Sunday, June 20, 2010

Extinction within a game?

Recently I have been up to my eyeballs in Red Dead Redemption. I am quickly coming to the end of the game and starting to pursue achievements I feel I could easily... achieve. While looking over the list of achievements I came across "Manifest Destiny", worth 5 achievement points, where I must: "Kill the last buffalo in the Great Plains in Single Player."

For some reason this makes me feel oddly uncomfortable. This is strange to me because it is a feeling I have never come across in a game before. It is one thing to run around shooting animals I know to be on the endangered species list. So far I didn't mind shooting beavers, cougars, or owls; there seems to be no end to them. Like most games they are killed and replenished.

A part of me feels that if the achievement simply called for killing a whole number, maybe 30 buffalo, and knowing that more will appear on the plains at some point, is something I am ok with. But in a game where storytelling elements have pointed out the stupidity of the white man, and the atrocities imposed on the natives of the land, I feel like I am morally wrong to pursue this achievement.

Now maybe I would be less inclined to care if it was simply a hunting game, instead of a game which introduces many moral dilemmas throughout the narrative, and a character who, surprisingly, is of a higher level of moral fortitude than I was expecting. And because the game so liberally portrays characters and situations in a strong good and evil light, I feel like I am partaking in too much of the evil. Perhaps it has more to do with the context of the game itself and how I feel I will shape the world of the game than it does with feeling like I am recreating a horrible portion of the past.

I guess I feel almost sad in the same way I would feel sad to kill a major character in Fallout, knowing full-well that they are never going to be alive again within my saved game, and that is the end. It is truly the exception, game characters which can be killed off at the discretion of the player, not by the forced narrative or intended structure of the main game, never to be respawned again. It is something that literally makes me stop and think, because I need to weigh whether I will want this person around in later playthroughs of the game.

But with the buffalo, there is no real benefit. They are simply animals wandering a section of the game world. So in a way I suppose there is a combination of guilt and discomfort, performing an act with overarching social implications. Knowing that the thing you are going to do will set a chain of events creating years of despair and completely ruining the lives of millions of people. It is different than simply killing an individual character in the game which is a carbon copy of a seemingly endless supply of the same character.

I have no problem killing an individual character in a game, usually because I have no idea who this person is or how they exist in the world. But I suppose if I saw a flash into this characters life the moment I pointed a gun at them I would feel different. Imagine it: you aim your pistol at their head, then the screen flashes to white. You are given a glimpse of them at home, providing for their family, playing with their children, and other happy things. Then you are brought back to the game with the crosshairs on their head. Do you continue and kill this character, or are you second guessing?

I know I was in a similar predicament when I knew I was face to face with a cannibal in the game, and I had to hogtie a man and bring him to the cannibal. I didn't want to do it. I already knew this guy was bad, I had seen multiple family members crying over missing loved ones, seen the piles of bones out in the wilderness, then heard the cries of the man I chased down as he said "Don't do this, he is crazy." But when I tried shooting the cannibal first, I failed the mission. I begrudgingly did the mission again, and was able to kill the cannibal before he killed the man, so I felt ok in the longrun, but I was really sucked in by the whole thing, and I am still impressed by how emotionally swayed I was by this simple mission.

And as for killing the buffalo? I don't think it is weird for me to feel this way. Yes these are just characters in a game, but so was Aeris and I cried when Sephiroth killed her. But there is a lot more going on here, everything I listed that I don't feel like listing again, which the developers did an amazing job layering over and over in order to illicit and emotional response and investment from the player, and I have to applaud Rockstar San Diego for creating such a moral dilemma for myself.