Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Morality (Press) Play

This blog-post was either to going to be about one of three things; My verdict on my new spangly ipad2, a review of the excellent Brendan Gleeson film "The Guard" (as seen at Warwick Arts Centre yesterday evening) or a review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution for the Xbox 360. Despite the fact that all three of these are brilliant and have improved my quality of life some 5.1% between them, a throwaway phrase from Tara on Saturday whilst I was playing Deus Ex forced my hand. Which was a cut above the usual throwaway phrase from my wife when I'm playing Video games, namely "Bloody hell" bordered by annoyed tutting.

To set the scene.. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (or "Deus Ex Colon Human Revolution" to use its full only-exists-in-my-head title) is the third game in the series of this science fiction cyberpunk RPG. The first Deus Ex made its debut on the PC some eleven years ago, and was regarded as being quite revolutionary in the fact that the game never dictated a playing style to you. Almost a sandbox game, you were free to tackle the missions anyway you wanted. Want to play it as a straight forward first person shooter? Fine. Wanted to sneak your way around the levels keeping bloodshed to a minimum? Good for you. Want to hack into computer systems and get them to do your dirty work for you? It's not going to stop you. Want to build and construct a huge mechanised suit with the face of Ken Dodd? I'm sorry, there are limits.  It was 11 years ago. The game concept was so revelatory (but so bloody obvious) at the time that I'm genuinely surprised that more developers didn't try the same with their games.

Oh, and it had a sequel. But that was pretty rubbish.

But the third one is a fine return to form. It feels very much like the first in that you're just basically dumped in a level and left to your own devices. The plot is deep, thought-provoking and engaging (even if some of the voice acting is a little dodgy) and I can see it taking up dozens of hours of my life.

And that's where the review will end. Buy it. Thats not what I'm here to talk about. I'm going to mention an interesting* element in it, that struck me as unusual.

One of the games earliest missions involves you sneaking into a police station to steal some evidence from the morgue in the basement. If I'd built up my hacking skills sufficiently I could have simply obtained access through a guarded sewer network, but I've taken the stealth route. If I'd spent points on charisma enhancements I could probably have charmed my way into the basement from the Police stations front desk. However, I enjoy the sneaking about and silent takedowns much as I did in the original Deus Ex. I play it much like a bionic Sam Fisher from the Splinter Cell series of games.

The path I've chosen probably wasn't the best for this mission, but the game doesn't stop you. Sneaking about I found access via the roof, but this meant I had some five floors to navigate my way downwards through the heart of the Police Station to get to my goal. One thing that the architects of most of the buildings in Deux Ex are very keen on is ventilation shafts - probably some crooked backhander deal with a corrupt ventilation company. I'm a claustrophe and wouldn't venture into one in real life, but my character will happily do so. My character spends so much time in ventilation shafts it can't be doing his back any good at all. Hopefully the end credits will show him laid up in a hospital bed with chronic arthritis, making unusual noises any time he has to stand up or sit down.

Now one thing to bear in mind in that Police Stations are very well guarded. The very nature of them means they're traditionally full to the brim with Police Officers. I'm analysing guard patrols - waiting for one of them to split off from the pack so I can knock him out and drag his unconcious body into the ventilation shafts to join his equally well ventilated colleagues. Honestly, once I've wandered through a level there are numerous ventilation shaft parties going on. Occasionally this goes wrong - one of the cops will spot me knocking out his pal as he just happens to turn around at the wrong moment, and then all hell breaks loose.

They spend ages shooting at me whilst I retreat to the safety of, you guessed it, a ventilation shaft. I might even take that opportunity to shoot tranquiliser darts into my opponents knees.

I'm cursing aloud because I'm dying a lot. The gunfights in this game are lethal and despite being an armoured bionic tank, it doesn't take many shots to bring me down. I explain to Tara (just to make conversation, if anything. She doesn't give two hoots) that I'm finding this whole game bastard difficult in that I'm having to sneak around and take people out silently or avoid whole patrols altogether to get to my goal.

"Why don't you just kill them?", she asks.

And for a fleeting moment I ask myself the same question. I've certainly got the ammo and weaponry for it, and a straight fight would certainly be a lot simpler.

Why don't I just kill them?

"But I can't", I think to myself, "They're police officers. They're only doing their job". Now would the game penalise me for killing a police officer? Probably not. Could I have completed the same level in a fraction of the time? Unknown - perhaps if they'd raised the alarm the police station might have been flooded with a horde of them, way too many to kill - but I never found out. If the game had thrown a hint at me that they were all the police were all corrupt and therefore my enemy, I may have played it differently - but ultimately they were just guys doing their job. I was the threat, not them. I was doing something illegal and they were just making sure the law was being adhered to.

