The gameplay of Ion Storm’s Deus Ex, released twenty years ago, begins with a choice. Preparing to deal with a group of terrorists, the player chooses one of three extra weapons: a rocket launcher, a sniper rifle, and a mini-crossbow loaded with tranquilliser darts. Unusually for a game of that era, Deus Ex announced from the start that the player’s choices mattered.
On my first full playthrough of the game, I selected the mini-crossbow. I had already been an active player of roleplaying games for years at that point, and I was happy to play into the fiction of the game that those trying to kill you might have valid reasons for doing so. (The sniper rifle is the choice for players unconcerned with lethality, whereas the rocket launcher is best suited to taking out robots and inconveniently locked doors.) This fiction is carried through the game’s plot, in which the initial truths you’re presented with are undermined and other characters react to whether or not the player is happy to shed blood through the course of the game.
Although a seminal game in showing how player choice and morality could be integrated into games, Deus Ex proved a hard act to follow. It received only one sequel, and its 2011 prequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, received notable criticism for forcing players into unavoidably lethal boss fights.
One year later, in 2012, a spiritual successor appeared in the form of Arkane’s Dishonored. In this title, the player adopts the role of a vengeance-seeking assassin but the developers leaned into stealth as a mechanic and decided to provide the player with the opportunity to find non-lethal resolutions to all of their goals. Not that these are any less dark in some cases: one “fate worse than death” sees a society hostess and supporter of the corrupt regime delivered to an obsessed stalker as an alternative to being murdered.
The ten year gap between these very similar games presents a degree of progression. Deus Ex asked players to think about how they solve problems and whether casual murder can be justified within the fiction of the game. Dishonored asked that question again, and reinforced it by pointing out that just avoiding murder wasn’t enough to make you a good person. Vengeance takes you to dark places.
At this stage, I ought to point out that both Deus Ex and Dishonored are first-person action games. The player literally sees out of the eyes of the protagonist, so opportunities to distance themselves from the morality of what they’re doing are limited. Action-oriented first-person shooters, such as Halo or Doom, tend to either present inhuman enemies like aliens, demons, or zombies as cannon-fodder or lean towards the multiplayer experience, where the targets are usually other players and an immersive narrative is tossed out in favour of an arena atmosphere: you get shot, you respawn, it doesn’t really matter.
The multiplayer-focused Call of Duty series does engage with this issue but in a fashion that passes over player choice. A mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s single-player narrative sees the player participate in a mass shooting. The mission is flagged for “disturbing content” and players can choose how to interact, but the massacre happens regardless. The narrative requires the deaths to happen, regardless of player choice. They’re a necessity of the narrative, just as the mission itself is seen as a necessity on the part of the player character. No moral choice is made.
Step forward another decade or so and we come to 2020’s The Last of Us Part II.* Once again the protagonist is hell-bent on what initially seems to be justified vengeance. As with Modern Warfare 2, the player has no choice but to deal with the deaths they cause. Worse still (from the perspective of the player character), an in-game switch in narrative perspective does its best to rob them of any belief that their vengeance was just in the first place.
Admittedly, The Last of Us is not the same type of game as Deus Ex and Dishonored. It’s played from a third-person perspective and is less a playground for player creativity than a canvas for the creators to tell a story. It’s also unrelentingly grim in tone, and its apparent theme of just how much choosing to kill costs is one that many players seem to have resented confronting. Even so, it’s another step on the same spectrum: engaging in a work of fiction requires emotional investment, and regret, shame, and horror are all valid emotions to feel around making the choice to kill.
Narrative is one of the strongest tools that artists have to generate feelings in consumers of their art. We have literally centuries of practice when it comes to affecting emotions through stories and of making listeners, readers, and viewers reconsider their preconceptions. Video games, as an interactive art form, are much newer on the block, and it’s hardly surprising that they’re going to crib from what came before. The first few decades of film, after all, copied heavily from theatre until the new art form developed its own language.
Yet the linear narratives that other art forms have developed sit uneasily within video games. The Last of Us hews closely to linearity and while it clearly knows the story it wants to tell, it gives players little real moral choice. Even Dishonored, where the player has the freedom to devise their own solutions to problems, has a linear narrative to follow and an external marker of morality: the more murderous the player is, the more the city they inhabit falls into chaos around them.
Deus Ex had things easy, after a fashion. Technology wasn’t advanced enough to create realistically human opponents, so the moral choices facing a player had a level of abstraction. Ten years later, Dishonored provided a more sophisticated world with more sophisticated inhabitants, but it was still a playground of sorts. That twinge of discomfort when handing over Lady Boyle is one of the strongest memories for players of that game because they were forced to reflect on their choices. In that moment, they were reminded that whatever the narrative might tell them, they might not be wholly the good guy.
A decade further on and The Last of Us Part II is even more sophisticated in its world building and character portrayals, but its directed narrative might be a dead end. By all accounts it is an amazing achievement and perhaps a pinnacle for current-generation technology, but if the player has no agency in the choices the narrative makes, how powerful can the moment be when the game forces them to reflect on the morality of those choices?
This problem of ludonarrative dissonance is hardly new, and people within the games industry have been hacking away at it for years.** In these few examples, I wanted to take a look at how some games flag the choice to be a killer and how they can either lead or force the player to reflect on that. The technological capacity for doing so has definitely advanced over the years, and narrative sophistication has likewise grown, but it doesn’t feel like the two have come together yet. I wonder if and when they will.
*Having never been a person of the PlayStation persuasion, I haven’t played The Last of Us, but I have watched Noah Caldwell Gervais’s deep dive into the two The Last of Us games, which I heartily recommend.
** I specifically limited myself to a few examples to restrict the length of this piece. The Mass Effect series is one that deals heavily with morality within the narrative, though less so with the morality of killing.
Yes, it’s been a while, I know. For what I hope are understandable reasons, my enthusiasm for writing anything here was at a low ebb for a while. Restoring my mental momentum took a while, and there was a recent recurrence of the whole coughing-up-blood thing that distracted me a bit too.
As a general overview though, I’m doing fine. A round of scans and another bronchoscopy found nothing too egregious (well, nothing that they didn’t already know was there) and I’m back on track, taking my medication and doing my best to dodge Covid by the simple expedients of wearing a mask, limiting the number of people I meet, and washing my hands (not all at the same time, admittedly).
My biggest worry for the moment is becoming a couch potato, which is all too easy when the couch in question is only two feet away from your work chair. Still, I have an isolation break to look forward to shortly, and in the face of Ireland’s fitful summer, it’s not so bad to be indoors. I’ll try to keep up with the posting in future, though no promises. In the meantime, I hope you’re all keeping well and safe.