For a while now I’ve been interested in games that include ethical dilemmas or moral choices for players to explore. I’ve written about my own play experiences, taught classes on the topic, and have started a research project exploring how a variety of players think about game choices. The research started informally at first with students doing class assignments, but then Carolyn Jong and I conducted in-depth interviews with players a couple of years ago, and more recently Thorsten Busch has been going over those transcripts to see what kinds of common themes we can identify, or where points of disagreement or discrepancies occur. I’ve been looking over the data and there are definitely some good papers ready to emerge from our findings.
All of that has served as an unintended backdrop for my recent playthrough of DoubleFine’s Kickstarter-funded adventure game Broken Age, which was just released to the general public in late January. Or rather, the first act was released, with the promised conclusion to come later this year. Although I didn’t back the original campaign I found game trailers to be intriguing and bought the game when it launched. After playing through it and reaching the cliffhanger ending, I wanted to write about the game and some issues that it raised. Just a warning—I’ll be discussing the cliffhanger and actions that led up to it in detail, so if you haven’t yet played the game and want to, I’d recommend going off and doing so before heading back here to read more.
Broken Age doesn’t bill itself as a game that relies on player choices or tough decisions as a focal point of gameplay, unlike games such as The Walking Dead series from Telltale Games. Instead it’s an adventure game for fans of the genre, heavy on narrative, puzzles and beautiful artwork, sound and writing to keep the player’s interest. The storylines themselves—the game has two protagonists, Shay and Vella—center on taking risks and trying to change the status quo. Each story is separate and you can move easily between them, but like most players I spent time thinking about how the stories connected with one another—were Shay and Vella ever going to meet? Was one narrative really a part of the other protagonist’s history and therefore a distant relative of some kind? How was the game going to tie them together?
And then the ending came along and made things (somewhat more) clear—Mog Chothra (Vella’s village- and maiden-eating monster) was really Shay’s spaceship. At the climax of her narrative Vella used a death ray to sever the tentacles that were grabbing maidens, and then disabled the monster via a shot into its mouth. And those dangerous tentacles? They were really controlled by me via Shay just minutes before, shooting downward and grasping around in a mistaken attempt to ‘rescue’ poor creatures caught in some vague interstellar war. I had an inkling that Marek (the wolf on board Shay’s ship) was a dubious creature and not to be fully trusted, but the storyline demanded that I follow his lead, augmenting my ship and then instructing ‘me’ as Shay to engage in moving those tentacles and ultimately swooping in and rescuing—or rather capturing—those maidens.
None of those actions—to kill Mog Chothra or to rescue innocent creatures—was presented as an optional choice to me. Apart from vague misgivings about Marek, I thought both stories were above board—I was killing a dreaded monster and rescuing innocent victims. My actions were just and honorable, and I was acting the hero in both situations.
But of course I wasn’t. The game had presented me (as Shay) with the controls for rescue, and I happily tapped the arrow buttons and lowered the grappling hook to rescue/capture the creatures/maidens. I (as Vella) used the death ray to attack the spaceship/evil monster. The game had made me complicit in those actions. By presenting me with actions to take and a brief narrative wrapper to justify them, I jumped right in, not really questioning what I was doing. But as I had no real choice, I plowed ahead with my ‘mission.’ But then did I feel guilty afterward.
Most of our discussions about ethical dilemmas and hard decisions in games privilege situations where we are presented with a clear cut choice—either in the form of a dialogue wheel presenting options or triggers to pull that signal a certain kind of action will be taken. The Walking Dead series even makes non-choice a significant choice, as you are given only a finite amount of time to make some choices, and doing nothing can have serious implications for your future self. But what about when in-game actions are not presented as alternatives, but as the only path through playing the game? And then that path turns out to be not what you expected?
Broken Age set me up to think that I was helping those who couldn’t help themselves. It was easy to believe that I was playing the hero, because that’s the role so often offered in games. It’s so common, so pervasive, that even in games like those of the Mass Effect series, we remain the hero either way we play the game—Paragon or Renegade. It’s just that we can either be honorable or ruthlessly practical in how we go about saving the universe from the Reapers. In Fallout 3 we can nuke the town of Megaton and rack up bad karma, but we’ll still get sidekicks and quests –just the evil ones rather than the good ones. Few games trick us into believing that we’re doing the right and heroic thing, only to pull the rug out from under us later. Shadow of the Colossus is an excellent game for doing that—the story is premised on the belief that the player is doing the right thing, hunting and killing Colossi that are nothing more than peaceful inhabitants of the world. But of course doing this is a trap, as the ending reveals. Broken Age takes a similar path—although right now the ending is ambiguous, as we haven’t seen the finale to the game yet.
When confronted with a choice to make in a game, many of us either pause to logically consider the alternatives, including potential gameplay benefits or penalties for particular choices; or we discard those in favor of affective responses—what our ‘gut’ tells us to do or whether there is an emotional pull we will honor with our choice instead. But if the game presents us with actions to take and then contradicts what we think their meaning is, what then? If our actions are interactions but not necessarily choices; and they aren’t presented as optional, can it make me/us rethink those actions in a new light? Like showing us our character in Bioshock was really brainwashed and the truth is different from what we imagined, games can make us question what information we’re relying on when we take actions; they can disturb our fantasies of wanting to play the hero and always assuming our actions are noble; that if the game says to do something with ‘x’ result, that’s what’s really going on.
If you don’t expect the game you’re playing to have some deeper messages or prod you in new ways, those elements will be even more unexpected (and maybe more meaningful) when they do show up. And in that way games like Broken Age are a little more like daily life, where we may think we’re doing the right thing, but in actuality, we’re the asshole. We’re the ones screwing up, even if our intentions were good. If games did this all the time they wouldn’t be that enjoyable (we have life for those lessons) but it’s nice to have games occasionally point out that being the hero isn’t always so simple; that games can trick us, and that even when we are led to expect that certain actions are noble and heroic, they may not always be so.