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Time for Consequences: Moral Dilemmas in 'Dead Rising'

I imagine that even Adolf Hitler would have chosen to save (not harvest) the Little Sisters within the context of a video game like Bioshock.

I frequently complain about the “moral” choices that modern video games ask of players. I know that Mass Effect, Fable, and Bioshock are supposedly attempting to force us into interesting moral quandaries by offering binary choices to moral dilemmas. As I often say, this frequently comes down to what I view as bogus choices because of the extreme quality of the binaries laid before us. Save the baby or eat the baby? Boy, that's a head scratcher.

No matter the actual state of our souls, most of us tend to view ourselves as basically decent human beings, and when faced with such extreme black and white choices (with little actual consequence built into the choice), most of tend to make “the right decision.” I imagine that even Adolf Hitler would have chosen to save (not harvest) the Little Sisters within the context of a video game like Bioshock.

Indeed, no players of Bioshock that I have talked to or read about have chosen the “harvesting” path on Bioshock on a first playthrough. Even with the implied incentive of harvesting being more beneficial in terms of gaining more points to build a character, I have yet to meet someone who was comfortable with embracing that particular dark side. When I have mentioned to people that I have completed a harvesting playthrough on my second Bioshock playthrough (my own excuse: I wanted to know what the full Bioshock experience was all about), I have been met with snorts of disgust. These people know that I did the wrong thing, even if I explain that “I did it in the name of research as a game critic” or that my first playthrough was “my real playthrough” -- you know, my basic human decency playthrough. Heck, I know that I did the wrong thing for that matter. . . . I still feel kind of icky about it.

But then again, I did it anyway, and I still feel the whole experience felt largely artificial and distant. I know what choice I made to begin with and that within the narrative context that harvesting is not the story that anyone is really all that likely to choose for themselves. There isn't really any good reason in the story for the protagonist to pursue that route, let alone for me as player to choose it, since even if I am a min/max fanatic, I know that the game is built so that I can complete it no matter which choice I make.

My colleague, Kris Ligman, wrote a bit about the problem of a lack of a sense of irreversible consequence in gaming last week in her blog, which has gotten me thinking about part of the problem with moral choice in games. Moral choices are so obvious because they tend to have no real weight in the context of the gaming experience. As she says, when recounting a perceived “moral failing” on her part that she thought had resulted in the death of her crew in Mass Effect: “when confronted with a consequence that I couldn’t handle, my immediate player’s response was to stop and get a do over” ("One Chance: Playing with the Notion of Irreversible Consequences”, PopMatters, 11 January 2011). Indeed, I have reset games because of choices that I have made as well. Having another life tends to rectify bad judgment in a way that is impossible in reality.

While Ligman insists that even in One Chance, a game that ostensibly disallows “do overs,” that there are ways of getting around the finality of your choices, she suggests that narrative context and the “threat” of having “one chance” does lend the game some sense of moral weight. She hopes that other games might find a way of adding this sense of consequential action as well.

While I would argue that (in a sense, at least) video games once largely were consequential, merely by having a clear lose state (the “Game Over” screen, see my article "Pac-Man Will Die: Cynicism and Retro Game Endings") and by including an economic consequence (that will be another quarter, please), this meta-consequence hardly parallels the moral weight of the story being told by many modern games.

That is, except for games like Dead Rising.

The kicker, of course, is that a game like Dead Rising does have some “meta-consequences” that are related to its sense of making consequential choices, but the beauty of those choices is how strongly they relate to the scenarios represented in the game. As Frank West, freelance photojournalist, your goal is to investigate the zombie outbreak in a mall in Williamette, Colorado. While attempting to document “The Facts” in order to get at the truth behind this nightmare scenario, Frank also attempts to help those survivors that he can by leading them back to a safe house set up in the security office in the mall. With only 72 hours to complete his investigation and save as many folks as he can (and the game does keep track of time throughout a playthrough), there is only so much that Frank can reasonably get done at any given time. Also, survivors are autonomous creatures, and while Frank does his best at herding them towards the security office, it is always possible that they will end up dead (or undead as the case might be) despite his (and your) best efforts.

Now there is certainly a “do over” quality to Dead Rising given that, when Frank dies, the player can choose to restart the game while retaining any skills and abilities that Frank has gained through his earlier attempt to solve the mystery of the outbreak. Indeed, on my first playthrough of Dead Rising, I made three separate attempts to complete the first “case” in Frank's investigation while also successfully saving four survivors. Each of the first two times, I lost some of my survivors, so I restarted (a little bit stronger) each of those times in order to get those saves “right.” I didn't want to leave anyone behind; it just felt wrong, so I got myself chomped. Once I had a level nine Frank West rolling and had a little practice with herding people through hordes of zombies, I was finally successful and, in my estimation, morally successful as well.

Now, I realize that these moral choices are not presented in terms of dialogue trees or “push X or Y” in the same way that Mass Effect or Bioshock presents moral dilemma. These choices are better because they are choices made over a course of time with the thought of time and its consequence as a part of the context of these choices. These choices are raw. They are made quickly and according to the gut. Let me explain what I mean.

I did not restart the game after those initial successful forays into the mall. Once committed to so many successful missions, the idea of restarting becomes a less desirable option. Sure, you can always simply reload a save if a save doesn't go well or if you ran out the clock on a mission, but being efficient in Dead Rising, which means saving a lot of people all at once, rather than just one or two at a time, becomes time consuming -- even reloaded saves become less desirable when you know that you have invested 20-30 minutes in running several missions at once, and you know that you will likely fail again.

