There’s an old thought experiment that goes like this: imagine an out of control train careens towards a fork in the tracks. Stranded on the left route are ten strangers, while parked on the right is a good friend of yours. You stand by a lever that dictates which branch the train will take, invariably killing whoever lies down that track. Who do you choose to save?
Only a few years ago, moral choice became all the rage in the gaming industry. As a back-of-the-box selling point, it flourished on the basis of enabling players to interact with traditionally linear plots, altering them according to player feedback. Much in the same way as the thought experiment of the train, divergent plots hinging on moral choices were advertised as offering an intriguing exploration of morality through narrative.
Eager to go whole hog on the interactivity schtick, many games featuring moral choices paired the branching plot with branching gameplay. These games tied gameplay mechanics into moral choices to such an extent that the moral problems themselves turned out to be excessively framed in terms of gameplay effects on the player. In Bioshock, harvesting Little Sisters was guaranteed to enable the player to unlock more special abilities, while saving them rendered upgrades only a possibility. InFamous featured a protagonist capable of discovering new powers within himself depending on his moral alignment. The city responded to the player according to the same scale, attacking or helping him/her depending on how far he/she slid around the binary moral scale. Mass Effect had unlockable dialogue options, quests and abilities exclusive to Paragon or Renegade playstyles. Fallout 3 presented a similar system phrased as Karma. The list goes on.
Each instance employed its own framework of gameplay, game mechanics, plot, story, characters and world-building which interacted as a system. In games with divergent paths, the system in place can form an important part in determining narrative, as choice mechanics are often tied into each factor to varying degrees. For example, a game might offer the player an option that significantly augments the gameplay but carries the narrative connotations of immorality (Demon’s Souls does this quite subtly, albeit without any plot divergence). The majority of these approaches worked with fluctuating success in the gameplay department. After all, a system that offers players an assortment of ways to play the game is praiseworthy stuff.
On the other hand, when scrutiny drifts to the aspect of morality within each choice system a lack of profundity rises to the fore. By overtly correlating a divergent moral narrative with gameplay rewards that the player can afterwards reap, player focus generally turns onto the latter as a mode through which the former is considered. Suppose the above thought experiment was framed to emphasise how the party you save will teach you some special magical capacity. For most people, the problem stops being about which option is morally right and instead shifts to an internal debate on whether you would prefer the power to cast fireballs or the ability to fly.
The problem of gameplay consequences in systems of moral choice is exacerbated by trimmings that hold the player’s hand, such as colour-coding virtuous and evil actions and overtly forecasting the gameplay outcome to the player as motivation to make a decision. Since the moral problems are framed in terms of which solution will most benefit the player in terms of gameplay, the moral tale being spun in these narratives devolves into exercises in identifying utility. The result tended towards a narrative of mixed messages: stories were reciting concepts of justice and “hard choices” while gameplay mechanics trained players to be bare-facedly utilitarian.
While on the most part these games failed to deliver on the offer of intriguing moral dilemmas, they did manage to eke out a few situations where questions of morality were the legitimate focus. This was achieved by disconnecting the gameplay mechanics in operation from the diverging narrative experience, an approach more recently brandished in The Walking Dead.
Telltale’s ongoing almost-monthly The Walking Dead has so far met with both critical and commercial success. Modelled after the introversion of the comics on which it’s based, it tries to deal more with exploring the human condition rather than bathing in the fantasy of a zombie apocalypse. Although The Walking Dead still features its share of grit and gore, it does so as a means to explore themes of society, despair, survival and morality. Considering it’s a downloadable episodic point-and-click adventure and it’s doing so well for itself, it seems to have struck quite a few chords in how it goes about this.
Divergent narrative is still significant to The Walking Dead but unlike inFamous et al the choices you make bear no obvious correlation to gameplay mechanics. Firstly, as protagonist Lee, the player is frequently asked to make decisions that will alter the narrative, but the degree to which the game might change is often ambiguous. Even innocuous dialogue choices can return to haunt the player, sowing distrust of Lee throughout the small group of survivors or just making his life a little bit more uncomfortable. Quite frequently, decisions made on the fly appear amoral but convey subtle social and philosophical attitudes.
