Friday, March 19, 2010

Beyond Good and Evil

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

A great number of keyboards have been put to use decrying the simplistic moral choices that have insinuated themselves into many video games. Some developers have attempted to remedy this by presenting more complex moral conundrums, such as those present in sections of Dragon Age and Heavy Rain. However, in the process of complicating moral issues for the player, some games have changed the choices so that they are no longer about good and evil at all. BioShock 2 and Heavy Rain present players with major choices, but they ask a different question entirely: do you want to act in-character and confine yourself to the intended narrative, or exert your power of choice and do something out-of-character?

Spoilers follow for both BioShock 2 and Heavy Rain.

In BioShock 2, the main character is a father figure taken to its extremes. Parents are, to some degree, genetically programmed to love their children, but the player’s avatar has had this programming wired into him to such a degree that it has become his reason for being. There is a little girl, and she is his daughter, and he must save her, protect her, and help her in any way possible. He has no other goals when the game begins.

After making the main character’s role and purpose clear, BioShock 2 presents you with a dilemma that barely makes sense: when you meet a little girl who looks just like your daughter, whom every instinct in your brain tells you to protect, do you kill her for cheap rewards, or help her? Is this really even a question? Perhaps to an uncaring parent or a malicious one, but as I said, the main character is genetically predisposed towards love and protection. To save the little sisters is an in-character act. To kill them is an out-of-character one.

The same can be said for several of the other dilemmas presented in the game. When you meet a woman who once loved your little girl as much as you do, and protected her with everything she had, do you kill her or let her live? The in-character thing to do is to let her live; you can understand this woman’s feelings and her actions. When you are presented with a man who caused your baby girl tremendous pain and ruined her life, do you kill him or let him live? You are a father writ large, programmed to not just threaten violence on the tormentors of your child, but to follow through with actual violence. It would be out-of-character to let him go after what he has done.

It is a shame that BioShock 2 did not play with this idea more; choosing the out-of-character option could be seen as forcing oneself to rebel against the genetic programming. Each out-of-character choice in the game is instead treated as an evil one, or a monstrous one, when it also asserts that the main character has a personality outside of the one he was programmed to have. It just so happens that to exert his personality and break his programming, he has to do monstrous things. The player may be making moral decisions on behalf of the character, but for the character all choices are personal.

In a recent post on Destructoid, Anthony Burch wrote that, “For the vast majority of Heavy Rain, I, as the player, have only two options: I can force the characters to do things that they wouldn’t normally do for my entertainment, or I can feel useless.” This is because the choices present in the game are, like the ones in BioShock 2, between options that seem in-character and options that seem out-of-character, given what we know about the personalities of the individuals. There is one bizarre moment in the game when Ethan Mars, distraught father of a kidnapped son, is alone in a hotel room with Madison, a journalist. He is explaining the horrible things he has gone through to get his son, and then says that finding his son is all that matters to him. Madison leans in for a kiss at this incredibly inopportune moment, and the player chooses whether Ethan goes for it. Like Burch, I was shocked that this was even an option.

At first I was frustrated that the game was clearly setting up a ridiculous situation. Does this desperate father waste valuable time having sex with a near stranger, or does he get back to the only thing that matters: finding his son? The choice seems clear, so why is there a choice at all? After some consideration, however, the choice does serve a valuable purpose, even if one of the options seems out-of-character. It allows the player a sense of authorial control, and it also permits the story of Heavy Rain to become more complicated and surprising. Real human beings do not develop in clear story arcs. Perhaps in my version of Heavy Rain, Ethan Mars is a weaker man. He wants to escape the horrors he has gone through and try not to think about Shaun for a while. He’s using Madison in a sick attempt to forget about his kidnapped son and all the ways he has failed his family. With the press of a button, that becomes the story. That’s pretty incredible.

People are strange, complex creatures. Some of the things we do are inscrutable; sometimes we act for all the wrong reasons. When a choice draws clear lines between good and evil, the decision is easy to make. To replace those choices with ones about character consistency or inconsistency seems a strange move, but it does move things in a more complicated direction. BioShock 2 and Heavy Rain may be far from perfect in their implementation of player choice, but they create video game worlds that are closer to reality than most, in which emotions are unreliable and characters may act in surprising ways.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely agree with your assessment of Heavy Rain, especially the kissing scene. The first time I played the scene I decided not to kiss Madison—as you said, it's totally inappropriate. Of course, when I didn't, I wondered what I'd missed. The second time through I went through with the sex scene, and then had to reconcile this decision with the character as he was presented; I had to track back and establish a sensible motivation. This is essentially what we do in real life whenever a person does something that defies our expectations. In a work of fiction we talk about someone's behavior as being "out-of-character", but in real life, every behavior must be considered "in-character" because everything you do is necessarily a function of your character. We even do this to ourselves in real life when we act in a way that surprises us, and then have to re-evaluate who we are. This introduces an interesting outside-in dynamic of character analysis: not, "What things would this kind of person do?" but "What kind of person would do these things?"


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