So we’ve covered some basics of videogame guilt, so let’s get a little deeper. Oh, and minor/major spoiler alerts for most of these games, by the way. If you see the name of a game you haven’t played and want to, I’d stay away from that game’s section. This will be nowhere near comprehensive; that can come later, as well.
But let’s start with making you question your actions. Some games have multiple endings or certain sequences that are determined by certain tasks being done, or certain behaviour towards NPC’s (non-playable characters; any AI character, basically). As a matter of consequence, you may not fully appreciate the effect of your actions until it’s too late. I don’t mean stories with twists at the end, or characters that face consequences by story alone, because that includes almost every story ever, really. These are more direct examples of guilt/regret; very deliberate.
The first to get out of the way, and the easiest entry would be the survival-horror gem Silent Hill 2 (2001). This game is entirely about guilt, punishment, and shame. Thematically, story-wise, and even within the creature designs, it’s all fused together. An entire blog could be dedicated to the ins and outs of this game, but it’s not the point. I’m aware this is dangerously close to “stories with twists at the end, or characters that face consequences by story alone,” but this is to an entirely different degree, because your actions do influence things. James Sunderland, the main character (and you, by extension), is a guilty man. His wife died a few years ago, and he (you) never really got over it. You’re called back to a town that you spent a holiday in, and things go badly. You’re just some confused, heart-broken guy trying to figure out what happened while trying to survive grotesque creatures and an increasingly-hellish terrain. You feel bad for the guy, he’s relatively likable and seems to just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The beautiful thing is that it no matter what choices you make to influence one of the endings, you’re still guilty. Your wife died because you killed her. The only difference you can “influence,” so to speak, is why you did it. It could have been out of mercy or hatred, but you still did it. You could even learn nothing and start the cycle all over again.
The town that you’re being haunted -and hunted- in is some kind of baptism by fire. It’s only until the end that you find out what that all means, and how you, the player, affected James. It’s not a happy game, if you can tell. Anyone else that you meet is usually profoundly damaged, and didn’t want to live the life they had, but because of their actions has doomed them to Silent Hill. This falls more in line with what I said before, and these are largely story-based, therefore not the main thrust of my argument. It’s the overall idea that you can be a good person who does something awful, but actions have consequences, regardless of context, justification, or righteousness. Dark, but powerful.
Sometimes a clever game comes along that uses regret in a more up-front, interesting way. A slow burn that makes any choices seem so inconsequential that you forget that anything happened in the first place. Chrono Trigger (1995) has this in the beginning section and shows you that:
A. Actions can, in fact, have larger consequences
B. The progress of time is actually an important factor to the game’s “world.”*
A little girl has lost her cat, and you can help her or ignore her. A man at a carnival has his lunch on the table, and you can take it. A girl you bump into drops a pendant and you can pick it up first, or talk to her first to see if she’s okay. Little things like this that seem inconsequential and world-building, but nothing more. Later on, you’re accused of a crime, and how you acted during this first section is used for/against you in the trial. Makes you feel kind of ashamed, because you treated it like every other RPG before it, and can force you to rethink every further action, not knowing its later effect. It doesn’t always affect the story as a whole, but it’s a nice tone to set up front, and does something many games don’t even attempt to do.**
Some games take this action/consequence idea and bank everything on a sort of “karma” or “morality” system. Back in the early/mid 2000’s, the Fable series was one of the first of which to really take off. Fable 3 (2010) has a situation where you “win” the first part of the game (as a good guy or bad guy), and instead of a happy ending, you get a sort of Catch-22 of ending sections. There’s some terrible plague, and you need lots of money/power to stop it. Doing this makes the people unhappy, but saves them. Or you can keep your people happy, but it leaves you powerless to save them. Did you keep your people happy? They’re dead. Did you keep them alive? They hate you. It’s not perfect, but it forces you to make a a judgement call that sort of vilifies you either way, and it doesn’t really feel great. Many people criticised this part of the game for some (rather valid) hiccups and dishonest time constraints, but this choice really stuck out.
