Imagine you start a new game and are immediately presented with the following scene: on the left is a small bunny rabbit sitting on a small hill. Every once in a while it snuffles in the grass.
On the right is an enormous demon wreathed in flames.
The game then prompts you, “Press X to save the bunny’s life, or press A to use the archdemon’s untold powers to take over the universe.” There is no other choice (other than to turn the game off). You must select one: either the cute bunny dies and you rule the universe forever, or you save the bunny.
The “decision” presented to players here is basically arbitrary, since there is very little to go on: how much we like the bunny can only be dependent upon how the bunny is modeled and animated and what we assume about the character. For all we know, after we press X, the game could tell us the bunny is actually the reincarnation of a terrible dictator, and shame on us for keeping it alive. Same, too, with the demon: he might reveal that by “universe” he meant the pocket dimension in which he is trapped, consigning you to suffer forever as a ruler of nothing.
So on the surface there is a “good” or “evil” path here, but because our hypothetical game provides very little information and relies solely on external contextualization to define what those terms mean relative to its world, the choice is basically meaningless to the player.
Let’s discuss, then, two of the elements that make the decision more interesting. They come before and after the decision point, and are empathy and consequence, respectively.
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By empathy I mean the player’s personal connection to the choice at hand. For example, Fable III gallops out of the gate with an immediate choice to save a significant other or to save several innocent villagers. The problem is that the “significant other” was introduced just moments earlier, and with whom you as a player have no choice but to be involved with (your sole two options for him or her are “hug” or kiss”). By the time the decision comes around, you know effectively as much about the significant other as you do the villagers, which makes the decision much less harrowing that I believe it was meant to be.
(As a side note, the decision, while mirrored depending upon which gender is chosen, was totally unequal in actual experience for me. Playing as a prince with a girlfriend, the choice activated the male circuitry that told me I should protect her, whereas I easily consigned the useless “boyfriend” character to death when playing as a princess.)
I would call this a failure to establish empathy.
Creating empathy for characters happens regularly in many dramatic arts, but games tend to struggle in this area. If they are successful in creating empathy at all, they often piggyback on established cultural conventions and assumptions: the endearing sidekick dog in Fable II, or the small, helpless Little Sisters in BioShock (who were originally slug-like creatures, and who were changed into the form we know today due to a desire to create more “emotional resonance” around them). Or they are implausibly saintly and totally uncorrupted, like Aeris from Final Fantasy VII.
There are a raft of reasons why really good characters that invite empathy are difficult to create in the medium that is games, some aspects of which I’ve discussed previously. But beyond a lack of technical development or a thorough grasp of storytelling principles, I think game creators often do not fully understand how agency and empathy can stomp on each other. In the first Mass Effect game, for example, the player is presented with a situation with only two options: either sacrifice Character A or sacrifice Character B in order to continue the mission. I believe this was meant to be a profound sort of decision, but the effect is almost exactly the opposite.
Faced with such a situation myself, I naturally picked the party member I liked the least– the one who always annoyed me, the one who’s opinions disagreed with my own. In other, words I prepared myself to sentence a fellow character to death by distancing myself from him or her.
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The most distant viewpoints, of course, are found in the large-scale strategy games like Civilization. Later in its main quest, Fable III offers several choices that come down to improving the lives of the people in the short term versus taxing them heavily and encouraging poverty in order to stave off a guaranteed threat that will attack the kingdom at a certain time, but these simplistic, binary decisions are difficult to appreciate. Civilization and its peers do a much better job of capturing the complexities of rulership. Decisions in those games are more of a careful balancing act, not a seesaw between the artificial extremes of “nice but weak” and “mean but strong”. Additionally, they accurately capture how the dangers to the nation are not always predictable.
The thing missing from these games, though, is empathy. You can set tax rates high, research a style of government that seeks to control the people, and so on, without ever coming face-to-face with the consequences for the average citizen. Sometimes revolts take place if a game’s measure of discontent overcomes its measure of fear, but even then the rebellion is a matter of numbers, math, inconvenience. The faces of suffering are hidden. At least Fable III deigns to give them a tangible spokesperson.
I feel like that distance is (right now) a trade-off, though, since one of the things these strategy games do so well is model the consequences of such decisions. Not a few times has playing as a despot in these games given me a palpable sense of trying mightily to keep a tight lid on my population, lest its seething masses boil over and overthrow my government. And I have experienced first-hand the sinking, sickening feeling upon realizing my open, friendly policies have left my country plump and weak, an easy meal for its neighbors.
In contrast, the more personally oriented games like BioShock, Mass Effect or Fallout, which attempt to capture some kind of “moral” scale based upon the players’ actions, simply cannot come close in terms of representing the real world-simulative consequences of such decisions. The main quests in each of these games (and their sequels) are largely the same no matter if one is “good” or “evil”, and for all that I love playing such games, the basic equivalency of choosing either path is obvious the moment one has tried both.
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A certain type of game will lend itself to a certain type of choice. A game that depends upon a linear pathway through its narrative content will necessarily structure itself as a series of checkpoints and gateways. A game that summons a world through the means of an open simulation, however, can afford itself more leeway, as long as those outcomes need not rely on specific pre-recorded assets. As I prepare to ask “where are the games that attempt to get the empathy one experiences in those close-in perspective games while still showing us the consequences of our actions in an open, procedural manner,” though, I can already hear the shouts of “Far Cry 2” as a potential answer.
Far Cry 2 put the player in an open world through a first-person shooter lens. It gave us the close perspective we needed to connect with our “buddy” characters on a personal level while still simulating a larger world in which events seemed to play out on their own, even if we, personally, were not involved. I believe it is true that this game had the right idea in trying to integrate these two ideas of empathy and consequences; I also think that in attempting to do both, it did not hook enough players with either. It was, essentially, ahead of its time.
Which is another way for me to say that I think games in the basic vein of Far Cry 2 represent a good way to think about the future of game design: approaches that encourage us to develop empathy for characters in our game world, and which also allow us to make decisions about those characters with meaningful consequences. It will take significant development on both sides of this equation for us to get there.
With any luck, though, the next time we encounter that cute bunny and that fire-wreathed demon, we’ll stop in our tracks, carefully considering all of the complexities of the choice, before we press a single button.