Recent Video Games and the Advent of Moral Universes

By Rich Shivener in Unraveling Yarns
Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 10:00 am
Does Snake have morals?
As a part-time academic (I teach at a university), I think it's never too late to summon video game analyses that first appeared more than five years ago. It's important to understand those texts, and to engage in a dialogue with the original author(s) as we build on their findings. Think link blogging with some fancier words.

Through a little digging, I came across Neal Thomas' well-rounded 2006 piece "Video Games as Moral Universes," which, as the title suggests, considers how video games "simulate the real world in increasingly complex ways." It's a think piece worth exploring and applying to Metal Gear Solid 4, among other titles.
Thomas considers the parallels between film and video games as narrative media, beginning with what could be understood as a swipe at id Software's 1996 fire-starter Quake. His outline of the game's plot (in simply terms, staying alive and killing monsters) gives way to criticism. "Character-developed motivations as to why such behaviour is necessary inside the fictional world -- beyond the maxim -- 'Killing is just' -- are shunted to the wayside by the authors of Quake. We might ascribe this 'lot,' with a few variations, to many action-genre films as well."

In other words, calls to action, in some cases, overshadow morals and rules that might resonate with players. Turn to any 80s Chuck Norris or Arnold movie for an example.

"Some games are more successful in approximating the kind of moral introspection that one finds in a good film," Thomas writes. "Others, like Quake, are so reductionist in their depiction of a fictional rule-based world as to be adiaphoric, or morally indifferent. Can games develop important human concepts such as justice and welfare in their play structure while still being entertaining? Games do have a capacity to represent morality, but in general the deck seems stacked against them."

Perhaps the deck has lost a few cards in recent years with the advent of games such as Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Heavy Rain. Some of us in the gaming community might add Fallout titles to this list, but, for the sake of concentration and relevance to Thomas' piece, I'm going to focus on these two.

Like other Metal Gear titles, Metal Gear Solid 4 is a video game ripe with opportunities for character development and moral introspection. These opportunities mainly appear in the cutscenes, where we learn much about a quickly deteriorating Solid Snake, who seems to have one fight left in him. Some scenes last more than 25 minutes, affording the viewer time to synthesize and respond to the main character's trials, including the dilemma of suicide and an honorable death, as noted in the video below.

Sadly, Metal Gear Solid 4's cutscenes have turned away some players, according to the gaming community's discussion boards.  Thomas makes a general claim that "Many gamers see [cutscenes] as irrelevant or at least tedious, getting in the way of the interactive elements of the game."

He goes to write that "most titles tend to modularize action to a degree that privileges short-term, highly situated environments to the detriment of appreciating longer narratives and the entangled moral introspection they can promote. This is so in the unfolding of many gameplay scenes or acts, but is also fundamentally expressed through the human-computer interaction with a video game system -- basic, instantaneous, real-time action-response feedback loop between the hands and the action on-screen. The player is constantly making decisions about what to do next; the process constitutes the interactive element in games."

Thomas, like others, cites Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's 2006 project Facade, a one-act interactive drama illustrating the rocky relationship of Grace and Trip. There is a very thin demarkation between cutscenes and gameplay, allowing the user to respond to a serious of events in real time. It, too, is ripe with moral introspection, unearthed as you, the third party, resolve the couple's issues, or make them worse.  

"Nonetheless," Thomas writes, "we see in Facade the protozoan building blocks of an interactive narrative game space, where the system keeps track of promises, rivalries and discourses along with position, speed, and energy."

Later in the article, Thomas writes that new technologies will shape storytelling in video games. And they have. It's no secret that gamers have demanded more interactive cutscenes; developers have listened, giving their consumers more control over their narratives. Perhaps Metal Gear Solid 4 is passé and Heavy Rain is in vogue.

If we look at Heavy Rain with Thomas' comments in mind, it's a video game that takes cues from Facade, trimming the "down time" between action sequences. You simply don't sit back and watch Madison Paige's sex scene; you don't watch Scott Shelby gun down some nameless thugs. On some level, you are an active participant. You are engaged. Your timing and actions have a ripple effect on the narrative, a narrative you own.

"Videogames are a compelling new mix of technology and traditional storytelling," Thomas writes, "and on two important fronts that inform their design -- namely, sociology of technology, and narratology -- theorists are calling for users to be reinscribed into the technology in an improved, more participatory way."

The theorists' calls are working.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.
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