I have been as of late struggling with the very notion of free will. Are the things that we do determined by God ahead of time, or do we control our own paths, the very way our lives are shaped and the way they flow? Or, perhaps more intriguingly, is the answer somewhere in the middle? Many works of fiction, from classical literature to the films that we watch and the games that we play, deal with these themes; they are important, vital to our understanding of the world because they reflect a shared experience. Games in particular have the potential for an entirely new approach to a common theme because of the interactive nature of the medium, and here lies an important place for analysis.
This line of thought began as such things usually do, with a girl.
I became convinced – for reasons that I won’t go into here, for they don’t much matter – that I was destined to be with a woman that I was pursuing. I had some time before decided that I didn’t believe in God’s foreknowledge of events, because I, like Neo in The Matrix, didn’t like the idea that I wasn’t in control of my own life, selfish as that is. That I was very willfully ignoring the things that I had experienced, that I was – in the folly of my youth – placing God at the side because of my own wants, my own desires, as opposed to my needs was something that didn’t really occur to me. And at that stage in my life, I’m not sure that would have much mattered, because of my anger at God.
So I went after the girl. I went after her with the stubborn enthusiasm and consequential slowness that marks a man so entrenched in his ways. And I was rebuffed, turned away.
Late one night, in confessionary prayer, I beseeched God to hear my plea. “If it be your will,” I said, close to tears, “then let it happen. And if I never see her again, then let that happen as well. But please, lift this weight off my chest and off of my heart.” Almost immediately, I felt – as Kundera put it – an unbearable lightness of being. Existence did not seem to weigh me down anymore. Instead I felt joy, and in that joy I felt hope.
I open with this because it’s important to note that if we are indeed in control of our own lives, then we can never know what’s around the corner; if, on the other hand, we are not, if God is at the helm, then we can never know what’s around the corner, either.
There’s a Biblical basis for both ideas.
Theological determinism (also referred to as compatibilism) is the concept that man’s will is limited by his sinful nature, and that a monotheistic God knows beforehand what will happen (Acts 4:27-28), as man is limited by nature and sin (Rom. 6:14-20, 1 Cor 2:14). This is heavily supported by Calvinist views such as total depravity, which states that man has become so corrupted that he cannot choose contrary to his fallen nature (and a doctrine which I strenuously disagree with). It is the idea that man is constantly touched by an interventionist God.
Libertarian free will, on the other hand, states that God cannot determine man’s choices and does not cause things to happen, but instead influences the way things occur. God saves man through love (John 3:16), and draws man in through love and through his will (Rom. 9:19).
This is the essential difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, which are two related doctrines that interpret Scripture on ultimately different levels.
I’m not going to cast judgment on either doctrine here, though it should be stated that, ultimately, I don’t entirely agree with either one and have major reservations on a personal and spiritual level in casting my lot with either when it so effects belief in a way that I don’t agree with.
Yet how does any of this reflect in the games we play?
More and more, we find the trend in games leaning towards interactive choices and an illusion of non-linearity. Games such as Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout: New Vegas, Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect 2 have presented greater and greater strides in the design choice of creating an open world for players, with ramifications for their actions and appropriate consequences. Along the way, we’ve encountered memorable characters and made choices that have changed the narrative path, for better or for worse. These four games, in particular, are games that have experimented with design, that have gone against the status quo, and have by and large innovated on a scale that is not often seen in the games industry, an industry that is notoriously stagnant and iterative.
1. Fallout: New Vegas: “Yes, I am so free. And what a superb absence is my soul.”
At some point during my wandering the barren wastes of the Mojave in Fallout: New Vegas, I found a man who spoke rationally. Here, among the savages and drug addicts and robots; here, among the absurdities and moral vacuities; here, I found philosophy, or perhaps it was philosophy that found me.
Let us not mince words: the Fallout series is perhaps the ultimate example of a postmodern design set within a decidedly existentialist framework. In the universe of Fallout – a crumbling place, scarred by a war that never changes, where society tries to rebuild itself again and again but only seems to stumble each time – there is no objective truth. There is no ethical framework telling a person how to behave, no moral guidepost. The player begins in a state of despair: this is the loss of self-identity, which is vital to the game world in that it is the impetus to build the character from the ground up. From there, existence precedes essence; the player defines their self – that which was earlier lost – through their actions.
Somewhere in that sprawling wasteland, a man sat in front of me. He was a king, treated as a god. His voice was elegant and educated, refined in that particular way that an accent from the Eastern Coast of the United States can be.
Sitting before me in his throne, two bulky, armed men wearing masks standing beside him, he spoke down to me. Someone like myself could never understand his methods or his actions. But he had been watching, seeing how my actions carried weight across the Waste, how I had aligned myself with a faltering system, a crumbling society.
Begrudgingly, at my behest, he began to explain just what his plan was.
