The Problem of Permanence

July 14, 2009 § 1 Comment

Do we need “permanence” for ethical dilemmas in video games to have meaning?

Manveer Heir, game designer at Raven Software, has been busy pondering over how we might somehow improve the impact of ethical dilemmas in games. Along with three other factors – “narrative”, “consequences” and “obstacles” – he talks about the idea of “permanence”. He comments that “all the other elements do not matter if there’s no permanence to the game”. He believes that the possibility of allowing players to save and reload certain parts of a game – to allow them to play out, at will, different choices or alternative endings – robs an ethical decision of its significance. He puts it like this: “a dilemma ceases to be a dilemma if you get a do-over. Save games unfortunately ruin this.” He then goes on to suggest that we should make certain sections of the game unalterable once they’ve been passed through, making the choices you’ve made at those points final.

In one way I can see where Heir is coming from. If you can go back and change a decision you’ve made as many times as you want, then there’s no real risk attached to the decision in the first place. You no longer have to think carefully of the repercussions because they can always be avoided. A more interesting question, though, is what drives players to abandon their original decisions and go with something else.

Curiosity? Maybe.

I, however, have a different theory and it’s this: if players felt an ownership over their decisions, if they felt those decisions properly defined them, then they wouldn’t feel the need to go back and change them. It is because these decisions are never fully embraced by the player in the first place that they are so easily discarded. So, the problem, as I see it, is more of poor writing – of not producing dilemmas which are challenging or interesting enough to engage with – and the idea of imposing a restriction on save/load points misses the issue.

There’s also something else to consider and it’s that different people choose to engage with their games in different ways. Take me, for instance. There used to be a time where I’d play through games with multiple endings; I’d complete the game, load up my nearest save and play the alternate ending out just because I could, just to see what it was like. I did not bother engaging with the game world. It was apathy, dull indifference as to whether I’d go one way or another. Throughout this period, I think it’s fair to say that no matter how fascinating the ethical dilemma, the impact of it would have been lost on me since I simply did not feel compelled to interact with a game on that level. Adding permanence to in-game decisions wouldn’t have done anything to change this sentiment; it would just have been an added nuisance, an artificial barrier preventing me from exploring the content available to me.

However, there have been occasions, even in my childhood, of ethical dilemmas which I’ve found profoundly affecting. For example, does anybody remember Streets of Rage? Specifically, does anybody remember the ending to that game? For those who never played this classic 2D beat-em-up, you and a partner take two renegade characters onto the mean streets of a New York-like cityscape, disposing of villains – street thugs, gangbangers, etc. – as you make your way to the hideout of Mr X, an evil crime lord. On the last level, you come face-to-face with Mr X and he offers you the position of right-hand man, but only if you betray your partner.

As a child I could never bring myself to do this – partly because it was usually my father I was playing with. But that decision still holds impact because of the clever way the dilemma is constructed. There are no save points throughout the game and to complete it you need to at least spend an hour going through all the levels. As you play you do develop a sense of comradeship with your partner as you help each other out from time-to-time, and as the game becomes harder this bond only strengthens. For the game to turn around at the end and give you a choice of either betraying your partner, setting yourself up as second-in-command in a very powerful criminal organisation, or teaming up to bring Mr X to justice, it forces you to make a choice which is burdened with a tangible emotional history. (This, all from an eighteen-year-old Mega Drive game, and I think that’s pretty impressive.)

There is another reason, though, why that particular dilemma held an impact for me. And that is because I chose to actively engage with the narrative and with the game world. As I grew out of my childhood I saw video games progressively more in mechanical terms, rather than as representing worlds. Recently I decided to try and reverse that mindset, and one of the rules I imposed on myself was that when presented with an ethical dilemma I would make a decision and stick to it, even if it produced unfavourable results. I made the decision to adopt my actions in-game and take responsibility for them as my own; when I came to the final stages of a game in which mutually exclusive endings were presented, I made my choice and stuck to it – this is the decision I made, this is the ending I chose for myself.

In essence, I made a conscious decision to role-play and become the character in the game. My point is, while you can’t force people to do this by introducing a limit on where you can reload saved games, you can encourage decision ownership through intelligent design and writing. The games I’ve found it easiest to engage with are the ones which are best written – where the characters are complex and likable, where the universe is vast and unique, and where the story is unpredictable and involving. Fallout 3, a game which has often been praised for the choices you can make and how they dramatically affect the rest of the world, fell flat, for me, because I couldn’t connect with any of the characters, and because I found the setting boring and the story anaemic. It was very hard for me to find a connection with that game or my character, and, as a result, I did not care for any of the glassy-eyed, mannequin-esque inhabitants of the world I subsequently went about murdering.

Clint Hocking makes the point, referring to the idea of permanence, that “this is seeking to apply an author-centric narrative model to a medium with which it is not compatible.” The point being, to this, is that video games are not a wholly author centric medium; they require, through necessity, player interaction to a limited or expanded degree. When you make a role-playing game (the clue is in the title) you automatically open it up far more to player interaction on both an emotional and moral level. You can encourage that level of interaction, but you cannot control it. In the end, the amount of meaning an ethical dilemma holds is up to the player, insofar as they’re willing to engage with the game in the first place.

[I am indebted to Clint Hocking and Manveer Heir for their very interesting, intelligent thoughts on this subject and for subsequently helping to shape my own opinions. I’d like thank both of them.]


Design Rampage: Designing Ethical Dilemmas (Manveer Heir):

Click Nothing: Ethical Decision Making (Clint Hocking):


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§ One Response to The Problem of Permanence

  • Loire says:

    I know this comment is -incredibly- late, but I only recently discovered the article. You make some really interesting points regarding the concept of ethical decision in an interactive medium, and it’s one I totally agree about. Videogames place us in roles we might not find ourselves in otherwise, but the challenge of design is making us relate.

    It seems like an odd choice, but I felt terrible every time an NPC was slaughtered before my eyes (sometimes because of my actions) in Half-Life 2. The narrative principle of a silent protaganist is turned on its head, and becomes a design philosophy: Because of Gordon’s silence, I could imagine myself in that role, and felt more in control than titles that lay before you numerable “Decision points” (GTA4, Fallout, etc).

    I’m not big on reviews, but you’ve got some solid insight here, and I’ll be checking back. Keep it up, chief.

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