[As Read on GIO.]
Tackling Moral Ambiguity in Video Gaming
Yep, me again. I know it’s only “Day Two” of this whole being back thing, but I feel it is only fair to go ahead and break out the bigger guns and tackle a few different topics every so often like I used to do pretty regularly. So what better time to start doing so than now? However, do not think I have completely forgotten my promises to bring more of my series related blogs back to the forefront of my blogging pages- such as my Spoiled and Ruining Skyrim ones, to name a few specifics. No, today’s topic covers a much more broad and less specifically defined theme emerging in many narrative-based and role-playing games today: moral ambiguity.
The very definition of ambiguity alone is the “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” and morals of course refer to one’s fiber of character or actions representing thereof. So I think it’s safe to assume that this refers to that area of character we generally associate with all things George RR Martin and similar concepts such as Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead- those morally grey worlds and their survival of the fittest mentalities. However, not to simply be limited to media such as television and movies, the moral grey zone is also easily applied to the video game hemisphere- look no further than open-world epics such as Fallout, Elder Scrolls, and Red Dead Redemption to name a few excellent series/projects.
To be morally grey does not make a character or setting entirely neutral, rather it means that they can a) play “both sides” of the game or b) generally adhere to their own moral code of ethics (an ethos) and not to the scruples and stipulations of modern society as we see fit- or their own society either. Oftentimes, they do what is necessary for survival (see The Walking Dead) or what is necessary to put them in the greatest position of power or caste in order to survive or maintain (see A Song of Ice and Fire). So, in many cases, moral ambiguity itself can boil down to three main parts- survival, ethos, and unknown.
In games such as the aforementioned Fallout saga, survival in the post-apocalyptic wasteland populated with equal amounts black humor and cannibalistic raiders and other foul creatures is your main goal for the better part of the game, with other festivities making side-appearances along your journey. Sure, there is a main questline and story to be told, but can you really doubt that the final goal isn’t about survival? The mere day to day “frivolities” you take part in prove this point- blasting heads off of shoulders and constantly fending off attacks from ranging raiders, stocking up on supplies, and hunkering down to get a well-rested bonus every once and awhile. Just because something has a plot doesn’t mean it can’t be simplified where moral ambiguity is concerned. As it goes, ambiguous settings are rarely ambiguous and hard to read in their actual entirety, but rather in their ambiguous characters- making the plot and their own aims that much more difficult to decipher.
As far as ethos go in video games, you can usually refer to games such as Skyrim (of Bethsoft’s Elder Scrolls fame). Although you have the opportunity to take part in your fair share of shenanigans- it is a Bethesda game after all, for the better part of your quest, the Dovahkiin adheres to his or her own moral standard, as light, dark, or grey as it may be. The power of player choice in morally ambiguous settings is, after all, what oftentimes makes these things that much more ambiguous. And then of course there are already dark and grey settings such as Tomb Raider 2013’s island of Yamatai and Far Cry 3’s equally oppressive and dark setting (also on an island). Back to the Dovahkiin however- you’ll also note that other equally grey characters react as would be expected or even unexpectedly to this moral fiber, commenting throughout on the choices of the player and the possible retribution or reactions that could always ensure. For every action, there is an equal or greater reaction- a saying which is often accurate here as well.
And then finally there is what could possibly be the littlest or largest category of all- that of the unknown reasoning for a character’s moral ambiguity. Not every character has such a strong conviction or motivations as that of ASoIaF’s Hound or Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard. No, some fall into the unknown potential and unknown reasoning categories- although they may also happen to possess a rigid moral ethos or survival instinct of their own as well. Such an excellent example of this particular category would be Lee Everett from Telltale’s TWD episodic series (Season One). You shape his past as you see fit, Telltale only provides the bare details, and honestly- by the end you’ve still got a few more questions than answers. That is often the best thing and worst thing regarding ambiguity in the moral and theatrical sense- the questions. Lee does have his own moral code, or at least the one you provide for him, and he also has a strong will to survive the zombie apocalypse. However, he also has other unknown and indescribable qualities that make him that much more ambiguous and enigmatic at times. And that’s the glory of it all.
So, all in all, that’s my brief talk concerning some of the broader facets of moral ambiguity in both media and games- generally tailored more towards games, as would be expected here. This is barely the tip of the iceberg and there’s much more hidden beneath, however this is all I will talk about for the time being. I may or may not return to the subject once more at a later date, time will just have to tell. Until that time however, I’ll continue to blog about whatever I see fit to theorize about and scrutinize, as well as to review as many gems and flunkers as possible as game releases go. So I’ll see you all around.