Wednesday, December 17, 2014

[BoRT Dec. 2014] Moral Valet+: Hegelian Cynicism and Gaming

This post was written for the December 2014 Blogs of the Round Table

                “Since, in the action as such, the doer attains to a vision of himself in objectivity…the inner aspect is judged to be an urge to secure his own happiness…Thus, for the judging consciousness, there is no action in which it could not oppose to the universal aspect of the action, the personal aspect of the individuality, and play the part of the moral valet towards the agent.”

                -Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit

                I gave up on this month’s Blogs of the Round Table.

What is there to say about New Game+ that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? I had no ideas. The only concept I could come up with was digging an old game out of the closet and starting a New Game+, but I frankly couldn’t be bothered. I only ever play a New Game+ for one reason: unlocking content I missed in my first playthrough.

Then I read this excellent piece by Phill of Tim and Phill Talk About Video Games and it all fell into place. Why I hate New Game+. Why so many games bore me to tears. How I play video games and why it precludes making multiple playthroughs only to unlock new content.

                Let’s take it back a step. When I play games with story-path choices, I always take the path that best reflects how I, personally, would respond to the situation. If that conflicts with the story’s morality system, so be it. I don’t care if Infamous saves its best powers for those who stick only to “Good” choices or “Evil” choices; if I disagree with the game’s definition of good and evil, I will defy it. I try to follow the dictates of my own moral system in each situation even if it means losing out on some rewards and content.
                This particularly comes into play with Visual Novels (Katawa Shoujo and Hate+ spring to mind) and games that borrow heavily from this genre (Persona 4). By the end of the first playthrough, I know what choices I would have made, for better or for worse. I have responded to the game honestly and have seen myself reflected in the eyes of the creator. Sometimes my choices conflict with the narrative and I get a Bad Ending, but it is my Bad Ending, the path that I chose.

                Some people like to power game, working with FAQs and walkthroughs to achieve maximum power over the game from the start. This is perfectly valid for those who enjoy playing this way, but I feel that walkthroughs rob me of immersion, of the option to interact with the game on a serious, emotionally involved level. To power game is to play cynically, to view the game as an aggregate of mathematical formulas to be exploited instead of a world to be inhabited.

                When I play a New Game+, I am my own walkthrough. I know the choices that I would make. All that remains is either to re-experience that same narrative or to cynically make alternate choices in order to see something new. But it is no longer my choice, no longer my narrative. The experience of New Game+ is either redundant or frustrating.

                Phill describes a similar frustration, the frustration of genre savviness. When you already know how the game is going to play out, it becomes difficult to view the game as anything but a set of numbers to be manipulated. The total aggregate of my gaming experience becomes a walkthrough and ruins immersion in advance. The game cannot be taken seriously when I can only view it as a game, as a human-made construct instead of a “true” living world. I am an alienated, cynical moral valet towards the game, not a true believer.

                In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes the “moral valet” as an alienated individual[i] who is no longer convinced of the authenticity of action in moral systems. As the saying goes, “No man is a hero to his own valet.” While the public persona of an individual may be a hero who upholds a universal law, the valet sees the selfish individual motives behind the façade. He cleans up after the hero, cooks his meals and prepares his clothes, hears the back-room conversations of the powerful contrasted with the moral rhetoric presented to the public.
                For the moral valet, all systems of morality and truth are mere human constructs. Religion is a lie, art is empty, and ethics is a con game. Laws exist only to protect the interests of the rich and powerful – there is no eternal moral truth, only what we can get away with. Anyone who claims to be upholding moral truth is either deluded or a liar.

                Oddly enough, the moral valet finds moral superiority in rejecting human-made morality. “At least I am not propping up the façade, at least I am not playing the game. Others may continue to lie and delude themselves, but I will not participate.” Of course, when asked why they refuse to participate, the moral valet has no answer. If all morality is constructed, there is no reason not to use it for your own advancement. The moral valet has no logical answer, only defiance; a sort of “courage in the face of nothing.”

                Why not play games cynically? I have no good answer. While I might oppose approaching society, ethics, and justice as arbitrary concepts in real life, a video game is, after all, only a game. It does not matter if justice is served in a video game. It does not matter if my character’s morality is a truly held belief or a cynical manipulation of a human-made system.

