spec ops the line

Part… just kidding, another interlude. How about video game morality?

I don’t feel like continuing the How To Fix America thing tonight. Likely, this is because I’ve made the mistake of setting out to go through some of the Steam games that have been collecting dust in my inventory since… whenever Steam came out. Annual Steam Summer Sales are mostly to blame (yeah, starting out this post on consequence and morality by projecting responsibility on Steam).

This week I played two highly celebrated games (warning: the linked wiki pages have spoilers). The first was Spec Ops: The Line, and I also started Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. I never played SO:tL before, and hadn’t played KotOR2:tSL since like, ten years ago. Ordinarily outdated videogame habits would not be worth mentioning, but playing these two games in particular, back to back, yielded a peculiar contrast.

SO:tL is mechanically a fairly linear and repetitive third person military-style shooter game. However, over the course of the story it slowly deteriorates into a maddening descent into hell (the Inferno kind, not the Campbell kind) that deconstructs the entire shooter genre.

KotOR2:tSL is a western-style action role playing game set in the Star Wars universe. With compelling, but frequently buggy, gameplay, it tells a largely disjointed story with a fairly conventional plot, occasionally connected by small moments of deconstruction that critically examine the morality of the Star Wars universe. However, polarized morality usually wins out in the end, ultimately undermining any of the nuanced analysis the game attempts to conduct.

Both of these games are set during a war, and both touch upon consequence, responsibility, and morality. Both also produce weird acronyms accounting for their respective subtitles, so for convenience they will from now on be SOL and KOR2.

The first thing to be said is that, writing, sound,and environment design aside, SOL is a really dull slog to get through. The game is simply not fun to play. The only thing that kept me playing it was the uniquely disturbing atmosphere and engrossing story. So I’ll get to that.

In SOL you are a three-man commando squad investigating Dubai after a killer sandstorm wrecked the city and triggered a civil war.

Just go with it.

What awaits you is a surreal, apocalyptic landscape littered with death and violent neon graffiti, all while a psycho on an omniscient radio system spews taunts and profane, hawkish propaganda. He, and most of the other characters, are complex products of the violence that surrounds them, and with some investigation you can discover that the various “villains'” respective descents into evil follow a sympathetic route.

Eventually you are given choices to make. The biggest one is not actually a choice, as the game does not give you alternatives, but it certainly punishes you for the consequences of your “choice.” What follow then are a series of superficially false choices which are actually true choices, but the implied false choice lampshades actions which, in a “game universe” would be considered acceptable, but in a moral universe would be unconscionable.

An example might help.

At one point in the game you’re dropped in the middle of a refugee camp full of desperate people who hate the US troops occupying the city and take their hatred out upon your squad. They push you and throw rocks, which of course cause minor damage that threatens to kill you/end your game, and you have lethal military hardware in your hands with which to respond. Your squad becomes afraid and yells for you to mow a hole into the crowd as they box you in, cornering you and surrounding you. In most games this sort of desperate scene would permit using that military weaponry on these unarmed or under-equipped civilians. SOL is happy to allow you to do that, and after slaughtering the civilians you can progress to the next area. However, you can also take an alternative that no characters tell you is an option, which is to use less-than-lethal melee moves on civilians to force your way out of the encirclement. In neither case do you really get any sort of in-game “reward” for your choice, you simply continue on. If you do kill them however, the incident is later used against you as evidence of your guilt and complicity in the suffering of the civil war.

SOL is interesting in that it punishes you for doing ruthless and violent things, but generally doesn’t allow minimally merciful choices to result in any heart-warming closure. The world of SOL is a dark shade of moral gray, with the implicit conclusion that the mere act of warmaking, no matter the intentions, results in seemingly necessary acts that any outside observer would deem morally evil.

