Violent Video Games and Linearity: What Our Choices Can Teach Us

If thrust into a game where the choices aren’t mine to make, violence (even horrifying violence) ends up making a statement about what that game’s creators are trying to express more than it makes a statement about me the player being forced into a role. […] I don’t believe that game violence causes real world violence, but I do believe that it does little to prevent it. And games with meaningful (and potentially distasteful) choice just might do better because they stand a chance of making the player think about what they’re doing on screen.

So writes a developer for the game Dishonored, a maybe-you-play-stealth-but-maybe-you-kill-everyone game from late last year. The game was well done, and I’ll talk about how I decided to play it in just a bit, but for now I want to tease out this statement about linearity.

For the uninitiated: what he means by ‘linearity’ has to do with choice in any particular game. Some games are ‘open world,’ and thus you can go where you please. Skyrim is an example of such a game: you need not follow any particular path. There are stories available, and you can follow them, but you’re free to do what you will, even if you never hear the story the developers created. On the flip side of this you’ve got ‘linear’ games, which the majority of games fall into. Everything from Halo to Call of Duty to nearly every Mario game puts you in one place, tells you to go to another, and there are very little chances for exploration (either of the virtual landscape or the narrative). Perhaps you can choose which weapon you yield, or you can look for secret warp tubes, or some other such bonus, but for the most part, these games already know what you will be doing, you just have to do it. They land much closer to the ‘watching a movie’ side of the spectrum than the ‘exploring a new world’ side.

And then there are games that sit squarely between these two extremes. Dishonored is one, but so might the Mass Effect universe, or the Army of Two sequel, or any number of games with ‘moral choices’ thrown in. The missions themselves are relatively linear (“Go from point A to point B, accomplish these objectives, kill or disable this person,” etc.), but involve choices that shape the narrative. Dishonored gives you a ‘chaos’ rating, based on how many people you kill (or don’t), and that changes not only the world, but it influences the ending you receive, and how characters react to you. Mass Effect has a bit of a static ‘Paragon’ vs. ‘Renegade’ (read: ‘lawful’ vs. ‘rebellious’) system, though other choices may alter intergalactic politics.

These choices, the ones that change the narrative or emotive experience of a game, are precisely what allow us to use games as a medium for exploring our own ethical intuitions. Particularly when a game imposes some set of morality, the way we react to those judgments can tell us a lot about the way we work through ethical dilemmas.

Take, for example, the Mass Effect series. While I didn’t always agree with the ethics of the ‘Paragon’ choices, it led to many discussions with my friends about what a moral choice would be, given the situations we found ourselves in. One particular mission in the third game (spoiler warning, if you care about such things), involved dealing with a rogue separatist movement of a particular species. The species was robotic, and so shared one mind, though this group had a code glitch somewhere along the way, and had broken off from the main species. Your mission was to go and ‘fix’ this group, and you had two options. One option was to reprogram them, with the help of a member of the primary species, in order to bring them back into the fold. This involves the least death, but seems tantamount to brainwashing, at least in our eyes. The game reassures you that this particular species does not see consciousness the same way that we do, and so such a rewriting is more like a purging of the flu virus than anything else. The other option is to simply kill the other group: finish the war, destroy the separatists, and move on. Purge the species, if you will.

The ‘paragon’ choice was to rewrite the species, though to some that felt plainly evil. Many felt that it was far more evil to completely change and alter thought than to simply kill something for being genuine. On the other hand, without more information about how consciousness actually functions in this particular species–which is clearly distinct from the human individual experience of consciousness–perhaps such a moral choice may be more difficult to make. When I chose the ‘paragon’ options at the beginning of the mission, my character objected to the rewriting of a species. The member of the species on your team explained that for them it was not the same as a brainwash, and attempted to justify it. In the end, the ‘paragon’ option was to defer to those more knowledgeable than yourself, even if the option seemed wrong based on your own understanding of the universe.

But my point here isn’t to work through the moral implications of rewriting a species’ thought patterns that may-or-may not have what we think of as individual will. The point is that this game provided a unique space to think through this issue, whether or not I wanted to. Not everyone did so, obviously: some followed ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ thoughtlessly, while some took a pick and choose method to their in-game morality. But for those of us who prefer to allow our entertainment to inform our thought, or at least inform us about our thought, the mission (and many others) sparked something unique.

Dishonored attempts to give players a similar choice, though perhaps it is less complex: do you kill all those who stand in your way, or do you spare them? As far as how I played the game myself, I attempted to explore how a character in that situation would act.  A bodyguard who had sworn his life to protect his queen, and who had likely killed many people for that purpose, probably was not unfamiliar with killing, even if he always did so in the line of duty. And so initially, I killed as few people as possible, as I was simply trying to restore my status. But as I assaulted the strongholds of those who were responsible for removing me from my place of honor, my character became more violent. He killed more, though sought only to kill those he felt were deserving. Sometimes guards, but primarily the higher-ups, or individuals that were clearly evil.

That should tell me something about myself. For starters, it means that I’m hesitant to put myself into the place of a game character, at least without lots of qualifications. My own morality system is quite different from the character I played, and I found myself far more interested in telling a compelling story than I was with upholding some sort of action. I felt like director rather than a character.

It is this sort of reflection, this sort of learning, that video games enable us to engage. Of course, other forms of media and entertainment can act as a moral compass, telling us which way our intuitions lie. But the choices inherent in many games, and even the lack of choices in a medium that could very well give us choices, enable a different sort of interaction than film or books, which usually only offer the option to continue or stop. For some, the best way to play a game may not be to play it at all, but at least those of us who do play can often choose how we play.