I trust everyone had a good Saturnalia or local equivalent of same. Sitting around with the family while your mum occasionally pops her head out of the kitchen to say “It’s alright, I don’t need any help!” in a really meaningful voice. While aunties you barely know ask the most insulting personal questions and read out godawful cracker jokes while laughing like fat middle-aged parrots. And then Granddad says something racist and you have to agree out of politeness and then your brother’s Asian fiancee walks in and you have to pretend like you were just stretching your eyes for medicinal purposes. At least, I presume that’s what you did. I sat around on my own and had a great time. Being estranged rocks.
But remember the true meaning of Christmas, kids: just because your parents only bought you one of the consoles doesn’t mean you have to loudly and obnoxiously defend it in every internet argument for the rest of the year.
Before my holiday break I left you with my critique of Epic Mickey, the latest in the occasional things Disney like to put out now and then to remind you that they used to be about fun jolly cartoons and not rapaciously consuming the soul of everything you hold dear. On the whole, the game was unpolished, lacking edge, and controlled like a horse on roller skates, but it did have one somewhat interesting feature, and that was the dual choice aspect.
You have a magic brush – just roll with it, okay – that can either spray paint, which creates, or thinner, which destroys. What an interesting approach, I thought, that could lead to all kinds of philosophical dilemmas. The acts of creation and destruction are both morally blank, after all. Should our goal be to try to fix this microcosmic bubble society filled with obsolete characters and machinery, or is it kinder in the long run to delete it? Does the fact that its artificial residents appear to be sentient give them a right to exist?
In practice, though, none of this was explored. “Creation” just meant “make look nice,” and the whole mechanic was largely used as a moral choice. There was one case early on where you could either use creation juice to rescue a minor character or use destruction juice to catapult them to an uncertain fate, which would allow you to acquire some extra money. I mean, come on. A lot of video games really do suck at creating moral dilemmas.
I’ve railed against “moral choice” systems in games before because they’re often executed in ways that make little sense. At best, they’re a system for denying you access to some of the game’s content until you play it again and make opposite decisions. And then there are games where both options wind up giving you pretty much the same benefit, which makes the choice itself completely inconsequential. So the only negative consequence for taking evil options is having to live with the guilt and the shame of inconveniencing some imaginary beings from pixel space. I’m pretty sure I could find a way to live with myself eventually, Peter Molyneux. You know, one day at a time.
Moral choice in gaming only makes sense to me when the “bad” option is some easier alternative to the “good” one but which comes with greater risk of consequence, like stealing a car in GTA because it’s cheaper and less work than hiring a cab, but runs the risk of bringing the cops down on you. Or in games like Metroid Prime 3 or Dark Earth where you can use the evil force possessing you to gain a temporary power boost but doing so makes it likelier that you’ll succumb to it. But even these don’t so much paint you as a “bad” person, just a weak one more mindful of short-term benefit than long-term effects.
In the Epic Mickey case above, neither of the two options available takes any more effort than the other. Taking the evil option then is being evil for the sake of being evil, which is really just wilful stupidity, like having dinner at the Heart Attack Grill. No one is knowingly evil. History’s greatest monsters all believed they were acting towards the greater good, that’s what made them so terrifying.
Another way creation/destruction was used in Epic Mickey was in battle. Every enemy, including bosses, is dealt with either through (re)creating them or destroying them (there are a few enemies that can only be destroyed, which I felt rather undermined the dual choice mechanic that the entire rest of the game was built around but oh well). Using creation juice would “fix” the monsters and turn them good again with no apparent ill effects. So there was absolutely no reason not to do that. Callously wiping them from existence becomes the evil-for-evil’s-sake option again.
With a little twisting this could have been a much less straightforward choice. What if the enemy creatures are in constant pain? You can use the creation tool to calm them and remove their murderous instincts, essentially lobotomising them, but is it right to force them to exist as constructive members of society when their existence is torment (leaving aside the Clockwork Orange-y issue of taking away their free will)? In that case, deletion would be kinder to them, but not so much to the larger community. It takes it away from the straightforward right-and-wrong towards Terry Schiavo territory.
It makes me wonder what other binary choices one could base a game around other than good/light/hooray versus bad/dark/boo. The Mass Effect series has that “Renegade versus Paragon” system where the former is unafraid to tread on a few toes in pursuit of the ideal end result and the latter feels looming galactic apocalypse is no excuse for not making sure everyone has a nice day. Even that isn’t above a little jerkiness for jerkiness’ sake (see: decking reporters in the face), but the choice that sticks in my mind is one from the first game, in which a bereaved husband asks you to get his wife’s corpse back from a research lab so he can give it a proper burial.
Now, this is something quite apart from the established dichotomy of diplomacy versus no-nonsense results, it introduces the whole other ball game of scientific rationalism versus emotional sentiment. Could be all kinds of important uses could have been made of the silly bint’s carcass, and in the ground all she’s going to do is give the worms a party. But then again, there’s plenty of other nice corpses around and no reason to antagonize her relatives, who really need the closure to move on.
That one really comes down to the much larger question: is it better to be happy and ignorant, or miserable and have all the answers? If that dichotomy had been the basis of Epic Mickey, it would have been a lot more interesting. You could either spray enemies with Ignorance juice, which sends them into a dream of paradise but in permanent coma, or Answers juice, which gives them full understanding of the universe, but makes them too busy weeping into their cappuccinos to fight.
There are loads of morally blank dilemmas that dual-choice games don’t explore enough. Would you give up a miserable but familiar existence for an exciting but unknown one? Would you rescue one baby or five old people? Is Coke better than Pepsi? Well, yes, but they both make you fat.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.