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.