The man in the desert is called Caesar, a self-given name used to reflect the society that he is building. He lords over Caesar’s Legion, a totalitarian society with a penchant for bloodshed.
He has left a trail of destruction in his wake: corpses litter the wastes, towns that do not submit are ritualistically purged and the telephone posts that line America like so many crosses are used exactly as such, with the sinners, the dispossessed mercilessly crucified, or else turned into slaves and absorbed into the Legion.
His plan, detailed to the player through a series of typically “gamey” conversations, is to overthrow the established government of the Mojave Wasteland – an entity called the New California Republic, or NCR – and envelop them into his society in a method analogous to that detailed in Hegelian dialectics; that is, thesis into antithesis into synthesis. To put it simply, an entity (in this case, the NCR) rises, and because every action has an equal and opposite reaction, its opposite emerges: in the game world, this is Caesar’s Legion. There then exists a tension between the two entities, which is resolved by a synthesis, or merging of the two.
This is, in essence, what Caesar proposes to my character as I sit, watching and completely consumed by the game itself. He says that the NCR is tangled in bureaucracy and cannot get anything done to save its citizens. Its people are starving. Its people are defenseless. I have seen the proof for myself.
And so twenty-five hours into Fallout: New Vegas, after following what was essentially the “good” path for most of the game, I decided to work for Caesar’s Legion, warping alliances and breaking trust, because intellectually I believed in what he said. I had never done this before, gone with the “bad” path on an initial playthrough of a game. I am usually very intentionally good, because I believe in heroes (or at least, I want to; I’m a realist at heart, however, and that realism just tells me that the best heroes are the dark, tortured ones, so I tried to exude a modicum of disassociated angst while playing New Vegas and failed miserably).
My conscious complained loudly, despite knowing that the world was artificial, that nothing I was doing was really happening.
Traditional thought within Judeo-Christian theology states that there is good and there is evil, and there is no in between. That is perhaps too basic an assessment, but there is at least a tendency among certain believers to see actions through a lens of moral absolutism.
This is the problem with “video game morality”. When everything is black and white, nothing can be seen as a shade of gray.
For years, games have offered the ability to make choices, which in turn affect the way the story plays out. This began with basic choices (do you kill this character or let him/her live?) which had little to no substantiative impact on the game world.
As games have progressed, so have these arbitrary systems which seek to lead players on a linear path away from linearity in storytelling. New Vegas has, in my mind, presented the ultimate iteration of this. Where games such as Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 2 and The Witcher series have offered players increasing choice, none has truly brought to the fore philosophical conflict, one that occurs as much in the player’s mind as it does in the game world.
Fallout: New Vegas stands out, not because of its quality as a game (and believe me, it has its fair share of problems), but because of the way that it tackles moral conflict. Nothing is truly good or evil in this game. There is an argument for the path I ultimately chose being the right one, just as there is an argument for any other path being the same. This is a game where the path is defined by the player, based on their conscience, not on some de rigueur ideology or sense of morality put in place by the designers.
What man builds will fall back down, say the minds behind Fallout. But man is resilient, and he will raise it again. This removes God from the equation.
Paul Tillich said, “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God disappears in the anxiety of doubt.” Fallout: New Vegas is eternally doubtful, a skeptic’s game; with the best intentions, it questions being and in so doing explores new ground in how games approach the question of morality.
2. Mass Effect 2: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
I am standing before a console with readouts pouring from it. My hands dance over the keys projected by hologram into the air. My forehead creases as I frown, concentrating on my work. Behind me, two armed guards lie dead, blood spattered on the wall. The pistol I used to kill them both is still warm in its folded position, clipped to my suit. The universe is going to end today, I was told, unless I stop it from ending. So before I confirm my decision by pressing that final key, I reflect: my actions will kill hundreds of thousands, but save billions more. I press the key, and it sounds a beep. Above me a timer flashes red and begins a countdown. I start to run, and behind me the station erupts in fire.
If Fallout: New Vegas is existentialism embodied in game design, then Mass Effect 2 is diametrically opposed to it in presenting a libertarian view of free will. The comparison is imperfect, but look at it like this: in Mass Effect 2, players are placed on a journey with a predetermined beginning and ending. It is, in that way, exceedingly linear. However, with that linearity comes a stipulation – the choices that the player makes along the way are more or less predetermined, with an outcome that has little to no variance most of the time. The comparison to libertarian free will, then, is apt (recall that libertarian free will requires that man makes choices that God influenced, but didn’t cause to happen).
Again, the comparison isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s really imperfect. All of the games I’m speaking of here put game mechanics first; for some of them, choice is a by-product of expectation on the part of gamers, with no real impact when the choice in question is made. For others, choice is intrinsic to the game itself – Fallout: New Vegas and Mass Effect 2 are games that do this, albeit imperfectly.
