Martin Luther and Mass Effect: what video games can teach us about free will

I finally got around to playing the Walking Dead videogame this weekend, and I'm already hooked. "Video game" is a bit of a misnomer really, as it's more a piece of interactive fiction. You must guide your character, Lee Everett, through the dangers and dilemmas of a rapidly disintegrating society where the dead are returning to life.  The decisions you make will have repercussions, both for your own character and the others you meet, and often you'll be forced to make choices that are not simple good versus bad, but bad versus bad. I've only played it for a couple of hours, and already my mind is fraught with self-doubt as I feel blindly for the seams in the narrative. I'm trying to detect which events were inevitable and which were a consequence of my actions. Could I have saved the farmer's son? Was his death hardcoded into the game by the writers , or was it my fault? Did I make the right choice?

I'm intrigued with how games that seek to offer the player free choice make true on this goal. Ideally, you want to feel like the game world reflects the decisions you made, for better or worse. But programming and writing every possible outcome would be impossible.  Many games try to implement free choice by providing two or three alternate endings to play for - a narrative that only really branches on the last page. It's not a very satisfying method. The reality is that game narratives are almost always linear in structure. The trick is making it feel non-linear - fooling the player into the illusion that they have free will in a pre-ordained universe. This is actually a problem faced by developers long before quality writing became a selling feature of videogames. The physical universe of classic shooters such as Quake and Half Life were incredibly linear. But clever level designers were able to create seemingly labyrinthine, chaotic environments that disguised the fact you were essentially walking from A to B, shooting everything that moved. Even though Half Life 2 excelled at these environments, it was still so much of a rail shooter that by the final showdown, I had completely tuned out major antagonist Dr Breen's exhortations to think twice about the destruction of the Citadel I was enacting. And besides, what choice did I have? The only movement was forward - the only way to complete the narrative was to press on. Meanwhile, BioShock got away with being a decidedly linear game by also being a critique of them. In its shock denouement the writers essentially said: you claim to have free will,  but all along we told you what to do and you did it without hesitation. Just as you controlled the movements of your character, we game makers have controlled yours.

Thus, one of the things that attracted me to Mass Effect 2 was the promise that you really were granted a level of autonomy within the story, and that the consequences of your choices shaped the environment, characters and narrative of the game. Nearly all interactions in the game offer dichotomy of replies - friendly or hostile. But it soon became clear to me that these had very little effect on the narrative of the story itself. Rather, the way you conduct yourself changes the way other characters see you. Some will react positively to your kindness, others will deride it as weakness. As the game unfolds, the opinions that your crew have of you becomes a strangely compelling metric. Never mind completing a mission, what's important is whether your comrades still respect you by the end of it.  Similarly, Deus Ex offered the player one narrative destination but several routes to get there. Will you take the easy path, cutting down security guards and police officers with your guns? Or creep through the shadows to avoid unnecessary bloodshed? Major events in the game will still unfold according to the central story - the only difference is how your peers within the game view you, and your own conscience. (A moral judgement of the player's actions was also part of BioShock, even if it manifested itself as nothing more than two alternate cutscene endings).

So games such as Mass Effect and Deus Ex pose a very interesting philosophical question. It's easy to believe that if everything is fated by God, there is no virtue in making one decision over another - it's all God's will in the end. Mass Effect-style gameplay prompts us to question this vision. It tells us that it doesn't matter if your endeavours end in success or failure, what matters is how you conduct yourself on the way there.

Desiderius Erasmus came to the same conclusion in 1524, when arguing with the reformationist Martin Luther over whether humans were free to choose between good and evil. Erasmus pointed out that acts of doctrine such as baptism and repentance were meaningless without free will, and therefore there could be no predetermination by God. In reply, Luther  rejected the idea that God's sovereignty was bounded in any way, arguing that humans tended naturally to good or evil depending on whether they had embraced God's salvation. In Erasmus's vision, God was a cosmic game designer - controlling the fabric of the universe but leaving a small space within the immediate  surroundings of humans to act out their choices. Ultimately, the humans couldn't change the grand plan, but they could decide how to act within it.

