Shadow play – Part III, morality in gaming

June 2, 2014

I’ve spent a couple posts developing a post-apocalyptic game world full of people and monsters. The point of the story (or game) is to ask “Can the darkness ever truly leave our hearts?”

Our modern-day Earth has become darkened by repeated and inexplicable eclipses of the sun, and the vast majority of the population has “vanished into the shadows.” Shadowy creatures terrorize the land and feast on the surviving humans. And, as far as the survivors know, that’s the whole story: it’s now up to them to carve out a niche in the ruined cities, find food and resources, and combat the encroaching darkness.

But when talking about the monsters, I described a morality mechanic: the shadow creatures are thematically connected to human failings, including betrayal, exploitation, greed, sadism, and zealotry. Once a creature has appeared (typically during an eclipse), it often can pass days as it pursues its victims, waiting for them to slip up. A creature will gladly kill and eat its prey, for sure, but there’s a worse fate: if a person performs a crime themed after the creature’s own theme, then that person will be “caught” by the creature, and will fall through the shadows out of this reality. (An event that is either lethal or damaging, depending on final game design.)

Players already know that desperate circumstances (like in popular apocalyptic movies) can lead to “practical” behaviors that are not very “ethical” ones, such as using a human shield or exterminating a rival gang. In a sense, their challenge in my game would be to keep any “ethical slips” out of the watchful eyes of the shadow creatures.

So what am I saying with this game? What am I teaching gamers?

This is important. I keep talking about game designer/cogitator Jonathan Blow, the voice behind the quotes in this animation over here. In the same speech, he also said this:

“Because we feel like games are just entertainment, we don’t really have the sense that we could do things that we might be ashamed of yet. Right? If we’re powerful people, if our medium is powerful, we should have the capability to do things that we should be ashamed of and then make the choice about whether we’re going to do them or not.”

. . .

“When millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a (mental) substance into the (mental) environment. This is a public mental health issue. We have the power to shape humanity. How will we use it?”

I’d hope to do better than Bioshock from Irrational Games (or 2K Games, but c’mon), which he also criticized. During development, the game was billed as one of “mature choices,” but in the end there was next to no choice, next to no moral quandary — just a lot of shooting people. What about me?

Let me define this game’s win conditions.

I’ve noted the cost-benefit analysis of performing unethical acts to get ahead, which I feel is already more mature than Bioshock’s limited choices. But it sounds like you could view it as “Shh, try to get away with as much bad stuff as you can before the SHADOW POLICE catch you!” That’s not what I want at all.

The main villains of the game are, somehow, connected to our own ethical failings. Back in this character design exercise, I mentioned a genre called “Gaiman pantheism,” which I named after Neil Gaiman but didn’t explain. He obviously didn’t invent this, but you can look to him and his series The Sandman for elaboration: the idea that human thought, emotions, belief, intentions, and so on, are what give gods their power, and therefore all gods are real. Now, “generalization alert,” but this exact same principle is used all over the place: this is how game developers made death itself manifest in The Suffering, with power coming directly from “humans killing humans.” In my game, thus, the disaster is powered by humans wanting to be unethical.

The only way to win my game is by world peace.

That sounds unreachable and pointless for game design, but it needs only scope and definition. Give the game a mechanic for reducing shadow infestations when the players broker peace with neighboring gangs. Reward humans for coming together to put society back on its feet. What if the eclipses, which are already unnatural, somehow became less frequent over regions of peace?

In a videogame version, full “world peace” wouldn’t be achieved in play: it would be reduced to a city level. The player would understand two simultaneous goals, being basic survival on one hand (with all the horrible violence it entails, as many people attack you on sight), and earning trust and cooperation on the other. Maybe by “quests,” maybe by plastering propaganda posters, who knows until a real dev team got together? In the end a new city-state is formed and made self-sufficient. Lessons are learned. Triumphant music is played. “The future is bright.”

In a pencil-and-paper RPG, players interested in going further could then use their new resources to liberate neighboring areas from the “armies of darkness,” which become stronger in desperation against the encroaching light. They could rescue survivors with the promise of a functional new society, and struggle against resistant gangs that still see only violence. Once a population of enough hundreds or thousands had become “re-civilized,” the eclipses would gradually fade from the rest of the world too, waiting for a future day when humanity needed the lesson yet again.

Poof, suddenly a post-apocalyptic game full of grim violence is a vast morality play where being on the side of good . . . is good. The implementation might suffer problems and setbacks like any other; but, in principle, why isn’t this sort of thinking more common in game design?

I don’t know, but that’s enough of an essay for now. In my next post I’d like to get back to fleshing out the world some more with human characters to drive the plot and gameplay.

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