Videogame morality is an odd thing. In Red Dead Redemption
, you can shoot innocent passers-by whenever you feel like it and then cleanse your soul by protecting a ranch from criminals. By performing a minor good deed, you've paid for your murder and you're morally pure again. It's very strange.
It can sometimes be hard to shake off the 'good things undo bad things, right?' brand of videogame morality when you're playing games with actual moral consequences. In the first Bioshock
game, you occasionally encounter children who have been genetically altered and brainwashed. You can either cure them of their brainwashing or harvest some sort of power-enhancing substance from them, killing the child in the process. When th_esaurus
played, she sometimes rescued and sometimes harvested. She ended up getting the bad ending, which castigated her for her cruelty.
"I barely harvested any of them!" she exclaimed at the screen.
"It's not okay if you only kill some
of the children," I said.
And yet I recognised where her reasoning came from; in many videogames, we're trained to think that we can deliberately do something bad and then avoid any consequences by doing something good, even if the bad thing is deeply, deeply awful.
I'm not saying that this is an impression we carry into real life; I'm fairly certain most people who play videogames can tell the difference between real-world morality and videogame morality. But it's a curious difference between real life and many videogames with morality systems. I suppose it's difficult to construct a system more complex than 'good things get you goodness points, bad things get you badness points and they cancel each other out.Undertale
takes a really interesting approach to moral choice. Unlike Bioshock
, where 'more power' is the temptation for immoral actions, Undertale
tempts you with something much more valuable: more story, more game. But it deliberately makes the 'murder everything' route as unenjoyable to play as possible. You have to really make an effort
to do awful things. You have to consciously want to go down the evil route. You have to be determined. The game judges you intensely for it, and that judgement feels earned; there was no reason you couldn't have done a nice
I've been thinking about this because I've been playing Virtue's Last Reward
. The point of the murder route in Undertale
is that you don't have to do it. You can beat the game quite happily without killing a single enemy. Virtue's Last Reward
is different; there are a lot of different routes, some of which you can access only by being a huge arsehole, and you have
to go down most of them in order to beat the game. Do your actions have no weight because you're ultimately required to take them if you want to reach the ending?
There's another question in Virtue's Last Reward
: do your actions have no weight because you can canonically jump to another timeline in which you weren't an arsehole? Or do they have an inescapable weight, because all timelines in the game are canonically real timelines that exist in some capacity? The moment you hit the 'betray' button, that's a thing that happened in some universe. But, in the end, it doesn't really feel like your decision, because the game acts as if that universe exists before you truly bring it into being. It punishes you based on your future actions, which it knows you'll take because the game will eventually corner you into making them.
Wow, Virtue's Last Reward
is really difficult to explain.
In any case, if you're cruel in Undertale
, it feels like your
cruelty. You could have made friends, you could have helped people, and instead you made the conscious choice to kill everyone. The game judges you, and you know you deserve it. If you're cruel in Virtue's Last Reward
, it's easy to mentally defend yourself. I betrayed an unconscious child in that game, because I reasoned that, hey, that might be the only way I could deactivate a bomb in another timeline and save everyone. The game judges you, and you go 'hey, you were the one who made me do this!'
This isn't a criticism of Virtue's Last Reward
, which I'm enjoying! I like the way it examines the concept of different timelines branching out from different choices, and I'm looking forward to seeing what it's working towards. I suppose I just felt like rambling about videogames for hundreds of words, because I always feel like rambling about videogames for hundreds of words.