Some of my most vivid gaming memories are of Sierra’s King’s Quest, a title I haven’t touched in nearly two decades. King’s Quest was one of the first graphical adventure games of the early 1980s. In fact, it was one of the first games that I played that had any graphics at all, save for the odd bit of ASCII art. Though I’ve played hundreds of titles since then, I still remember that game. Most of all, I remember the goat.

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You encountered said goat fairly early in the game, penned up and minding its own business. It wandered around amiably and seemed genuinely happy – at least, as happy as goats get. If you took the time to pluck a carrot from a nearby vegetable patch, you could entice it with the promise of a crunchy snack. With the proper motivation, the goat could become your pal for life, setting off beside you toward all manner of adventure and excitement.

Or you could just kill it.

If you have a dagger, the command “kill goat,” unsurprisingly, kills that goat dead. It lies there, a little splat of gray and red pixels, with the hilt of your dagger jutting out comically from its breast. You can’t retrieve the dagger afterward, because, gross, it’s in a goat. Like matter and antimatter, the goat and dagger come crashing together, resulting in mutual annihilation.

There is no sacrificing the goat to the gods or reading its entrails. Its death has absolutely no function in the game. This stands to reason, after all: Few things are less useful than a dead goat. Yet I distinctly remember killing it every time, if only because I could.

I meant well, of course. Each time I met that goat, I thought things would be different. We’d head out on our merry way, the road rising to meet us, the wind at our backs. For a while, we’d cut the perfect figure – a dapper young adventurer and his loyal, can-eating comrade. But then, inevitably, the rift would begin.

Though King’s Quest had graphics, most actions were still governed by the clunky parsing software of early text games like Adventure and Zork, which broke commands down into simple verb-noun units. This did the job most of the time – until you steered off script, at which point it became maddening. Perhaps I’d come across a large stone. “Take Stone,” I’d command. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘stone,'” the game would respond. I’d try again. “Get Rock.” “You can’t get the rock,” the game would reply with the icy courtesy of Hal 9000. I can’t let you do that, Dave.

There I’d stand, poised at the brink of a syntactic abyss. And maybe I couldn’t “take stone.” OK. Maybe I wasn’t able to “get rock.” Fine. But you know what I could do? I could “kill goat.” It wasn’t out of spite; on the contrary, there was nothing malicious about it. I did it simply because I could – or, more accurately, because I couldn’t do anything else. Inevitably I would reach a point where all other options were exhausted. It was either “kill goat” or do nothing at all.

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Time after time, that brave goat took one for the team, dying for my gaming sins. Immediately I’d feel terrible. After all, I’d reason, it would still be alive if I was only a little better at the game. I’d resolve to swear off the sordid business of capricide altogether. Telling myself that this time would be different, I’d start a new game, pick a new carrot and introduce myself to another doomed goat.

Though all of this happened years ago, it remains fresh in my mind. That’s impressive in itself: Why is it that in my gaming lifetime I’ve killed thousands of digital people in the most graphic ways imaginable without batting an eye, but I still feel a twinge of regret for that ridiculous pixelated goat?

It wasn’t as though the game itself cared one way or another. King’s Quest is passive about the whole affair, almost indifferent. A quick glance at a FAQ tells me that killing the goat costs you five points, which is the same amount you get for partying up with it in the first place. From a strictly mathematical perspective, it comes out even; you could keep playing and easily forget the whole thing. Maybe that’s why I didn’t.

Of course, at the heart of the matter, there’s something ludicrous about getting worked up at all. I’ve been talking about the goat as if it was real and had feelings. Obviously it wasn’t and didn’t. There is no goat, in the same way that for René Magritte, a painting of a pipe “is not a pipe.” This has all the makings of a Zen koan: “When is a goat not a goat?”

Perhaps when it’s a symbol. In the real world, my goat-killing antics would brand me a criminal and a deviant. But real-world morality has little weight in a virtual space. A heinous crime in reality is a simple command line in the other. I wasn’t slaughtering hollow-horned mammals in my journeys through King’s Quest – the daggers and goats were ciphers, devoid of value or meaning. But rather than taking comfort in a world of empty signifiers, I became uneasy. Insulated from societal norms, I found myself alone with the goat and my thoughts.

I had cut down thousands of enemies in pursuit of other, similarly meaningless objectives, I reasoned. What’s a goat compared to a sewerful of flattened Goomba carcasses? But the goat stared back at me, its single-pixel eye unblinking. Goombas were meant to be stomped on – after fulfilling their purpose, they flicker and disappear. The goat, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be designed with any purpose at all. Kill it, and it simply lays there, a grisly monument to senseless aggression. For the goat, there are no respawn points. Death is uncomfortably permanent.

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Somehow it was even worse that I was murdering a defenseless goat rather than another person. Animals are powerful symbols, serving as allegory for our own best and worst behavior. It’s for this exact reason that Aesop told the fable of “The Tortoise and The Hare” rather than “The Really Slow Guy Who Stuck to His Guns and The Guy Who Was Really Fast but Lazy and Kind of a Jerk.” These cases tap into a cache of emotions in their immediacy, but can lead us to ethical ambiguity: how “Eight Dead in Crash,” is a statistic but “Goat Stabbed by Man” is a tragedy.

Even as a handful of pixels, that digital goat still managed to convey something – some essential bit of goat-osity. It was stubborn. Tough. Maybe lacking in the brains department. It would have got along just fine without me – so in taking up with it, the very nature of the game changed. My attitude toward the goat became intertwined with the way I perceived my character. In killing it, I didn’t just destroy the goat – I destroyed the façade of heroism I had erected around myself. I wasn’t a champion of all that was good and right. I was a disgraceful goat-ganker.

That goat is set apart from all the faceless enemies I’ve encountered in countless other games. It does not belong with the scores of passers-by I’ve mown down, or the hundreds of zombies I’ve ripped through. It is a symbol of guilt – a moment when I was given a chance to be patient and humane, but settled for the cheap thrill instead.

If I were to hammer out my own Aesopian maxim from this whole goat thing, it would be that the only true “morality games” are the ones we play against ourselves. Even in leisure we find opportunities to examine how we live, sometimes in the oddest of places. We are given a chance to notice the difference between the way we think we will act and the way we actually do. There is an old proverb that says “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In my case, when all I had was a dagger, everything looked like a goat.

Brendan Main lives in the frosty reaches of Canada. He studies videogames, grows tomatoes and plays the accordion, in increasing order of eccentricity. When not killing defenseless goats, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com .

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