Ah, binary decision making. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that computer games have often presented distinct binary choices to players as ways of enlivening and complicating the stories they tell. After all, computers themselves are built on binary logic. Is it any wonder that the narratives built on top of computer systems often seem to reflect the programmer’s obsession with 1s and 0s, the concept of on and off?
Of course, what this has led to in the recent past is any number of video games in which players play a protagonist that can be developed in stark terms, choosing to play as a good guy or as a bad guy by offering moral choices in games that loudly reflect a broad ideology of “goodness” and “badness.” It has also led to a lot of discombobulated narratives, especially in regards to approaching games about saving the world while playing as a really ugly specimen of human being. Most players seem to opt to play for the “good” ending in games like Fable, inFamous, Dishonored, and the like and probably for good reason. I have written and spoken before about the frequent ludicrousness of the options often presented in these games that supposedly allow players to make complicated evaluations of moral dilemmas. I mean, if the choice is to save a child or to eat a baby, I am really going to struggle with the moral ambiguity of the circumstances, right?
Nevertheless, anti-heroes abound in games that lack such moral divisions. God of War doesn’t ask if the player wishes to play the vengeful Kratos as a reasonably decent guy or as a bloodletting beserker. It simply goes with the latter option, and as a result, presents a consistent narrative about the price of rage and revenge through a character clearly defined as wrathful and vengeful.
Indeed, it isn’t as if gamers have rejected the concept of “being the bad guy” outright in games. Perhaps, the most successful video game franchise in history, Grand Theft Auto, is a series not about playing a hero or even an anti-hero. GTA places the player in the shoes of an out and out villain, who under some circumstances absolutely will eat the baby rather than save the child. While its characters are morally detestable, perhaps, the Grand Theft Auto series still manages to maintain a consistent narrative about crime and infamy that is frequently interesting and compelling. In part, this is clearly related to what I just noted about God of War, these are not games interested in telling two stories at once and particularly struggling with doing so because the main narrative is really about heroism and thus the villainous approach seems to lack all coherency with the main narrative thrust itself. GTA games are games about being criminal, about being bad
However, I am not convinced that it is merely the singular focus of the script that makes playing the villain an acceptable role in a Grand Theft Auto game. There is more to it than that, which is largely related to the presentation of characters themselves in the series and might shed some light on the difficulties of creating a game with binary moral choices.
The first notable Grand Theft Auto game, the one that would launch the franchise into its position as one of the most important in video game history is, of course, Grand Theft Auto III. Now, that particular game is not one that especially succeeds in presenting an interesting criminal for the player step into his role as. The protagonist of GTA III, who has become known as Claude, is actually nameless and voiceless. His reason for being in Liberty City is dealt with briefly and superficially in the game’s opening moments as he manages to escape the police while being transported to prison. There is a brief nod to the fact that “Claude” was a part of a gang of criminals and was betrayed by them, which vaguely creates some sense of motive for the character’s future actions. However, mostly, Claude is simply trying to find something to do in Liberty City by connecting himself to the city’s underworld and getting back on track as a professional criminal. Little besides making some quick money and surviving in the city motivates Claude’s bad behavior.
On the face of it, the story of Tommy Vercetti, the protagonist of GTA: Vice City, is not drastically different from that of Claude’s. Tommy, however, is presented with a name and a voice and thus has personality in spades by comparison to Claude. Tommy has botched a job in Vice City, and his bosses aren’t happy about it. He is now out of a job and the people that he worked for suggest that they will be coming to recoup their losses from Vercetti when they find him. Thus, like Claude, Tommy “goes to work” finding some ways of raising some cash and establishing himself in a town that he doesn’t know well. Surviving using skills learned and honed in his occupation as a professional criminal is, again, a dominant motivator for this character.
