Examining the Approaches to Morality in Popular Video Games

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The representation of morality in video games  is a strange beast. Many games, particularly role playing games and even some open world action games, such as inFamous, use these moral systems as a core feature, even advertising it on the box for narrative driven games. In this piece, I’m going to examine the two main approaches to morality in popular video games. The first we will called the ‘systematic approaches’ and the second type, it should go without saying will be referred to as ‘non-systematic approaches.’

“But wait!” you might be thinking to yourself, “aren’t all video games defined by systems, so won’t all moral systems in games be systematic approaches by design?” This may be technically true, but the reasons for using the particularly terminology I’m using for different approaches to morality in games will become clear as you read this, so do not worry!

First, let us look at the systematised approaches in which morality is on some sort of scale and is represented visually to the player, usually in a stats or pause screen. In titles like Knights of the Old Republic and InFamous, for example, both games allow players to make decisions that effect narrative outcomes and somewhat more complexly in KOTOR, companion attitudes towards the player character, which is dependent on their own particular alignment. In both games, however, each side of the moral equation, with good being blue and bad being red represented on a scale, have specific powers restricted to particular moral alignments. And it’s here that the illusion is revealed for what it is! The moral systems here become nothing more, in practical terms, than another type of statistic or talent/upgrade tree, a way to min/max a particular mechanical play style under the guise of morality. This morality meter approach ultimately undermines the idea of moral decision making in games, because instead of the player using any particular ethical decision process through an axiom, or some kind of categorical imperative, or some consequentialist basis, the player is instead ultimately just making the same sort of decision as “what sort or weapons or spells should I equip?” This ultimately undermines the abilities for the player to get truly engrossed in the narrative and feel disconnected from their decisions.

The Mass Effect series uses a similar system to this, although as far as I remember, do not dish out or restrict gameplay abilities based on the moral decisions of the player. Instead, it seperates ‘moral decisions’ into Paragon and Renegade, which basically just mean ‘Saint’ and ‘Asshole’ respectively. It has it’s own issues, however in that the dialogue, instead of being done as a list, is done through a simplistic dialogue wheel that make you have to choose a set of options based on sometimes vague language, so the player sometimes has difficulty on knowing what their character will actually say, restricting agency. Normally this lack of clarity might bring a problem to knowing which is the ‘right’ decision to make but never fear, the developers are their to patronize the intelligence of the players by making the asshole decisions in red and good guy decisions in blue. In a game with list based dialogue with fully formed sentences as options, which I will say right now are in almost all cases, better, this colour coding of decision making players actually able to assess the meaning of the options presented and make decisions accordingly instead of a vague guess on what the character might say. Worse still for Mass Effect, depending on you morality meter alignment, some dialogue options will open to you from that particular alignment and close off that from the other alignment. This means an arbitrary restriction even within the systems of the game, reducing player agency and their ability to shape Shepard in their own  nuanced image. What if players want to have him start off as a goody two shoes and as the game progresses, make him become an anti hero of sorts? Not possible within this system! While all computer RPGs will have limitations on what choices the player can have simply by the limitations of the medium, this problem is compounded by the practical issues involved in having a voiced player character in this genre.

Fallout 3 isn’t much better in this regard. Except it has a couple systemic quirks about how morality (or ‘karma’ as it is in game) is calculated and displayed. Most notoriously is how the player can nuke an entire town for the entertainment of others and become the embodiment of malevolence and then give thirsty beggars lorryloads of purified water and then suddenly you are redeemed and holy, the embodiment of the good. It’s all very strange, which gives the game a very inconsistent representation of what constitutes right action within the game’s logic. Despite these oddities, it still has some more nuance and thus greater accommodation of player agency than the titles discussed prior.