SOL forces you to become an engine of destruction merely to survive your experience, fighting hordes of soldiers across an unforgiving landscape.¬†As you progress, completing daring feats that would be “heroic” in many other games, your mastery of your environment and weaponry seem merely to be an avenue to becoming that which you hate most. Your squad begins to turn on each other, and on you, as the depravity of the game’s world and the consequences of your actions affects them. The game turns a mirror on everything you do (even literally at one point) and reveals the monster that you “must” become to “win” the game. The way this transformation proceeds results in a depressing but utterly worthwhile experience.

KOR2, by contrast, lives in the Star Wars universe, a universe where there is literally a “Dark Side” that people can “fall” to. Unlike SOL, It’s fun, with compelling (okay, addicting) gameplay, sprinkled throughout with lots of mini games, side quests, and humor. However it makes the mistake of trying to juxtapose the inherently polar morality of its universe with the gray areas of more mundane existence, especially in terms of survival and unintended consequence.

In KOR2 there really are no complicated characters, despite superficial cues to the contrary. Deep down, every character’s agenda is either “good” (selfless, e.g. pacifist Ithorian terraformers trying to reintroduce life to a world blighted by war), “neutral” (survivalist, e.g. victims of war trying to keep their families alive), and “evil” (selfish, e.g. the Sith Lord who basically just wants to turn the galaxy into one big Force Dinner for himself). If a character is trying to redeem themselves they can go from “evil” in the past to “good” in the present, but anyone “evil” in the present is usually a lost cause, or a “good” or “neutral” person deep down that simply needs to be guided back to the light.

The morality of the player character is malleable, but this leads to strange contradictions. Sometimes being sarcastic has no bearing on your moral position (kept track of by a morality bar on your character screen which measures how “Light” or “Dark” you are), but sometimes an offhand, snarky remark gives you “Dark Side Points.” Sometimes companion characters will call you out on your questionable moral decisions and scrutinize them, but outside of a contrived “influence” system, they will remain steadfastly loyal to you anyway.

Occasionally, the game will throw a moral dilemma at you. A character asks (while a cutscene demonstrates their point), if giving refugees five bucks leads to other refugees mugging them and leaving them not only broke, but beaten up, is it worth making the donation?

The game seems to think itself clever for suggesting that seemingly good acts can provoke evil, but falls prey to the sin of many similar games by giving you XP, items, and money for solving problems, and then making ruthless violence a viable or necessary solution to just about every problem in the game. A settlement is under attack by mercenaries? Murder every mercenary, then be called a hero. The territory of an otherwise neutral gang is chafing against those aforementioned refugees? Wipe the entire gang out down to the last man, with no negative consequences, then loot their storeroom for useful stuff.

The game mechanics make the act of mass slaughter empowering and rewarding. So I find that in a weird way, the dull, unrewarding gameplay of SOL better facilitates the overall theme of the game, which is that there is absolutely nothing to gain from progressing via violence, except an eventual conclusion.

Meanwhile, being an RPG, KOR2’s violence rewards you not only with objectives, but with points and equipment that make your character more powerful. As your character becomes more powerful, they become more disposed to asserting their will on the galaxy, whether for “good” or “evil.” The game gets easier while the rewards increase in scale. By now my level 20 Jedi can run around at super speed massacring most enemies without breaking a sweat, after hitting a token dialogue option where they say “you could have surrendered; you made me do this.” Then they use the reward money from the slaughter to buy the freedom of that poor slave who has five lines and ceases to exist after they regain their supposed agency.

Ultimately, I think SOL is simply more ambitious than KOR2, and maybe a bit more savvy. Granted, it’s also a more recent game, but it creates a very consistent and self-validating moral universe which provides some insight to the culture of violent games, and our own world. KOR2, while being much more enjoyable, squanders its moments of thoughtfulness on moral inconsistency and self-defeating design decisions.

However, it bears pointing out that if I hadn’t played SOL first, I likely wouldn’t be thinking so hard about KOR2’s morality and what it fails to achieve. To that effect, SOL’s success as a game has manifested fully.

I haven’t finished playing KOR2 yet, but I suspect that what lies ahead won’t be nearly as fulfilling an experience.