The Game Mechanic
The essence of a Pandoran game is that they are designed to force the player to make an evil (or at least morally questionable) choice. Pandoran games do not discard the categories of good and evil, but they do discard the ability to truly choose: simply continuing to play the game will release more and more evil into the (game) world.
We’ve seen an uptick in the number of Pandoran games in the last decade or so: Bioshock, Spec Ops: The Line, and Infinifactory to name a few. Bioshock casts the player as a brainwashed victim who has no choice but to follow commands, Spec Ops forces the player to commit war crimes, and Infinifactory forces the player to build weapons of war for an oppressive alien empire.
|A game dev. chooses. A player obeys.|
In these and many other games, an Olympian game designer gives the player a Pandora’s choice: it is not a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t; it is a matter of damned when you do. And you will do, provided you play the game.
Note that this is not a result of the game forcing the player to do something that the designer thinks is good but the player thinks is evil. Like Zeus, the designer wants the player to do evil. They write a riddle that they know that we will fail; they push us, and we fall.
This influx of Pandoran games is generally considered a good thing. These are games we, the defenders of video games as art, can hold up and say, “Hey! Games aren’t all about heroic white dudes mowing down wave after wave of enemy soldiers! Some of them are about powerless white dudes mowing down wave after wave of enemy soldiers in a morally complex fashion!”
I joke, but we do need to temper our unrestrained enthusiasm for this sort of game. It’s good that video games are moving away from the Kiddie Pool of Eden, but that doesn’t mean much if we simply move on to Pandora’s One-Trick Pony. Pandoran morality as a gimmick will only work so many times, particularly if our other options are ignored.
Pandoran games work only as subversions of established genres and tropes. They can call our moral agency into question, but can’t give us any answers. They can’t say anything about how we should live. They are a best a step – away from Eden and towards another, more complex moral picture.