Gaming Morality

So here’s the basic concept of Dishonored 2: the empress has been deposed. You play as either said deposed empress (Emily) or her royal protector (Corvo) and carve a path of revenge against the usurper and her cabal of those who dishonored you (hence the title). Along the way you meet the Outsider who gives you a bunch of magical powers, ranging from teleporting and stopping time to linking enemies together (so if you kill one you kill ’em all!) to straight up stopping time.

Now, there are many ways to play Dishonored 2, something that’s hyped up both in the promotional materials and the game itself. You can sneak through each mission, unseen by anyone, or run in obvious as a strobe light. You can assassinate each target or find another way to eliminate them. You can kill every enemy you come across or choke them into unconsciousness.

Like I said: options! So many ways to play the game!

Which is where the game’s narrative gets in the way. Dishonored 2 has this thing called Chaos which is determined by how you dispatch targets and how many people you kill. Chaos determines your ending, and the way to get the good (or at least better) ending is through low Chaos. Essentially, the narrative encourages you to eschew violence (and some of those nifty powers). It makes sense, if you want the ending where Emily is a fair and just empress, wanton slaughter isn’t becoming. It’s this odd sort of ludonarrative dissonance where the game gives you these wonderful gameplay options the narrative then discourages you from using. Now, it does give replayability a boost which, given that I just finished my fourth playthrough(no powers, no stealth, high bodycount), does work.

BioShock is held up as a treatise exploring the relationship between player and game (rightfully so). The ending of the game you receive, however, is based on what you do about the Little Sisters. These creepy looking girls can be either saved or absorbed for ADAM, a resource you can use to improve your abilities. Now, saving the Little Sisters gets you some ADAM too, just at a different rate from absorption. When I played BioShock, I saved the first Little Sister, then, wanting to know what would happen and how much ADAM I’d receive, absorbed the next, then chose to save the rest. Upon finishing the game, my ending was noticeably downbeat – which confused me: I’d saved all those Little Sisters! Some research (googling) turned up that to get that good ending you had to save all of them, and absorbing even just one earned you a pretty harsh one (absorbing all garners you one more sorrowful). I was kinda pissed, I’d only absorbed one! But then, I had still chosen to absorb one, so I suppose that does still make me a bit of a villain. So it makes sense.

Still harsh, though.

At the least, Dishonored 2 and BioShock don’t  punish you gameplay-wise for your moral choices. Knights of The Old Republic allows you to make light side and dark side choices throughout the game because it’s Star Wars so Jedi and all that. In the late game there are armor and such that you can equip if you lean far enough in either direction. If you’ve been making decisions in both directions, though, tough. In the second KOTOR also has a whole section you can only access as a light or dark sider. Playing a more nuanced game gets you nothing. Which I suppose works in the Star Wars context, but, playing as an amnesiac former Sith Lord (oh, spoiler) and a Jedi exiled from the Order, I figure a level of permissiveness ought to color the KOTOR games.

Mass Effect 2 (also done by Bioware, who did the first KOTOR) had a similar issue, where not leaning too strongly in a Paragon (saves the day nicely) or Renegade (saves the day meanly) fashion prevents you from taking certain dialogue options and getting certain outcomes later on. It discourages you from mixing up how you respond (also, taking too many Paragon actions makes your badass scars disappear, boo). Mass Effect 3 rectifies it somewhat by letting the player accumulate Reputation from taking Paragon and/or Renegade options rather than a more lukewarm approach. So instead the game rewards you for taking a strong stance either way.

Perhaps the problem with video game morality is its binary nature. You, for the most part, are either good or bad and the narrative typically plays out accordingly – sometimes rendering judgment. I find that open ended narratives work better as in Mass Effect, where the decisions of your actions aren’t always so black and white: choosing to destroy the data earned by illegal vivisection means you won’t be able to save a character later down the line. Morality in video games – and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ endings – is an interesting and still developing facet of gaming that’s arguably limited by tech and designers’ patience. I’m undoubtedly curious to see how video games handle this going forward – especially Bioware’s upcoming Mass Effect: Andromeda. The virtuality of gaming makes for a fun space to try things and see what happens, consequences are great, limiting gameplay less so.

Or maybe Dishonored 2 could use just a few more non-lethal power options.

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