This set of games makes all the same errors fundamentally in that they treat morality as good and evil, that is to say, as categorically different rather than a difference of degree. I’m of the opinion that if possible, if games are going to systematise moral decision making in such a way, they should consider having more alignments based on differences of degree to facilitate more player agency in the shaping of player characters. A better system to start with might be the Dungeons and Dragons alignment charts, but this simply could also be achieved by not doing things like colour coding which options are good/bad as they appear. Another thing to be aware of is that the moral valuations on player action present in these games are based upon the values of the developers, ethical, political or otherwise which in turn are likely to represent the values of the period and society in which the game was made. This might be particularly troublesome for modern western games of this sort that deal with issues of racial discrimination and other contemporary social issues, which are likely to be valuated anachronistically or with some other bias to contemporary western society, which might leave some games feel as though it’s wagging it’s finger at you or preaching to you, rather than encouraging player expression or meaningful self reflection to determine whether you acted rightly.

However, not all systematic approaches to morality in games have these troubles. Fallout: New Vegas is one such title. It avoids this due to it’s amoral approach to morality. Sure, the karma meter is present, but when playing the game, it doesn’t matter. Because the core narrative focuses around geopolitical clashes of various factions, based on different political ideals and circumstances, this makes the narrative decision making in New Vegas more of a political one than an ethical one most of the time. Reputation with factions is what matters, not morality, which will find players who do a self insert playthrough will wind up justifying their actions either consequentially, opportunistically or through whichever political and moral values they have going into the game. Internet discussions to this day related to this game will often involve discussion on which faction or narrative path  was  ‘the right one’. This kind of amoral, multifaceted approach to moral systems allows for greater player expression and for the player to ultimately decide at the end of the day whether they acted rightly instead of being preached to or having weird systemic quirks a la Fallout 3.  It is also in my opinion far more interesting to play through than games with conventional moral systematisations..

Now, onto non systematic approaches! The prime example for this is The Witcher series. Underpinned with well written plotlines, these games have a far more intelligent approach to ethical decision making. The games have no meter represented to the player on how good or evil they are and no special powers or abilities for the ethical decisions presented throughout the narrative and various sub-narratives throughout the series. Outcomes in this game aren’t even a moral scale that add or subtract good boy points under the hood, but is instead done through branching narratives, which is a much more organic and immersive. Additionally, because the writing of the game allows the player to become invested, emotionally or otherwise, into it’s characters and game world there can be some real dilemmas presented to the player, whose outcomes may not necessarily be immediately obvious. This forces the player to seriously weigh up their options and think through one or more modes of ethical reasoning to assess which action to take is the right action. Due the dark fantasy nature of the game, some outcomes that players may have reasoned to be good don’t manifest and instead their actions might not result in intended outcomes which may strike the player on an emotional level and cause them to reflect on the decision they made and think if it really was the right action and if they should have acted differently. Through this organic approach to ethical decision making (that may technically count as thought experiments in philosophical discussion since it applies worlds that are not ours), games can be more intellectually stimulating for players and test their principles and convictions in a general way without undermining itself by just being another glorified talent tree, which is why in my opinion, why these non systematic approaches are superior to the conventional systematic approaches.

Speaking of moral systems in games more broadly speaking, players who are inclined to testing out different ethical theories (ie; those interested in philosophy of this sort) and decision processes in a variety of ways can do so in games that allow such levels of agency, although again, these are likely better done in titles like The Witcher as opposed to InFamous.

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The Lobster (2015) Review

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A week or maybe two a go, a friend of mine marathoned The Lobster and told me to check it out. And now I have. This movie, set in a dystopian European setting that looks very much like contemporary society, has the premise that single people, whether they be forever alones or widows, get sent to a hotel in which they have 45 days to fall in love with someone with somebody or get turned into an animal and let out into the wild.

It’s an absurd premise, but it is played totally straight, with deadpan line delivery. Everyone is 100% serious all the time in this, with some bizarre and awkward dialogue, as well as character interactions generally being incredibly awkward. This is intentional, of course and really adds a greater layer of depth to this dystopian society: is this how people always are in this world? Has everyone gotten some form of aspergers syndrome? We don’t know, but it makes for some hilarious moments, especially during the sexual moments. There are also some great visual gags, such as our protagonist David having his right hand cuffed behind his back and we have a scene where he is trying to take off said trousers while having to deal with this. Simple and absolutely hilarious. The first half of the movie is filled with such sequences.