                And yet, I must have courage. I maintain the Self in defiance of systems. I am driven to respond openly and honestly to games in the same way that I respond to real-world systems. There is an element of selfishness in this (this is how I most enjoy playing the game), but the same could be said of real-world ethics. I prefer to live in an ethical world because it is so much nicer over here.

                The line between game and reality begins to blur. I only enjoy both the game and life when the hard choice is made, when power is sacrificed for truth. Even if the system is rigged and I can extract more rewards by cynically exploiting the faith of others, I refuse. Maybe the system is human-made, but that does not make it unimportant.
                So what if game systems are at heart cynical mathematical formulas? By responding to them in a real way, I make them more real. By upholding morality, I make morality more real. Even if truth is human-made, that only means that it can be made true by humans.

                I still don’t like playing New Game+-es (New Games+?). They seem intended to extract something that does not interest me out of video games. If I want to see an alternate ending, I’ll watch it on YouTube. But I think more can be done than simply trashing the system, and I think Phill hits on part of the solution when he describes his efforts to develop games himself. Don’t like the system? Make a new one. Change the rules of the game.
                Why should playing a New Game+ mean retreading through the same old branching choices that were there the first time? Persona 4 has something like this – there are dialogue options that can only be chosen on a second playthrough.[ii] Ideally, a New Game+ should offer more than the option to plow through the game faster to see all the endings. It should add to the game experience, not just carry over an old game’s stats and items.

After all, what narrative justification is there for New Game+? How does it make sense that the first playthrough affected the main character but left the rest of the world intact? Wouldn’t it be great to play a New Game+ where you took the role of Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, knowing information in advance and taking advanced steps to thwart the villain’s schemes? Many games already put the protagonist in the position of Messiah – why not Prophet?

                There is no reason why a New Game+ has to be boring – or even the same game. Mechanically speaking, New Game+ just involves creating a save file which carries over information from a previous playthrough. So a New Game+ could be an entirely new scenario, plus information from an old game.
                I’m just brainstorming here, but maybe the first playthrough of a game is set in a feudal society and the New Game+ throws the same characters into a contemporary setting. The overall plot may be the same, but how does swapping out the time period change the morality of your choices? Can you support an absolute monarchy in the 21st century? Is it as easy to slaughter Orcs who wear t-shirts and jeans instead of jagged plate mail?

                Maybe the hero from the first playthrough is the evil dictator in the New Game+. “You either die a hero or live to see yourself become the villain” and all that. Or maybe you play as the villain who has to work against yourself in the first game, the hero who is becoming progressively more powerful as your loyal troops are decimated for experience points. There is no reason to fall into the cynical position that New Game+ only exists to pad out play time. It can just as easily be an engaging part of the narrative.
                Cynicism only ruins games when you let it. If you approach game design as a checklist of market-tested mechanics and designs, you will make a boring game. If you approach game play as a checklist of systems to be manipulated, you will have a boring time.

                The moral valet only cares what games are in the most physical sense of ones and zeros. The cynic sees something that can never have a meaning greater than itself. To be a true believer in games is to push their limits beyond what they are into what they can be. Stepping beyond cynicism is the only way to make truth, to recognize others, to find the Self.

                So go out there and make something better - fire your Moral Valet.

Previous BoRTs:

[BoRT Nov. 2014] Lebensraum and Ichsraum: Self-Portrait in Civilization 4
[BoRT Oct. 2014] The Mask of Sanity: Persona 4 as a Psychopathy Simulator

[i] Hegel uses the term “moral valet” both for an aspect of self-consciousness that doubts the universality of actions and for individuals that doubt the universality of actions (universality here meaning that a particular action is taken from duty to a universal moral principle instead of selfish, personal desires). For the current article, I’m going to stick primarily with the moral valet in the second sense but I’m adding this note because misrepresenting Hegel is where angels fear tread.
[ii] Specifically: certain dialogue choices require a high stat in Courage or Empathy. Since it is impossible to raise that stat high enough fast enough on the first playthrough, they can only be accessed in New Game+.

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