The word “law” applies to two distinct abstracts: universal truths (unbreakable, mathematically provable consistencies) and socially upheld codes (legislated instructions that dictate how a person may and may not act). The same word signifies both the parameters of what is possible and the parameters of what is acceptable. In a video game, game mechanics neatly parallel with the laws of the universe. The mechanics dictate how the game is played, what can and can’t be done. But games rarely have a parallel to social laws, at least not a parallel that holds any meaning. Social law, in games, doesn’t exist, except in how the protagonist is either above or exempt from it.
Games have a plot that dictates what the player is supposed to do and the mechanics determine how they are to go about that. If there is something the player should not be able to do to accomplish their avatar’s goal, the developers write it into the mechanics and it becomes impossible. Sure, players can skirt along the line of what is acceptable by finding a sweet spot where enemy AI can’t confirm a hit or by leaping over an obstacle in just the right way to skip half a level, but since the mechanics allow it, it’s possible and therefore legal. The idea of transgressing a social code rarely comes up. It isn’t often that a game discourages the player from doing something, punishes them if they do, but still makes it possible to progress in the game.
Most video game protagonists never have to consider the law. Either the hero exists in a lawless world or the law doesn’t apply to him or he is free to act outside of the law. Even in the cases where there are behaviours that will have the world turn against the protagonist, there’s seldom a lasting consequence. Shaking a five-star crime rating in the Grand Theft Auto franchise is as easy as a paint job, eluding guards in Assassin’s Creed means taking a quick breather in a pile of hay, and crime in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series is negligible in the few times the player is actually careless enough to be caught openly stealing or killing in someone else’s home.
Not all of these games would be improved with realistic repercussions to crime, but they illustrate that even when a game sets up a code that the player must obey, law only poses small obstacles that are easily overcome. Racking up a five-star crime rating in GTA is a fun “survivor mode” challenge that gets erased the second the player loses. The main game can still be completed because the player is thrown back into the world and the game carries on like nothing wrong had ever happened. Police and rival gangs don’t behave any differently toward the player than if they had never done anything to begin with.
This can create a massive gap in a game world’s logic. Near the conclusion of Dragon Age: Origins, the hero must travel around the capital city impressing and negotiating with the aristocracy to garner support against their rival, Loghain. After accomplishing good deeds and winning favour with important figures, the party meets to debate at a summit between the hero and Loghain over who will lead the country against the marauding darkspawn. Whether the country votes in favour of the hero wins or loses, the matter is decided by a brawl. Organizing a defence against the darkspawn is set up to be a massive administrative problem that can’t be solved except with brute force. It is something that needs to be approached legally, but the game backs out and breaks down everything to a mini-boss fight.
Likewise, the awkward, forced ending of L.A. Noire had the player shooting through hordes of stormtroopers after twenty hours of meticulously combing through clues to bring a criminal to justice in a courtroom. The point of the game until then was to uphold the law even as it’s either falling apart or being actively dismantled by influential officials. But when the player is up against an insurmountable conspiracy that can only be defeated by collecting incriminating evidence and exposing those responsible, the game gets frightened, hands you a flamethrower, and backs off. Until that time, L.A. Noire tried to use social law as a guideline for the player, where building a case determined a level of success, where failing did not lead to a “Try Again” screen, but instead, was supposed to be a condition the player had to carry on with and compensate for.
It isn’t that law has never been effectively used. One of the most appealing things about the Thief series was that Garret could get caught and that he’d have to deal with the consequences. If Garret was caught in the act, he would have to complete his objective in an environment of heightened awareness. Guards would know that there was an intruder lurking on their grounds. Alternatively, Garret would have to fight his way out of a trap, wasting time and resources while leaving behind evidence of his being there. Thief not only built mechanics that differentiated what was and wasn’t possible, but it laid out an ideal set of behaviours. If you acted outside the optimal set of behaviors — even unintentionally — you would have to survive the fallout.
Most of the time developers either force the player down a single path or give them absolute freedom to do whatever they’d like. There’s nothing wrong with either method, but there are leagues of grey area that have yet to be explored by a game that provides a firm but fair set of rules that the player ought to — but need not — follow. Knowing that a character is capable of doing just about anything, but that they must limit themselves according to somebody else’s laws forces creative problem-solving, it draws out character development, and it makes the world feel fuller and the protagonist’s place in it more believable. It also makes the decision to break the law so much more weighty. There’s considerably greater drama in having your hand forced and knowing the decision will dog you for the remainder of the plot than if the hero can just flash their license to kill and be on their way.
Law isn’t something that works in every game, but it is a curiously unexplored idea, possibly because it’s so difficult to implement effectively. But the more critics and developers champion player input as vital to the medium, the stranger it is to see how little that input actually means. Decisions fail to mean anything if each one makes the protagonist into either a paladin of virtue or a badass anti-hero. It’s when characters have to tread unfamiliar ground and moderate themselves that we really learn anything about them.