Unfortunately, the second half of the movie drags on just a tad and whilst maintaining the awkward character interactions and deadpan line delivery. However, we do get to meet the people the Hotel hunt, a faction called the Loners. They are basically a filmic interpretation of /r9k/. It is during this second half of the movie that the actual romance part of this romantic comedy comes into play. Here he meets the short sighted woman (Rachel Weisz) and develops a relationship with her that grows as organically and realistically as is possible within the context of the film. However, it is here that the straight faced,awkward line delivery and character interaction become a detriment to the film because for us as an audience, nobody seems like an actual person that we can get too emotionally invested in. Maybe that’s part of the point. I don’t know. But because almost everyone in this film is so awkward, it can make it difficult to differentiate between characters personalities. But maybe that is also part of the point, because every ‘couple’ that is seen in the film, aside from the main romance, is based on the most superficial of characteristics such as having regular nosebleeds.

Should you watch The Lobster? If you want a different approach,an approach that is most easily classified as absolutely absurd, then give it a shot. It’s hilarious and does have some heart to it, it seems self aware but not in a self referential or wink wink nudge nudge way. I felt it ran out of steam a bit in the second half, but as an overall piece, it’s worth watching.

7.5/10

 

Solaris (1972) Review

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Tarkovksy’s Solaris has been described as “Russia’s answer to 2001.” I would have to disagree with that sentiment, because apart from being slow paced and mostly taking place on a space station. This is by no means a bad thing, they’re simply different and both brilliant in their own right.

Solaris has Tarkovksy’s signature camera work at play, with plenty of wide shots and long, contemplative takes, with minimal cutting. It also has in these sequences characters speaking philosophically, similar to his later film, Stalker. It’s a movie that wants you to drink in the scene and absorb it’s details and brilliant, real and lived in sets that look absolutely gorgeous on the blu ray copy I watched. Pouring rain, the launching of a rocket, the cluttered, but colourful space station are superbly shot, as well as nature shots. It gives you the necessary time to process the ideas it’s presenting, which are absolutely essential to this movie. These ideas, in particular, at least what I gathered on this viewing relate to love, as well as consciousness and reality. In the portion of the film before our protagonist, Kris, reaches the Solaris station, we are treated to a lot of exposition and some sequences, such as a long drive on what looked a Japanese urban centre could have been shortened. However, after this initial hump, once Kris gets to the Solaris station, things start to get more interesting.

That was a good segue into trying to summarise the basic plot of the movie, which is straightforward in my opinion. Essentially, the people of Earth have been researching a strange planet, the titular Solaris, for many years and are trying to make contact with what appears to be a lifeform or consciousness, but the research is on it’s last legs and Kris is sent up to check up on the remaining researchers. At least that is how the film gets started. There is also a very interesting romance plot that drives a significant amount of the movie, and for me to call a romance plot in a film interesting, rather than the ‘human core’ or ‘lame’ means it must be good. Which it is.

The film is in Russian language, but the subtitles on this copy of mine were clear and seemed well translated enough, but as an English speaker it’s difficult to grasp the nuances of the dialogue. But they never sounded flat and each character was different in relevant ways, with the movie having enough strangeness to keep you interested. Conceptually, I never felt too confused on a fundamental level, which is great for a film like this and is quite the achievement to have something that doesn’t compromise on the presentation of it’s complex ideas nor makes them so complex as to be almost incomprehensible. However, some lingering shots are difficult to decipher the meaning of or the intended meaning due to Tarkovksy’s general reluctance towards the use of symbolism in his films. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. These might be the only somewhat confusing parts of the movie.

This film is also a very quiet film. In fact, so quiet that even when I had it on fairly loud, the sounds of the clock ticking and water cooler running were often louder than this most of the time. However, dialogue was also loud and clear. I’m not sure whether this is to do with not enough volume from the audio mix or whether it’s to do with the audio being in mono or maybe the sound wasn’t perfect originally. Or it could be intentional. Whatever the case, the movie is quiet. The music is also very subdued and sparse in direct contrast to 2001‘s loud and regular use of classical music.

