Monday, August 27, 2012

You have a choice [citation needed]


Recently I've been on and off SMT: Strange Journey, a delightful little RPG for the DS (all these acronyms), but I've hit a snag. It's nothing difficult, in fact, it's not even a fight or puzzle or anything of that sort. It's just a simple question.

The entirety of SMT has built from the familiar D&D setup of the axis of good-evil and law-chaos, with the majority of the story and gameplay built around constructing yourself in the latter axis. "Demon co-op" occurs with a party of the same alignment, which usually dictates your party choice, and the majority of the (relatively sparse) dialog options revolve around establishing yourself in the axis. I'll be sparse, and try to be spoiler free, but as the story evolves, there becomes a pretty clear representation of law and chaos within your npc allies. From that, we get a brilliant "pleasant, morally sound authoritarian path" vs "chaotic, unpredictable freedom", in a very "The Grand Inquistor" Dostoevsky fashion.

So I've hit a branch. It's not a significant branch, it won't dictate the rest of my game in terms of what I "see" and not. It will probably change my alignment, but I can always move that back without too much time. The real problem, is that I just don't know where I stand. It's a relatively simple question, even when you consider the philosophical consequence, but it's one I can't come to a conclusion of. Do we need freedom if we have happiness? Is freedom worth it if it causes pain? So on and so forth.

On reflection of the issue, I have never had this sort of conundrum in a game. It's not that I've played no other, or even too few games that have branching dialog options, I've played your Bioware games and your Bethesda games and your Bioshocks and that sort, but I think there's a fundamental difference between what's going on with these questions.

For Bethesda, it's mostly just gameplay choices. Maybe you try to manipulate some karma system or some other morally sophomoric "good vs evil" thing, but for the most part, the questions are ones of the "experience". Rarely does it demand you to think beyond "what would i rather see" or "what would I rather this character do" and of what does, it's mostly "should I kill this innocent person just to be an ass or should I just let him keep his money" (or what have you).

I have to suggest it's the same for Bioware. Clearly, just by the narrative presentation, and the discussion of the developers, they are intending a sophisticated narrative, one with deep lore and relatable characters and emotional scenarios, but I think when it comes to the dialog choices, it's still much about "what you want to experience". In fact, they even explicitly tell you what is "renegade" and what is "paragon" (or light side/dark side or whatever the moral "gimmick" of the game is). The questions aren't about establishing what YOU the player is, it's about what you the player want to create for you the actor. Some choices will have you questioning your choice, but as far as I can tell, they are more of "who do I want to live/die" or "who do I like more" and stuff like that. It's rare (if not non-existent) that one of these choices probe the player's motivations.

Bioshock, however, does try to make this sort of decision. With the harvesting of the little girls, it's an extreme example of self-importance or making it hard on yourself for the sake of a "probably lost cause". The problem here is two fold. For one, it's a not at all a translatable example. In light of the Randian world of the game, it's likely that it's intended to be a play on the importance of the self in light of institutional errors and such, but it comes off as "be a monster or be a nice guy". The second problem is that the game, even from the start, destroys the supposed advantage that sacrificing the lil sis should give, as a "gift" is proposed by the lil sis' leader of sorts. It could work on a philosophical point, that even when you believe you're supporting yourself, you would be better supported helping the community or whatever, but it weakens the aspect of a point. So maybe it's not intended to be a significant choice, but it fails on a moral level.

I have to posit that those are overly-simple, pointless questions. Strange Journey has several similar to that: Shaking someone's hand, helping a demon in need, so on and so forth, but as it constructs itself in the game at large, we can develop a number of things. These questions formulate what the demons are, what they represent. They help identify your (the player's) persona, giving a dynamic example of a question of life (such as the "what if you find out your wife is a robot?" question for the application of free will). There may be a need for something like Bioware narrative or Bethesda narrative, they lead to comedy, emotional despair, accomplishment, etc., but with the discussion of "what does it mean for a game to be art?" shouldn't we be critical of what it means to be questioned? Shouldn't games be more interested in what they are asking the PLAYER? They want us to want to BE the main character, but aren't we just making the main character in our own narrative light? When do you feel something like Mass Effect probes you to question yourself, rather than your actor?

I think I'd like to hear comments about this, so while you think of an answer I'll be thinking about what to do with myself in the Schwarzwelt.

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