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.


Scott said...

This is great, and it reminds me of a part of Demon Souls. There is an NPC, who, if you rescue, will return to the main town area of the game. Then, slowly, he will kill off the NPCs in that area, eliminating the vendors, bank, and eventually the NPCs required to complete the game. By making the moral decision to save one person, you damn everyone else and ultimately, yourself.

Will Higgins said...

Great post.

Thomas said...

Good post, lot of good thoughts, but to be honest, I think you're giving Rockstar a bit too much credit here. I don't think they really intended on you having a personal moral dilemma over whether it's right to kill the last of the buffalo in this game. To be honest, I found RDR to be some of Rockstar's clumsiest work in the storytelling department, with some brilliant gems spread here and there.

pumpkinscissors said...

you lost me when you said

"Yes these are just characters in a game, but so was Aeris and I cried when Sephiroth killed her."

Now I understand what you are saying but Aeris was a charater that was constantly killed in battle (in my playthroughs she was fucking useless) and then when she did finally die it had no emotional impact. I don't know how you can cry for some one that dies constantly in the game. When I first saw this I thoguht to my self why didn't we through a phoneix down on her and keep the game going....but that's just my thoguhts.

Sean said...

I have never played Red Dead however, i liken the your description to how i felt in Heavy Rain.


If you dont want to know plot details of the game stop reading here:

Still with me? Good here we go.

At one point in the game you have to make a decision to kill a drug dealer to get some more of the address where your son is located.

I believe it is the third "trial" the Origami Killer puts you though. As you are aiming the gun at his head after you have been chased/chased him all the way into his daughters room he holds up a picture of her and begs for his life. You have the choice to save him and spare his child from living without her father or to become what the Origami Killer wants and be a murderer yourself.

What do you do? If you leave out the rest of the characters stories and think solely in Nathans mind, you have no other way to save your son, you have to do it. Or you can not sink to the level of the killer, and hope you can figure out the address another way.

Sean said...

I'm sorry. Not Nathan (For some reason thinking Uncharted) Ethan is the lead in Heavy Rain.