Making Morality Matter

Making Morality Matter
First Kisses (And Deaths-By-Molester)

Chuck Wendig | 31 May 2011 13:01
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Life progresses. I pass notes in class. I learn where babies come from. I have my first kiss, first boner, first sexual experience, first job, first abortion, first miscarriage, first marriage, first baby, first car, first affair, second marriage, second child, and first death-by-child-molester, which ended the game and demanded that I start over. I learn how to curse. I get into a fight. I change an old lady's light-bulb (not a euphemism) and give her hope in the younger generation. I get a hug from an old dude after I save him from a mugger. I abuse cocaine and liquor. My mother dies suddenly. I get hemorrhoids. I publish a romance novel. I make a half-a-million bucks from some crazy recipe I concoct in my kitchen. I go back to college. I watch my daughter get married. I weather a mid-life crisis. I get old. I have heart problems. I need glasses. And eventually, I die.

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How is it, then, that a relatively unknown text adventure from 1986 gets morality in a way that the robust graphical role-playing epics of 2011 often seem unable to grasp? Part of it is that games have in many ways gotten simpler. Even the transition from BioWare sequel to BioWare sequel reveals elements like combat and conversation wheels made easier by dint of being made simpler. Moral choices seem to have undergone the same simplification.

Further, games generally track your choices on a single axis representing the polar choices of good and evil. Alter Ego, on the other hand, is concerned with positive and negative values across multiple axes, from your relationship with your family to your intellectual development to how trustworthy you appear to others. With greater structural complexity comes the possibility for more robust choices and richer, more unexpected consequences. By tracking these stats over the long-term, the game allows the consequences to appear much further down the line, rippling throughout your life. It is only recently that some modern RPGs have once more grasped the power of this complexity: Dragon Age II and The Witcher, for example, both present a morality that is many-headed in choice and consequence.

Really, though, the success of a game like Alter Ego comes in the fact that its many trials and treasures reflect those of our own lives. Playing the game, I can't help but think back to my own childhood and further wonder what my own child will be like (my wife is super-pregnant and by the time you read this, may have loosed my progeny into the world). I can't help but think of my own mother's increasing age, or how my father died several years ago, or how we just had to put our 13-year-old dog to sleep. I think about my own first kisses, first jobs, first everything (well, everything but my first death-by-child-molester). I also can't help but ponder what new adventures and troubling choices will present themselves as my own life progresses. I think about the choices I've made and the consequences that have come - both seen and unseen - from such quandaries.

The power of morality doesn't lurk in the choice between beneficence or malevolence. The story isn't in whether we choose to throw grandmother down some steps for a healing potion or save a baby squirrel from a mean ol' owl. Those choices don't tell me much about my character, and more importantly, they don't tell me anything about, well, me. Good story lives in the complexities and corollaries born of more nuanced moral choices. Morality isn't whether we choose black or white, but rather, in which shade of gray we find the most comfort. And that is where Alter Ego succeeds despite its age.

Chuck Wendig is equal parts novelist, screenwriter, and game designer. He currently lives in the wilds of Pennsyltucky with wife, dog, and unborn progeny. His "vampire in zombieland" novel, Double Dead, releases in November, 2011, and his e-book of writing advice, Confessions of a Freelance Penmonkey, is now on sale. He is represented by Stacia Decker of DMLA. You can find him dispensing dubious writing advice at his blog, terribleminds.com.

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