However, GTA: San Andreas would present less simple motivations for its criminal protagonist, CJ Johnson. CJ has just returned to Los Santos, his hometown from which he has been absent for a number of years, after learning of his mother’s death. In reconnecting with his brother, his sister, and his friends from his ‘hood, he also discovers that the gang that he used to run with on Grove Street has lost much of its power in the area and that their territorial power is also threatened by some corrupt cops. CJ is motivated to take care of his family and also eventually by the need to re-establish Grove Street’s power and reputation in Los Santos. CJ might be the closest thing to an anti-hero in the series because some of his motivations are noble (protecting his family), but make no mistake about it, he is also interested in building an empire of his own and is perfectly willing to rob, loot, and murder in order to get there. He is just a criminal with a clearer and more compelling sense of purpose.
Likewise, Niko Bellic has greater purpose than simply self preservation as he immigrates to America in search of opportunity and also the chance for revenge in Liberty City. Niko’s story in GTA IV is an immigrant’s story, like that of The Godfather or Scarface, that takes place in the “land of opportunity.” He struggles and has a certain softness for his cousin Roman and some of the people that he meets, but he is also willing to do what it takes to make the most of the American Dream, even if that means shedding a little blood and breaking a few bones.
GTA V introduces the idea of playing as a triumvirate of protagonists to the series, each of which is a criminal by trade, but also each of which has a fleshed out and fully explored motivation for what they do. Michael, the former bank robber who is now living quite well financially in the witness relocation program, is having trouble with his wife and kids and is suffering from an existential angst as his current lifestyle lacks the sense of choosing to live as you want that his criminal career allowed. Getting “back in the game” is roughly Michael’s solution to a mid-life crisis. Franklin is a kid from the ‘hood, who wants to move up in the world. He is motivated to stop just making chump change by boosting cars for somebody else and ends up being mentored by the more experienced Michael. And Trevor, well, Trevor is a psychopath through and through. He takes pleasure in doing others harm and is clearly mentally unhinged. Nevertheless, even Trevor’s motivations are explored in the game as he looks for love, suffers from Mommy issues, and we begin to understand him through his psychological triggers. Trevor is notably sensitive about the term “motherfucker,” for example (G. Christopher Williams, “The Grand Theft Auto Rampage: The Violence of Cultural and Subcultural Politics”, PopMatters, 30 October 2013). Like, I said really weird and deep seated mommy issues are the core of Trevor’s character.
What all of these characters, these criminals, these villains have in common is a motivation that not only matches the narrative premise of the game, but contextualizes their acts of villainy. I am not arguing that these characters are sympathetic because, you know, there is really something ennobling in their motivations that make them really someone decent at the core. There is literally nothing ennobling and decent about Trevor, I promise you. And while CJ, for example, does have some potentially relatable concerns for the needs of his family and friends that make him not an altogether terrible human being, still he is a willing participant in crime for his own sake, not merely theirs.
What makes the characters of GTA different than the “bad guys” of binary decision making games is that these guys are not sheep in wolves’ clothing. They are wolves, but they are comprehensible wolves. They don’t eat babies arbitrarily. There is enough context, enough reasonable motivation established for these characters to enact horrific plans and do terrible things to others. Motivation is context for action in these games.
If a game wants to complicate its plot with a system of binary morality, it needs to go beyond merely making evil “an available option.” It needs to establish characters for which there is sufficient reason beyond being bad for the sake of being bad in order to validate a player choice that takes them down a different path. The character himself or herself needs to be a man or woman on the edge of realistically motivated criminality, not merely a good guy who can be “skinned” as a bad guy. Morality is not merely skin deep. So, we need to see a character to the bone in order to believe that our choices make sense within the context of his or her psychological motivation.
Critical as I have been in the past of Telltale Games’s The Wolf Among Us, that game’s protagonist, Bigby Wolf, is an example of this idea done right. Bigby is a man (or more appropriately a wolf) motivated as often by his instincts and appetites as he is by his fairy tale sense of morality and his acknowledgment of the necessity of social norms and structures. He is a character who seems comfortable in going to either extreme because he has rational reasons and motives for going either way. Evil is always an awful choice, but it is also a choice that people often make in real life because there is sufficient motive to do so.
Give me an evil that I can believe in, then. Give me a rationally motivated evil, not an absurd opportunity to choose evil that lacks real context and real motivation.