A man drives up and would like directions.
He tells me that his nephew goes to school with me, but he doesn’t know how to get to the school. Would I be willing to show him? Sure, I think. I’m a friendly kid, eager to please. (And, by God, I have important stats on the line: my Expressiveness and Thoughtfulness could use a boost.)
I go to the car, I tell him sure, and I hop in.
I am then informed:
“Once you are in the car he turns away from the school and heads for the highway. This man is very sick. You are tortured, killed and buried in a landfill. Your body is never recovered. This game is over.”
I’m playing a PC game from 1986: Activision’s Alter Ego. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a role-playing game, a morality engine, or, according to creator Dr. Peter Favaro, a “a life sim, written in a tongue-in-cheek style which permitted people to explore the consequences of their decision-making.”
The game offers no fancy genre trappings; in it, you are born, you go through the many stages of life, and then you die. What happens along the way is up to you. Outside a handful of icons and images, Alter Ego remains a text adventure driven not by what you type but rather by what life choices you select across an array of multiple choice menus.
Role-playing games, from Baldur’s Gate through the Fallout series to recent releases like Dragon Age II and Fable III make quite a lot of hay out of tracking more than just a character’s Strength score or Archery skill by tracking the protagonist’s morality as well. Unfortunately, morality in such games is frequently reduced to the outcome of two very opposite choices. The evil wizard offers you the chance to become the most powerful conjurer in the land, if only you’ll throw this bag of kittens into a growling wood chipper. Or, you may destroy the evil wizard by high-fiving a barefoot orphan and giving him your boots. The choices are often both comically black-and-white and bind their consequences to obvious story progression or ascendancy of one morality: do the evil thing, gain evil magic, do the good thing, gain the powers of light. The game tracks some manner of karma metric, determining whether you’re the one-eyed bad-ass feared across the land or the angelic force for good who slays evil with his winning smile.
Real moral choices are rarely so simple and do not present obvious outcomes. The Fed-Ex guy doesn’t show up and offer to give you an extra package if you’d be willing to kick a puppy.
No, the dilemmas we face are rarely that forthright: Do you lie to your boss to get a day off? If you catch a friend cheating on a test, do you tell the teacher? Same question but, this time, it’s not your friend you catch but a bully who kicks your ass every day after school – now do you tell the teacher? In our day-to-day lives we encounter questions that challenge our social norms and mores, choices whose answers are uncertain and whose consequences are equally indeterminate. Some moral quandaries present situations where one must imagine and then choose the lesser of two evils (your pregnant wife is having a troubled labor and they can save the baby or they can save your wife, but not both).
Those are the kinds of questions that Alter Ego lays in front of you. It’s not about your willingness to burn down an orphanage for forbidden lore or rescue a koala bear from a speeding locomotive. It’s about the life choices you make and their often unpredicted results.
Alter Ego isn’t a perfect facsimile of these moral choices. That whole “death-by-child-molester” thing? It’s pretty well-telegraphed what’s going to happen. The game even goes so far as to give you the pederast’s license plate number (hint, hint).
But not every choice has an obvious outcome. Very early on, during the infancy portion of the game, I’m given the choice to cry or sleep peacefully. I cry. I get picked up: a victory! Do I continue to cry? Well, sure. And I score another victory as my mother continues to baby me. Crying, it seems, leads to reward, and so I continue to select that option. This tactic has its limits, however, and by the end I’ve worn my poor mother out. She feels “rejected” and will “internalize” this, suffering guilt through much of my childhood. My Familial and Happiness stats drop. Plus, I might have colic. Oops.
Also during infancy, I’m confronted with another baby who gets his face too close to mine. One of my options is to punch him. So, I think, “Screw it, I’m going to beat king hell out of this other baby,” if only to see what the game does with that choice. The answer? Surprisingly, while my Gentleness stat goes down, my Physical stat goes up. I just got rewarded for playing Baby Fight Club.
That’s how the game works. I select an icon in my timeline, and depending on the icon I choose, I get a different kind of “moral dilemma” – maybe I want to focus on intellectual quandaries or social situations. I make life choices, and those life choices change an array of stats: Familial, Social, Emotional, Intellectual, Physical, Calmness, Confidence, Expressiveness, Gentleness, Happiness, Thoughtfulness, and Trustworthiness. The game also keeps tabs on extraneous details – how much money I have, my relationships, my children, my spending.
At the end of each of the game’s six stages of life you’re given a “status report” – you’ve got family troubles, you’ve got issues with drugs and alcohol, you’re trustworthy, physically robust, and so on. A choice made will often raise one or two stats and lower other, often unexpected stats as well. Sure, I cheat on my wife, damaging my Trustworthiness – and also making me more confident and confirming that I’m a socially capable creature.
The stats matter, too – as a kid, I go to the dentist because of some cavities and I choose the option that allows me to be brave despite the pain. Except nope, sorry, that won’t work: the game notifies me that my stats do not reflect my ability to make this choice. Later, I try to get a paper route, but again the game tells me that I’m just not calm enough to hold down the job for long. When I try to propose to my girlfriend, Cathy, the game tells me her father knows I’m totally untrustworthy (I really am, I’ve been a real dick while playing this game) and so I’m left sad and alone.
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.
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.