Assassin’s Creed : a typically flawed approach to moral choice

(NOTE: The writeup below are based on a presentation by Sam Gilbert and are fairly rough)

Assassin’s Creed as typical of most games’ approach to morality


Game mission: to assassinate nine leaders who have in some way been taking advantage of the chaotic situation of the 2nd Crusade. Provides a “holy” motivation for the player.

Gampeplay primarily to (1) gather intelligence; (2) assasination and escape. Very much a “sandbox” game — lots of exploration.

Moral current running throughout: in each assassination, you learn not just how to kill the target, but also a moral judgment about them. But each kill is accompanied by a conversation where you learn more about their POV. Moral content happens on a narrative level (cutscenes, both conversations w/ target and character’s own reflection)

EXAMPLE: 2nd target, Grandmaster of the Knights Hospitalier. Apparently he conducts unethical medical experiments. As you enter assassination mode, you see him break a “patient’s” legs. But as you stalk him to figure out his pattern of movement, you hear him talking to patients who have very divergent opinions of him. As you kill him, he gives a persuasive case about free will and curing mental illness. Almost a cliche example, rather heavy-handed, but illustrates how the narrative doubles back on itself in terms of interpreting the characters.

Questioning those beliefs that are beyond approach: ideologies that motivate you to do things. The more specifics you learn, the question of who is “right” becomes increasingly unstable.

Ultimately, your fight is against ideological hegemony (assertion of your own perspective over others’)


Rather than only people who are motivated by good ideas, the last “boss” is motivated by power-mongering (more clearly evil). So lack of consistency in theme across the various targets.

Most of the story unfolds in cutscenes. Despite the immersive, sandbox environment graphically, most of the filler characters don’t add any depth to the idea of the Crusades at all.


Fundamentally, this all happens at the narrative level: there is no moral choice. You are never given the option NOT to kill; you must do so to proceed with the narrative. At some point, I was killing people to keep hearing the story, not because it was motivated.

A better case could have been built around the premium of killing. You kill quite a few guards and with little choice (saving civilians). A surprising emphasis on killing rather than stealth.

Problematic choice between fun and moral choices.

Ethical choices don’t necessarily resonate with the player — the average player is not even going to engage the narrative that deeply. At best, a good story — people won’t think about these moral issues. And unlike movies, you can be FORCED to deal with the ethical issues presented.

And what of a disconnect between the player and the character? By making this a sci-fi machine interface that sends you back in time, resolves the UI “story,” but it’s not reflected in the gameplay itself.

Contrast the “Door Game” — pushes reflection of the choices you yourself made.

The door game: a lesson in irrationality

One topic we’ve latched onto in considering games and morality is the idea of scaffolding moral decision-making and also instigating moral reflection on those decisions.

The Door Game comes quite close to providing an ideal type of this kind of game. I won’t spoil the game — it’s something you can play in a few minutes (or in hours, if you choose) — but essentially you are participating in a very stripped-down self-experiment. The game presents a single moment of self-reflection at the end in a simple, static screen, and yet if the player takes it seriously, it could be quite profound.

The game, by the way, is part of the message and marketing of the book Predictably Irrational, and it worked for me; I’ve got the book on my Amazon shopping list.

Update: More on irrational option-preservation.

– Gene Koo

Playing with Good and Evil synopsis

Linked in the “required reading” section is my master’s thesis, “Playing with Good and Evil: Videogames and Moral Philosophy.” Essentially, it attempts to articulate one way in which videogames can advance arguments in general, and arguments about moral philosophy specifically.

In the first section, I propose the idea of an internal “ethics” of gameplay, a loose rule system that players are compelled (but not required) to obey. Distilled to its simplest form, players are generally compelled to perform certain actions and enact certain strategies that help achieve the win condition. While players have a good deal of control over the avatar’s individual actions at the micro level, the game’s rule system rewards some actions, punishes others, and completely ignores actions that fall out of the game’s reward/punishment feedback system. Videogames thus allow players to feel as if they bear responsibility for actions that are effectively dictated by their having attempted to play the game to its conclusion. These actions can be imbued with moral significance through the use of a narrative/fiction that is internally consistent, conditionally similar to observed reality, and effectively integrated with the game’s rule system.

