Consquentialism begone

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Endgame spoilers for Final Fantasy XIII-2 and The Walking Dead‘s season 1.

A group of friends, one of whom is a consequentialist, have gone out to the pub for the night. Once the first round is bought, the consequentialist sits staring at his pint intently, fully aware that if he gets to drinking he’ll wake up the next morning with a dreadful hangover. So he gets up, turns around and runs head-first into the wall. His mates, knowing the drill, pack him into an ambulance and resume with their craic, eventually retiring for the night each of them in some bloody state.

Anthony Burch posted this playthrough of BioShock where he restricts himself to certain rules as sort of an experiment. The idea is, it’s not much of a difficult decision to pick between killing Little Sisters and saving them, so maybe if we tweak the circumstances to a point where the decision becomes pertinent it will mean something. His rules are:

  1. He can only spend ADAM obtained through killing a Little Sister.
  2. Permadeath, for impetus.

His conclusion is that he found himself well able to get through the game without the need for ADAM and plasmids because the system empowers players to excel with firearms. Well, presumably he could complete the game this way; he eventually died from boredom. The closing sentiment seems to be there was no difference brought about by his self-imposed rules, and although the fact that he admits it was a lot less interesting to play without plasmids seems to contradict this, it’s not addressed. From a critical perspective, the experiment peters off in a really sad, unreflective way.

What does this have to do with consequentialism? Burch is of the opinion that the moral dilemma presented in BioShock goes nowhere because the amount of ADAM you get from killing Little Sisters is pretty much equal to what you get from saving them. All consequences being the same, there is no tangible difference between the two actions, so the dilemma collapses.

This is a pretty common reading of BioShock among some big-name developers and designers. It is horrible. It comes from a place of lud0-fundamentalism[1] where games are ‘about’ their mechanics and so games must show reflection through their mechanics. By this line of thought, a change in the narrative that is not represented by a change in gamestates is existentially deficient. A moral dilemma that does not branch off into two mechanically (or systemically)-differentiated paths is not a dilemma, so therefore cannot speak of morality.

Worse still, this vein of thought is a capitalist consequentialism that can only view states in terms of the rewards and prizes they offer (more or less ADAM), since narrative distinction of an action of consequence is removed from consideration. Which is a pretty evil worldview from my perspective, if I’m being honest. The way to have an impactful, meaningful game is to offer divergent rewards for whatever divergent paths have been presented. This is how meaning is generated through the medium of videogames, it is the only manner through which games can affect players, which is why no-one cried after the first season of The Walking Dead.

Now, as I mentioned Burch’s conclusion is to point to his lack of impetus to harvest Little Sisters as proof of the game’s failure to provide any true dilemma. Frustratingly, he doesn’t plug the result of his experiment back into the text to see how it creates or created narrative. One could posit his lack of impetus to slaughter Little Sisters actually substantiates the Objectivist tones of the game’s cosmology since Burch found self-sufficiency without needing to contradict his personal moral code, and that the game is made more powerful as a text by accounting for this approach/reading/playthrough. Perhaps that is outside the scope of his article, but the fact that he seems to think the experiment bolters Jonathan Blow’s reading of the game suggests it didn’t occur to him.[2]

To get to my point, Burch indicates his playthrough reveals the absence of any real dilemma within the game as a text (i.e. narratively). This in spite of the tautology of the moral dilemma (‘Save the Little Sisters’ versus ‘Harvest the Little Sisters’) as a narrative framing device in the game beyond the mechanical or gamestate effects that might or might not follow. The fact of the dilemma as a (effective[3]) framing device establishes it as meaningful, as impactful on narrative, regardless of consequences. Consider it in terms of this more overtly illusory moment of choice in Final Fantasy XIII-2.

At the arse end of the story, heroes Noel and Sarah finally appear victorious over Caius Ballad, the main antagonist, who has been pissing round with the timestream to try to save a mutual friend, Yuel, from eternal torment. Caius has just realised his own death can put an end to Yuel’s cycle of rebirth and death, so he goads Noel into killing him. Noel is now faced with the crisis of having to decide between ending the tragic villain’s life, thereby fulfilling his mission and letting Yuel rest in peace, or upholding his own respect for the value of human life and sparing his old mentor. As Noel’s sword plunges towards Caius’ heart, the player is given the on-screen prompt: ‘Show mercy’ or ‘Kill him’.

