Living in the Gray – Moral Ambiguity in Videogames

Blurring the Lines

Growing up, videogames carried simple narratives and always put you on the side of good. Choices were always laid out for you so the path the end was as simple as just completing the game. As gaming grew and it was realized that this was a medium that could tell stories on par with novels and cinema, developers were quick to implement bold changes. What if instead of being on one side or the other, you operated in the gray. Character motivations would become more complex and narrative and the player would have to question whether or not their actions were right. This is why today you see so many games that stray away from one side or the other and even though they are works of fiction, there is a sense of realism in games that are morally ambiguous. It’s still escapism, but it makes you think as well.

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One of the first titles I played during the 90’s that featured some moral ambiguity was Chrono Trigger. While the plot geared toward saving the world and generally every character was on the side of good, the character Magus, who acted as a villain up until the halfway point of the game, had motivations that were actually erred on the side and the player was the one who stood in his way. Sure, he wasn’t a good guy as the game painted him in a negative light and it seemed that he was destined to be a villain with the intent of world domination, but it was discovered that he was fighting the real evil and your intrusion prevented him from reaching that goal. As a kid, I was confused, on the one hand he was a relatively cool character who I wanted in my party and on the other hand, it turned out that you made things worse just because you assumed by his appearance that he was evil. This was a nice change of pace in regards to character development and it just so happens to be from one of the greatest games of all time.

It wasn’t long until videogames began to craft experiences that featured morally ambiguous characters. The majority could be seen in RPG’s as those were narrative heavy and usually incredibly lengthy. Suikoden II for example placed you in a conflict of ideals between friends. It did feature a memorably evil villain in Luca Blight but it was the conflict with your former best friend Jowy that made you question whether or not the conflict was worth it as he was truly trying to change the country for good. The same goes for the surprisingly excellent Final Fantasy Tactics as childhood friend Delita works to change the country of Ivalice through questionable means. His precipitous rise to power does nothing to change his belief that the country needs to be changed for the better, even if it means violently purging those leaders who had left the country in ruins. RPG’s like these would be primary means of providing layered characters and stories and it wouldn’t be until the 6th generation of consoles where other genres followed suite.

The advancements in technology gave developers the tools to craft intricate experiences regardless of the type of narrative. Open-world games allowed for greater variety in terms of gameplay and the choices made by the player could effect the world around them. Branching narratives quickly became present within non-linear experiences. Games such as Silent Hill would feature multiple endings based off player action. The Metal Gear Solid series became more complex with each title as you were given the choice to either kill or incapacitate. Enemies were more than just an obstacle, they had motivations that at times would align with the player. Playing the protagonist no longer meant playing the hero. Characters were more fleshed out and the best titles would keep those characters and their interactions as grounded.

That isn’t to say there haven’t been missteps. For whatever reason games would implement a system that balances your choices. Mass Effect implemented a Paragon or Renegade system in which key moments would allow the opportunity to pick a side. You couldn’t live within the center as you would miss out on abilities that were attuned to a certain alignment. The same concept applies for Bioshock, Vampyr, and Fable, in which your actions would affect your abilities. This is a feature that should be subtle as it allows the players to not be punished for an action. The Telltale series of games as well as Quantic Dreams games do an excellent job of subtly hinting that you’re actions will affect the overall narrative. It just feels more organic than a button prompt indicating that this action would benefit a moral alignment.

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When you play a title like The Last of Us or The Witcher, you almost know from the start that you’re character lives in the gray. Characters like Joel or Geralt let the player realize that sometimes there is no safe decision. There are consequences to your actions no matter what you choose. That balance directly reflects reality and it allows for discussions as to whether or not the actions taken were for the best. Joel actions are those of a parent who suffered a tragic loss and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a normal person would act that way under those circumstances. Geralt is an experienced warrior who has seen the worse in humanity and takes a non-chalant stance to most of his actions and the actions of those around him. These characters fully represent their respective environments and they add a bit of realism to the fictional worlds.

Today, morally ambiguous games act as a response to those titles that still feature the dichotomy of good and evil. There will always be a need for simpler titles, but those games that blur the line tend to resonate longer after completion. It may have took a while to get to this point, but gaming has begun to craft experiences that rival those found in films. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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