Monday, February 09, 2009

Beyond Grace

I had a recent conversation with Marion that brought me back to the subject of Bioshock. Bioshock wins my award for Best Use of Violence in a Long, Long Time. The game's hype touted its "moral choice" system, but what that really boiled down to was whether you killed mutated little girls to increase your power now, or cured them of their horrible condition in order to increase your power later. It was viscerally effective - when you had the little girls in your hands they were so little girl-like you really felt awful about killing them, which is the real reason I never did - but it was trying way too hard. And the fact that you were rewarded for saving the little girls turned the whole thing into a simple economic transaction.

But Bioshock did and does make me think about moral choices all the same. Let me sketch a bit of background first for those who haven't played the game. Yes, spoilers follow. In Bioshock, the player finds himself in a nightmare underwater art-deco city called Rapture, founded by a visionary man named Andrew Ryan with a chip on his shoulder and one too many copies of Atlas Shrugged in his library. Naturally, this Objectivist paradise is overrun in fairly short order by a gifted thug named Frank Fontaine, whose criminal empire ruins the society. Fontaine spends most of the game playing the player for a fool by posing as "Atlas," a revolutionary figure who still struggles to overthrow Ryan's hypocritical tyranny. "Atlas'" wife and daughter are trapped in the hellish underbelly of the city, which is overrun by crazed mutagen-addicts, and he implores the player's aid to save them.

That will do for set-up. It's important to understand, though, that the aforesaid crazed mutagen-addicts (called "splicers" in the game) have some memory of their former selves, and like all drug addicts, are essentially pathetic. The player is forced to kill a good many of them, but none of them want to die, and are still human enough to feel pain and have desires other than killing the player. They cry over lost babies, have loving relationships, and on more than one occasion I felt that in their dying moments (e.g., as they were running around like human torches because I had immolated them) they regretted what they had become. One of these splicers is a boss-type character named Sander Cohen, who believes himself to be a great artist (and probably once was). Cohen is also a really nasty guy, who chains piano players to pianos to "audition" for him by playing one of his masterpieces and blowing them up when they fail to live up to his standards, creates statues out of people by covering them in plaster, that sort of thing. Yet the player must traverse his part of Rapture in order to reach Atlas' poor wife and son. By the end of it you've been forced to do Cohen's dirty work by killing several other splicers who hate Cohen for what he has done to them and their families, and Cohen at last reveals himself to congratulate you and wish you on your way.

So there I stood, with the monster at last before me, a not-inconsiderable arsenal of mutagen-granted powers, and a very powerful gun in my hand. I seriously considered blowing his head off. I had no reason not to; he had given me everything I needed to get past his locked doors. I even suspected he had a key on him I could use to gain some valuable loot. But I didn't. Why did I want to kill him? Because he was a terrible person. Well, so what? Does being a terrible person justify your execution? Cohen was indeed a monster, but was he beyond forgiveness? He was, at heart, like all the other splicers - doing terrible things in his drug-addled thirst for the things humans value most - love, family, art. I stayed my hand and moved on. But the entire Cohen sequence was enormously creepy, not least because I was killing people I had no desire to kill, and no clear reason to kill other than that they were in my way and attacking the intruder in their midst (me). Despite the fact that Cohen was the most morally despicable person in his private nightmare realm, and very nearly the only person I had not killed, it was almost a relief to let him live.

Contrast this with another situation, later on in the game, when it became clear that Atlas was Frank Fontaine, and I had been his cat's paw all along. Fontaine is, as you might guess, the ultimate villain of the piece, and the final act of the game is dedicated to hunting and putting him down. Yes, he has a megalomaniacal scheme to mutate himself into some kind of ubermensch, and for the sake of the few sane people in Rapture one might feel an obligation to stop him. But the truth is that I wanted to kill him because he had been using me, and in some twisted game logic that was an unforgivable sin.

I've experienced this sort of state before, as Danielle Meroit and as Monica Corvallyn. A few other games have had hints of it. It's like grace, but in reverse. If grace is unmerited favor, this is a state in which favor is unmeritable. Where a person (in this case, Fontaine) is beyond redemption, a stain on existence that cannot be blotted out by repentance, good works, or mitigating circumstances. Only death will do, the more callous and brutal the better.

Was Fontaine's wrong any greater than Cohen's? Not clearly. He was a manipulative, megalomaniacal bastard, to be sure, but he wasn't a sadistic artiste. His was a common, almost bureaucratic sort of evil - the cold pursuit of self-aggrandizement. Cohen's was darker, more sinister. But I skulked about Cohen's lair, scared and ashamed, and for all his horrors I was proud to let him live. There was something cleansing about it. Fontaine I pursued like an angel nemesis, and woe betide anyone foolish enough to try to protect him. The horrors of Rapture were expunged in that state of mind. Fontaine was not even a man any more. He was only a thing to be killed, the object of my clear, brutal certainty that his death was Something That Must Be Done.

I find this state of mind fascinating, because it is in my opinion the most horrific of all states that the human mind can get into. I think it strikes me this way because it really is the opposite of grace, and grace is the great trademark of the mind of God. Forgiveness is always an option, because in the final analysis forgiveness is never fully warranted. It cannot be fully warranted. No action will take back a wrong. We can paper over the wound, but what was done cannot be undone, and so restitution can never truly make a person whole. When forgiveness is taken off the table, whether we realize it or not we are saying that we refuse to forgive them. When we do that, we cut ourselves off from recognizing the very nature of forgiveness itself, and isolate ourselves against the very heart of God.


Malgayne said...

I've been following your blog for some time hoping for the next game post. Delighted to see one. :)

I'm sure this is Willie's influence speaking through me, but contact with him has gotten me thinking a lot about writing in video games. I read what you've written here and I think to myself that THIS is where the true ART of video game writing lies.

Whenever I consider the question, as my generation is wont to do, of how video games can better become genuine art—I have always thought that the question that must be answered is "What do video games have to offer in their experience that other forms of media do not?"

I don't know if there are any critics yet out there that are taking the time to do literary criticism on this level for video games, but appreciated or not, it's clear to me that the reason for Bioshock's success—or at the least the reason why it's writing has been so universally praised—is because the writers of Bioshock understood what makes video games different from other media. The writing of the game was carefully planned to create the sort of reaction you describe here, with an eye to the fact that the experience of killing Fontaine had to be different from the experience of killing (or not killing) Sander Cohen, because that's how the main character's emotional arc had to flow. But the "main character" is you. The writing has to be crafted so that you follow an emotional arc, you can't just leave it to Keanu Reeves or Harrison Ford or Vin Diesel to do it for you.

This is both easier and harder than writing for a movie. Easier because you have much more time than a movie does—most games have at least 10 hours of gameplay to do what a movie must do in 90 minutes. Easier because you don't have to construct a backstory for your character. You don't have to create mannerisms, and cool one-liners for your character—the player does that for you. And yet harder because you can't just write the character the way you want. You always have a co-writer—the player—and nothing gets into the script without his permission. And not even one co-writer, but thousands and thousands (at least hopefully, if your game enjoys any success).

Writing for a video game requires the skills not just of a storyteller, but of a psychologist as well. He needs to be have an understanding of the universal factors that motivate human beings to do what they do. That is the skill that makes a video game writer an artist.

As an aside, The DM writes about a very similar experience in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, which suggests to me that one of the basic tools in a video game writer's arsenal is a personal betrayal of the player—clearly if it can be effectively managed, it's a powerful motivator.

The blog post is here.

Malgayne said...

In other news, why on earth can't I subscribe to your blog in RSS? You're the only blog I read regularly that I can't subscribe to.