Do moral choices in games make them more, or less fun? No really, it’s a serious question. It’s a fairly widespread trend in the games industry just now to offer stories and characters that elicit an emotional response from the player. An emotional response that's intended to make the game more immersive, the characters more believable and the lasting memory of the game, more enduring. All positive consequences, but what about the negative?
Take Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City. A high watermark in interactive storytelling and character design. A genuine digital soap opera, as gripping a drama as The Sopranos or The Wire, but with enough action to keep core gamers entertained and enough heart to keep industry proponents naval gazing contentedly.
Skip back to GTA’s 3D debut, Grand Theft Auto III: Liberty City. Another high watermark for the games industry but for completely different reasons. For those of us that spent a good deal of time with their asses glued to the couch in 2001, GTA III: Liberty City was about three things - carnage, carnage and more carnage.
And what made this carnage so effortless and enjoyable? Was it the game’s succinctly balanced sandbox? Was it the incredible scope for unscripted action? Was it the ingeniously targeted escalation of cause and effect?
Well, yes all three played a large part but an arguably much bigger enabler was the morally ambiguous, nameless protagonist. Grand Theft Auto III: Liberty City had a plot, quite an involved one for the time, but the player was never invited to become an active participant in the steering of that plot, merely another necessary switch in its execution. More importantly, the player was never invited to feel what the main character felt, or even to empathize with his plight.
GTA III: Liberty City’s protagonist was a conduit for the narrative and a tool for destruction. Enjoyable, fun destruction with no bothersome moral conundrums getting in the way of the action. Fast forward through three sequels worth of evolution and we end up back in Liberty City for GTA IV, a game where moral choices are a fundamental part of the gameplay. Not just that, but where the player is invited to empathize with the main character from the off.
Few games have offered a main character as believable as the well-rounded, fish out of water, Nico Bellic. An Eastern European immigrant, trying to make sense of one of gaming’s most deliciously grotesque creations namely, Liberty City. Nico Bellic is the perfect personification of the wonder, cynicism and sadness the player feels when confronted with the chaotic, dangerous and often touching dramas of GTA IV’s living, breathing next-gen Liberty City.
The problem is, by inviting the player to feel this range of emotions, GTA’s trademark reckless abandon and carnage, carnage, carnage, becomes a potentially ill-fitting piece in the puzzle.
Picture the scene (spoiler warning). You’ve just confronted an enemy that wronged you in the past, you’ve been given the chance to exact a cold blooded, well deserved revenge. But at the last minute, you spare your nemesis, you walk away. You’ve learned that Nico Bellic can forgive; that an eye for and eye, doesn’t always apply. Hardly a prelude to a five star killing spree in which you merrily gun down innocents, and beat hapless sex workers to death with a baseball bat.
In other words, obliquely or otherwise, GTA IV: Liberty City eschews the thrills offered by its forebears in favour of inviting the player to experience the game world as a moral entity. Granted, in the juncture described above, you can choose to play the bad guy, killing your enemy and exacting your revenge. But even this prompts a section of dialogue, in which a despondent Nico Bellic is dressed down by his milder mannered, lovable fool of a cousin, Roman, explaining that revenge solves nothing, that wrath is not the path to redemption. It seems that no matter which way you play it, the needle on Rockstar’s moral compass is always pointing North, towards higher ground.
And it’s not just a dynamic confined to the iconic GTA series. By offering complex moral choices, players are increasingly encouraged to think and act morally out-with a game’s scripted sections. Otherwise, they risk forcing Nico Bellic, Altair (Assassin’s Creed) or even less well defined (and hence arguably more malleable) character avatars, such as those found in Fable II or Fallout 3, to break character and in turn, break the illusion that the player is complicit in sustaining.
Could it be, that the more emotionally invested a player is in the plight of the character that represents their actions on-screen, the more inclined the player is to maintain that character’s place in the digital world as a moral entity? Does the player establish a moral code in the digital world and then behave accordingly, much as they do in the real world?
Of course, establishing any sort of moral framework to operate by in a game is heavily influenced by what the game’s developers allow you to do. You can’t start an orphanage for needy kids in GTA IV, just as you can’t settle down and raise crops in Fable II. But if you could, would it make for a fun game?
Which brings us back to our initial question. Do moral choices make games more, or less fun? It seems they certainly make them more engaging which most gamers would regard as a good thing, so it all comes down to how players define fun for themselves. Do players want to be engaged emotionally, or merely in combat?
Is it more fun to behave anarchically in a game, relishing the opportunity to break all the moral rules of the real world for the sake of some digital excitement, where the trade off is a less engaging experience? Or is it more fun to adopt the role of an actor, playing a well-rounded character - a moral entity complicit in maintaining the illusion and keeping the unspoken elements of the narrative consistent with a moral code that defines the character’s story and his place within the game world?
Which one are you?