Video games have long held powerful narratives. I’ve talked about that extensively here at Evangelical Outpost, and up until a few weeks ago I would have said that The Stanley Parable was one of my all time favorite games, primarily for how it handled choice. I recently was given the opportunity to play through Heavy Rain, which is as much a visual Choose Your Own Adventure novel as it is a video game. I’ve got to say: this is a game that handled moral choice expertly.
If you intend to play the game, I strongly recommend that you stop reading at this point. I went into the game with no knowledge of the story, and I think I was better for it.
The premise: you play Ethan, a man who lives a fairly normal life: you’ve got a wife and a couple of kids, you’re an architect by trade, and you live in a nice house with a backyard for your kids to play in. The game opens with a short story that ends with your older son, Jason, dying in a car accident that also puts you into a coma. Your wife leaves you, when your son visits you he isn’t really interested in talking with you, and your life generally turns upside down. There’s also a serial killer on the loose who kidnaps children and drowns them. The game’s real story kicks off when your other son, Shaun, goes missing. He’s been kidnapped.
Throughout the game, you play as four different characters. But the game’s real kicker moments come when you continue on as Ethan. He starts receiving messages about the location of his son; the messages ask what he would be willing to do to save his son. The first “mission” given by the killer is insane: drive into oncoming traffic on the freeway for a certain distance. There are four other missions, of various levels of intensity: everything from killing someone at a certain address to cutting off your own finger with whatever you can find in the room. As you complete missions, you are given clues about where to find your son.
At first, the choices were easy. Driving into oncoming traffic would be insane and dangerous in real life; but in a game, I’m pretty confident in my driving abilities. I’ve driven into oncoming traffic tons of times in games, with a modicum of success. But as I was engrossed in the story, I stopped considering video game laws and started to wonder how a father should react in this situation. What was appropriate action to save your child?
Taken asked the same questions, but managed to answer them as well: a father should not stop until his child is safe, even if it means killing people. Heavy Rain is a bit more ambiguous, though my ending suggests that I made the right choices.
For the record, I chose to act in any way that did not guarantee the harm of another individual. I cut my own finger off, for instance, but chose not to kill the drug dealer that I was ordered to kill. He had a family too, after all. But I felt it was appropriate (and in character) to put myself in harm’s way.
The choice to cut off my own finger was perhaps the hardest I’d made, strangely. Some were black-and-white: don’t kill someone for the sake of maybe saving your son, for instance. But the game was visceral enough that I knew that choosing to cut off my finger would include a graphic depiction of the act and of the pain. I was prepared for it, but at the same time there was nothing I could do to prepare for it. I watched (and cringed) in horror at the result of my choice. Fortunately, I ended up saving my son.
Much like my experience of playing Dishonored, this sort of choice can force us to consider our own moral intuitions. Some might think that it is absolutely acceptable to kill–particularly to kill a drug dealer, someone generally viewed as evil–in order to save your own flesh and blood. Taken took this route pretty openly, and was still a hit film. If you find yourself making those decisions easily, you may be able to draw conclusions about yourself (of course, the conclusion may be that you don’t take games seriously, or that you were attempting to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and make decisions they would make). But if you struggle, you may find yourself sailing through uncharted waters, so to speak. Any game that allows us (and, in fact, encourages us) to think through moral or philosophical issues is one that likely deserves a stamp of approval.