Moral "Choices"

(This post contains spoilers for the ending Fable II.)

I’m currently playing Bioshock and will be writing a lot about it in the coming weeks (and I know talking about how awesome Bioshock is at this point is kind of like saying “Hey, have you heard of this thing called ‘The Internet’? It’s super neat!” but bear with me!). To kick things off I’d like to address the hook of the game: the decision whether to “harvest” or rescue the Little Sisters.

A brief summary, for those who don’t know or have forgotten: In Bioshock‘s game world of Rapture, the Little Sisters are essentially little girls that have been genetically altered to harvest a substance called Adam from dead people. Adam is used by the inhabitants of Rapture to modify their own genes to give them super powers. Because it is a very valuable substance, the Little Sisters are protected by the now-iconic Big Daddies from the people and creatures who want the Adam from the Little Sisters.

When you kill a Big Daddy you have the option of either rescuing or “harvesting” the Little Sister: harvesting takes all the Adam from her and kills her. Rescuing her takes only some of the Adam and frees her from the creepy enchantment-like state. Thus the game’s “tough moral decision” is set up: do you kill the Little Sister and get more Adam, allowing you to upgrade your powers more quickly and thus be more likely to survive Rapture? Or do you rescue the Little Sister, putting yourself more at risk but doing the Right Thing?

The thing is, during playtesting the Bioshock team found that because the “evil” path was more rewarding, players would almost exclusively choose that path, no moral agonizing. This led to a change in the final game: saving the Little Sisters actually ends up netting you more Adam and more powerful Plasmids (super powers) because in addition to the small amount of Adam gained from rescuing the Little Sister, you are given a gifts from one of the game’s characters as thanks for rescuing them.

So, ultimately, the “tough moral decision” was anything but, even with a charming Scotsman trying to convince me otherwise. For me, saving the Little Sisters was an easy choice: I did the Right Thing, and got better rewards for it.

The choice did, however, leave me to wonder what an actual agonizing moral choice would look like in a game, and how it could be implemented. There is one recent game that possibly does this, or comes close: Fable II.

Unfortunately I haven’t played Fable II, but this is what I know about the ending: during the course of the game your family, your dog, and thousands of people die; after the final boss is defeated you get three choices: 1. You can have 1 million gold (which is fairly meaningless because when playing the game you probably have more than that already), 2. Revive your dog and your family, or 3. Revive the thousands of other people that were killed.

Now just from reading about it, the choice between 2 and 3 seems like a truly difficult choice. Choice 3 nets you more “good” points, and is generally the right thing to do for the greater good, but because by this point the player really cares about her dog (and likely her family as well, depending on what she brings to the table) so doing the not-so-good thing is much more tempting.

Of course, because the townspeople aren’t real, it’s probably easy for a lot of players to simply do what is best for themselves (revive the family) because the game world truly revolves around their character. But I think the emotional connection to what is being lost is something that was missing from the Bioshock choice; so while the ending of Fable II might still be a fairly easy choice for most people, it’s definitely on the right track.

(Next I’ll be getting into some feminist analysis of Bioshock, which I’m really surprised hasn’t been done yet because there is a lot to talk about!)

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2 thoughts on “Moral "Choices"

  1. Very much looking forward to the next post! I feel like while the moral choice of harvesting or saving the little sisters is a core mechanic of the game, I think there is also a lot more to the game, and the choice is just the first layer.

  2. I saved the first one – in the limited scenario with Tenenbaum. And I saved the second. After that, though, I finished the game without messing with another partnership. The little sisters and the big daddies had such a paradoxically gentle symbiosis that I couldn’t help but be captivated. I studied them carefully, and discovered that I could move among them freely, unmolested and without alarming them if I kept my wits about me, and capitalized on what I’d learned.

    But the tears and horror of the second little sister over her dead companion were too much for me to bear. I saved her, and I left all of the rest of them alone.

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