Some moons ago Kotaku ran an article on the next entry in the Rainbow Six franchise. It’s a sequel that seems pretty bent on the whole morality thing. The demoed level saw a merry band of terrorists breaking into an American home, kidnapping the owner, strapping a bomb to the sucker and handing over the trigger. “Enjoy your new life!” they sang, on the way out.
Skip forward a few missions and the game’s back with Team Rainbow, the guys having the time of their lives, high-fiving one another while a trail of poorly-trained freedom fighters choke on their own lungs somewhere behind. Celebrations are cut short though as reports pile in that the bomb-clad chap from earlier has managed to stumble through tear-filled eyes onto a New York City bridge and you can see where this is going. To the RAINBOW CAVE.
The decision – if you want to call it that – is to either sacrifice Mr. Bomb by nudging him off the bridge or risk a logistical and humanitarian shitstorm and let him run amok, probably taking a bus full of kiddies on their way to Disney Land with him into the fiery pits of damnation.
Obviously anyone with the cojones required to work in counter-terrorism is going to throw Mr. Bomb off the bridge faster than I’d be running in the other direction so hopefully Ubisoft has a few subtler scenarios in the pipeline. Anyway it sounded vaguely promising until Brian Crecente let slip this morsel:
“One option has you tossing the man from the bridge, experiencing some of his memories as he plummets, and then watching him explode.”
Stop the ride. I want to get off. Enough. I’m done.
And that’s about where we sit with morality in blockbuster videogames. At the dank, dark bastard bottom of whatever putrid, shit-filled container you want to imagine.
On that note…
Battlefield, Morality and Murder by Refrigerator
You know what I liked about Modern Warfare 2? The part where you got to shoot all the models that resembled civilians in an airport. You knew they were civilians because they weren’t wearing bandanas, chanting in an Eastern European dialect and lining up like cattle to be shot in the head. Well I pumped those sunglass sporting, holiday-going fashionistas with so much lead the forensics guys must have thought they’d stumbled into a reenactment of that scene in The Matrix. You know the one. Pew pew pew! Flight 47 to Corfu has been delayed. Pow pow pow! Flight 92 to Paris has been cancelled. Kaboom! Would Security please report to Gate 17.
Well, there’ll be none of those shenanigans in DICE’s Battlefield 3. Speaking with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, executive producer of the game Patrick Bach put to bed any lingering dreams of a similar massacre this October. That’s fine. Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian level was either a feeble attempt to encroach on the morality of war or just a silly PR stunt. More the latter, really, but it was a rare moment in a Call of Duty game where you had a choice, and with that choice came a moral decision; to create invisible orphans or not. Infinity Ward made no attempt to make you feel for the identical looking men you were slaughtering – No Russian was bombastic and stupid – but it was a moral choice in a game that had never before bothered to pause and contemplate the nasty side of war. I’ll defend its existence for that alone.
Bach though has some interesting things to say about why DICE aren’t about to let us paint the airport decks with the blood of
westerners the innocent a second time over.
“We are trying to do something that is more mature. Mature not being gore –some people confuse the two. That’s childish actually, to want more blood.”
There’s a fine line here. Dead Space levels of gore, sure, that would be absurd. Soldier of Fortune did that and boy, Soldier of Fortune was woeful. But to play down gore – while playing down the collateral damage aspect by completely removing the ability to harm civilians – is that mature? It’s silly enough that Call of Duty has you dragged back to the nearest checkpoint every time you look down your reticule and spy a civilian. War is messy, hiding that isn’t mature.
Bach’s big statement comes later on though, after he claims that most gamers would shoot children if given the choice.
“We have to build our experiences so we don’t put the player in experiences where they can do bad things”
Just the other day I broke into a flat. Not a real one but one in Deus Ex. Inside sat a man. He was like any other man really. At first glance I thought he must be the proprietor of the residence but having snatched several credit chips, a box of machine-pistol ammo and hacked his personal computer I began to wonder. Whatever he was before, now he was a witness and he needed silencing. I grabbed the nearest heavy object I could find – a refrigerator – and hurled it at my quiet adversary. Thud. Silence. I shut the door and was on my way.
That was probably a “bad thing”. I’d murdered a civilian in cold blood with a kitchen appliance, all for a few credits and a box of ammo I later tossed aside to make room for a candy bar. Morally dubious all the way.
Should that be removed from Deus Ex? Never. I liked the power. I liked the story I conjured. I liked the twang of guilt as I stared emptily into the half eaten bowl of 2D texture that the man would never finish. That man lying there, somewhere beneath that fridge. Was it a worthy last meal? It looked like vomit.
Not putting the player in positions where they can do bad things is fundamentally backward. There’s a marked difference between Deus Ex and Battlefield but create a game without “bad things”, moral choices and grey areas and you’ve created an artistic black hole. Gaping and appalling and boring, whether it’s set in
Iraq Terrorist Land or set in Detroit in the year 2029.
Developers shouldn’t be building experiences that shelter players from the possibility of playing evil, they should be striving to build experiences that actively force players into harsh positions, forcing them to make hard decisions and to consider the actual impact of their actions. Like in great movies and in great literature and like in the actual, real, horrible world. Not in all games, Christ, but there’s room for some of those dilemmas in Battlefield for sure. I’m not talking about Fable’s impossibly puerile concept of morality or gunning down idiots in an airport right after jumping a snow-mobile over a canyon while yelling WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE but actual moral dilemmas. Medal of Honor might have been content pilfering lines from Generation Kill, but that show had a lot to say in the same amount of time that Medal of Honor said precisely nothing.
The game industry’s nearness to tackling morality with any artistry is the nearness of planets. Any shift closer is a positive thing but to back away from it is cowardice. Give a man super strength and one day he’s going to throw a six-foot refrigerator at another human being. That’s not going to be pretty. But we shouldn’t hide from that else we’re going to be playing games about shooting Nazis, zombies, Russians, aliens and those of Middle Eastern descent forever more.
(One final note: a game that – perhaps not intentionally – does morality quite well is Atom Zombie Smasher. You’re routinely forced to weigh up the pros and cons of dropping a thousand pounds of explosives on top of civilians. Sometimes doing so saves more lives than it ends and you feel good. Sometimes it costs more and you don’t. It’s always your call though and the fact that the game never punishes you for the simple act of making that choice is almost punishing in itself. In a very good way.)
A Little More on DRM
The founder of Driver developer Reflections has sprung to Ubisoft’s defence regarding its contentious digital rights management.
“You have to do something. It’s just, simply, PC piracy is at the most incredible rates. This game cost a huge amount of money to develop, and it has to be, quite rightly, quite morally correctly, protected.”
I don’t want to tread over ground covered last time out but I find it remarkable that there are those outside of Ubi HQ’s brainwash zone that share the belief that always-on DRM is the answer to piracy. For what it’s worth, I agree with everything he says but knowing he’s saying it all while canoodling with Ubi over its cracker DRM almost rids it of its validity. There is no escaping the fact that Ubisoft’s stratagem punishes only the legitimate buyer. And that’s the last I’ll say on the matter. Probably.
Hideki Kamiya put a boner in the pants of every gamer with taste (and a working winky) this week by announcing that news of a sequel to Bayonetta was inbound. Responding to an eager fan on Twitter, Kamiya said that we would hear something about Bayonetta 2 “This week… in a game magazine”
Unfortunately Kamiya is a massive cock tease, his Platinum buddies quick to announce via Twitter that this was Kamiya’s idea of funny. Sob.
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