An example of this appears in Episode 2 – Starved For Help. The player is asked to divide four items of food among ten hungry people, but it is unclear whether the manner in which the food is rationed out will affect his/her ability to complete a later task. Perhaps feeding Lee will help him to better defend against an attack by the undead, or perhaps another character would need that food to stave off unconsciousness at a crucial moment. The player is left in the dark as to what consequences will manifest from his/her actions, so whatever decision he/she makes is the result of narrative context as opposed to the direct influence of gameplay.
Other “moments of truth” are far clearer in their narrative consequences but leave the player uncertain as to how each outcome might affect the player’s game. Near the end of Episode 1 – A New Day the player must save one of two survivors in jeopardy, not expressly knowing that the other will be doomed to die. If you have a clear-cut favourite based on their personalities, the decision might be made in a snap. Alternatively, you might assess the characters based on their narrative qualities and potential influence on the groups’ viability. Personally, I lingered – one of the characters in danger had a gun we might need later. The fact that I instinctively valued the gun over the life of the poor chap getting mauled by zombies impacted me with a twinge of guilt. Utilitarianism, however justifiable, can a lot less palatable when you’re not flagrantly rewarded for it, which, I imagine, is part of the point of the dilemma.
Since the ramifications of the player’s actions won’t necessarily translate into different toys, powers or quests, he/she is not incentivized to treat the diverging narrative in terms of gameplay utility, unlike games where moral extremism or utilitarianism always nets the greatest reward. Bereft of clear gameplay consequences, the decision-making process is foremost influenced by narrative context. Having crafted a divergent system where the consequences of your actions are thoroughly characterized by narrative meaning, Telltale presents a game where moral choice isn’t reducible to gameplay choice.
This commentary on morality is further enrooted by clever use of characters, themes and narrative devices, such as the character of Lee’s eight-year-old ward, Clementine. Clem’s innocence serves as the arbitrary moral standard against which Lee needs to justify himself. She exists as a staunch remnant of the old society’s morality, an ideal whose death has yet to be fully vocalized. With each hard decision Lee is forced to make, the player may find him/herself growing to feel ill at ease with Clem’s mawkish reactions, or might instead be more inclined to sacrifice group security and survival to preserve the young girl’s naivety.
Such narrative depth is the result of a system that knows how to appropriately balance gameplay and narrative. The Walking Dead refrains from overemphasising gameplay components to the point where they compromise its message. Instead, Telltale has constructed the game so as to focus on the narrative experience without the frills of dichotomised gameplay features.
The powerful effect of putting narrative coherency before gameplay can be seen even in those games listed earlier, albeit as exceptions to their turgid utilitarianism. In the Mass Effect games, having to decide the fates of the Rachni and the Geth stand out as instances where the player is informed through world building and plot rather than the prospect of having something to play with afterwards (although whichever decision the player makes is still denoted after the fact as Paragon or Renegade). Mass Effect might have benefited from more closely resembling the Dragon Age: Origins system – a much more subtle approach of balancing party loyalty without dictating moral alignment after every decision.
InFamous 2 flips around its moral dualism at the 11th hour: after two games of a simplified moral framework derived from a comic book format, the player finds him/herself facing a dilemma upon which the traditional NPC representatives of good and evil trade shoulders. By subverting expectations, the player is asked to rethink the slapdash nature of a comic book moral binary. Unfortunately, if the player doesn’t have enough “good” or “evil” points to pursue the respective option, he/she is told to go back and grind until the moral-o-meter is sufficiently filled.
Interaction by itself is often enough to invite the player into thoughtfulness, so long as there’s an anyway good narrative around which to frame it. At the end of Final Fantasy XIII-2 the player is forced to make a decision on whether to kill the villain or show him mercy. Whichever option is taken the game continues along the same route, but by offering the illusion of choice the player is asked to reflect upon the muddy situation and cast judgement. Much like the dividing out of rations in The Walking Dead, there’s little in-game consequence to your decision. Be that as it may, each game provides a meaningful moral experience to the player by merely reaching out a hand and asking, “What should you do?”
Whether The Walking Dead will deliver on the offer of a worthwhile insight into morality in the long run is still up in the air. The question of the moral justifiability of cannibalism in a food-deprived community was largely glossed over; similar to the source material, the cannibals here were evil by virtue of their cruelty, the subject of their cannibalism itself being largely untouched upon at the time. Nevertheless, The Walking Dead has the potential to intrigue the player into a worthwhile moral debate, and it’s all due to a system that tells a tale without sabotaging itself by conflating interactivity with an overemphasis on gameplay.