Morals, Choice, and Immersion in Video Games

Jordan Clifford

Since their popularity began in the 80’s and 90’s video games have been seen as by many as a waste of time, a corrupting influence to children, and mindless entertainment. There are endless sensational news articles talking about the detrimental effects they have on people and how they are replacing the book in modern society, what is the reason for the popularity of video games? It’s hard to imagine that an industry that’s existed since for over two thousand years could be overthrown in a couple of decades. In this post I will be looking at the things video games do better than books, but I don’t want to give the impression books are inferior to video games; they each have their strengths and weaknesses.

One of the most discussed issues in video games, especially by the news, is morality. Of course when you think of morality in video games it’s easy to immediately think of games like Grand Theft Auto or Halo,which generally focus on the gameplay and not the morality of the player’s actions. For instance in Grand Theft Auto V there is a torture scene the player must go through on another character and there is no option of not doing it, you are expected to not care about the moral implications of it.

The Walking Dead Season One. Telltale Games. 30 Mar. 2017. Video Game.

However, a game that does consider the player’s actions is The Walking Dead Season One by Telltale games, a game based on a visual novel that was made popular by the TV show. In The Walking Dead you are faced with the moral issues of a zombie apocalypse; while there is of course the blood and gore that is typical of the genre, it also shows the moral side of things as well. In the game you play as Lee and take care of a child named Clementine whose parents were killed in the ensuing apocalypse, and the story makes your moral choices count. Throughout the story you are made to care about her and the other characters, then when you are given choices you must also remember that Clementine is watching you and certain actions you take will affect her. For instance, you could kill a man you think might be about to turn into a zombie, but that would also emotionally scar Clementine and could come up later in the story. Of course there are people who would argue that they aren’t real and so why should you care about them? The same could be said for books; the same empathy that makes a person connect to a character in a book makes a person connect with a character in a video game. Of course both have to be believable and well written, something I will admit video games have trouble with.

Video games have been getting more and more advanced graphically as of this generation of console; however, with the advent of indie game studios the stories they tell have also become much more complex. One such example is The Stanley Parable, which is a wonderful game that I highly recommend. Books can have quite a complex story, some going as far as having branching paths, but few are as inventive as The Stanley Parable is. You play as the silent Stanley whose story is narrated by the Narrator, and those are the only two characters in the story. It has fairly simple gameplay and graphics, you explore the abandoned office Stanley works at as the Narrator tells you where to go and what to do. However as you play you discover you can either follow the Narrator’s directions or leave the narrative and go your own way. This interaction between such meta components to a story is a very original concept and something that’s quite difficult for books to do. The Stanley Parable may be a shining example of choice in media you consume, and many games now have multiple endings to make the player feel as though they had an effect on the world the game presents. This, I feel, is a unique thing a video game can do with a plot; I’ve never felt as though I’ve changed the plot of a novel just by reading it, although I might just be reading the wrong books.

Papers, Please. 1.1.65. 3909 LLC. 30 Mar. 2017. Video Game.

This feeling of immersion that a game can present is somewhat innovative as well, most games have you play as the main character and thus try to immerse you in the world as much as possible to make it feel real. While some games try and give you a power fantasy, others do the exact opposite, an example of this can be found in a game called Papers, Please. In Papers, Please you play as an immigration officer checking people’s papers as they try to cross the border in a dystopian world. The game is as grinding and dull as it sounds, the colors are muted and the sounds are muddy, each person that comes into your booth has indistinct features that you forget as soon as they leave. It’s a game that makes you feel as though you are a cog in a system, you make just barely enough money to feed your family and pay rent. This raises the question of why on earth you would ever want to play such a game when you could go out and shoot aliens and win at things. Of course the same could be said for books: why read something that gives you dread and makes you feel bad when you could read a cheesy romance or action-packed spy novel? Books and games and other media exist as escapism, a way to experience things that don’t exist, they exist to make a person feel things, which could be happiness, sadness, or dread. A novel could talk about how you sat in a toll booth day after day, hoping you do a good enough job to feed your family, but with a game there is something more to it, the feeling of looking at the clock and realizing you aren’t going to make enough money, or the sound of the buzzer telling you that you did a bad job. Games bring all these things to the story they are trying to tell and more that books cannot. Of course I could write another post all about why books are better than video games at telling stories, but in the end it’s good to understand that they both have strengths and weaknesses, and if used correctly either can immerse you in the story it presents.

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