I acted like a monster, and the world treated me as one. Why was this surprising?
This post contains spoilers for each of the three endings to Warp.
Warp is a cute, challenging, and fun puzzle game. You play as a little alien who can warp a short distance. With this power, you must rescue a friend and escape the science facility where you’re being held captive and experimented on. You’re a weak creature -- get shot once and it’s game over -- so it helps that you can warp into people or barrels to hide… and then you can explode out of them with such a show of blood and gore that it would make the chestburster from Alien jealous.
My fist time through the game, I loved the explosion of gore. It was cathartic. The opening cut scene lets you experience the horror of live experimentation first hand; you feel the alien’s pain. Later on we see similar experiments performed on other aliens, scientists slaughter them just to see how they die, and then we’re forced to fight a fellow alien that’s been tortured to the point of insanity. These people, both the guards and the scientists, are not innocent bystanders in some large scale conspiracy. They’re out to kill you and your kind. So I killed them first. Over and over and over again.
Then I beat the game. The alien stepped out from a cave onto the rocky shore of an ocean. It was raining, which turned the alien grey and took away his warp ability. But this was okay, since he’s already escaped. After all, he shouldn’t need it. Then a laser sight appeared, and he was shot in the head. That’s what I get for beating the game.
It’s a sad, frustrating ending. Going through all that work to escape, to get proper revenge, only to have the adorable alien cruelly shot down in his moment of accomplishment. I was angry that this is how the game ended, but as I watched credits and reflected on the ending, it began to make sense. I wasn’t a good person, or rather, a good alien. I was a sadistic psychopathic being that literally killed every living thing in my path. I didn’t have to kill every living thing in my path, but I did. I was a monstrous force upon this virtual world, and so the virtual world treated me as such. Why was this surprising?
Games have a habit of always justifying players’ awful actions. Every Elder Scrolls game starts out by featuring us as a prisoner so that we feel less guilty about being bad. We play criminals so often it’s cliché. We fight for revenge more often than honor. We’re always war. And within these various forms of justification is the unspoken understanding that other characters -- hell, the whole virtual world -- will accept your awful actions without judgment.
Warp feels especially jarring after playing Skyrim, a game full of evil choices but with no negative consequences. I slaughter a city, then bribe one guard, and suddenly no one else cares about my wanton murder. I become the leader of the Thieves Guild, a group of people who pride themselves on their avoidance of violence, while at the same time being the leader of the Dark Brotherhood of assassins. The more powerful that I become, the more evil that I become because I know that I can get away with it. I can kill a city guard with a flick of my finger. I am a monster, but everybody loves me.
Shepard can be a total ass in Mass Effect, but everyone still loves her. The same goes for the characters in Dragon Age, Fable, and nearly every other game that has “evil” choices. The only other game in recent memory that gave players a bad ending (or a bad anything for that matter) in response to their bad behavior was Bioshock. I may be forgetting something, but I honestly can’t think of a game like that from the past few years.
Games are so dedicated to pandering to the player that the world rarely reacts realistically to the monstrous things that we do -- until Warp, that is. For a game with such a cute art style, it presents a deceptively complex world. The scientists may be harmless, but they’re not innocent. How do you judge someone like that when their life is in your hands?
This is a game that acknowledges the fine line between anti-hero and villain: If I kill only soldiers that shoot at me, I get an ending that portrays me as a badass killer, but not a monster. In that ending, the soldiers force my hand and I kill to survive. Heroic? Not really. Villainous? No. However, if I kill everyone regardless of their threat level, I get an ending that treats me as the monster that I am. A soldier takes advantage of my momentary vulnerability and kills me. If I don’t kill anyone, the alien escapes to a sunny green outcropping and does a happy dance that reinforces its image as a non-violent creature. Each ending makes sense considering my actions.
Warp acknowledges my actions in a way that few other games seem to do, despite the abundance of choices those other games present. It makes me wonder, does my unique path through a story really matter if my ending is ultimately the same as yours? Which is more important in making a story feel tailored to my experience: lots of choices throughout or a few different endings?
After playing Warp and Skyrim back-to-back, I’m leaning towards the latter.