Should you watch Tarkovsky’s Solaris? The answer is yes if you have the patience for these types of movies. If you don’t, or the philosophical dialogue is something you dislike or goes over your head totally, you probably won’t like it. It’s got an almost 3 hour run time and I did feel sleepy throughout but when I watched it I was tired beforehand and I managed to stay awake without being totally lost. It’s definitely one of the great sci fi films and rather than the Russian answer to 2001, it’s the Russian companion to it.

8.5/10

Tree of Life (2011) Review

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Terence Malick’s Tree of Life is a very challenging film, to watch and review, the latter because of the former. While the cinematography, mise en scene and the visuals generally are superb, the narrative is lacking in focus and the style can feel overly long at times. Now before I get into this review, for Malick fans especially, two things that readers should be aware of. 1) This is my first viewing of this film ever and 2) this is also my first time viewing a Terence Malick film.

Tree of Life is slow. Very, very slow so patience is required when viewing. It’s not so slow that it put me to sleep, but it is slow enough that you might feel like parts are overly long. For example, the film at one point just suddenly jumps into an extended montage relating to the creation of the universe and, while visually excellent and does fit in nicely with the sequence straight afterwards, feels overly long. Also, the dialogue in this film is quite sparse with most of it being in voice overs. Thankfully, the performances of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as husband and wife in a small late 50s town is excellent and believable. Pitt’s character is a very stern father, with a realist approach to life whilst Chastain’s character is a loving housewife and mother who is much more religious in temperament and has a very different world view. Part of the conflict of the film lies here, but really, most of the film focuses on a trio of brothers and their childhood throughout most of the second and third act, so this aspect of growing up is the main narrative thrust, although each part of the narrative is interrelated. Unfortunately, the way in which the non linear structure is used makes the narrative sometimes difficult to follow and by consequence, the relationship between it’s different ideas becomes unclear. It feels like a puzzle and not in the mystery movie sense. So this aspect does slightly make up for it’s difficulty to follow because it starts to make more sense when you put it together, but I don’t think most audiences will appreciate it.

There are also heavy Christian aspects to this film, made immediately obvious through a quote from the Book of Job. In an opening voice over, Chasatain says something to the effect of “there are two ways to live your life: by nature or by grace.” This sets up the jumping off point for the more philosophical undercurrent of the film and is even more interesting for the fact that it sets up this Christianity vs nature concept. But it feels like the film contradicts itself: it sets this up, yet the nature is depicted as so immensely beautiful, yet some might see this natural beauty as proof of Godliness: “if this is what you call God, then God is not dead” to quote an Agalloch song. But perhaps to avoid contradictions, it might be more meaningful to consider this as a set up for the differences between Chastain and Pitt. The philosophical aspects of the film overall, however, are rather hit and miss with occasional throwaway lines that don’t seem to be of any particular relevance, but when it does strike a relevant note, it can be provocative. However, I probably wouldn’t fault anyone who considers the movie pretentious because at times it can feel like that but as a whole, it’s borderline.

The visuals, as I stated before, are excellent. The creation of the earth sequence looks like a high quality nature documentary, the roaming steadicam camerawork is quite immersive and at some points is very ethereal, at other times very personal. The shots of nature, of forests, of trees The soundtrack is primarily classical music that works mostly well except on the occasion that the volume of it in the mix can make the dialogue, if there’s any at the time, seem a bit drowned out. However, that grass is amazing. No joke, best depiction of grass I’ve seen in a film, I never thought it could be so visually arresting. One thing I also have to mention that is really strange is a small sequence with some CGI dinosaurs that really conflict with the naturalistic style of the movie and just sticks out a lot. That’s probably the only negative about the visuals of the film.