But this raises an interesting point. The game isn't enforcing any form of morality on me, I'm enforcing it myself. It's only a computer game - If I ended up killing a cop it's not I'm leaving his wife a widow and his children fatherless. He's only a collection of ones and zeroes with some loose artificial intelligence controlling if he can see me and what he'll do if he does. I'm effectively making the game more difficult for myself through the addition of this artificial skill increase controlled by my own ethical values.

Unlike many games which involve morality and personal choice, there's no statistic holding some numeric value dictating how "good" or "evil" I am. (Mass Effect, great game though you are, I'm staring right at you as I say that). I think this whole good/evil statistic is a thoroughly flawed mechanic, especially when you can see it there as a simple number or series of numbers on the screen. If I throw some credit chips at some poor starving tramp in a space station, is this a "good" act? (+5 Nice Points. Pat yourself on the back). It might seem altruistic, but no, not really. I just know I'll get achievement points if I do it so effectively so the action is a completely selfish one. We're complex creatures and is it right to have good/evil as a sliding scale - I.e. doing good actions increases your "good" score and decreases your "bad"? How many tramps do I have to throw money at to negate that cold-blooded murder I performed just so I could rifle through the contents of the victims office? 5? 10? The tramp might just even up spending my generously handed-over credits on some space booze and killing himself - how can my donation to him therefore be classed as a 'good' action?

Another recent example of morality coming into the gaming medium was in the pretty, well presented but ultimately underwhelming Bioshock. In the convoluted story (which I won't go into here) you have the choice of harvesting something from mutant children to satisfy your needs. Kill them and become powerful more quickly, or spare them and refuse temptation. The game has a number of different endings based on your choice, but I remember the first time I was confronted with this decision. I had to think about what to do for some time before I'd made my decision (to spare the child). Again, only ones and zeroes. Not a real child, so why the delay? It's a computer game. You're supposed to play it to win, surely?

So, Deus Ex neatly avoids this whole condundrum by not judging you for your actions. You're free to play it with whatever moral compass heading you choose. (Interestingly enough, whenever I'm faced with moral decisions in computer games, despite them mostly being role-playing games I always tend to make the decisions that I would make if faced with them. I never go all out to play as a whiter-than-white hero or an absolute bastard, and my end result always comes out with my personality being judged as somewhere between good and neutral. You could argue that it's a roleplaying game and that I should be playing a 'character' as it were, but I'd offer the counter-argument that I am - I'm not the commander of a massive spaceship in real life and it's unlikely I ever will be) **.

The open world mechanisms of Deus Ex aren't quite perfect, but have to make concessions that, after all, it's still a computer game and is supposed to be fun. Much as with the first game, if you're spotted by an enemy they instantly go into a state of alert and seek you out. However, remain hidden for a couple of minutes and they forget you were ever there. "I'm sure I saw something - nope, must have imagined it" one of them says. What? You imagined me suffocating your partner into unconciousness - your partner who, I might add, is now sleeping on top of a pile of other snoozing police officers in the ventilation shaft behind that cardboard box in your office? Should the game keep them alert permanently once you've been rumbled? Perhaps, but it would make for dull - and incredibly difficult - gameplay.

(A similiar anecdote - In Red Dead Redemption one whistle brings your horse running to you, no matter where you are in the world. My dad finds this ridiculously unrealistic - and is absolutely right to do so - but it's difficult to explain that sometimes you have to bend realism to make something fun to play.)

So, should we feel sorry for the poor old Green Pigs as we Angry Birds hurtle towards them destroying their rickety buildings? Writing angry letters to the WWF for the sheer number of endangered species that Lara Croft wipes out in her regular Raiding of Tombs? Should we be demanding to see whether Mario is Corgi registered? Of course not - let the nature of the game demand its own ethical and moral boundaries.

Which is where Deus Ex does it so well. It promotes (within technical boundaries, obviously) a free-form style of play. You won't be penalised for what the developers see as a 'bad decision' or something that deviates from the ultimately linear path that they've created for you. Any stats relating to how 'good' or 'bad' you've been, if they exist, are carefully kept hidden from you and hopefully, just hopefully, during the remainder of the game I'll be faced with a few more moments where I have to stop and step away from the XBox to work out what I'm going to do next. Even if it ends up making the game more difficult.

So, what other games have forced you to actually think about your next action from a moral standpoint? I can't honestly think of that many other than the examples I've mentioned above. Should we strive for that kind of emotion in our games, or is it all a little pretentious and ambitious? I'm interested to know what you think.

* - Your definition of 'interesting' may differ from mine.
** - Jim not making "Jim'll fix it" any more put paid to those dreams.

1 comment:

I love comments. Love 'em. However, abusive or spam or Anonymous ones may well be sent straight to the bin. Thems the rules.