Most video games don't involve morally complicated choices with real consequences. But this is starting to change, writes Brett McCallon ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
A few months ago, this column took Roger Ebert to task for his assertion that video games could never reach the status of "high art". The film critic argued that because players essentially control their game experience, the video game auteur is secondary. But the fact is that players have precious little control over what happens in most video games. Most are tightly scripted and linear, and player agency is superficial and simulated.
But there are exceptions. Real experimentation with player choice and consequence has been taking place in recent years, mostly in new role-playing games (RPG) from western developers.
In this gaming genre players take on the role of a character whose skills and attributes develop as he or she quests through an imaginary world. "Dungeons and Dragons" is a popular example of this type of game, some of the finest of which feature stunning, fully-realised vistas, creatures and scenarios that can transport even the least imaginative player. The most successful RPGs have tended to be tightly scripted affairs, such as the legendary Japanese "Final Fantasy" series. In these games, players are moved from beginning to end in a pre-packaged (albeit sometimes engrossing) narrative, and player choice comes largely from the evolution of certain powers and abilities over the course of the experience.
But some western developers have been busily straining against such limitations, with interesting results. "Fable II" (Xbox 360) is one notable, recent entry ("for every choice, a consequence" is its theme). Developed by Lionhead and released in October, the game's world of sorcery and castles lets players choose the powers they want and how they use them. Such choices have physical consequences: those that use magic grow thin and frail, suffused with eerie light; sword-wielders become buffed and tough. Moral choices also bear out physically, with beatific characters eventually sporting a halo, and nefarious sorts growing impressive-looking horns from their dastardly brows.
If sexuality has a place in video games, it tends to be in the skimpy costumes of female characters. But "Fable II" brings a decidedly mature approach to lust and its consequences. Characters are free to marry whomever they choose, regardless of sex. Moreover, they can marry several different people at the same time. (Players who pursue bigamy are cautioned to ensure that their families live in different towns, just as in real life.) While the game does not depict graphic sex, characters are free to sleep with anyone who finds them sufficiently attractive, and more than one at a time. Even prostitutes are fair game, and players are given a choice of protected or unprotected sex (assuming that they have planned ahead by purchasing condoms--seriously). The game's world of Albion is apparently bereft of sexually-transmitted diseases, but foregoing protection can lead to accidental pregnancies. Given such mature choices and consequences, it is not for nothing that the game requires players to be at least 15 years old.
However, the game's most significant innovation comes from the surprisingly nuanced moral choices that arise during various quests. One of the most affecting choices I faced came toward the end of the game. I had created a female character for myself, and she turned out to be both morally upright and very attractive to both men and women throughout the land. This attractiveness made the game considerably easier than it might otherwise have been--I could wander about without cheating or killing anyone to get ahead, and I enjoyed a distinct advantage in negotiations for goods, etc. My character was, in effect, hot stuff. But I eventually found myself in a scenario with a surprisingly complex choice: either I let an innocent young woman have her face irreparably scarred, or I let this happen to my own character.
I had never, in all of my game-playing years, found myself in a situation like this. Usually a choice between good or evil is a simple statement of preference. Indulging in stealing or deception often offers some small advantages, but there are rarely real costs in pursuing a particular moral path. In this case, however, I had played "Fable II" as an upright and comely character, and I was met with a choice that would cost me one of these attributes. It is only a game, after all, but my eventual decision (saving the innocent) affected my later progress. My character was less attractive, so she had more trouble negotiating the kinds of deals and favours she (and I) had become accustomed to.
Peter Molyneux, the head of Lionhead games, has said that being truly good in a game should be more difficult than being evil, just as it is in the real world. By presenting players with the power to affect the world in which their stories play out, and by forcing them to make sacrifices, however inconsequential, in order to play the roles they choose, games like the "Fable" series let gamers learn something about themselves that they might never have known in the real world.
Picture credit: "Fable II" (Lionhead)
(Brett McCallon is a writer based in New Orleans. His last gaming column was about nightmarish video games.)