Saturday, July 9, 2016

On morality and video games.

I was a child of the 80s and 90s. I lived in that time when Mortal Kombat was slowly usurping Dungeons and Dragons in every parent's worst nightmares. I was 16 when the first Grand Theft Auto game came out and 18 when I first experienced it for myself. And my grandfather made sure I was always 'plugged in' in some way, able to know the good, the bad, and the ugly of the computer uprising. Because he knew a day would come when computers would become an indispensable part of our society.

Sadly, video games still get to take the fall for a lot of the madness in the world. And whether or not they actively affect people's idea of right and wrong, it's probably not a conversation that's going to dry up anytime soon. Which is why it really does not interest me at all. What does interest me is the inverse: how people's own choices affect video game experience.

Or, rather, the fact that it hasn't until recently.

I sat down with my grandfather to talk about why it's been such a long road to making games that allow us to make moral choices -- games like Undertale, Heavy Rain, and apparently even Fallout 4 if you're really dedicated. Well, okay. Games let you make moral choices all the time, but it's only in recent years that those choices have had a really major impact on nuances of gameplay. The first two are possibly the best examples of that.

The idea of choice affecting experience isn't entirely unheard of -- that's pretty much how the medium of visual novels rolls. But in those cases, you're given set choices that take you down through a tree (or, in the case of some games I've edited, an insane never-ending spiderweb). I'll talk more about how AI and decision-making work in games at some future point, but the fact is, gamers really craved gameplay where how they choose to interact with their environment will affect how their character is treated. Which is funny considering many don't seem to want this in IRL interactions but hey whatever.

The aforementioned Undertale and Heavy Rain are two good examples of this being done successfully. Although the former really drives the morality aspect home. The character you control is loved, mocked, or feared based upon how you choose to deal with enemies. Your morals, or at least the morals you exercise with your character, do come back on you in a variety of ways.

Granted, the morality of Undertale is a fairly straightforward one: killing is bad, mercy is good. It's not heavily nuanced. And that's not a problem. It's actually a good thing, because if you tried to create a game where the morality was too nuanced, you run into a new problem: bias. Because programs can only execute what they're told, and any morality judgments in a video game have to be fed in by a programmer.

I mean, yes, there are things that we can all probably agree across the board are good and bad. But what about the grey areas? What about stealing to feed a hungry child, or killing someone before they kill you? The problem with trying to make a game that completely judges the morals of the player's actions is that the player will always be subject to another human's moral code. And when you're the player, it does you little to no good to be rated according to someone else's code.

So the only way to make a truly immersive game with moral judgment calls is to somehow make it so that the judgment calls and consequences are tailored to each individual player. But what would a game like that even look like? You'd have to input ridiculous amounts of data, make huge AI trees, potentially put some sort of pulse or BP meter on the player to account for their mood as they make decisions...

Or there's Papers, Please.

This game has become pretty fricking infamous for just how affecting it is psychologically. I'd never experienced it myself until recently, when I finally decided to buy it and have a crack at it. And honestly, it achieves with relatively simple gameplay what other games only dream of.

You play a 'volunteer' border guard in the fictional Cold War country of Arstotzka. You check passports every day according to ever-changing standards, all so you can scrape by at providing shelter, food, and heat for yourself and your family of four. Each day you can afford to mess up twice, but your pay is docked from then on. Sounds like a basic (and tedious) game of skill and observation.

But then it gets tricky. What about the man whose paperwork is fully in order but whose wife's isn't? What about your superior's mistress who doesn't have diplomatic authority in Astotzka but still wants to make a Soviet booty call? What about the sketchy dude you know is waving a forgery at you, but you'll get a citation if you turn him away because everything checks out? Before the game is over, there will come a point when you're trying to decide between your family's welfare and the life of a total stranger.

It's successful because you're being judged on two sets of morals. The first is the Arstotzkan government: strict, unbending, and probably corrupt. They just want you to do your job. This is how the game rates you, and it's a 'safe' choice for the programmer because he's put your fate in the hands of a fictional group you're not even really supposed to like. The second set is your own. Sure, you can decide to play by the rules, but how are you going to feel when you turn your buddy's terrified girlfriend away because she doesn't have sufficient ID?

There are 20 endings you can get based on your various decisions, but none of them is truly a 'reward for good behaviour' scenario. Killing a known murderer could still get you punished. Stealing from innocents could net you a happy ending. Helping the resistance could go several ways. In the end, the judgment call is yours, and in a way that's almost tougher.

For what it's worth, I found that my tactic was 'Do my job as well as I can so that I still have a couple of free passes left when serious cases come through and don't have to choose between my sick son and this sick stranger.' Which should surprise no one. Though I did start a parallel cold-hearted run where I was a full-on stickler for the rules (which hurts a lot) except where the rebellion is concerned so that everyone thinks I'm too much of a hardass to be helping spies.

Normally I'd say I'm overthinking this game, but I don't think you can.

If you haven't tried Papers, Please, consider picking it up from Steam.

Are there any games you personally feel are exemplary when it comes to explorations of morality and dynamic gameplay? Tell me in the comments! I may check them out.