A question of morality?

August 10, 2009

Infamous morality

The very first ‘moral dilemma’ in Sucker Punch’s ‘inFamous’ is to decide whether to share food supplies with other hungry civilians or to kill them with your special abilities to hoard the food for yourself, your friend and your girlfriend. As choices go, it’s pretty black and white, exacerbated by the fact that these are your only two choices, and that the game pulls up a little icon at these flashpoints which clearly dilineates that this is a decision that will effect either a ‘good’ choice, or an ‘evil’ choice.

Anyone that has benefitted from even a modicum of a good upbringing can tell you which choice relates to which end of the moral spectrum here – it’s generally accepted that murder is bad – but one cursory glance at the Trophies list for the game shows that there are achievements for both the good and evil choices at every major ‘moral dilemma’. Despite being a rather crude device to ensure the user plays through the game more than once, it also straitjackets them down the route of one or the other, particularly as moral ambivalence actually works to the detriment of the player – special abilities are unlocked when you are completely evil, or completely virtuous.

But is life really like that? Even the most kind-hearted person cannot claim to have never committed a bad deed, just as a cold-hearted killer has not always been totally evil from the moment he was born. Life is not so black and white. There are many shades of grey – grey that is missing from inFamous at every level. Why not give the player a range of options? Don’t funnel them down one of two pre-determined paths – allow the consequences of every decision to permeate the story. Admittedly, this is more work for the games designers, and the writers – a myriad of different paths throughout a game depending on your actions is a more complex undertaking than two different final cutscenes. Surely a player that frees one captive but accidently kills a hundred innocent civilians by spamming grenades against his enemies is guilty of wasting human life? But the game never recognises this moral infringement, because it’s not part of  a clearly signposted good/evil setpiece.

A game that aspires to replicate the subtle nuance of morality within it’s story has to handle the matter a little more delicately. Shoehorning the choice between acting good or evil into a crudely presented ‘do this or do that’ mechanic at finite points in the game does no justice to what the game is trying to replicate, especially when the entire choice is rendered redundant by Trophy lists that demand that you play the game through twice, once totally good and once totally evil.

Morality isn’t black and white. Games shouldn’t be either.

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