Whichever one you chose Noel will decide to spare Caius’ life (and Caius will go ahead and kill himself anyway) but the moment the choice of input is presented to the player facilitates reflection and inquiry into the circumstances. The dilemma inspires meaning regardless of the single possible consequence.



[1] The text here originally read “ludic fundamentalism” which is a term I made up to explain the ideas outlines here. About a month after this article was published, there was quite a bit of discussion in critical spheres along the lines of this and surrounding concepts. I participated in that conversation, but I used the neologism “ludo-fundamentalism” (again, I made up on the fly) in all my natterings instead of “ludic fundamentalism.” As it happened, “ludo-fundamentalism” began to catch on. So even though they mean the same thing, I’ve edited the term here to remain consistent with my own writings elsewhere.

[2] Why Jonathan Blow is made an authority on moral narratives is beyond me.

[3] Very important to note that narrative and meaning are self-identifying. An effective plot point conveys meaning and affects the player’s experience, whereas an ineffective plot point fails to achieve anything. I can only rely on my own experiences in this regard, but as an example of an ineffective, on-the-face meaningless dichotomy/choice moment in a game I would personally suggest choosing heads or tails in BioShock Infinite, or deciding between the cage or the bird in the same game, as moments that were intended to frame narrative but at the time felt utterly empty. Of course, we can then feed this back into the text hermeneutically to get something else out of it and have it produce meaning that way, chasing our tails until the end of time.


The curl of a corpse

(Spoilers for BioShock Infinite follow.)

The one thing I liked in Bioshock Infinite lay in the curl of a corpse. The only thing I liked about that game, actually, the sole cause of any worth that now becomes a nagging thought at the back of my mind, delaying me from writing it off altogether. It’s the one part that has stood out in my memory and actually stuck with me as something worth remembering when nearly everything else has faded. So I recall this bit from memory alone, knowing there are blank spots where I’ve forgotten a detail. No doubt there are faults in my recalling but I find myself unable to care. I won’t research it to present you with a more full description of this one valuable moment, nor to pretty up my retelling of it. I speak from memory knowing I’m wrong, knowing I’m embellishing it or filling in the gaps myself, because this as I remember it is the only survivor of a disaster, and I’d like to present it as I remember it for it is only this way it has worth to me.

In the curl of a dead body lies an audiolog. I’m in the slums of Colombia, the poor part where all my potential allies live and fester in misery. I’ve just come back from another part of town, a prettier part of town, where some arseways plot beat happened and Elizabeth tore open a door between dimensions through which we hopped. Chaos has spread through the slums, posters or graffiti loom all about me, giving colour to the streets’ gloominess. Voices blare over megaphones, urging on the revolution. Fitzroy says something banal and out of character, based on information she couldn’t possibly know. I remember thinking, was I expected to pause the game and write up some fanfiction to fill in the holes and give this story sense?

Down the street and up the stairs and I swing to the right, in which direction I know sits a short street to a pub, where a group has gathered. The rest of the slums’ denizens stare up at a zeppelin with a big monitor attached as Fitzroy tells them the same now-tired summary of what they can see with their eyes. But around the corner, here in the street outside the pub… ah but first.

Not too long before, I had been flung out of a blimp into a sunlight-bathed docks, assigned with some silly task to complete in the area. Around me were warehouses and offices, crates and bags, and workers stuck in animations, ignoring the sudden unexplained presence of a criminal of such fame that earlier had hounded me. Maybe this was a prison, but I don’t remember any jailbreak so I think it was just the industrial district.

Amid all these poverty-stricken workers and their foremen, jammed between some crates was an audiolog. Here was a woman with a distinct voice made for poetry and singing, lamenting the life of her husband, a factory worker who got mangled by machinery. He survived the accident very badly injured, and the cost of mending his body was beyond the salary of this husband and wife. So some men came to her, or she went to them, and to save his life they turned him into a Handyman, granting him steady work as an enforcer and with new arms and legs and a torso that will keep him alive, but in such pain as would make life unbearable and his mind malleable. And perhaps her forgotten. To keep her love alive, this woman gave him up to the city to turn into a monster. Her voice cracks as she speaks. She was sorry, but though he was now a man changed, so long as they both lived they still had each other.

