Has a game ever made you rethink your moral code?

(Image credit: Skybound)

Videogames ask us to make hard choices all the time. Which of these two philosophically opposed colonies is worth saving? Which of these two characters will be most useful in the zombie apocalypse? Which of these sliders will make your cheekbones look weird from an angle you'll only notice two hours later?

Some of those decisions are harder than others, especially when they reflect our own morality. But has a game ever made you rethink your moral code? Genuinely challenged you to sit back and assess why you believe a certain thing? Let us know in the comments.

James Davenport: Disco Elysium

(Image credit: ZA/UM)

Disco Elysium is an extremely confrontational game. It holds up all these systems of commerce and culture and morality and asks the player to investigate, within themselves, whether their flaws and the world's flaws are a failure of the system or of the human spirit—that's a big theme. This is a game that uses the world and history as a microscope for interrogating the self, not for determining what is right and wrong or whether those concepts exist at all—a lot of RPGs tend to base character creation around some sort of codified alignment system: chaotic evil, lawful good, etc. Figuring out if there's a system at all is part of Disco's journey.

I started playing a character, a goofy ripped cop in tune with his sixth sense, but it dissolved. I starting seeing the caricature of this drunken mess I created as an actual human, and more gradually, as myself and more myself than any RP character I can recall creating. By the end I had inadvertently settled into me as the character, or at least my anxieties and principles and passions expressed in the robust psycho-physiological stat allocation and dialogue systems, naively pushing through by banking on my principles to lead me to a proper ending. 

But Disco Elysium called me out. Called me on my shit. There's a moment in the final act that made me look at what I think I believe and whether I actually enact that belief or just 'perform' that belief—exactly as I performed it in this damn game, meta as it gets—to simply cope with existing because operating the inner machinations of a wet and sloppy brain in an uncaring world perched on flimsy, compounded history would disorient and confuse any big bundle of skin, blood, and synapses. This game reached deep, deep, deep inside and kinda hug-punched me. It commanded me to quit fucking around. Apologies for being so vague, but I don't want to trip up anyone possibly on a similar path. I don't expect it to be a common revelation though. The conditions of my life just aligned perfectly with everything. Disco shook me up, and for the better. I think. 

Wes Fenlon: The Witcher 3

(Image credit: CD Projekt Red)

This is less a moral choice than an emotional one, but in a game of powerful moments, sitting on the edge of that ship with Yennefer still stands out. It’s a perfect example of what made The Witcher 3 work so well; it gave me a huge decision to make as a player that only worked because Geralt was a defined character, not just an empty vessel for me to fill in. The Witcher 3 draws on backstory in two important ways. First, the lore of the Witcher books, in which Geralt and Yennefer have a long, storied romance. It’s true love—maybe. Because Geralt made a wish with a djinn to bind him and Yennefer together, it's unclear whether their relationship would continue without the spell. The other backstory is my own, from playing the first two Witcher games: I was genuinely taken with Triss in The Witcher 2, and cared about the relationship she and Geralt had. But how could that post-amnesia romance compare to the years of history Geralt had with Yenn? 

All that history leads up to the end of a quest in The Witcher 3, when you and Yennefer break the djinn's spell. And in that moment, you make a choice: Do you tell Yennefer you still love her? That it wasn't really the djinn's spell linking your souls, but true love? Or do you tell her that you feel differently, now? That you're still friends, but that the magic is (literally) gone? Everything The Witcher 3 does well comes to bear in this moment. The nuanced, expressive voice acting and motion capture animation; the dialogue, which has slowly built out this believable, rough-edged relationship; the many hours I've spent deciding who Geralt is, and the past that informs who he was. I told Yennefer I didn't love her anymore, and god, I still feel bad about it. That moment was entirely too messy, too real. Games rarely make the "truth" the harder answer, but it absolutely was in this case. 

Evan Lahti: Team Fortress 2

There are moral codes at work in multiplayer games, oaths you swear to yourself about the type of guns you're not willing to carry (for example, the AWP), and the techniques you're not willing to perform (camping). 