That’s okay, because games are in their teenage years, but we’re only just beginning to see true experimentation with player choice, with moving beyond linearity as a matter of course. It’s also important that game mechanics are placed first. After all, at what point is it not a game anymore? At what point is it actually becoming something closer to film?
3. Red Dead Redemption: “…These two voices ever echo, man is ruined, man is redeemed.”
Salvation borne from blood seems to be a consistent theme throughout Western culture. There’s significant reason for this, and the symbolism is intense. What’s more vital to the human body than the very blood that flows through the veins? Spilling that blood for those that you love – literally, symbolically – represents a massive sacrifice.
John Marston, the scarred protagonist of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, is a damned soul. Once a criminal, now a father and husband working a ranch somewhere in the middle of the Western United States, he is introduced to the player escorted by two government men. His resentment towards them is clear. The country they have brought him to is a place he thought he had long ago abandoned. It is in the grey borderlands of America at the turn of the century. A river separates Marston from the sparse, white hell of Mexico, a place where a revolution is brewing, a place with violence that seems to strike in the heat of the day as a result of the dryness of the land that surrounds.
Marston is a man who is intensely moral. His demise is inevitable, spelled out from the beginning of the game. What little choice he has in the matter is presented along the way.
His story is that of the determinist, a representation of compatibilism. It is almost an intensely Biblical story, one equally influenced by the absurdism of Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and the violent aestheticism of Cormac McCarthy’s gnostic opus Blood Meridian. There is a spiritual way to the land that the player travels through, and the journey that Marston embarks on seems destined to bring him that titular redemption.
This does not mean that there is no choice in Redemption. To the contrary, it’s a game that feels wide open: in its world, in its choice, in its scope.
This presents an interesting parallel. For a game with so little narrative freedom, Red Dead Redemption – as an exercise in theological determinism – almost rivals Fallout: New Vegas in the scope of what the player can do. This is contrasted with the intense limitations imposed on the player during the course of the game, which demonstrate events happening around Marston, as opposed to Marston influencing events. When, for example, the player chooses to investigate the disappearances of several local people, early in the game, his actions carry little resonance on the greater whole except in regard to his very literal in-game reputation. Apart from situations such as that, the story is fixed – much more than the earlier Grand Theft Auto IV, from which Red Dead Redemption draws much influence.
There’s a reason for this. In both games, the developers tried to create stories with emotional resonance, stories that affected the player and thematically revolved around “the American Dream”; the issue with that was that both games come from a line of titles that are built around the concept of a sandbox world, which would – on paper – the player to do whatever they desire in the game world. This is, of course, limited by game design and what limits the designers impose upon the players, but the root of both games lie within that ideal.
4. Grand Theft Auto IV: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”
Grand Theft Auto IV is a little different than any of the games I’ve previously discussed in that choice is prominent throughout the game, but doesn’t really make any substantial impact except in a few key moments. These moments are, however, extremely emotional and rooted in the characteristic evolution of the plot; specifically, the choices that the player is compelled to make are not necessarily choices that impact the ending of the game (though one sequence at the end determines what will be, essentially, the end of the game proper), but they do impact how the game plays. Everything else – from who the player dates to what the player does for fun – does nothing but contribute to the atmosphere of the game world. It is also, again, a great example of existentialism, though more in story than in design. Main character Niko Bellic’s transformative story, a journey of self-discovery in a dark, grimy world filled to the brim with despair, is one that resonates as something close to real.
I will probably never tire of writing about GTA4 because it is a game that transcends its technical limitations and presents a story with timeless themes that matter in the here and now. These are stories that men have been writing for years, but they feel new because they haven’t been told in this form.
Beyond this, however, GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption feature close similarities in how they approach the concept of player choice, with Redemption only having further constraints in terms of what can be and what cannot.
Bellic’s final attempt at absolving himself, through vengeance and through – again – salvation in bloodshed is less successful than Marston’s though it is equally painful. Both games capture something intrinsic to the human experience: never accepting what we have, and constantly striving for something better. This is, again, contrasted by a more or less strictly compatibilist view of the world, though Bellic is afforded more choice than Marston is in the course of his story.
If the hand of the designer symbolically mirrors the Hand of God, then granting the player more choice over the course of a game gives less control across the board. However, finding a parallel to life in a game is an exercise in futility; that games reflect our experience, just a film does and just as literature does, cannot be denied. They are, however, limited further than either medium is because of player interaction, so seeing truth reflected in the doubt of our creations is harder than it seems.
As people living our lives, it falls upon us individually to decide what we believe the nature of the universe and the nature of God – through the evidence presented us – to be. It is an individual decision, and it’s reflected in our art and our dialogues to the extent that we understand. As brash examinations of life, games fall far short of what should be stated, and this is absolutely intentional. If art reflects life, then it is within the framework of a piece that the reflection is seen.
The framework of a game is in its design, and the reflection will thus be as looking through a glass, darkly.