This paper reviews three games from 2016 – Firewatch, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and Darkest Dungeon – and looks at how each of them addresses ethical play in different ways. It is interesting to see the diversity of design approaches represented in these three titles. They all experiment with new ideas in creating moral engagement in ways that reach beyond the traditional morality-meter driven gameplay, with mixed success.
Firewatch stands out as a game that tells a deliberately “ordinary” story about ordinary people. In a genre full of life-or-death struggles and world-shaking choices, it focuses instead on the very everyday morality of a marriage falling apart due to illness and depression. It shows that not all moral choices have to be grandiose and heroic. It is also interesting in how it defies the expectation that moral choices should make a difference to the narrative. The story it tells does not branch significantly, regardless of the player’s choices. However that does not make the choices insignificant, or leave the player without agency. What changes is the player’s own perception of their character, what kind of person they are, and how that affects their interpretation of the events that follow. This is an important lesson: morality does not lie wholly in the game software, it is also in the player’s head. A choice that changes a players self-image can be more significant than a branching narrative.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is examined as a game that undermines its moral significance through ludic elements. The focus here is on the ‘social battle’ gameplay which allows the player to explore diplomatic solutions to encounters, which can resolve situations without violence. These can be difficult conversations which require attention to an NPC’s words and body language to carefully pick a path towards a successful outcome. This triumph of writing, however, is undermined by the optional C.A.S.I.E. augmentation, which turns the dialogue into a process of watching for flashing lights and music tones that indicate the best possible choices. The game mechanic actively discourages the player from paying attention to the content of the dialogue, and thus turns a potentially interesting moral choice into a purely ludic puzzle.
Darkest Dungeon differs significantly from the other two games in terms of gameplay. It is not so much RPG, as a squad-based dungeon-crawl with elements of horror. The morality does not come from scripted narrative choices, but from how the player chooses to manage the physical and mental health of the adventurers at their command. To some degree, these units are merely interchangeable pawns to be thrown at the enemy, but their slow descent into madness invites the player to reflect on their responsibility in this process, How much should they care? There is a tension here between ludic and narrative elements. Should the player spend resources to keep characters healthy and sane? Or should they be meat to the grinder? As the paper argues, this tension isn’t entirely successful. More could be done to humanise the adventurers and ramp up the “ethical friction” involved in treating their lives as merely means to an end.
It is encouraging to see new and varied experiments in creating morally engaging gameplay. And papers such as this one which critically dissect such titles help to advance both theory and practice. I hope to see (and do!) more of this kind of work in the future.