In the initial years of Team Fortress 2's lifespan, I was a devoted Soldier, the meat-and-potatoes jock of the group. Rocket launcher. Shotgun. Shovel. The Soldier is so born from the Old Ways of FPS, from the purities of Quake, that Valve eventually put a modern version of Quake's centered model in the game as a cosmetic. I put hundreds of hours into specializing as this guy: nailing rocket jumps, midairing, orphaning Medics from their Heavies. Honorable, straightforward, American killing.

But as TF2's classes underwent transformative updates, I got curious about Spying, and eventually fully switched over to Spy as my main class. It meant abandoning what had made me a TF2 player up until that point. I became an invisible man who registers one-hit kills from behind. I was a character that could pretend to die, or who could instantaneously assume the identity of an enemy by stabbing them. I don't know if it was a conscious thing I grappled with, but looking back on it, it was a reversal of the moral codes I'd played with. I think about trailing one of my years-long server friends, and the weird mixture of guilt and glee I must've felt, plucking them out of existence with a backstab without them even seeing me.

I also think about facestabbing, a kind of hitbox quirk where Spies could administer an instant kill from the front rather than behind—a partly looked-down-upon, partly admired technique for Spies. Even for some Spies, there was a line that shouldn't be crossed.

Chris Livingston: The Outer Worlds

(Image credit: Microsoft)

Most recently I was playing through The Outer Worlds, and attempting to be a self-interested jerk (as I often am in RPGs). I needed a part for my ship, and there were two ways to get it—both of which screwed a bunch of people over. I could ruin a corporate town, or destroy the lives of some farmers who had left that town. Heading into the mission I didn't care who suffered, as long as I got what I wanted with as little effort as possible. The mayor of the town seemed like a more useful ally, so I decided I'd keep him on my side and screw over the farmers. But then the farmers seemed super nice and reasonable, so I decided to screw over the mayor.

But then the mayor turned out to be a pretty decent guy, too, and so I tried my best to make the entire situation work out for everyone, devoting much more time and effort than I had originally planned. And from then on, I wasn't quite the self-interested jerk I'd set out to be. That's what good writing and believable characters can do: change the moral code you head into a game with. It's always fun when a game's characters can completely change your intentions, just because they soften your heart a bit.

Alice Newcome-Beill: The Division 2

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

The politics/ethics associated with Ubisoft games have always been tepid at best and problematic at worst. The most recent example of this is The Division 2. While the mechanics and gameplay are solid enough, the role the game forces you to play is a bit cruel. The majority of the enemy factions in that game are the most downtrodden and disenfranchised people that ultimately feel abandoned by the government your character is supposedly attempting to restore. What better way to restore order to the once united states by offering summary executions en-masse right? I understand at its core, the game is a looter shooter, but it's difficult to feel anything but a tremendous amount of guilt associated with anything my character does in that game. 

Lauren Morton: Also Disco Elysium

(Image credit: ZA/UM)

Like James, I saw a reflection of myself in Disco Elysium that I didn't like. Or at least was disappointed in. I played an ultra-empathetic Nice Cop concerned with justice (more than law) and kindness in the face of adversity. I set out, high-and-mighty, believing this to be a commendable goal. Disco Elysium, after seeing me refuse to commit to an "eat the rich" brand of ultra-Communism or a free-wheelin' free market lover of Capitalism, branded me a Moralist (and Centrist). Turns out that Moralists are people with ideals but no action. By virtue of refusing to act hastily or make what I saw as "mistakes," it accused me of upholding the status quo. I had virtues but no grit. Ideals without teeth. Progress, of the personal, social, and political varieties, is always painful. It involves tough decisions. It requires making messes. It isn't about being "Nice." Disco Elysium saw that in the nervous, people-pleasing Nice Cop that had too similar a disposition to yours truly. It perhaps hasn't made me rethink my moral code so much as my moral actions. A code alone is a pipe dream.

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