Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Sites 72

Can you say Jadusable? I’m not sure if I posted this already, but this is an awesome link. For their Japanese release of Fallout: New Vegas, Bethesda remade Fallout 3 as if it were a NES JRPG. Punny. A parody of the classic Oregon Trail featuring zombies. Illustrator of Braid and producer of Super Meat Boy, Edmund MacMillen shares his manifesto on creative gaming. Top Freeware RPGs of 2010 Memories of Super Metroid, a game that I regrettably, still am working on.;_ylt=AvE6CmVmplTKwmgyMc12iw2s0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTJxNmRsNzNhBGFzc2V0A2FwLzIwMTEwMjE3L3VzX3NjaV9tYW5fdnNfbWFjaGluZQRjcG9zAzQEcG9zAzEEc2VjA3luX2hlYWRsaW5lX2xpc3QEc2xrA21hY2hpbmVzYmVhdA—Folowers of the Watson Challenge would be particularly excited to read this article.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Morality in Video Games: An Analysis of Absolutism, Deontological Ethics and Moral Relativism

Since their inception, narrative-focused role-playing games (RPGs) have concerned themselves primarily with player interactivity with the game-world and the freedom to interact with virtual worlds and their inhabitants in any number of ways. Inherent to this aesthetic of immersion is player morality and his/her relationship to the artificial inhabitants of these virtual worlds. In the past decade, a scintillating crop of games has arisen from studios such as BioWare and Obsidian; these games turn morality into a central mechanic through which fun is derived. By presenting an ethically ambivalent game-world wherein player choice dictates the very fate of these virtual worlds, questions of the reward-punishment nature of these games, as well as the games’ strongly deontological inclination arise. Morality in video-games is thus a rather problematic aesthetic with its own share of contradictions in player-agency, subjectivity and moral absolutism and relativism.
An Introduction
BioWare's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), while not the first game to have had an integrated morality system, has one of the most historically significant. The game immersed its players in a rich sci-fi universe set 4000 years before the events painfully depicted in The Phantom Menace. Its narrative revolved around the adventures of an amnesiac republic soldier trying to prevent a great evil from unleashing an ancient superweapon. The game carried with it a great sense of player-freedom, allowing the player to approach story-situations in any number of ways. When on a mission to rescue hostages from a Sand People enclave, one is given the choice of killing the Sand People and saving the hostages or trading moisture vaporators for the hostages. While this concept of player-agency is admirable, the stark black-and-whiteness of the game's philosophical position seems rather shallow and un-nuanced.
Perhaps what made KOTOR such a great game was its consistent ability to give the player the illusion that his/her moral choices had major consequences and ramifications. The strong writing gave the player an illusion of importance, and despite the superficiality of the player’s actions in the real world, the decisions that the player had to make had real weight and impact on the gameworld and how NPCs (non-player characters) react.

Nonetheless, how NPCs react to the player and the direction of the ludonarrative (the part of the game story that the player can control) and subquests seemed to be the only impact that the player had on the game. Ultimately, KOTOR still follows a fixed linear narrative with multiple endings. No matter how good or evil a player is, the game will always reveal its major twist on the Leviathan, and it will always conclude with an epic showdown on the summit of an ancient space-station. While NPC perception and ludonarrative nuances could be impacted by the player, KOTOR lacked the range of narrative and moral dynamism expected from the best RPGs. As a result, KOTOR’s vision of moral freedom remained rather constraining in comparison to other games.
Deontology, Moral Absolutism and Games
Perhaps the most appalling ramification to come out of integrated morality systems in role-playing games is the starkly deontological approach to ethics that these games take. (NOTE: I by no means mean intend to portray deontology as a black-and-white affair in this post, ethical approaches in reality represent a more nuanced balance between deontology and teleology, these games however, seem to take a stance of moral absolutism) In the vast majority of morality-centric games, a player’s ethical choices take the place of a sliding “morality meter.” Player actions add or subtract points from the “morality meter” and depending on where the player stands on this “morality meter”, specific dialogue options and narrative paths might open or close. Fallout 3 puts this mechanic in the form of “Karma Points” and Mass Effect in its “Paragon/Renegade” system.
The sliding “morality meter” mechanic represents an overly deontological approach to ethics that ultimately renders choices as black and white, universal laws being given without understanding or context(albeit, most such games draw such universal law from the real world). By rewarding or removing morality points from the meter, the game developer essentially decides what is moral and what is immoral. Thus, being an ethical person in these virtual worlds requires absolute conformity to the universal laws set forward by the game developers. Dissent from the moral norms established by developers results in punishment by morality point loss. While in other genres this may be acceptable as it expresses the developer’s worldview on ethics, in a genre as grounded in the mechanics of self-expression, exploration and moral freedom as the RPG, this sense of deontological moral absolutism is heavily problematic.

