A curious thing happened as I was completing Mark of the Ninja a few weeks back (and yes, there are significant spoilers ahead). While the game has an entertaining story, it’s there for context and flavor, rather than being the driving force. The star of the show is the deliciously stylish gameplay, which caters to puzzle-loving adults who grew up with Saturday morning cartoons and martial arts movies. I often take satisfaction in playing stealth games as non-lethally as possible, but the combat in this one was too good to pass up. Ambushing baddies from shadowy air vents never got old. But I stopped doing it anyway.
The unnamed player character (I’ll just call him the Champion) is tattooed with a mystical ink which bestows him with special powers. Unfortunately, it is also driving him insane. Near the end, my NPC companion asked me how I was faring with the hallucinations. To my knowledge, I hadn’t experienced any hallucinations. She warned me to be careful, as I might see enemies that weren’t really there. I received this warning before sneaking back into my dojo (for reasons that are too involved to explain), and I readied myself for the sight of creepy ghosts or spirit animals — you know, the sorts of hallucinations you’d expect to see in a cartoonish environment. The dojo was crawling with guards, the exact same gun-toting patrols I’d faced in every level before. I wasted no time in dispatching my enemies, and as I was also challenging myself to play for speed, I did not linger over their bodies. I did notice, however, that a magical puff of petals appeared over them once they fell. I attributed this to tripping out, nothing more. I had left a lot of bodies behind before I noticed that as the petals appeared, the bodies changed. I stopped running and studied my handiwork up close.
The guards in the dojo weren’t guards. They were ninjas, members of the Champion’s clan. The guards were the hallucinations. The Champion had been killing his friends. And I was making him do it.
As the realization sunk in, I knew that I’d be going through the rest of the level without causing any more deaths. It wasn’t even a question for me. The Champion was a killer, yes, but not a indiscriminate one, and these people had done nothing wrong. They didn’t even want to fight him. I would beat the game, but I wouldn’t spill any more blood.
Now, gameplay-wise, this decision makes no sense whatsoever. I had chosen combat abilities geared toward clever takedowns, not non-violent stealth, and changing up a practiced playstyle so late in the game made things exponentially more difficult. Mark of the Ninja does give the player a bonus for completing a level non-lethally, but as I was about a third of the way in before I decided to stop killing, I wouldn’t receive anything. The reasonable course of action would have been to restart the level, but in the moment, I was invested in the narrative. The Champion would have no reason to spare guards if he wasn’t aware that they were hallucinations, which he wouldn’t be at the start of the level. I wasn’t going to retcon my tragic hero at that point. I was caught up in imagining this honorable man realizing the horror of what he’d done, trying to stave off madness and bloodlust just long enough to let him complete his task. Melodramatic, perhaps, but it made for a damn fine story. In my head, at least. The game didn’t care either way. There was no punishment for killing anyone in the dojo, no change to the ending. My score suffered for it, and my hopes at finishing quickly were dashed as I agonized over how to clear the final room without killing anyone. The only benefit of my decision was that I finished the game with a mollified conscience.
The potency of moral decisions in games is one of the hallmarks of the medium, but typically, we discuss that experience in terms of decisions built into the gameplay. I’m talking about moments in which the player must make a difficult choice in order for the game to proceed. The first Little Sister in BioShock. The heretic Geth in Mass Effect 2. Any time you’re asked to do anything in The Walking Dead game. Moments like these have a profound impact on players. They can stick with us for years after playing. We might pause the game and pace around while we wrestle with ethics. We might realize things about ourselves and our own beliefs as we do so. These moments are intentional on the part of the designers; it’s their way of starting a conversation about big issues, or at the very least, delivering an emotional whallop. And even when in-game decisions aren’t so major, we can find questions of morality woven into the mechanics. A decision to spare a life might result in bonus points or unlocked quests. Stealing goods or killing civilians almost always results in some sort of penalty. Joining a thieves’ guild will result in a different outcome than volunteering for the king’s militia. Even in settings where morality falls into gray areas, the message of “actions have consequences” can be found everywhere in games.
But why make a decision that the game does not demand, especially one that might hinder your success? Look at how my partner plays Skyrim. In dungeons and tombs, she loots everything that isn’t nailed down. But when grateful NPCs offer her whatever they own in thanks for her help, she takes only a modest selection of necessary materials, even though the game is freely offering her as much as she can carry. She doesn’t feel right about cleaning out peasants’ pantries. Or what about the people who decide not to finish Shadow of the Colossus, because somewhere along the way they feel that the cost of success is too great? That story I linked to is not the first time I’ve heard of that happening, and it’s interesting to note that those players don’t feel that they’ve missed out on the ending. They’re satisfied with the moral epiphany they experienced in real life. Not everyone plays games this way, of course, and there are plenty for whom the goal of gear or high scores is worth some (fictional) moral compromises. But I’m willing to bet that most gamers have had at least one moment where they gave up on a quest or passed on some loot out of personal misgivings. I’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t leapt to reload a saved game after making a story-based decision that didn’t sit right.
You could chalk this behavior up to the fact that many of us love to create games within games. I’m thinking of things like the attempt to play Skyrim using nothing but illusion spells, or playing Dishonored as “Corvo Attano, the Loudest Man in Dunwall,” or folks who play pacifists in World of Warcraft. Games don’t reward us for these things, either, but the achievement of beating your own challenge is gratifying enough. But I’m not sure this is quite the same thing as what I described above. The choice to make a game within a game is a very intentional one, just as choosing to roleplay as a villain or a thief is a measured decision. These are choices that take planning and commitment. When I decided to stop killing in Mark of the Ninja, it was a knee-jerk response, and it went completely against my original, conscious choice to play as an efficient predator.
With the conversation about how games affect our sense of morality back at the forefront, it’s important to point out that gamers never enter a virtual world as a blank slate. We can’t help but bring our moral compasses along for the ride. Even when a game has us do things that would be horrific in real life — I, for one, would never drop down from a chandelier to stab a person through the throat, and not just because I am physically puny — we still possess a sense of right and wrong. Escapism can only take us so far. So while there’s no harm in playing an assassin or a warrior for a while, I think there’s something telling in those moments when our consciences trump our suspension of disbelief. Even when we’re immersed in make-believe, sometimes we can’t help but do the right thing.