Monday, April 13, 2009

Gaming Morals

I just finished playing Godfather 2 this weekend.  The game is, of course, based on the second movie of the Godfather series (none of which I have watched even though I played, beat, and loved the two Godfather games that have come out).  At its utmost core, the Godfather games play a lot like GTA games.  There is a big open sprawling city where you can run around, hijack cars to get around faster (or just take one of your own at one of your safehouses), escape from police if you're caught doing something bad, etc.  In the Godfather games, your ultimate goal is to take over the city/cities from other Mafia families and rub out the soldiers, capos, underbosses, consiglieres, and dons of the other families.

It probably sounds like a very violent game where you play a terrible person doing awful things, which it is, sort of.  I say sort of because even though the story is pre-written and certain evil deeds are required of you, there are a number of ways you can resolve certain situations.  For example, in order to find out where the rival families' higher ups are and how you need to whack them, there are people scattered throughout the cities with little keys over their heads.  You do a favor for these people and they do a favor for you.  I discovered fairly quickly that there are way more people with keys (most likely randomly generated) then there are rival family members.  This allows a choice for the player for which quests they want to do.  Gameplay-wise they're all the same.  Steal this, beat up or kill this person, or smash up this story.  But the reasons for why people need this done are incredibly different.

One person wants you to take out their competition who doesn't have any insurance, so they want you to smash up the store to put them out of business.  One person hired a woman of leisure and then woke up the next morning to find her and his wallet gone.  So bad people wanting the help of bad people, right?  You'd think so until you find the ones like the woman who went on a date with a co-worker, didn't put out, and now the guy is spreading nasty rumors about her, so you're tasked to beat up the guy to show him she won't stand for that.  Or a reporter (assumedly) tells you he/she wants you to steal some pictures that got stolen from him/her so they can use it as evidence in a political scandal.  Or (my personal favorite) a person has a sick kid, but their spouse wastes all their money on gambling/drinking, so they got life insurance for that spouse and they want you to kill them so they can have money to help their kid.

I say that one is my favorite because it brings a very interesting moral choice to the game.  I've played many games with moral choices, but usually they're along the lines of kill this guy or forgive him everything and give back your reward money.  Like super black and white, very dumb choices.  This one is interesting because you're helping a sick kid, but you need to kill someone to do it.  What's even more interesting is that choosing one quest or another makes no difference gameplay-wise, but it helps make your character (Dominic) your own.  In any good story, you have to connect to the main character and this is especially true in games because you're the one controlling them and you're forced to do what the story has the character do.  This is why I hate games that have super dark, violent, angry characters with no humanity in them.  I can't connect with them.  I have no desire to kick puppies or shoot babies or eat kittens.  I know it's a game, so I can suspend some disbelief and do things that I, Eric Heine, wouldn't do, but I'm not going to like a character that I can't empathize with or understand.

So what this character choice allowed me to do is play this criminal Mafia lord in a way that I could really connect with.  I wasn't just a thug out to murder people and cause destruction.  I was the Mafia Don who was out to protect the innocent people of his domain by doing the evil things that they couldn't do for themselves.  I refused to do any favors where I felt the victim didn't deserve what they got.  So any favor where I was going after a cheater, a thief, a murderer, or a rapist?  Yeah, sign me up.  I'll serve out justice Mafia style.  But you want me to take out that other business just so you can profit?  No way man.  Get outta my town.  This also applied for taking out the rival families.  I did that not just because the game told me to, but because I can't trust those rival families to be respectful of justice or the innocent.  They probably take advantage of them.  So I need to take over so I can make the world a better place.

What would have really been interesting was if I could shut down certain crime rings because that wasn't my Mafia's style.  For example, one of the crime rings I could control was a drug ring.  If I could have shut that down after taking it over, I certainly would have.  The Corleones are better than mere drug traffickers.  We've got class.

So while playing through this excellent game, I was playing a meta-game of observing how and why I did certain things in the game.  The most memorable games are ones where you get to create your own stories alongside the real story and this is a perfect example of that.  I wish more games gave the ability to make moral choices without it affecting anything because as soon as it affects the game through rewards/punishment, it affects how I will play that game.  All Bioware games have the static good/evil/neutral choices.  I always choose the good path just because I don't want any negative points on my permanent record.  As soon as I can determine that my choices have an outcome like that, I stop playing a character and start playing a game, which is okay, but it can be better.  Games can be more grown up and mature (and not the "lots of sex and violence" mature that seems to be the definition of mature games currently).  Games can and should make people think about their choices and teach the player about themself or life.

Other things I discovered about my morals while playing:  I have little problem with stealing as long as it's for a good cause; it takes a slightly greater cause to get me to beat up a male civilian; it takes an even better cause to make me beat up a female civilian; it takes an extremely good cause (the sick kid) for me to be okay with killing any civilian (except if I'm driving, but that's more because I wasn't good at driving in that game).  None of the people who wanted me to bash in the stores had very good reasons, so those didn't fit in here.  And obviously I'm only talking about doing this stuff in a game and not real life.  In real life I'm only okay with stealing if I can get away with it.  :)