In the second section, I examine Peter Molyneux’s Fable. In Fable, the highly touted moral system is poorly integrated with the narrative and internally inconsistent, resulting in the creation of moral rules that are both bizarre and counterintuitive. In an attempt to imagine what a more cohesive and ambitious morality “engine” might look like, I propose changes to Fable’s design that model two radically different moral philosophies: the deontological morality of Immanuel Kant and the consequentialist utilitarianism established in the writings of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

In the third section, I examine how existing games handle moral issues relating to the “War on Terror,” specifically the treatment of civilian combatants and the use of torture for interrogation purposes. Because this chapter concerns specific issues instead of more totalizing moral visions, the selection of primary texts is wider, including such games as Command & Conquer: Generals, The Punisher, State of Emergency 2, The Godfather, and Reservoir Dogs. By articulating the issues that these games address, I discern the issues that they studiously avoid, and the questionable arguments they (perhaps unintentionally) advance in the process. From this, I propose a more nuanced depiction of warfare that acknowledges long-term political and moral concerns.

I am in the process of expanding on this work, and any questions or comments are entirely welcome.

Peter Rauch

Choice and Freedom in Bioshock

Big Daddy, Little Sister
For though I be free from all men,
yet have I made myself servant unto all,
that I might gain the more.

– 1 Corinthians 9:19 (KJV)

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

– Bob Dylan

When Bioshock opens, you are floating in the open sea, the sole survivor of a plane crash. Seawater dapples your view of the flaming wreckage all around. And then you realize that you’re in control, trapped among walls of flame, and you must find your way out. The path through those flames is too short and too linear to characterize as a maze, but it does give a spectacular view of the plane exploding before you reach your objective. And therein lies the core challenge facing any interactive fiction that aspires to moral depth: how to offer meaningful choices in a medium that is computationally limited.

Free will is the thematic touchstone of Bioshock. Between the introduction and conclusion, the game takes place entirely in the libertarian haven of Rapture, an underwater city founded by industrial magnate Andrew Ryan. Ryan, avatar and near-anagram of Ayn Rand, espouses a philosophy of pure self-interest untrammeled by ethics and morals. Freed from all social constraints, Rapture’s post-Nazi scientists experiment with stem cells, er, sea slugs, to invent superpowers like telekinesis, electrical skin, and of course hatching angry bees from your arms.

Thus Bioshock offers all the choices any self-respecting FPS would offer when it comes to combat. Ad copy for Bioshock touts these expanded tactical options (“The genetically modified shooter”), but notably, much of the PR around the game highlighted moral decision-making. For while Andrew Ryan provides the intellectual backdrop of Bioshock, the eerily realized Little Sisters provide its moral heart.

And Little Sisters are creepy. They look, talk, sing, and act like five-year-old girls, except with glowing eyes and reverb-effect voices. Oh, and Little Sisters also go around looking for dying bodies to plunge large syringes into. What they pull out – a genetic elixir called “ADAM” – makes them irresistible objects of desire. Only ADAM enables genetic superpowers, and unlike every other resource in the game, its supply is finite. So finding Little Sisters and claiming their precious cargo is quite likely a critical goal through most of the game.

Exactly how you claim that cargo is where the game’s vaunted moral choice resides. (I’ll gloss over the tactical but nontrivial matter of eliminating the Little Sister’s behemoth bodyguard, the iconic Big Daddy). You’ve got two choices: to “harvest” them, which kills them and yields 180 ADAM, or to “rescue” them, which restores them to normal little girls but yields you only 80 ADAM. We’re not talking about a sophisticated moral dilemma here (Zero Punctuation derides the choice as “Mother Theresa or baby-eating”). Still, given that most games heap goodies on players who make the morally “right” choice, the fact that rescuing Little Sisters denies you 100 crucial ADAM points holds some consequence. It’s impossible to max out your genetic powers and get the corresponding Xbox achievement, for example, without killing all of them. All the same, if you “follow the path of the righteous,” every third rescued Little Sister donates 200 ADAM and bonus powers that arguably compensate for the initial up-front sacrifice. And rescuing every Little Sister yields the highest, 100-point Xbox achievement in the whole game. It’s as if the developers, foreseeing a swath of slaughtered virtual children (and corresponding media outrage), tilted the rules in favor of mercy.