Spoilers ahead. At the climax of Fallout 3, President Eden gives the player a vial of an anti-mutagen agent to insert into Project Purity. The anti-mutagen agent will eliminate all Super Mutants and Ghouls from the Capital Wasteland, thereby restoring the area into a pre-war state. The game considers this to be an immoral decision and deducts Karma from the players that take this course of action. The moral decision in this case would be to sacrifice oneself in order to activate Project Purity without the anti-mutagen agent, giving purified water to mutants and non-mutants alike. In this context, Bethesda, developer of Fallout 3, advocates a Peter Singer-esque form of utilitarian altruism, that philosophical worldview being the universal law that the game advocates and judges its players actions on. Approaching Fallout 3’s situations from any other kind of ethical worldview, say, Randian Objectivism, could result in the player losing Karma for an action that they believe to be moral. Fallout 3, a game which in many ways, offers unprecedented freedom to the player, ultimately judges the citizens of its virtual world by its own categorical imperative. While the player might be free to “be the bad guy,” the philosophical motives of the player remain rigidly entrenched in the beliefs of the developer.

Moral Relativism Much?
A great ideological conflict between gamers and game-developers arises over the definition of morality. Even then, a totally teleological approach to ethics would defeat the purpose of morality being a central mechanic in role-playing games, relegating gameplay to no more than moral relativism. How then, can a logical balance be made between ethically challenging gameplay without demanding the player abide by unfamiliar ethical systems?
Bioware answered this question by offering a wider range of possible quest-arcs and endings in Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, each of the possible paths of action offering its own pros and cons and none of them offering a specifically clear-cut ultimate good or bad decision. One KOTOR side-quest revolves retrieving a runaway droid for a mentally unstable owner. Upon finding the droid, it argues that his escape was for the good of its owner, who had grown anti-social and insane upon growing overly dependent on its companionship. At this point, multiple Light-Side solutions can be reached, allowing for the player to express their view of the situation through their own moral perspective. One can kill and loot the droid for Dark-Side points, release the droid and hope the owner can become socially independent or capture and return the droid to its owner. While the outcomes remained black and white and the conditions players are judged by strictly deontological, the player is given a degree of flexibility to explore the nuances of moral dilemmas.

Other recent games have aggressively distanced themselves from moral absolutism. Another BioWare game, Dragon Age: Origins, addressed the problem by making its moral choices “aggressively grey.” Atari’s The Witcher (both games I have not yet had the opportunity to play) was marketed on “shattering the line between good and evil in a world where moral ambiguity reigns.” While deontological/absolutist games might squelch out dissenting worldviews with their view of “universal principles,” games that experiment with a teleological ethic remain just as problematic.

According to Michael Campos, my Junior philosophy teacher, such games “tend to take extreme positions of deontology and teleology.” Extreme deontology has the effect of predetermining what is moral, thereby categorizing contrary actions as immoral.  According to Mr. Campos, “our society is to an extent afraid of universal moral principles because it assumes static ethical standards, not taking context into consideration. Thus, attempted advancements remain problematic, The Witcher's catchphrase of moral ambiguity being synonymous to moral relativism.”

Escaping Moral Constraints
Ever since playing Pokemon, the role-playing genre has always been my favorite type of game. Fallout 3, in particular, stands out as one of the most immersive and engaging experiences I have ever had in a game. However, the root mechanic in the role-playing game is “role-playing,” that is treating the game world as our own and acting as a citizen of these virtual worlds. In order for these games to matter on a philosophical basis and be more narratively engaging, game developers need to re-evaluate the moral systems implicit in their games and the philosophical, not just moral, freedom that they offer.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Sites 71

You call it Valentine’s Day, I call it the first ever English-language release of Dragon Quest VI.

