GDC 2011: Seven Ways a Video Game Can be Moral

Richard Rouse III – Narrative Director, Ubisoft Montreal

-          There are a lot of great examples of narratives that have morality
o   Spiderman
§  Series is all about morality: with great power comes great responsibility
§  The film adaptations use this idea, but none of the games have anything to do with that.
§  It’s the reason that he’s an icon to begin with (morality)
-          1) Clarity of Intention
o   Romeo & Juliet
§  In the beginning of the play, you are explicitly told the moral
·         Also included in the modern film retelling
§  Changes how you experience it
o   Star Wars video games
§  Moral intention is announced on the box “choose your path”
o   KOTOR uses a morality meter
o   Red Dead Redemption uses an “Honor meter”
o   Twilight Zone (not sure why this example is in this section – maybe showing the opposite of that?)
§  Rod Serling had censorship issues on his earlier works because they were usually commentary
§  He created the Twilight Zone and told people that it was a work of fiction only and should not be taken as anything else – but obviously it is a show about morality (lots of social commentary)
o   Bade Runner game (also not sure why this example is in this section)
§  Had very open ended choices about how to deal with replicants
§  This gave you 40 different endings
§  There was intentionally no morality meter because they didn’t want to guide players to one extreme or the other
·         More natural, organic way
-          2) Multiple Points of View
o   Having characters disagree so that you can hear them argue both of their points
o   Star Trek
§  Lots of episodes with disagreements between McCoy and Spock
§  It’s also a really great way to show characters
§  Star Trek the Next Generation: there are more people, more points of view and there is even more talking J
§  New Star Trek film didn’t really include morality in the same way
o   Battlestar Galactica – recent reboot
§  Example of characters discussing conflicting points of view about a suicide bombing mission
§  In this show, they don’t usually resolve morality neatly in the end (like in Star Trek)
o   Alpha Centauri
§  You build a society based on an idea
§  Other factions of would confront you about your decision – they argued their points against yours
§  The game emphasized moral choices – competing ideologies (environment v. business, faith v. science, security v. freedom)
§  There wasn’t a ‘correct’ answer, which made it more fun for the player
-          3) Redemption
o   Twilight Zone
§  Common theme in many episodes is redemption
o   Mass Effect 2
§  Choices fell into paragon or renegade (not “good” and “bad” but how you go about things)
§  Every small decision you make fills up the meter
§  You can’t really switch how you want to do things halfway through the game
o   As opposed to Mass Effect 2: Fallout 3
§  Bigger point values for moral decisions
§  Because of this, you can change your karma radically
§  They wanted the player to be have the ability to change their mind and ‘come around’
§  Flexible morality system, you can change your path
-          4) Complexity
o   Shades of gray
o   The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance
§  All of the best Westerns had moral texture
§  Plot: Law-loving man kills a criminal and is haunted by it. In the end, it turns out that the sheriff actually did it. Neither guy is a “bad” guy, they just have different methodologies. Idea that ‘it takes both kinds’
o   Bioshock
§  Andrew Ryan. As a ‘villain’ he really hasn’t actually done anything wrong
§  Tannenbaum. Did horrible things (pioneered harvesting Adam from little sisters), but she’s portrayed as an ally
§  Overall moral choice of whether or not to harvest little sisters is pretty shallow (not real consequences)
o   Bioshock 2
§  There are 3 characters where you have to decide whether or not to let them live or die
·         Example: mutated scientist. An old recording (by him) tells you to kill him, but the current, mutated him begs you not to
§  This adds an extra moral layer to game
§  Unfortunately, the ‘Savior Achievement’ completely undermines this choice
·         You get an achievement for not killing any of them: it instantly makes the decision for you, when without it, it’s a hard choice
·         Creative Director publicly regretted it
o   Red Dead Redemption
§  Game has really good sense of morality
§  There’s an achievement for tying a woman to the train tracks – it completely undermines the morality of the rest of the game!
-          5) The Quandary
o   Creating a situation where there isn’t a clear answer
o   The Shield
§  Episode where cops made deals with drug dealers to move the drug trade off of corners and into designated areas
§  Basically, elects to ignore drugs
§  Really, what else can you do in this situation?
o   Gone Baby Gone
§  Story of figuring out a kidnapping
§  The mother is a bad, scary drug mule
§  It turns out that the police chief had kidnapped the daughter to raise her correctly. Wanted to save her
§  You want to get the audience to talk about it – and disagree!
o   Modern Warfare 2
§  Situation where to  maintain your cover, you have to go along on an airport massacre
§  Not actually forced to shoot anybody, but you can’t fight back (or you’ll die)
§  Doesn’t give you meaningful choices, but makes you think. There really isn’t a “right” thing to do
o   Train (by Brenda Brathwaite)
§  The goal is to put as many people on a train as possible
§  Then you find out you’re sending people to a concentration camp
§  It puts you in that situation, and makes you wonder about what you would do
-          6) Thoughtfulness and Respect
o   Never Let Me Go by Kizuo Ishiguro
§  As part of the plot, the main characters grow up to have their organs harvested (essentially, oppressed class story)
§  The book really isn’t a societal commentary, it’s a human drama about the human condition. The bigger commentary is completely secondary
o   The Sims
§  Not really intended moral statement, but the items in the game are basically time bombs. You need to maintain them, or you have to take care of larger messes later
-          7) Medium, Genre & Message
o   Think about how the medium can change the message
o   Grapes of Wrath (the book)
§  Tom’s parting speech to his mother. In the context of the novel it’s really sad and pessimistic. This guy’s going to die
o   Grapes of Wrath (the movie version)
§  The tone is optimistic, even heroic (nature of Hollywood at time)
o   Bruce Springstein song – same speech
§  Different tone: Closer to meaning in book. Bleak, but some hopefulness
o   Rage Against the Machine song: same speech
§  COMPLETELY different, tough
§  “Wow, this Tom Joad guy is going to go kick some ass”
-          Parting words
o   Fahrenheit 451
§  There’s a part where a woman participates in “Interactive TV” but it’s totally ridiculous. There’s nothing ‘interactive about it’ because the show goes on the same no matter what you say
§  Was intended as commentary that television is vacuous
o   Basically, offering choices that aren’t really choices is lame
o   Bradbury put morals into pulpy science fiction novels – we can do this in games too!
o   The hard part is really committing to it. To pull it off, you have to make a decision about telling a moral story and stick to it

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