To close, Tree of Life is a meandering film. It has some occasionally thought provoking or emotionally connecting moments, but it suffers due to how it’s story is presented and it’s pacing. But on the plus side, it is incredible visually speaking and those with the patience to sit through the whole thing will find something to like about it. For all it’s faults, it’s definitely something worth watching if you have the patience for it.

7.5/10

Eye in the Sky (2016) Review

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Eye in the Sky is a movie that seemed to come out of nowhere, at least for me, because I had never heard of it until the day I actually went along to see it. Luckily, it was very good.

This movie is a very contemporary military drama film, centred around a single, probably fictionalised, operation of 5 Al-Shabab targets and the attempt to capture them in Kenya. The film focuses on the behind the scenes joint operation, with the political leaders and the General (Alan Rickman), to Colonel Powell in charge of overseeing the operation (Helen Mirren) and even the drone operators, one of which is played by Aaron Paul. Also shown is the life of a local Kenyan family, adding the human cost element to complement the decision making. The drama centres around the indecision that occurs when the mission changes from a capture to shoot to kill. Lots of arguments, indecision, bureaucracy and frustration arises out of the inability to actually make a decision, especially with the occasional spanner thrown in the works that make it even more difficult. This is where most of the drama happens and it is incredibly engaging, it is like a contemporary military 12 Angry Men, trying to assure themselves they are legally in the clear and the ministers worrying about how the situation will make them look.

Everything in the film is very believable, from the look of the locations, behaviour of characters and the premise of the narrative. While I’m not an expert in the moment to moment nature of joint military operations, but the point is, it feels grounded in reality. The camera work here is also generally quite stationary and static, providing clear and clean visuals. It also complements the generally slow pace of the film due to the nature of it’s narrative, with the film running at about an hour and forty minutes. With this slow pace and very focused narrative, a tight pace is maintained and characters allowed to be developed not through exposition, but through the decisions they make (or lack thereof) and how they react. There’s nothing fancy or showy here, even in the visuals or sound, but the production values are quite good even with the obvious CGI drone.

As far as the soundtrack is concerned, it’s not great or anything terribly special but it does it’s job of setting the mood of a scene. It’s a tight script and a story well told and manages to deliver it’s content without burdening the audience with too much military or legalistic jargon.

If you like TV series such as Homeland, I think Eye in the Sky would be right up your alley.

8/10

Doom (2016) Closed Beta Impressions

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Doom is back, rebooted for the modern age. Is it any good, does it live up to it’s promise to return to the groundbreaking original from more than 20 years ago? The answer to that is “I don’t know” because we have to wait until the full release in May, but from what I’ve played of the beta so far, it seems promising.

The movement of your Doom Guy in the multiplayer is quite speedy, there are no sprint buttons, strafing is easy and it is overall fast and fluid.Except for the jetpack double jump, that needs to be a touch faster. That said, the mechanics are quite simplistic, which is perhaps the point, but those looking for bunnyhops and rocket jumping will have to wait until the Quake reboot. But the simplicity of it is great: it is immediately accessible while still requiring skill. It also feels immensely satisfying when you’re on a kill streak, it is both exhilarating and meditative at the same time, which seems strange to say when talking about Doom, but it’s quite good. A downside to the core mechanics, at least in the multiplayer, are some ‘modern’ (read: console) concessions in that there is a two weapon limit to your loadouts, but you can use any combination of weapons. It’s unfortunate that this is so, but the core fast, never stopping moment by moment experience can overcome such a shortcoming. There is also no regenerating health or shields: you have to in classic fps style pick them up throughout the map and while they have cooldowns, they are generously placed.

There is also, as is typical for FPS, a level up system (which caps out at 15 in the beta) which unlocks new weapons for you such as the static rifle which gains power per shot while you’re moving. You also unlock new skins and colours for them, as well as armour pieces, to customize the look of your characters in the most garish ways possible. You can also make your armour and weapons looks smothered in dirt and look otherwise in damaged condition. It’s a nice touch.