Yet a trawl of discussion forums and YouTube screencaps reveals that despite the near-parity of options, many players had no problem harvesting the small genetic freaks. One colleague of mine shrugged when I asked him how he handled the Little Sisters: “I harvested every second one.” This, of course, is the classic problem facing narrative games: the divergence between storyline and game mechanics. I doubt my co-worker would even slap a 6-year-old in real life, not to mention kill them according to some arbitrary formula. (Not many GTA players go around beating up prostitutes for cash, either).

empathetic nonstarters
Sea slugs: empathetic nonstarters

Bioshock thus provides a spot lesson on the problem of reading player actions for their moral intent. I think it’s particularly illustrative because it arguably represents the most advanced, conscious effort to induce compassion and empathy in a recent mainstream game title. Lead Designer Ken Levine explained at Boston Postmortem that the Little Sisters / Big Daddies were inspired by ant species with harvester / soldier castes, but non-anthropomorphic harvesters were just not sympathetic enough. So they switched to little girls – an extreme way to crank up the empathy quotient, to be sure:

Bioshock's first Little Sister
(Click for video)

It’s a shocking, perhaps heart-tugging, sequence. Even so, Atlas (the male voice who advocates harvesting Little Sisters) accurately describes the question we face as players of the game: What claim does this facsimile of a frightened little girl have on our moral conscience? That Bioshock even raises this question represents an important step towards expanding the capacity of interactive media to induce empathy and compassion. That its marketing not only features but oversells its moral dimensions suggests that there’s a real market out there who are hungry for games with depth.

Yet if Bioshock takes its place in the pantheon of game classics, as I believe it should, it would probably be not for its moral depth but rather for its intellectual deconstruction of the concept of free will. The game executes a spectacular reversal at its midpoint that left me shocked and awed. (I won’t spoil it here). It’s just too bad that, having deconstructed the idea of choice, Bioshock gives up on the concept altogether.

The game’s surrender on the question of free will is all the more disappointing given how close Bioshock comes to reconciling its Little Sister heart with its Andrew Ryan mind. The “good” (and syrupy) cinematic conclusion explains your reward for all your sacrifices: a family. It’s a predictable final note (Little Sisters, Big Daddies – get it?) but not, I don’t think, an entirely facile one. For Bioshock’s penultimate chapter requires you to become a Big Daddy and guard a Little Sister against waves of bad guys. For me, this role-reversal was as emotionally rich as the previous twist was intellectually profound, and not just because I found new empathy for these nemeses that I’d frozen / electrocuted / blasted to smithereens with nary a regret

For on top of Garry Schyman’s orchestral score, there’s a second soundtrack to Bioshock: the Little Sisters’ babble that you overhear as you stalk them. Let me be clear here: you spend a significant part of the game stalking little girls and plotting to kill their protectors. And during all that time, you begin to discern the affection a Little Sister has for her guardian – “Mr. Bubbles,” she calls him, in a brilliant bit of writing. “Don’t be a slowpoke, Mr. Bubbles,” she prods when he falls behind; “Unzip him, Mr. B!” she urges when you attack him; “Mr. Bubbles! Please, get up!” she cries when you kill him. And now, suddenly, you are Mr. B. The Little Sister roots for you when the enemies attack (“Tear him into little bits!”). And she’s caring for you when you get hit (“He hurts, he hurts!”).

If you’ve been rescuing Little Sisters all along, it’s not hard to interpret Bioshock’s penultimate sequence as the capstone to a relationship between you and them that’s been forming throughout the game – a Big Daddy finishing school. (There’s even an area called “Proving Grounds”). It led me to ponder: in Rapture, who ends up becoming a Big Daddy? Had my guide through the latter half of the game, Dr. Tenenbaum – creator and “mother” to the Little Sisters – been brainwashing my character to be the ideal Big Daddy candidate? Indeed, had the game developers been brainwashing me using the game? Is Bioshock itself the ultimate empathy-training exercise?

