I recently read the short story “The Lady Or the Tiger” by Frank R. Stockton. The tale recounts a king who discovers that his daughter has chosen to court a man of a lower social order. As is his custom and that of his kingdom, the young man is placed in a stadium where he must choose his fate by opening one of two doors. The first door contains a tiger which spells instant death for the young lad. The second door leads to a young lady with whom the man must marry, instead of the princess. The princess knows which door contains which fate, and so the young man looks to his love for guidance. Does the princess lead him to a quick disemboweling, thus selfishly preserving their love? Or does she guide him to his future wife, and a life lived happily with someone else?
The story ends on that question with no answer given. It is up to the reader to decide, and in so deciding, change the message of the story. If the reader decides that the princess directs him to the tiger, the story is ultimately about the selfishness and jealousy of love and the pain of letting go. If, on the other hand, she leads him to the door containing the lady, the story becomes one of truly loving someone, enough to want them to be happy even if it’s without you in their life.
This is exactly the kind of mechanism that can, and sometimes does, work so well in game narratives. It is elegant in its simplicity. The entire message of the story hinges on a simple choice that challenges the reader's morals. And the best part is, the author gives absolutely no indication that there is a “good” or “evil” choice. All of us can say that we have loved in these ways in our lives. Sometimes we choose the tiger and become fiercely jealous of our threatened love, to the point of poisoning it. Other times we are more accepting of the transience of such things and, instead, try to be at peace with someone else’s happiness, despite our own misery. Both are part of the human condition and neither is good or evil. They are just human.
Games contain, in their very nature, the ability to move from an authoritarian method of storytelling, to a libertarian one, similar to “The Lady Or the Tiger.” The author still provides the framework in which the narrative is told, but now the player has the ability to mold the ultimate message. The franchise that comes closest to this new paradigm is the Deus Ex series of games.
Deus Ex places you in the role of a man that is about to decide the fate of humanity as a whole. Warren Spector, creator of the series, describes the original Deus Ex as a story taking place five minutes before the fall of human civilization. Deus Ex (2): Invisible War takes place five minutes before humanity’s rebirth. These two events are inevitable in the games. The question is, how does humanity fall, and in what form are we reborn? The player is the ultimate judge of that.
Throughout the story, Spector and his team go to great lengths to show a world that has no easy answers. The government is corrupt, always seeking to turn crises and conflicts into opportunities to gain more and more power over humanity. Terrorist groups claim to be fighting for freedom but also routinely take civilians hostage. There is no good, there is no evil. There is a deeply flawed human race. Right from the start, your brother Paul pleads with you to use non-lethal force wherever possible. Whether you follow his advice or not, there is no lightside/darkside scale, no rewards for doing it the “hard way.” It's simply a judgment-free choice along your path. Are you a killer or aren't you? Because either approach works and the only consequence is the amount your brother respects you.
Once humanity is plunged into a technological and societal dark age, with all of civilization devolving into warring feudal city-states, it is up to the player to decide where humanity goes from here. All along your journey, you are presented with various visions of the future, provided by the half dozen factions in the game. What is best for humanity as a whole? Is the chaotic freedom of anarchy preferable to an Orwellian “Big Brother” type government? Is technology inherently a corrupting force or can it actually provide a path towards a new enlightenment?
None of these questions has a right answer. Indeed, all of them include a truly horrific sacrifice. But in choosing which option is the most palatable, the player decides what the story is ultimately about. Technology could be the savior of humanity, or its prison. Government could provide both ultimate safety, or ultimate slavery. Meanwhile the author simply gave the player the tools and the framework to make that all-important decision.
Deus Ex is one of the high points in branching game narratives. Now let us examine the low point: all games based on the Dungeons and Dragons franchise.
Dungeons and Dragons, when it was first developed, contained a rudimentary alignment system composed of the categories law, neutral, and chaos. This was used to quickly identify the way a particular character was going to behave in any given situation. Over the years, this proved to be too simplistic and another axis was added: good and evil. Now characters were identified as Neutral Good, Lawful Evil, and so on. The problem, as any first year philosophy major will tell you, is that both of these axes are human constructs. As such, they are subject to unlimited interpretation and variation in meaning. There is no such thing as absolute “good” or “evil”. All of it is subjective. Even within a single culture, time will change what people view as good or evil.
Whereas Deus Ex refrained from assigning any moralistic labels to the player’s actions, Dungeons & Dragons turns every situation into a “What would Jesus do?” moment. If I am hired by a poor town to rid them of bandits in the area, and I do so, I am then faced with three options: 1) refuse the money, telling them “they need it more than I do”, 2) take the money and move on, 3) demand more money and threaten to kill them if they don’t submit. The choices themselves are not the problem. The way the system classifies them is.
The first option is considered Good. Now, Choice 1 runs contrary to the American dream, to the point where some would consider to be actually be quite evil. After all, if people keep doing things for this town for free, what incentive do they have to better themselves? Choice 2 is even more troubling. How exactly is taking money for a job well done a chaotic action? Not only is it technically not against any laws, but it assumes that looking out for yourself is somehow bad.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whose morality we are basing the story on. A Christian will weave a different story than an Objectivist, and he, in turn, will sing a different song than a Communist’s. The problem is that in every case, the author forces his or her morality onto the player.
Game developers have a long way to go to truly understand the power that games have to create that next frontier of storytelling. Whenever a new artistic medium is trail-blazed, most never even think to treat it as an opportunity for innovation. Instead they focus on how they can copy the old ways. Since the beginning of human narrative, we have understood that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We take it for granted that those acts are immutable. A particular story has a particular arc and a particular conclusion. The reason being, the author, dictatorial tyrant that he is, has decided on his one vision for what the “message” of the story is. The perfect game narrative, however, is one where there is no morality, just decisions to be made, and consequences to be experienced.
The princess has to make her choice and move on with her life. She doesn't get lawful points for pointing her lover towards the tiger. She is only left with the memory of the bloody carnage of her choice. Likewise, I'll forever be shamed by the disappointed tone in Paul's voice when learns of my callous, homicidal rampage.