Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Walking Dead's Abysmal Morality

This post contains spoilers pertaining to Telltale Game's The Walking Dead; I try to withhold any spoilers I find unnecessary to share, but at the same time I have come to the conclusion that proper discussion of this game requires me to reveal some plot points and scenarios. Read at your own discretion. 

 Morality is an elusive subject. Everyone has something to say about it: religion points to dogmatic books as an ultimate moral guide, politicians point to ideals between individualism and societal cohesion as a way to do what's right. Horrific crimes in America, like killing your wife or slicing off a thief’s hand, are hardly out of place in many Middle-Eastern countries. Normal social activity a century or a half-century ago (like lynching people of different ethnicities or beating a non-submissive spouse) is now widely regarded as disgusting and immoral. We debate about gay marriage today, and tomorrow politician's careers might be ruined by merely mentioning a disagreement with marriage equality. Our culture has sanctioned genocide and condemned it in the same era. No one can agree on what's moral.
 Yet so many video games (ex: Mass Effect or inFAMOUS) address issues of morality in extremely childish ways: a moral decision in a standard role-playing-game could have been picked out of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel. Somehow, video game designers have managed to take one of humanities most basic questions-how should we treat each other-and bastardized it to the point of silliness and triviality. This is not to say that said designers are childish, of course, many of them have the best intentions. The simple fact of the matter is that the way most games operate isn't conducive to giving players real dilemmas to chew on and real consequences for their actions. To borrow a rather telling quote from a 2009 Gamespot article:
 "Morality is not a black-and-white concept. Reality is very seldom as simple as a choice between good and evil; the spectrum of moral behaviours is as complicated and consequential as our emotions. Instead of mirroring this complexity and including moral choices that lead to genuine in-game consequences, video games often do the opposite--they present a watered-down version of moral choice that ultimately results in players having to choose between good or evil: to harvest or not to harvest (BioShock), to be “paragon” or “renegade” (Mass Effect), to kill innocents or to save them (inFamous), to have a halo or devil horns (Fable II)." 
 There are no "right choices" in The Walking Dead; within half an hour of starting the first episode (of five) your character (Lee) is forced to choose between saving the life of a young man you have just met the night before,or the son of a man you hardly know from an onslaught of "walkers". I saved the son (Ducky) and was forced to leave the farm I had been sheltered in . I would've left the farm anyway, but having the father of the man I let die kick me out under such circumstances really socked me in the gut. And it just gets harder from there.
 There is something very organic about the way that players can affect the narrative with their choices. Each choice you make has an impact, whether it be catastrophic or almost minute. One of the gameplay options The Walking Dead has are little text notifiers that outline how people mentally react to your dialogue options. Please, turn this off; playing the game solely from Lee's perspective and seeing how people respond to you through the story itself is much more satisfying and is a better test of Telltale's narrative chops. 
 Another example from Episode One is a scene where you encounter a survivor of the zombie outbreak who is holed up in a motel. One of your group members finds this woman and enlists your help to get her out of her room. When you do eventually lure the woman out of her sanctuary, it is revealed that the woman is mentally unstable and believes she is infected with whatever makes the “walkers” (read: zombies) what they are. Eventually, it comes down to two choices: one: you voluntarily give her a gun- a means of death on her own terms, or two: you try to keep the gun out of her hands. Regardless of what you do, the woman does kill herself; your decisions don't always matter. What does matter is the fact that how you handle the situation determines what people think of you. I didn't give her the gun, and was properly scrutinized for withholding a chance to let her be free, like she wanted. Not only that, the means she used to get the gun put our group in jeopardy- jeopardy that could have been avoided had I just let her do what she wanted.

 The Walking Dead lets you own your decisions. A central element of the source material is the idea that characters being pushed to their extremes never make the "right" choice. Your actions in the game aren't rewarded by Karma points or some other arbitrary tallying system instituted to constantly remind you that you are the good guy- the branching paths aren't sectioned into "good" and "evil"; you play the game the way that best appeases your conscience. 
 In the aforementioned suicidal-woman scenario there was no clearly good or clearly evil choice to be made. If another human being is in pain and wants an escape- than it is fundamentally hard for me to deny it to them. Trying to stop a suicide may feel morally superior in the moment, but at the same time it's a hard pill to swallow, especially under the specific circumstances in the game. And since the game gives no absolutely positive or absolutely negative feedback, the jury is still out. The Walking Dead toyed with me enough that I'm still mulling over whether or not I make the right decision every time I play the game. 

No comments:

Post a Comment