It was a breathtaking possibility that provoked me to go back to an old save point to revisit the moment when I accepted the role Big Daddy. I was dismayed to find that there was no such point. And it is in failing to recognize the importance of offering a decision on this matter, I think, where Bioshock fell short of its full dramatic potential.

Had Bioshock offered Big Daddyhood as a free choice – to choose to indenture yourself to another – it might also have offered a clearer alternative to Andrew Ryan’s vision of Rapture. “A man chooses,” Ryan tells us; “a slave obeys.” Martin Luther would respond that it is in obedience that we find freedom (specifically, obedience to God); Aristotle, without reference to divine will, reminds us that it is accepting our role in community, polis, that we find true human flourishing.

Bioshock posits choice – in games as in real life – as both illusory and meaningful. It’s an idea that the game’s introductory sequence, set in the sea but hemmed in by flame, captures nicely. The fiery walls form not a maze – a puzzle to be solved – but rather a labyrinth – a journey to be walked. Unlike mazes, labyrinths offer only a single path, and the only choice someone walking it has is how to experience it. It’s an idea that medieval pilgrims and mystics understood well: one winds his way through labyrinths not to become lost, but rather to find the way.

by Gene Koo, presented and discussed on 18 December 2007

Purgatory Blues: I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream as a game of moral decision-making

Thinking about games that portray the complexity of human emotion and ethical and moral choices, we often find out that these issues come as little surprises hidden beneath the surface. No matter if they are included to enhance the narrative, immersion, the player’s experience or because the creators just felt like doing it, the games usually do not wear it on their sleeve. This was the case with Ultima IV and is the case with Bioshock. And even though Planescape: Torment offered a wonderfully crafted personal narrative of exploration of one’s soul, it was still marketed as a D&D fantasy adventure. This might also be the best way to introduce these topics, as the players do not feel like the matters of “great importance” are forced upon them. But there has been a commercial game that had moral and ethical choices as its very driving concept. It was the 1995 PC CD-ROM graphic adventure I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, based on Harlan Ellison‘s story of the same (brilliant) name, produced as a joint venture between the production companies Cyberdreams and Dreamer’s Guild. Since its release, the medium of videogame has come a long way, and this is a good moment to reassess Ellison’s ambitions.

Prior to the release, Harlan Ellison, who took active part in creating the game, even voice acting the main villain, explicitly stated that he wanted to create a game in which the player had to make ethical and moral choices. Judging from the fact that both of these companies were not heard from since shortly after the release of the game, one might suggest that it was a failed experiment. It was, in some respects, but in revealed a whole range of expressive possibilities of the videogame medium, although it wasn’t really able to utilize them.
The story is built around five characters tormented post-apocalypse by a military supercomputer named AM, who hates all humanity. These five people are the last bastion of humanity. Or are they? All of them have to revisit their fears and guilt-stricken memories. Originally conceived by AM as another form of torture, these journeys can be used against him in an attempt to defeat him by restoring the characters’ humanity and thus finding weaknesses in AM’s program.
Using a traditional SCUMM-styled point-and-click interface, the player navigates the characters in environments supposedly generated by AM. Most of the content is delivered via voice-acted dialogues. After going through the story of each of the five characters, the player might use the temporary loss of stability in AM’s systems to overpower him. But Harlan Ellison is fast to warn that the game cannot be won. To cite the sadly unreferenced Wikipedia article on the game, “to preserve the story’s nightmarish mood, Ellison wanted to create a game that players could not possibly win. Instead, there would be a variety of ethical ways in which way they could lose. There are ways to lose heroically, gloriously and at the peak of one’s humanity — if players do well. Otherwise, there are ways to lose ignominiously, in a selfish, cowardly, frightened manner. Dying alone, and in terror. Or being tortured eternally.”
At our “morality in games” sessions, we have often discussed the difficulty of making moral choices in games matter and the assertion was made that the relationship between the “moral” choice in the fictional world of the game is often tied to the desire to win the game, which usually leads to making the obviously “right” choices without really thinking about them. No winning option is an interesting design concept, altough its implementation in this game didn’t make it justice.
The game features a soldier led to regret the harsh treatment of his subordinates, a strong woman who nevertheless cannot overcome the terrible experience of being raped, a man who sent his wife to a mental hospital instead of taking care of her, a fake and selfish hypocrite, and a former Nazi doctor, a disciple of Mengele, the angel of death.
The micro-narratives bring up two metaphors used to convey morality issues – that of purgatory (reliving one’s sins in isolation from the rest of the world) and moral rediscovery. The rediscovery concept was used to great effect in Planescape: Torment. In both games, player characters are bound to face their forgotten past after a state of amnesia, often making a horrible discovery. This is potentially a very powerful ludic device of conveying the feelings of guilt or misery.
Although most of the game is subtler, I will try to demonstrate the game’s pros and cons on the story of Nimdok, the Nazi doctor. He revisits the site of his crimes against humanity, having lost most of his memories and only slowly realizing what he did in the past. These screenshots show him puzzled after his arrival at the concentration camp:

