The Problem of Choice in Video Games – Dante’s Inferno

Taking decisions in video games has never been a big issue. While several scholars have spoken about “choice” versus “problem” in many talks (an issue summarized wonderfully in Daniel Floyd’s video “Video Games and Choice”), and several scholars and reviewers have written at length about moral choice in games. Any quick google search will provide millions of hits on the topic. However, the “problem” of “moral choice” is not a problem at all; or to use the appropriate linguistic phrasing, “moral choice” in games has historically been a problem.

Before continuing with this essay it would be appropriate to define “choice” and “problem”. The difference between a choice and a problem is that a problem gives the illusion of choice, but in reality is a multiple choice question with a clear cut answer. An example of a problem can be found in all games, but of recent games let’s go with Last Remnant. In this game the player can “choose” to hire a few of several mercenaries. This “choice”, however, becomes a problem when the gamer realizes that some mercenaries are stronger than others. The “choice” of “which one” becomes a “problem” of “where do I find the strongest ones”. Bioshock is a game that hides choices as problems. What in Bioshock was supposed to be an ambiguous moral choice regarding “little sisters” into a simple problem solving issue by integrating this “choice” into the overall design of the game. Do you want the reward or not?

Why do games tend to evade choice and stick to problems? As Daniel Floyd exemplifies in his video, remember those games like Shining Force (Sega Genesis) where the King asks you “do you take this mission?” and you say “no” and the king asks you “no, seriously, do you accept this mission?” The “choice” of saying no would possibly imply a game where either Runefaust overruns the world, Dark Dragon takes over the world, and everyone dies, or the player character sits around all day hanging out with local women drinking coffee wondering what the king’s number two man is up to.

Fallout 3 took a small step towards choice in games by allowing the player to make what seem to be moral ambiguous choices in the game, like blowing up Megaton. This choice, however, turns out to be not so morally ambiguous after all, as due to the exaggerated nature of the event and the save anywhere system many gamers simply take the blowing up of megaton as a joke. They often blow up the city “for the lulz”, do a separate save, then load to a pre-blow up Megaton, “problem solve” to disarm the bomb, and then keep the house that is the reward for not blowing up megaton. This is a small reward, but a reward for “choosing” the correct path nonetheless. This problem hidden as choice is one of the things that, according to many writers, is holding the video game medium back from achieving artistic maturity. This means that once designers figure out how to successfully integrate choice, REAL choice, into games, they will have taken a step in the right direction.

Dante’s Inferno takes that step.

Dante’s Inferno takes the moral ambiguity of choice to the next level by putting players in a serous, religiously charged environment. While traveling the nine circles of Hell, Dante runs into several historical and mythological characters – the first one being Pontius Pilate. When the player runs into this characters as he or she travels hell the player has to “solve” the simple problem of whether they want the reward for judging these characters. The question of “to judge or not to judge?” becomes a simpler question of “do I want the reward for judging?” Once the player decides “yes” he has to make a choice: do I punish him and sentence him to hell, or do I absolve his sins and allow him to enter heaven?

As I write this Pontius Pilate is kneeling in my T.V. set, begging for mercy. I, the player, know that because of Pilate’s lack of action Jesus was nailed to the cross, which set off a chain of events lasting well unto the 21st century. Regardless of whether one is a Christian or not, this story is one that’s nearly universally known, so the player is left with the choice: do I punish this guy for not saving Jesus when he had the power to, or do I forgive his sins? This choice is not a problem. Choosing to forgive his sins will give my character an insane amount of “holy” experience and a good amount of “soul” which will allow me to purchase new skills. Choosing to punish him will result in my character obtaining an insane amount of “unholy” experience, and a good amount of “soul” which will allow me to purchase new skills. Since both “holy” and “unholy” experience is needed to advance in the game, the question of “which type of experience do I want” becomes irrelevant, and since the player can use “soul” to purchase skills from both the “holy” and the “unholy” sections, the question of “what type of skills do I want” also becomes null. The real question, then, becomes “do I want to punish or absolve Pontius Pilate?”

And to that I don’t know the answer to. I guess I’ll just flip a coin and hope I don’t regret it later when I read his in-game bio.

By the way, it is an excellent game and I wholeheartedly recommend it

About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on February 15, 2010, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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