Wednesday, July 8, 2009

EXP Podcast #33: The Decision Dilemma

Last month, outspoken game designers Clint Hocking and Manveer Heir held a little cross-blog discussion regarding the design and implementation of ethical choices in video games. We are accustomed to making decisions about weapons, strategies, and the color of our Sim hairstyles, but meaningful choices with moral weight are relatively rare. Even when faced with potentially tough moral dilemmas, the current nature of video games may dilute the effect. Heir suggests in-game permanence (which has created various interesting experiments), while Hocking eschews authorial influence in favor of ludic solutions.

It is tough topic, so we decided to we decided to call for backup. This week, we have are honored to welcome Nels Anderson, author of the excellent Above49 blog and gameplay programmer for Hot Head Games. Join us while we discuss permanence, harvesting children, Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, readability, and the future of moral choices in games. With three of us at the table, we made this podcast slightly longer than normal, but extra time is well spent on a very complicated and contentious subject. We encourage you to read theHocking's and Heir's original articles in the show notes, along with supplementary pieces we discuss in the show. As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.

Some discussion starters:

- Have you ever faced a difficult in-game discussion that stemmed from moral concerns? If so, did you translate this into simply mechanical outcomes? Did you approach is role-playing as the protagonist?
- If your in-game decisions were permanent, would they be more meaningful? What techniques add add weight to a decision?
- To what extent is in-game decision making impacted by real-world experiences? Do you carry your personal set of ethics into a game?

To listen to the podcast:
- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 41 min 13 sec
- "Ethical Decision Making," by Clint Hocking, via Click Nothing
- "Designing Ethical Dilemmas," by Manveer Heir via Design Rampage
- "Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock," by Clint Hocking
- Rescuing vs. Harvesting Little Sisters Graph, via Escapist Magazine
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. This is the first podcast of yours I've had the pleasure of listening to, and it really made my day. The level of insight and analysis is great, and weekly casts? Yes please! I expect to be a regular here on out. ^_^

    I think we're kind of missing the point in the Bioshock ludonarrative dissonance discussion though. Is the game REALLY saying that self-interest is the best way to behave? Is it really saying that being selfish necessarily leads to better results for you?

    Is that what the game says, or is that just what Atlas tells you as your - unreliable - handler? I would say that's the argument Atlas and Ryan both make, but I interpret the game as a whole an indictment of that line of reasoning. Rapture collapses because of so-called rational self-interest. My tendency is to interpret this mechanic in the context of the rest of the narrative, and so take it as a statement that apparently selfless actions can actually benefit you. If you help others, they will go out of their way to help you in return, and in some ways the benefits of saving the little sisters are actually better than the benefits of harvesting them. Not in terms of straight adam, but you get access to unique plasmids that let you get assistance from big daddies.

    To me, this all reads as very synergistic. The narrative and the gameplay mechanics work together to detail the problems with Rand's philosophies. It can only appear dissonant if you unquestioningly accept the assertion that helping others carries no benefit to you (in which case it's not dissonant with the narrative, it's dissonant with your own personal philosophy), or presume that the game as a whole is making that assertion, which is not the way that I read the game.

  2. Thanks for another great podcast guys, it has probably been my favourite thus far. When I listened to the podcast last night I was silently screaming to you guys that I could not believe the absence of The Witcher in this discussion. The game's approach the decision making, consequences and ethics is amazingly effective and would provide an interesting talking point in this discussion.

    There are a number of major and minor decisions in the Witcher that deal with morality but in a way that is unique to that world. This is because, in general, your are not presented with a world of good and bad people. They are more likely to be greedy, selfish, arrogant; traits that are a testament to the quality writing of the game. Thus you are no longer making a good or bad choice because each choice benefits different people, none of which are wholly good. The lack of a binary choice in the ethical dilemmas that you face I think provides a greater opportunity for meaning because people have to invest some thought into how they feel about each situation rather than role-playing the good or bad path

    In regard to the permanence and effectiveness of your decisions the game has an excellent mechanic that provides consequences for the decision immediately, impacting that next step in dialogue or action, as well as having ripple effects that might not emerge to much later in a playthrough. For example: I made what I thought to be an easy and minor decision early on to let some elf smugglers continue their work outside a village, I later found many hours down the track that a less than reputable contact that would've helped me had been attacked and killed by people wielding the very weapons I allowed to be smuggled about the world. When this ripple effect emerges and is made recognizable to the player it gives each decision a greater weight and also makes the save/reload technique obsolete as immediate rewards are not the only consideration anymore. There is a permanence later down the track that the player is now aware of but cannot manipulate.

    The final aspect of the game that I think might also contribute to its effective decision making process is that you level up and customize your Witcher is typical RPG fashion except that, narratively, you always are Geralt and therefore are given a character with pre-existing morals and ethics that you must explore in your playthrough. Players are not given an empty shell that they must fill completely, taking more time than they might be willing to invest in the characters moral growth. Geralt is a whole character that they can respond to and bounce off of.

  3. As always, great podcast!

    I'm already listening to the next one where you've mentioned you haven't played GTA4. I thought THAT was a game with an interesting dilemma at the end. It was interesting because neither of the choices was good/bad. It was more about living according to different values and ideals. And also, it resonated very well with the buildup of the main character. I suggest you give it a try, even though it takes quite a while to get to that point.

    I didn't use the save/reload there. I think in this is a case where the players wouldn't be too curious to do so. It may have to do with the fact that it is at the very end of the game, so you get a sense of closure very soon.

  4. @Julian

    Thanks for listening and for your comment!

    You and I are on the exact same page regarding Bioshock. Like you, I see it as a indictment of self-interest. I've actually been trying to write a post about this, so let's see how that turns out... :-)


    It's funny, I could've sworn that I heard the wind whispering "The Witcher" while we recorded, I guess it wasn't my imagination ;-)

    The Witcher is one of those titles that passed me by, but I've heard good things about it.

    Unfortunately, lots of the stuff I heard about it revolved around sex and boobs, so I'm glad to hear that its approach to decision-making is an inventive one.

    Maybe you'll dive into it on your site? *hint hint*


    I'm really trying to get to GTA IV before the fall release season rolls around. Now that the dust around it has settled, I'm starting to hear more things about the game that interest me, so hopefully I'll get my act together and jump in.