As a result, while I had been largely successful for about half the game in returning my hapless survivors to the security office, about halfway through the game I ran across an injured man and his girlfriend in a shop on the opposite end of the mall from the safe house. Ironically, the man tried to convince me that I should leave him behind and just take his girlfriend with him because he would slow us down. I convinced him to allow me to carry him and gave his girlfriend a baseball bat to defend herself as we made our way back to the safe house. Somewhere around the halfway point on our trek, the girlfriend ended up lost in a sea of zombies, I circled back to see what I could do.

Eying her health bar, which was rapidly lowering, considering the weapons that I was carrying and the fact that I would have to leave her boyfriend defenseless while I carved a swath back through the zombies to get her, and glancing over at the clock that showed me that if I didn't make it back to the safe house soon that I would fail the game by not completing a story mission, I very briefly hemmed and hawed.

Then, I left her behind.

It was all that I could do. Yes, I could have restarted and played back through the game with a stronger Frank (that would take maybe four or five hours of my real life). Yes, I could just reload to the last save and plan a more efficient route back the next time. I imagined that this would probably require three or four failed attempts before I got it right, or given the additional context of the situation -- this mission was occurring at night, when zombies are thicker on the ground in the game -- maybe I was just not skilled enough to pull this off without a complete restart and a higher level version of Frank. Given the consequences, I made a choice that I have rarely made when playing a video game (a space that usually speaks to the idealist in me), I got practical and chose to let her go for the sake of saving at least one and potentially saving the mall, assuming that I could complete the remaining story missions.

Unlike moral choices made in games like Mass Effect or Bioshock, which allow me the time and space to consider what is right in repose, Dead Rising forced me to make a choice on the fly, based on my best assessment of the circumstances.

I can still hear her scream: “Frank! Frank!”

A number of mechanisms allow for this consequential kind of action. The sheer difficulty of Dead Rising is quite steep, part of this is due to some bad AI (bad pathing makes some survivors especially difficult to bring home), but part of it is by design (unlike in Dead Rising 2, survivors in Dead Rising will randomly freeze up in terror or act irrationally afraid and crawl on the floor and other things that make paying attention to them important). Additionally, the timer makes completing all the sub-missions extremely difficult (again, if not impossible) on a first playthrough. Finally, spaced out save points and the ramping up of difficulty at different times of the day and as the result of several narrative factors (cultists enter the mall, a group of convicts harry you outdoors, etc.), making “do overs” less enticing and making idealistic choices harder. The irritation at having to replay large chunks (or all) of the game places the player in the position of having to sometimes choose the less “morally” optimal choice and begin considering “alternatives.” Moral weight is added by the fact that I don't like the choices that I made. In my mind I had sinned by omission, which was made clear by the fact that I am aware that I had a “do over” if I wanted it, that I could have gotten it right but chose not to for selfish, pragmatic reasons. The sort of choice one might have to make if one were in a zombie infested mall.

Interestingly though, at times in the Dead Rising series, I am willing to reload a sequence in Dead Rising because my moral outrage overwhelms my desire for pragmatism. In a recent playthrough of Dead Rising 2, I ran across a psychopath in a Fortune City wedding chapel who was holding a woman captive in order to “marry her.” Dressed in bondage gear complete with a rubber pig mask covering his crotch and thrusting a chainsaw at the pelvic level, Randy was clearly some kind of crazy. I had been skipping psycho fights on my first playthrough of the game, as I was finding them too difficult at early levels, but Randy's struggle with some kind of weird sexual repression was clearly going to make for some twisted “honeymoon” experiences for his “bride.”

I died the first time that I fought him, and I was resolved to skip over this psycho, as I had done with previous maniacs that I had encountered, for the sake of expediency. Yet, my own wife (who was watching me play at the time) urged me to kill him. I couldn't really argue with her feelings, as I was having them too. Randy's victim sobbed and begged next to him.

I tried again. And again.

Each time, I swore that I was just going to skip this encounter and move on towards game completion, but I just kept reloading, preparing myself slightly better each time, and figuring out how to use the chapels pews as a means of getting away from his chainsaw. It took five or six attempts, but I did kill Randy -- mostly because I couldn't really bear the implications of what would happen to his victim if he were not stopped.

It seems to me that a mixture of factors allow for a sense of consequential action in the Dead Rising games: the need for efficiency stipulated by the time limit and the sense of urgency that that produces, the meta-game that provides a sense of protecting your own interests in being efficient as a player and not getting stuck endlessly perfecting difficult challenges, and a sense of consequence provoked by the narrative context itself. In some cases, I favor pragmatism and expediency despite the consequences for the victims of the zombie plague. In others, I can't live with the implied consequences of what awful things happen in the world of Dead Rising and Dead Rising 2. In either case, the game provides more authentic choices for the player to evaluate morally because these choices matter in terms of how the player views himself and his character and what he is willing to live with given the choices that he ultimately makes. The fictional sacrifice of characters makes these decisions difficult because moments of suffering are painted rather vividly, but the very real sacrifice of time and effort in the game lead to other choices, frequently ones that do not make one feel proud of oneself. These moments may still (as in other games that boast the simulation of moral choice) be binaries. But they provoke decisions that are not clear cut or as easy as making “the choice” to save the Little Sister.

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