by Daniel Bullard-Bates
Moral choices, when present in video games, seem to mostly boil down to either saintly behavior or satanic cruelty. Will I save the little sisters from their cruel bonds, or will I tear them into pieces for my own purposes (BioShock)? Should I give the woman her baby for free or threaten its life so she’ll fork over a few gold coins (Neverwinter Nights)? Do I want to end up with a halo or some really gnarly horns (Fable 2)?
I’ve only played about two hours of Dragon Age: Origins, just enough to get through one of the origin stories the game offers, but in that limited amount of time I was presented with the first real moral challenge I have ever faced in a video game. I was a young female elven rogue whose wedding day was ruined by a cruel human noble interposing himself on our modest ceremony. Elves in the world of Dragon Age were, in recent history, an enslaved people. Since we’re still treated as second-class citizens, no one raised much of an outcry when a group of armed men broke up my wedding day and took me and several other women hostage.
With the help of a childhood friend, I broke out, killing the human guards who got in my way. I managed to rescue most of my friends before anything terrible happened to them, but one of the women and my husband-to-be were killed. When I finally reached the so-called noble, he and a group of his men were standing over the sobbing form of one of my closest friends. I gripped my sword in mute fury as the man turned to face me. And that’s when I reached a moment, purely in dialogue, that was more difficult than any series of jumps or room full of well-armed enemies in other games.
The man presented me with a choice: I could fight him, and maybe I would win, but if I killed him his father would probably storm the slum where I lived, killing most of the people I grew up with and burning their homes to the ground. Or I could just walk away, a little richer, and pretend that these atrocities never took place.
I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a longer time to make a dialogue decision. There was no right answer, no clear moral solution. I wanted to do the right thing, but I had no idea what that was.
I told him I would walk away if he let the women go. He refused, saying that he would still be keeping them for the night, all of them but me. That’s when I stabbed him in the gut. It felt good, but I had no idea whether I had done the right thing. I might have doomed us all. Only time would tell.
And that moment, with all of the actual, real-life internal conflict that it elicited from me, was one of the most impressive video game moments of my life. I haven’t played much more of Dragon Age since then, but if that’s all I get out of it I will consider this game an important milestone in video games: a game that finally establishes that morality is not a simple thing, with one good answer and one evil one. Finally, I was asked to make a decision and I had no idea what to do. This shows that games are finally maturing, and that difficulty is no longer just a question of game mechanics. This was challenging to my conscience instead of my reflexes, just like any real, difficult moral choice.