A fight has broken out between an old friend and a new one. Each intend on getting you to side with them. You know you’re about to pick the person who lives and the person who dies – who do you choose?
A loving monster blocks you from your exit, not wishing to see you come to harm, just like all the rest that left. Do you kill her when she challenges you?
A homeless man picks through the garbage. He’s nearly caught by the owner, but luckily the owner asks you to go check out what the noise is. In the conversation after, do you insult him?
Games have come a long way since I started playing them over twenty-five years ago. Morality has taken a new focus as people have begun to demand things that are not only entertaining but make you pause to think. Some people gladly go through multiple runs of these games, intent on seeing both sides, enjoying all the content available. Why wouldn’t you, after all? Even if it all leads to mostly the same ending, there’s fallout you didn’t get to see. It makes sense, I know it does.
And yet, and yet.
I cannot think of one game I ever purposely did not take the ‘decent person’ route. There have been attempts, of course, to play the other routes. I’m so set until I hit the first big decision and it all crumbles. I don’t want to be mean to people. I don’t want to berate someone unless it calls for it, unless there is a reason to be stern instead of kind. I don’t purposely pick the good choices, but when I play a game and play it as me being the character, it just sort of happens. Are there moments when I don’t pick the nicest option? Certainly, but it’s always for a reason.
I love the games that give me a reason. It feels sometimes very few make me want to pick the meaner option, since the meaner option usually just ends up being needlessly cruel. The worst part is, a lot of times I don’t even particularly like the good option either, because sometimes you want to yell at someone without literally burning all bridges. It’s something I think a lot of companies – Telltale and Bioware come to mind – are trying to get better at, but they’re not quite there yet. I have hope that as both perfect their own systems, grey areas will show up more and more often.
Still, it’s hard not to appreciate the effort going on as we speak to build games that have very clear messages about morality. It’s even harder not to appreciate games that really reward you for being a kinder person in a world right now that isn’t very kind at all. I remember a few months ago, when Undertale first came out, Toby Fox expressed surprise at how much his game blew up in terms of popularity. I wasn’t. Just as I need reasons to take a less kind route in other games, this game gave players ample reason not to hurt anyone. It isn’t just the promise of the true ending that’s dangled in front of someone, the the characters themselves were likable enough that hurting them seemed to give a lot of people pause. I saw some Youtubers go on to do the ‘kill all’ run and fully admit they felt bad doing it while they did. That’s when you know you did something right, I think.
And here’s where some Undertale spoilers come in. It’s honestly funny to me that one of the most memorable parts of that particular game of choices – attack or show mercy – is not at all part of the story at all, but at the very end. No, not the end of the game, but literally the end of the file. You’ve done all you can, you got the best ending – True Pacifist, as most call it – and you close the game. Maybe one day you think, you know, I’d love to see the other route. I’d love to fight the hardest boss of them all. Instead of loading the save file immediately, you’re instead greeted by Flowey, who reminds you that you literally got the happiest ending possible. Do you really want to do this? Do you really want to reset because you have that ability?
I closed the game soon after, never resetting it to the beginning. It’s the first game that I ever played that questioned that particular decision in this forceful a manner and it was entirely effective, as it turned out. If I had any thoughts of playing through and getting the far less kind path, it was gone in that little blurb of speech.
It’s those kinds of moments, the ones that get under your skin, that truly elevate a game that uses these kinds of decisions. It’s these kind of moments I hope to see more of as games march ever forward.