Meeting notes: 2008 February 27

Sam Gilbert presented his take on Assassin’s Creed, to be posted separately. From there, the discussion blossomed (as always) into some very interesting and exciting directions. Here are some of the main points raised, although unfortunately without attribution (I can only type so fast!).

Killing citizens in Assassin’s Creed has some penalty, but the gameplay almost encourages you to kill innocent people who are really, really annoying. Perhaps intentional design decision to push reflection on why kill?

Putting the player in a murky moral area, making it up to the player to decide what it “means” lets the developers absolve themselves of moral responsibility. Or maybe it’s a good strategy in not inculcating values in a heavy-handed way. But “phony” murkiness — not really a choice (see Bioshock)

What incentives does the game offer — narrative, points, “style points” (XBox achievements)

Compare full-blown stealth games, e.g. Hitman, Thief. Hitman actually penalizes you for killing anyone other than your target. And it presents many game incentives to kill (annoying people). At the highest difficulty level, Thief ends the game (you lose) if you kill ANYONE. (Thief III moves away from that absolutism — only for non-combatants).

Could AC be rebalanced so that death is much more likely, it would have played much more as a stealth game. But the developers probably realized that stealth in this game was really boring.

Hitman: fun in not having fun, but in being “professional.”

AC doesn’t allow you to reload — can’t recreate your game, make choices. Or maybe it makes the choices much more weighty (similar to Bioshock making it difficult to revert to earlier point after learning about Little Sister rewards)

In good stealth games, violence is always a choice, and having that choice makes the stealth element much more valuable.

Games are running out of plot elements to explain why the player has no choice. Video games seem better at the illusion of choice rather than actually providing choice. Gives games a sense of tragedy: feeling that you should have choices but don’t.

To what extent is the world different because of your actions, that is, killing leads to outcomes.

Often games frame killing using one of two justifications: self-defense (kill or be killed) or utilitarianism (killing a monster for the greater good). But in the latter case rarely do you see outcomes. Why not have outcomes be opposite of your overall intent?

How about making moral choices in the spotlight of other people watching. (The discomfort of making choices in Mass Effect in front of a roommate: will he read my choices onto me as a person?)

Guilt as a massive motivation in games — is it underused? Find examples?

What about a mission to kill terrorists, but avoid civilians? (See September 12 as a rhetorical statement).


  • Get in touch with developers of Tactical Iraqi.
  • See upcoming HIMR‘s articles on military games.
  • See Serious Games’ military spinoff.
  • Ask Judith Donath about military simulators.
  • Compare games for PTSD therapy.

– Gene Koo