Morality and Ethical Decisions in Twenty-First Century Gaming
As any good writer knows, the story must foster a relationship between itself and the audience. No story can exist in a vacuum, nor can an audience be expected to read a story just for the sake of reading it. While not considered literary in the conventional sense, the stories told through games still foster a relationship. The audience, in this case the gamer, still expects to follow a storyline to its logical conclusion in addition to deriving a deeper meaning from the story being told. Becoming, wittingly or not, emotionally invested in the character(s) is a result of good story telling and game play.
This relationship has always been there, from the rescuing of Princess Peach to the spanning narrative of the Mass Effect series. However, as games advance, so too must their stories.
No longer is the modern western audience interested in following linear game play, instead there has been an increase of stories where the audience is required to make conscious decisions that affect the storyline later on. These “choose your own adventure” narratives require the audience -the player – to make conscious decisions, both moral and ethical, that have repercussions later on. This is an evolutionary branch of gaming as the audience for games expands to both younger and older generations, each of which is looking for one thing in particular from the games that they play.
For instance, consider the open world, role playing game of Fallout, released in 1997. Fallout deviates from most role-playing video games in that it often allows for the player to complete tasks in multiple ways, often choosing solutions that are unconventional or even contrary to the original task, in which case the player may still be rewarded – or punished. The player’s actions ultimately dictates the ending of the game, or what future story or game-play opportunities are available.
Later, in 2012, Electronic Arts has released Mass Effect Three. Mass Effect is an evolution of what was found in the Baldur’s Gate series: the ability to continue the story via a game file from the previous games (Mass Effect one and two). The game builds upon the previous edition. Yet, with Mass Effect Three this did not happen. Considered an affront to the entire series by the Reddit gaming community, Mass Effect Three included a lack of variations in the endings with regard to the player’s choices over the course of the previous two games, resulting in a general lack of closure. While EA is releasing a cinematic epilogue to tie together the storyline, this emphatically asks the question of when does art become art merely for profit? Zerro’s note: Artists traditionally have always had to find a patron who funded their endeavors. The patron would take almost complete creative control of the painting or sculpture, leaving only the technical details and execution to the artist. Renaissance artists rarely did anything solely for the sake art itself, it was for profit and posterity. Art has always had a mercenary aspect to it, whether it is a single artists following the vision of a patron/funder, or a large corporation guiding and profiting from the efforts of writers, animators, illustrators, designers, etc… What Robert asks is not a new question at all, but still deserves exploring. If gaming companies are willing to sacrifice the storyline of their games, are they also willing to sacrifice their audience? No longer are video games a simple input-output experience; they possess complex, robust narratives that potentially rival even a bestselling novel, but only when quality is valued over profit. Quality is especially important when one game costs USD60, almost a full days worth of wages. For such a cost, I believe players expect a storyline that satisfies their desires and sustain them over the course of a campaign. If the preceding becomes reality, then video games have great potential in becoming the nuanced, complex medium film and print are.