Then the revolution began, and in the initial barrage of the poor and the Vox against their oppressors, the sky lit up with zeppelins aflame and state soldiers littered the streets having failed to keep the people at bay. In the slums, on the street outside a pub, a group gathered for a photograph, posing around a mountainous corpse as if it were a prize fish, laughing and congratulating one another over the memorable kill. And in the curl of the splayed Handyman, spilled out onto the street beneath his belly lay an audiolog. As the group cheer and the camera flashes over and over, I listen to a woman with a distinct voice saying farewell to her husband. She knows what the revolution means and that he’ll be standing on the front line. Their lives haven’t done the best to them of late, their relationship bent to breaking under the weight of his new body and his fleeing mind. I wonder if he can talk to her anymore, or if her letters are all that remain of their marriage. But she still loves him, and he is hers and always will be. And though he must now go to the front line, to fulfil the obligation born when he was given back to her, they were together and will be together again. Her voice thickens as she tells him again she loves him, and she says goodbye.

Under the heels of the cheering group, mocking their kill with the measured energy of people detached, lies the blood and flesh of a person of a foregone life. Whose love had even before the battle counted him among the dead. All his life remained in the curl of a corpse, that used to be the body of a man before they made him into a monster. A brother of the men now gloating over him, who could have been a comrade had his body not been twisted by machinery. A victim as they are victims of the same system, and they so triumph in his death they miss the audiolog that tells he was once a man. Where with a soul beyond the power of Booker and Elizabeth and Colombia and Levine, a wife mourns her love and the life they once had.

This Week I Read: Fatherhood, not-a-game games

My bookmarks folder in Chrome reads “This week I read”. It dawned on me that its a much better name for these things I do than “Week in review”, since I’m not really reviewing the week or even posting articles from the week. It’s also a lot looser and informal, which suits me fine. So I’ve decided to retcon these posts with the new name.

Turns out I read an awful lot of stuff that I liked, so to get through it I’ll have to do each individual article a disservice and be briefer than usual with my comments. Beginning with Sidney Fussell’s article on subjectivity and feminist lenses of critique, especially with regards to reviews. I’ve written about this area in the past – both on epistemology in the field of criticism and on ubiquity of the male gaze. It needs to be said again and again, unfortunately, until complaints such as those levied against Polygon’s Dragon’s Crown review become a thing of the past. Continue reading

Goodbye, cruel will: Determinism in videogames

Determinism in videogames

[Originally published over yonder.]

Inside everybody’s head lives a tiny mad scientist who governs their actions and whims. Most of the time it’s barely noticeable, even to the point of feeling perfectly natural. Every now and again something might come along that makes a person question their actions and doubt their sense of self-efficacy, such as when a past decision that, at the time, felt entirely appropriate, but in reflection seems bizarre. Generally speaking, however, this little tyrant works away and the individual under its influence none the wiser.

The same is true of videogames. Typically when we play, we abstain from the realization that the virtual world around us is an entirely authoritarian environment. Everything therein is controlled by principles that dictate their nature, designed to suit a particular purpose, to a particular end. Virtual worlds are oppressive in the extent to which they attempt to control us. Jump here, shoot there, don’t go that way, clean your bedroom. In a world where everything that is not impossible is mandatory, to what extent do videogames simulate reality? Continue reading

BioShock 2 is Politics

BioShock 2 is politics

As I creep around the decimated avenues of Rapture in my quest to scavenge some much-needed supplies, I find my mind drawing a correlation between the horrible deprivation haunting the underwater city and the imposing deadline of the US presidential elections. The similarities to BioShock 2 are overbearing: both pertain to situations of desperation and postponement – having been victim to an onslaught of forces that whittle the player down, the bounty of all that patience and preservation lies just up ahead.

After the arduous construction of a mental map of the area and extensive preparation of traps and other defensive measures, I set the Little Sister down to work at an Adam-filled corpse and await the arrival of some violent opportunists. The Little Sister serves to gather Rapture’s most precious resource, thus her own presence consequently becomes little more than a tool to be exploited for the victor’s personal benefit. Continue reading