Thursday, October 1, 2015

[OE010] The Game Mechanic: Your Precious Eyes

Previous: [OE009] Handlug vs. Tat

The Game Mechanic 

 I am going to define a "video game Oedipal morality system" as one that fulfills the following three conditions: 

1). It must be possible to commit unintended moral transgressions. Gunning down innocents for fun does not count. 

2). These moral transgressions must have real consequences. Simply losing points or having to restart a level doesn't count. 

3). These moral transgressions must be avoidable, not forced on the player as a plot point.  

Unlike Edenian or Pandoran games, there aren’t very many games with Oedipal morality. So we're also going to look at a few games that come close but get no cigar9.  

Perhaps the most common not-quite-example is the employer heel-turn trope (ala Bioshock). Your employer, who you thought was a good person, turns out to be a Machiavellian psychopath. All of the early missions, where you thought you were saving the world, were actually part of their Evil Plan™ - and so the second half of the story involves taking your former employer down.10 

However, the main characters in these stories tend not to learn any sort of moral lesson at all. The entire tension of the Oedipus story comes from Heroic Morality; from taking responsibility for the results of your actions no matter what your inner intentions were. Passing responsibility for the hero's actions to a scheming third party is little more than a reverse-Pandoran twist. 

Most importantly, this trope is rarely-to-never used to question the nature of morality. It's used as a cheap twist to pad out play time (reusing friendly NPCs and locations as enemies) or to wearily "raise the stakes." If the hero is preemptively absolved before grappling with the moral questions involved, it says less about morality and more about hackneyed story writing. 

Fable III comes a bit closer. When you overthrow the evil king, you find out that his evil policies were all in place to raise the kingdom's defenses against an inter-dimensional evil. Your efforts to overthrow an oppressive ruler came from a place of good intentions but were actually weakening the kingdom's defenses. The player must make the same decisions as her predecessor - harsh policies that will strengthen the kingdom or benevolent policies that will cripple it. 

Pimping ain't easy, but it is quite profitable.
Passing by the issue that this is an inevitable plot point instead of a conscious choice, the scenario could still have provided a chance to subvert binary morality. But Fable III continues using the same old moral binary, even though the moral picture has entirely changed. A benevolent policy that gets everyone killed is not really benevolent. It's as if Oedipus continued on with Jocasta as if nothing had happened on the basis that he didn't want to hurt her feelings. 

Worse, you can bypass the entire dilemma by donating your own money to the "save our kingdom" fund. Worse than worse, if you enact benevolent policies but don't donate your own money, the game still gives you a morally good ending. Which raises the questions: 

1). Why didn't the old king just explain about the incoming dark god? 

2). Why aren't the citizens voluntarily donating to the "not getting violated by cosmic horrors" fund? 

3). Can the player truly be considered "good" if they enact the benevolent policies but refuse to donate their own money? 

4). Is this morality system really saying anything coherent about morality? 

To answer these questions: plot contrivance, plot contrivance, no, and nothing coherent. 

Braid also comes fairly close. The protagonist hops and bops through platforming levels to save a princess, only to find that she is trying to escape him. The handlug is platforming action, which is moral in the broadest sense. Is it not noble to crush enemies and rescue captured princesses? However, the tat is an immoral action - pursuing the princess against her will.11 

Despite its complicated time-manipulation mechanics and confusing subtext, Braid's moral mechanics are elegantly simple. More importantly, they are an essential element of gameplay rather than a tacked-on addition. By having an overarching moral framework, in which the main character manipulates time and memory to pursue the princess, each action becomes endowed with moral significance. 

Of course, since these morally loaded gameplay elements are of necessity unavoidable, it is difficult to classify it as a fully Oedipal game. However, Braid provides a clear enough example of what an Oedipal dilemma looks like (intended action and actual result) that I'm willing to let it sit at the cool kids' table. 

Perhaps the only example of a fully Oedipal game is Papers Please, the celebrated bureaucracy simulator. The player takes the role of a immigration officer working at the border checkpoint of a faux-Soviet satellite state. You examine the paperwork of potential border-crossers, look for discrepancies, and finally decide whether to allow or deny entry. 

The game is filled with endless little moral choices - allow a mother with improper paperwork to reunite with her family? Deny crossing to a violent pimp attempting to track down an escaped sex worker? The cases pile up and you're payed by the number of people processed, so agonizing over a moral decision means taking food out of your family's mouth. 

But the most impactful choices are the ones you didn't know you were making. I still remember approving the paperwork of an apparent work-a-day citizen who proceeded to run out into the street and blow herself up. I had unwittingly let a terrorist through, killing innocent people. 

This set up a handlug/tat dilemma worth considering. It was not an objectively evil act that the game forced me to take; it simply allowed me to make a mistake. There was no god to blame for my actions and all of my protestations of innocence could not bring the innocent dead back to life. The border checkpoint closed for the day and I returned to my squalid apartment with my meager earnings, just in time to watch my family stave to death. 

And then it happened again.
Now I have by no means played every video game in existence, so there are likely other examples out there. The point is that it is possible to do Oedipal games.12 More importantly, it is possible to make games where morality is more than a point system or a series or predetermined plot points. Whether this comes in the form of an Oedipal dilemma or not, the essential thing is that games do have this potential.

Next: [OE011] What We Could Do: The Goal

1 comment:

  1. Hey Rev,

    OT, but I posted something in the comments in regard to our talk about race/IQ stuff under your "Killing Vox Day: Part Three - What Type of Victory?" post. Please check it out.