In the beta, there are two maps and two modes. The modes are team deathmatch and Warpath, which is just a hold the area type of mode. I’ve just really played Team Deathmatch so far and it seems like most people. Because it’s Doom and that’s just what people play. Of the maps, the first is Infernal: essentially, a Hell map. The second is Heatwave, which has an industrial aesthetic. Both fit the overall look of the original, in my opinion as they have a coherent theme whilst still having healthy doses of colour and don’t clash in any stark ways. It’s good to look at. The levels are also well designed in that they facilitate the fast movement, with each part being an interconnected loop. Maps also possess powerups: one is becoming a revenant and inflicting terror on the enemy team for about a minute, there is also double speed, quad damage, armour boost, a gauss gun, etc. so the arena shooter DNA is still present.

In terms of performance, the game kept a solid 60fps most of the time on my system at 1440p. The vsync options are quite good as it has in built adaptive vsync. One thing you’re going to want to turn to low is the motion blur, seriously. Having it at medium or high just makes everything a blurry mess and you don’t want that especially in a game as fast as this. Unfortunately, the advanced graphics options are unavailable in this beta. So I have no idea what settings they give you in the beta. This is pretty unfortunate since betas of games on my radar are very useful in helping me benchmark the game and have an idea of how well optimized it is at release. So it’s annoying that the game doesn’t allow you to do this and crank up the settings, but what’s given looks fine but the occassional drops below 60fps even at my resolution seem unwarranted. Full release is still a month out, maybe they’ll have improved performance by then but I’m not holding my breath.

In sum: the beta of Doom 2k16 provides a promising glimpse into the full release, so I’m looking forward to see if it delivers, which right now, I’m leaning closer to a yes rather than no.

Scream 4 (2011) review

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How far can meta commentary and self awareness take a movie that is, in essence, repetition of it’s predecessors? In the case of Scream 4, quite far. Set about 15 years after the original film, Scream 4 follows survivor Sidney Prescott as she comes back to her home town and then the ghost face killer starts killing more people. If you’ve seen a film in this franchise before, you know basically what you’re going to get.

As noted above, this film retains all the on the nose meta commentary of it’s preceding films, to mostly good effect. If Scream was a film about horror movies, Scream 4 is a movies about Scream about horror movies. It’s also a film about reboots, remakes and sequels. There are multiple layers of meta here that are hard to miss. It also throws in it’s own modern spin about privacy and being filmed, the desire for fame and victimhood culture, much like how Scream 2 was a commentary on media influence in violence. It’s topical to be sure, but combined with the meta aspect of it, it’s just a tad too obvious. Not every film needs to be subtle in this respect, but I can see how some would find it a little overbearing or even groan inducing.

On a technical level, the film is competent in all relevant areas and the violence of film is as wrenching and brutal as ever, with copious amounts of blood spillage as expected of the series and slasher genre in general. The sounds of the stabbing, punches, kicks and tumbles down stairs pack a punch and foster the right kind of visceral feelings of shock and revulsion. Show this movie, or even any Scream movie to your faint hearted friends, it’ll be a treat! That said, whilst the kills are gruesome and satisfy the bloodlust of the slasher fan, their creativity is sometimes lacking, although there are a couple of good ones here and there. Even with all the incredibly attractive women (such as Alison Brie) in this film, the one slasher convention the film teases but never shows any nudity. You’re giving us all blue balls, Wes.

Performances in this movie aren’t anything particular to write home about or isn’t award-winning, but for a slasher film of this nature, it does the job. Unfortunately, however, all the characters are basically archetypes or if not that, returning characters from the previous films (perhaps that’s the point) but that is to the detriment of the film, none of the new characters are original or particularly interesting one way or another, which makes it difficult to care about them when they get stabbed or throats slashed, except in perhaps a ‘please don’t hurt the hot girl’ way. Also, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen the movie yet but the ending is actually pretty good. Should you watch Scream 4? If you already like the franchise to some extent, then it’s worth your time. If you’ve never seen the series before, you should watch the original before watching this one. Check it out if you haven’t gotten round to it yet.