1295491634241  Amy Chua, Tiger Mom, has garnered a considerable amount of controversy regarding her new book. This article discusses her views and their effectiveness in their respective cultural context in regards to parenting. Forgot to post this link previously in the Sunday Sites regarding Braid. An excellent interview. You can smell the salivation on the keyboards. You want, you lose. (Courtesy of Sean Patrick) Basically, it lets you listen to music online without having to waste bandwith/RAM on YouTube videos. So very useful.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Super Meat Boy Review

In October of 2008, I purchased Super Mario Bros. 3 off the Wii Virtual Console, nearly three years later, I still have yet to complete it. After repeated deaths, I find myself only on World 3. I appreciated very much the game’s high difficulty, but the high punishment for failure turned me off from the game. Having to restart each world after losing all lives was frustrating, and that was highly unfortunate. Super Mario Bros. 3 was one of the finest-designed 2D platformers that I played, with fun levels and physics that were near-perfect. Despite that, the NES’s inherent lack of save options prevented me from having the opportunity to ever enjoy the game’s full potential.
Channeling the spirit of extreme challenge of 8-bit platformers, the indie poster-child Super Meat Boy aims to be the hardest game conceived since I Wanna Be the Guy. Its one of the hardest platformers this critic has played, but its also one of the best.
Super Meat Boy at first glance heavily influenced by indie platformer N+, which, by a considerable margin, was one of the most popular Flash games ever made. Channeling precise controls and exellent level design, Super Meat Boy does indeed feel highly influenced by N+.
However, considerable differences set Team Meat’s creation on a level more impressive than that of N+’s indie Flash team. For one, Super Meat Boy’s physics engine handles far faster and tighter than N+’s floaty ninja physics. Despite Meat Boy’s speed, the game also controls very well. Every jump is precisely controlled through the spacebar and arrow keys, critical wall jumps are easily preformed. The simplicity of the controls makes Super Meat Boy a very easy game to learn and enjoy, thus, the primary difficulty comes directly out of the level design. A forgiving difficulty curve eases you into its most diabolically challenging levels with grace.
And the said level design is incredible. Continuously pushing the player to the limits of their skill and constantly challenging the player to improve, Super Meat Boy balances its design delicately, and despite the hundreds of deaths that players will incur, the game seldom feels overly punishing or frustrating. Ample hidden areas and secret characters from other indies make bandage collecting a desirable mechanic and add an even greater level of challenge to the game.
That said, the game does not always run well. Super Meat Boy has ridiculous system requirements for a 2D platformer, and performance frequently hiccupped when playing on old machines. Running in windowed mode helped, but certain levels were rendered unplayable by clipping glitches.
Given the game’s small-studio development, Super Meat Boy possesses a simplistic graphical style that remains easy on the eyes and very playable. Certain levels pay homage to retro 8-bit games in their art direction. One Warp-Zone secret area in particular stands out with an 8-bit “pea-soup” aesthetic reminiscient of the original Game Boy. Thus, Super Meat Boy quite definitely goes for an extremely stylish, tongue-in-cheek approach to its art. The game’s humor thus makes the extreme difficulty considerably more bearable and fun.
That said, the game’s music is significantly more memorable than even its art-direction. 8-bit rock music serves as the background music, and while repetitive while looped, is great fun to listen to and provides the humorous mood that Super Meat Boy aspires for.
Perhaps what sets Super Meat Boy apart from some of the more rage-inducingly difficult games I have played is how it approaches its difficulty. In a recent lecture, Jonathan Blow highlighted the distinction between meaningful and arbitrary difficulty and how each can be achieved. Meaningful difficulty forces the player to learn from their mistakes and allows the player to retry new strategies immediately whereas arbitrary difficulty punishes the player for failure and sets high thresholds for frustration. Having come from unpleasant experiences with Call of Duty’s online multiplayer and Monster Hunter’s high level of punishment for failure, I found Super Meat Boy’s difficulty well balanced and in the realm of “meaningful difficulty”.
Perhaps the infinite number of lives and the instant respawns allotted to players distinguished Super Meat Boy from the frustration I dealt with while playing Super Mario Bros. 3. NES platformers greatly punished players for failure by sending them back to the beginning of the game or world upon the loss of all their lives. Having the opportunity to get back on my feet after being knocked down repeatedly allowed me to complete many of the game’s challenging levels in spite of many, many deaths. And despite the 800 plus Meat Boys I sent to their gory, pixelated demise in the first few hours I played, I seldom felt like quitting out of frustration. This delicately balanced difficulty makes Super Meat Boy a highly enthusiastic recommendation. 4.75/5