In the post-apocalyptic Fallout series, there are a nigh-infinite number of short- and long-term consequences. The series is basically founded in moral ambiguity. One such moment that always comes to mind was in Fallout: New Vegas (2010), where you are investigating a town that was supposedly taken over by a violent gang of escaped criminals. When you approach, a man leaving the town comes up to tell you how lucky he is. He won a lottery, and the prize is bigger and better than anything you could have ever have.
Rather dangerous to say to some stranger with a gun in some lawless wasteland. Nevertheless, you can kill him on the spot (and there’s no penalty for this- he is technically from one of the “evil” factions, so you can kill with impunity) and take his winning ticket. When you enter the town, it’s in ruins, and there are a great number of people dead or crucified. You find out that to win the lottery was to win your freedom (thus, survive).
The easy, self-rewarding reaction to kill one of the bad guys and get his loot is kind of rendered shameful and embarrassing when you realise he had literally just won his life back from unimaginable slaughter. Moments like this don’t happen often, but when they do, they really don’t feel good (but are great to experience, in their own way).
Many games don’t have such an open-ended approach. To be fair, too many options can sometimes be just as bad as too few, depending on the circumstances, but hey, I guess that’s moral ambiguity for you. One game with a sort of casual flexibility between good/evil would be the Metro series, based in a post-apocalyptic Moscow metro system. Both games allow you to save people, donate money to beggars, spare the lives of some enemies, and choose relative “good/virtuous” or “evil/self-servicing” paths that can ultimately lead to changing the ending. It’s linear so the choices aren’t really 1:1 -basically the same events unfold the same way- but it’s the end result that has it pay off. The second game, Metro: Last Light, has you – through your actions – influence the decision of another character to either intervene and save you during the final battle, or allow you to die a hero’s death because it wasn’t his fight to join. Even if you do some decent things and aren’t trying to be a bad person, it isn’t enough to convince the character that helping you is worth the cost. It’s a very heavy feeling, because I remember trying to be a good person and help as much and often as I could, and to be as merciful as I could (as the player), and it was simply not good enough for the other party to risk themselves. It hurt.
The survival-horror Haunting Ground (2005) has you teamed up with a dog for most of your adventure, and your treatment of this dog directly affects some endings. If you treat him well, or even just decently, he will save you after being captured at one point, leaving you free to finish the main story (whether it be good or bad). If you left him injured, scolded him often, or kicked him, he won’t save you and you’re treated to the worst of all the endings right then and there. The game basically shows to you that you failed, whether by ignorance or malice. If you don’t care about the dog (in real life) as you’re playing, then it reflects onto your character in-game (and that leads to something very bad, I assure you). Real consequence. You don’t even have to love the dog, but you have to realise it can be merely a tool for survival, and failing to accept that will punish you, as it ostensibly would if you were really in that situation.
Many games allow you to have these sort of good/evil/neutral choices, but sadly it’s sort of just a colour swap, in most cases.”Do you want good blue powers and nice things to say, or evil red power and some snarky, mean things to say (but the results are almost exactly the same)?” Giving, faux-morality, really, but it does allow some further depth and gameplay options rather than assuming every person wants to play the hero. Morality as a gimmick to lengthen replay value. Many games attempt it, some have done well with it, others are unnecessary at best and ruin an otherwise decent experience.
But this starts getting more into conscience than consequence, so we’ll leave that for the next one. Thanks for sticking around, and I hope you’ll come see the next one. Let me know what you think- do you agree? Disagree?
*Most games have a progress of time, but it’s incidental, really. Most linear games (particularly shooters) have day/night cycles as sort of a formality at best; a new room to play in and nothing more. You never rest, you never sleep, it’s just some implausible 72-hour adrenaline burn. Honestly, you could have it be the same rooms every time shown in different colours because there’s no actual relationship to the progress of time- it’s like going from one playing field directly to another. The travel needed, the time taken, eating/sleeping/waiting just doesn’t factor in. A series of set pieces or stages rather than an actual journey, if that makes sense? Your character (and therefore you, in all intents and purposes) effectively doesn’t exist outside of GUNTIME®.
**In a way, old point-and-click adventure games could have something like this, where small choices made later on (or items missed) could make completing a later puzzle impossible, and by that point it made beating the game impossible. It’s not really the same thing, as that’s by virtue of gameplay structure, not actual content.