This post is part of the Overthinkery Reclamation Project, an effort to reclaim some very old posts that I wrote a long time ago. This particular post was first published on November 26, 2013.
I discovered something about myself today.
I am willing to kill. Sometimes I’ll outright murder, for money or some other gain. I will happily loot the corpses of my dead foes and take anything that might be (or ever have been) of any practical or sentimental value to my victim, myself, or those now in mourning. On occasion I’ll transform into a werewolf and savage them, or a vampire and drink their blood. I’m not, however, willing to eat them.
I’m not talking about real life here, as I hope is obvious. I’m talking about video games, specifically Skyrim. While I was playing through a quest called The Taste of Death, I suddenly realised that I really didn’t want to do what I was being told to, in this case lure an innocent man to his death and subsequent cannibalisation. This struck me as unusual, since I couldn’t remember a previous incidence of genuine distaste at the idea of following a quest’s objectives. I’ve quite happily worked my way up in the Thieves’ Guild by robbing, committing arson and occasionally killing those who got in my way or tried to stop me; I became the leader of the warrior-like Companions by proving myself in battle; I even rose through the ranks of the assassins’ Dark Brotherhood, in which I regularly poisoned, shot, stabbed or otherwise murdered people. Often not very nice people, but still.
So far, none of this had been a real problem, and if any issues had arisen there was usually some element of choice which would allow me to complete the quest without becoming completely immoral. For example, in one quest I was asked by two men to find a local woman and report her whereabouts to them. I forget exactly what they wanted to do with her, but I don’t think it was nice. Luckily for me, this quest provided two separate and mutually exclusive objectives that I could choose to follow at this point: inform her that they were looking for her so she could hide, or turn her in. I didn’t particularly fancy turning her over to them on the grounds that they had very big swords and sounded rather angry about everything, so I chose to follow the objective of helping her get away. I still completed that quest, although I could have done it in a different manner. So in this case, when my conscience stepped in I was able to mollify it quite happily without any gameplay loss.
The Taste of Death, however, did not give me any chance to refuse. I was expecting for there to be a point at which the objectives divided, much like in my earlier example; I thought there would be a choice between following the cannibals’ plan and, say, turning them in to the authorities, but no. That option never appeared, and I found myself in the unenviable position of having to murder and cannibalise an innocent man – a priest, no less – or prevent myself from being able to progress that quest to completion.
There was of course another option: simply leave the quest. Go somewhere else and never complete it. That in itself is a moral choice of a sort, but that didn’t seem quite proactive enough for me. So instead I followed the quest until near its denouement, luring the priest to the cannibals’ feast. When the time came to kill him, though, I turned my bow on the cannibals, killing them all.
I failed that quest.
I never failed a quest before.
Anyway, moral agency is becoming an increasingly prevalent thing to include in modern games. This can take the form of a moral choice system, in which the player aligns themselves with good or evil through making the appropriate choices (often leading to multiple endings) or simply some sort of plot event or rumination which brings up the theme of morality. BioShock had a particularly good example of the latter – it did include the former, but most critics tend to consider the latter more important – which I think I’ll talk about tomorrow if I remember, since I’ve already written far more for one day’s article than is appropriate for a lazy sod such as myself.
Check out the blog Skyrim and Morality for more on The Taste of Death as well as pretty much every other aspect of that game; it really is a phenomenally detailed and insightful study into how Skyrim deals with moral issues.I’ll be back tomorrow, but in the meantime you really ought to load up a good video game and have a nice think about what exactly you’re doing to that poor Koopa’s family when you make Mario stomp it brutally into the ground.