Other religions had to wrestle with this issue too. Professor of Jewish thought Rabbi Shubert Spero may well have been discussing  Mass Effect-style gameplay when he wrote:

Much in a man's circumstance is determined by forces outside of his control. However, his basic attitude toward life, which includes and is formed by his relationship with God, is decided by himself. Elsewhere in the Talmud, it is put thusly: "The angel appointed over conception takes a seminal drop, sets it before the Holy One, Blessed be He, and asks, 'Sovereign of the universe, what is to become of this drop? Is it to develop into a person strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor?' But no mention is made of its becoming wicked or righteous.'" This is left to the person himself.

In most video games, you win by surviving to the end. But when you can be instantly reborn a thousand times over, this isn't a particularly meaningful success. The events in the game are scripted, and once you know them well enough, you will be able to correctly act out your own movements within this concert and in doing so, see it to its completion. The ending is always the same. It's the same ending everyone sees. Mass Effect, Deus Ex and the Walking Dead give you no plaudit for making it to the end - all you've done is exhausted the arena in which the narrative takes place. Your score in these games, if it can be called that, is the record of how you acted along the way.



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Deus Ex gave choice, but it definitely favored a stealthy approach as you gained much more XP from quiet, non-lethal takedowns to add activate your character's tech implants. I did a stealth play through, and started a more combative one, but was frustrated by the slower character progress of the latter. The limited ammo of the combat approach appealed to the resource management loving part of my brain, but it wasn't enough. And then Skyrim came out, so that was that. :-) Somber technothriller or bashing dragons in the snout with my personally forged, refined and enchanted mace? No contest.

The choices in Mass Effect were more icing on a cake, I thought. You'd make a choice and some consequence appears in the next game. Hey, that's neat, and something relatively fresh, but I never expected or desired to face deep philosophical choices. It's just a game, after all. They tried to do that in the end of Mass Effect 3, and wound up with a nonsensical plot hole filled narrative trainwreck of a conclusion that pissed off a lot of people. They even had screenwriters and literature professors chiming in on what a mess they made of it.

Haven't played Walking Dead, but was planning to if I have the time. My gaming backlog is getting long.

By Quiet Desperation (not verified) on 26 Nov 2012 #permalink

Actually Deus Ex (2000) did give a few real choices, even in the narrative itself. It wasn't just the freedom to play how you wanted, which route to take and so on. But then, like this article states, it was Deus Ex's great trick to make the player feel that you weren't just exercising choice at these special "script" moments, but that it feels like most everything you do is a choice. There were moments where you had to choose someone's fate (to put it euphemistically) but equally more mundane moments where you simply had to make a choice which had no repercussions on the story in any way, such as giving some charity or doing something good (or harmful) outside of what the story expected of the player. But because some choice was involved, there was incentive to explore and try out things, talk to people.

It's hard to describe exactly how amazing and revolutionary that was at the time. It completely blew me away and gripped me for years, as well as consequently raising my expectations for videogames by a huge amount. It was the first time I actually realized what a game's narrative could do.

I have yet to finish Mass Effect 1, but although it doesn't reverberate as strongly as DX did in 2000, it definitely builds on DX in very interesting ways despite taking a slightly more dualistic and predictable approach to choice, and I look forward to finding the time to finish the entire trilogy some day.

Interesting article!

Sorry, I got confused while reading your article and you mentioned how Deus Ex didn't change any major plot points, just how NPCs regarded you. When I noticed "activating your tech implants", I realized you meant Human Revolution. However, in the original Deus Ex, decisions you made did affect major plots points. For example, some people never saw Paris because of their choices earlier in the game.

By tengokujin (not verified) on 03 Dec 2012 #permalink