Writing Moral Decisions and Video Games

Over the weekend, I set aside all responsibility and sat down to play one of my all-time favorite games, Guild Wars 2. It’s something that I can’t put down, even after a full year without playing. For the hell of it, I decided to start a new character to readjust to the game versus picking up my go-to Mesmer. I made a thuggish, street-rat Elementalist with a bad temper and great hair. Appropriately named after one of the characters from my book, I trudged along, taking out centaurs and spending a little too much time caring about her meager appearance.

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The story at the beginning of the game is fine, simply meant to push forward into the lust of the lore, but only a short while into the game and I was faced with a pretty dire decision. I was asked if I either wanted to go after a band of bandits that were planning to poison the city, or save my best friend, who had already stuck his neck out to feed us information. It isn’t the toughest call morality-wise, so I immediately chose the former. Leaving an entire city of vulnerable citizens, poisoned, while they were robbed poor and battered was easily prioritized against saving a single unit, irregardless of their charity to the cause. Prior to this playthrough, I often chose royally-blooded characters that had fewer worries than dragon takeovers, so I’d always faced PG sequences with little depth. Until now. Rather than a happy ending, that friend I chose to put on the sideline was found in pieces throughout the city. The writer in me was giddy with consequential appreciation. The no-nonesense approach of it’s delivery was effective, and done very well for something that was given a mere seconds of notice. It made you truly step back and think about your choice. Was it worth it?

Moral decisions, or lack thereof, play a massive role in the story that I’m currently working on. Writing decisions that truly stump the audience, or trigger any sort of sensations or confusion or regret, are difficult to achieve. In story writing, where the audience doesn’t get a choice, but instead a ride through the thoughts of someone else that does, emitting this sort of emotion is difficult. Writing these sorts of choices for video games, though, is a totally different practice. Decisions can’t be useless, and when done well, can total turn the tides of the emotional plot.

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The Bravely series does storytelling well, aside from more repetitive gameplay. Overall, the world is unique and engrossing, but feels familiar in the realm of Square Enix’s games. On the topic of decision making, the second installment of the series, appropriately titled Bravely Second, really does a stellar job at incorporating decision making as a mechanic for forward progression. Throughout the whole game, there are various side questions that integrate characters from the first story into the second. Those familiar with the game know that each of these characters poses a unique class that is obtainable upon their defeat. In each of these side quests, you have to choose between two of these characters at a time. Not only does this incorporate the incentive of unlocking one of two different classes to utilize in the game, but with the added layer of morality written into the plot, they’ve actually managed to create pretty difficult circumstances that are far from straightforward.

Share smaller portions of food with everyone, or give a large portion to the supposed tyrant that could save everyone faster that the former choice would risk? Advise a recent graduate to abandon his position to pursue his dream, or convince him to continue his emotionally-demeaning job to help build character? When posed as done in Bravely Second, these definitely aren’t easy choices irregardless of how simple they seem in concept. Either SE has honed in on it’s audience, and has managed to curate a collection of circumstances that are eerily relatable for a 23-year-old writer trying to figure out this whole “life thing,” or it’s just unmistakably good.

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Similarly, the whole premise of the recent Fire Emblem: Fates franchise focuses almost entirely on making rough decisions — simply choosing which version of the game to purchase being one (or if you’re like me, just get both to lessen then headache). Do you side with blood or loyalty? The family you were taken from at youth of the one that raised you? Or are we going to throw up our arms and yell “screw it all, I’m ain’t picking between you farts!” This isn’t easy decision, and to my knowledge the developers didn’t write the game with a canon choice. As this is an example of a game where you sculpt your own protagonist, and make very personalized decisions such as love interest, story-sculpting choices feel ever the more realistic and draw upon far more empathetic versus sympathetic emotion.

The ability to choose under the medium of video games breaks a unique barrier that reading a novel (may) struggle to emit. There is a deeper sense of ability, and draws upon a stronger sense of emotion with that ability to personally project yourself into the environment. When given the gift of choice, you are no longer witnessing the life of a character evolve, but evolving alongside them. It is mechanics like these that bring depth to the illusive field of gaming, and help reflect that power that they have over storytelling. Whether they chose to use this ability or not, though, is a discussion in and of itself.

Image(s): source 1, source 2

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Indigo is a writer living out of Seattle. She plays a lot of video games.

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