right one, and regret over the consequences of our actions. The two are probably intrinsically tied together, but I am no psychologist, so I wouldn't know for sure. Evoking these two emotions in videogames is hard, for a number of reasons: 1. The consequences of choice are usually shown to the player straight away. This is what enables players to go back to a previous save point and check out what the other outcome is. My suggestion would be to have several different sets of consequences that are revealed gradually throughout the game. For example, a game might have a quest in a village to go kill a monster that is attacking said village, stealing a sheep every other day. The locals explain that the monster used to only attack once a month, but it has become increasingly aggressive and the situation has reached the point where the mounting losses are costing them enough to pool some money together to pay someone such as yourself to rid them of the beast. Killing the monster that is terrorising the village means the villagers like you more and call you a hero, as well as giving you much-needed money for gear upgrades, training, and other adventurerly expenses. If you explore the area where you find the monster, you find it's lair, where it's helpless young mewl at you pathetically and try in a weak attempt to imitate their mother's behaviour towards intruders. If you leave them be, they might die, or they might survive, or a band of evil humanoids mght find them and enslave them later, rearing them and using them to terrorise - or even annihilate - the locals. But the humanoids only show up later in the game, and only if you kill the mother monster. If you find a different way of getting rid of her, the humanoids still appear, but they don't have access to warbeasts of doom, so they harrass the villagers, who call you back to solve their new monster problem. If you don't get rid of the monster, the villagers are still subjected to it's depredations, but when the humanoids show up she also starts preying on them, meaning that her attacks become less frequent - until the end of the game, at which point the cubs are grown enough to cause lots of trouble to villagers and humanoids alike. In the example, chances are the player would kill the beast, and then find the lair. They then get to choose whether or not to go back and load their previous save file, and not kill the beast, or not. Each choice has an immediate consequence, but that is not the end of the dilemma. After killing the beast, the player needs to choose whether or not to kill the cubs (if the player happens to have met a dealer in rare beasts, they could always try to find a way to sell them the cubs. That could, in and of itself, be another moral dilemma. Killing the cubs might seem to be evil, but selling them to a stranger whose intentions towards them are unknown?). No matter what the player's choice, they will have set in motion a series of events. Eventually, the long-term consequences of those events occur, and the player is shown the repercussions of their earlier actions. With enough separation between the action and the reaction, chances are the player will have made other choices in the game, saved a few times, and progressed, to the point where going all the way back to the beginning of the game is impractical. This might, of course, raise the question of whether the player will feel regret at what they have done, how long they will feel it, and whether they will feel their experience cheapened by the whole event, or whether they will appreciate the nuance woven into a seemingly simple choice, and face future choices with some doubt as to the long-term consequences of those choices. Of course, 'long-term' is a relative term when talking about videogames, since a game usually plays out in a relatively short period of the player's life, and gameplay itself lasts anywhere between 15 and 80 hours these days. By causing some of the player's actions in a game to have consequences, even if minor ones, in a sequel - if it is appropriate to the nature of both games - we can make the choices we present in the player even more meaningful. If the player spares a minor villain in the first game and makes them see the error of their ways, and the villain then appears as a secret recruitable character in the sequel, having reformed themselves and taken the character's words to heart, the choice of whether to spare the villain in the first game becomes more meaningful. If the alternative, killing the villain, and receiving a powerful weapon as a reward, makes that weapon available in the second game as an heirloom, we make the choice even more meaningful, in that it has very long-term consequences (and this system can be touted as a feature to encourage people who didn't buy the first game to buy it, or it can be a feature that can only be unlocked once per disk, serving as both a pseudo-DRM and a means to encourage people to buy the game first-hand, instead of second hand). It also gives us another element unique to the narrative of videogames, in that the user's actions and choices in the game can be woven into the on-going narrative of the gameworld. This comment is already overly long, and has taken me a fair while to write, so I'll stop here and I look forward to seeing how the discussion evolves.
Toggle Commented Jun 19, 2009 on Ethical Decision Making at Click Nothing