He is bound to confront his former self and the player chooses whether he will stay on the track of a cruel and brutal scientist or whether he will take a different path and save the “Lost tribe”, which is obviously a metaphor of Jews. The choices the player makes in Nimdok’s case are rather obvious. He or she can have him perform a useless and ruthless operation on a young kid, or not (the interesting thing is that if he choses not to, doctor Mengele will do it instead, which emphasizes the hopelesness even more). Once he activates the Golem, he can either have him destroy the Lost Tribe or turn him over to the Tribe. All in all, every micro-narrative can be finished in several ways and all paths to lead to some kind of overall conclusion. The way the characters have dealt with their respective stories has an effect on the final stage, in which they confront AM.
The game’s greatest achievement is that it meant (or could have meant) a major breakthrough in terms of what content may be tackled in a commercial videogame. A game explicitly addressing ethical issues is extremely rare, and this one even offered to play as both a criminal and a victim, in case of Ellen, the only female character. No matter whether the game mechanics actually capture – or induce – the mental processes of empathy, morality and guilt, it at least makes you see the points in one’s life where these choices can be made and make you think about them. The game’s surreal visuals, abstraction-heavy dialogues, deeply disturbing topics (cannibalism, rape, total war and more) and all-around weirdness nevertheless turned out to become a rare exception rather than a new standard.
There were at least two clever design choices: The fact that stories were set in a fantastic enviroment enabled metaphorical puzzles and events, such as one of the characters literally taking his heart and feeding it to a jackal. The inability to reach a “real” winning situation might have brought in some moral ambiguity which is a prerequisite of moral reasoning.
And this is where the shortcomings begin: The players are pretty much bound to Harlan Ellison’s take on morality, as the game interface signals whether you have made a “good” or a “bad” choice (in a later attempt at a morality game, Bullfrog’s Fable, the main character’s avatar changed accordingly). This “spiritual barometer” more or less leads to the reduction of a moral choice to a gameplay choice. And although you cannot win, there is still a most desirable outcome that might not be winning in terms of the narrative, but still is in terms of the rule system and “getting the most out of the game”. Another difficulty stems from the fact that the players don’t have any opportunity to emphatize with the characters before they find out about their past. This bogs down the immersion factor. While playing Nimdok’s story, I often found myself stuck between two choices: either role-playing him and staying true to his former self, or betraying his character and making him “good”. The narrative of the game doesn’t do a good job portraying his change from a brutal monster to a potentially repenting man.
Other drawbacks include technical issues (laggy, unresponsive interface), aesthetic choices (out-of-place cartoony animation) and gameplay elements (puzzles bordering between unconventional and silly). The graphics are, of course, outdated, and the third-person perspective is probably not the best choice for a soul-searching narrative. The whole idea of building a highly original and meditative game on an engine used to play story- and inventory-based adventures is questionable, although adventure games seem to be (or rather have been, as they are extinct as a commercially viable genre) most open to left-field content. But even though flawed, it is still an enjoyable game that screams “These ideas shouldn’t go unnoticed” on every corner. Too bad it did not have a proper mouth.

Written up Jaroslav Švelch, based on the presentation and discussion at the Valuable Games meeting