Written by Stephen Patterson
Having finished Frictional Games’ magnificent SOMA this week I felt it necessary to pen a little discussion on a pleasing trend taking hold in video game storytelling – that being a larger focus on questionable moral decisions based in modern day and futuristic robotic/AI programming and its effect on human psychology. It represents an impressive turn away from simple black and white moralistic decisions in our medium so frequently displayed in adventure games and role-playing games, typified by Mass Effect’s Paragon and Renegade system. Of course, it is down to individual writers and storytellers to design their dialogue trees and outcomes in a way that results in effective choices and the weighting thereof, but the quality appears to be rising and most frequently succeeds in these dystopian, science fiction experiences.
What can we attribute this rise in quality to? The written word has been able to present grey moral choices and decisions for centuries and frequently contextualises them amongst political and social turmoil. A number of factors in this decade however allow video game writers an unequalled platform from which to encourage the consumer to not only observe morality passively (as demonstrated via the written word) but also to participate in the making of these decisions on a personal level. Writers (and the developers who convert their stories into gameplay) can establish predetermined results based on choices made over the course of an experience, allowing direct feedback on moralistic decisions for immediate results. The key resource in our medium allowing such an impactful effect, and something becoming increasingly relevant (perhaps only ever relevant) in this decade is the phenomenal increase in graphical fidelity and, perhaps far more importantly, the quality of acting performances.
Theorising aside, let’s take a look at my specific subset of games which I believe does a fantastic job in this regard. SOMA, a psychological horror game by Amnesia: The Dark Descent developers Frictional Games, presents a world in which life on Earth has been destroyed by a comet, but a small group of humans living in an underwater facility on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, called Pathos-II, have survived and present the last hope for the future of human life, or more accurately, the survival of human consciousness without or without a biological body. In this world exists an almost Altered Carbon-esque ability to transfer consciousness between robotic bodies, allowing computer systems to maintain human existence without the limiting factor of a degrading body. In, reality, this system copies the consciousness of its subjects, frequently leaving one copy to die or become trapped while allowing the second to progress or escape. In one chilling exchange, the player’s consciousness is copied into a deep sea diving suit needed to progress towards the main goal. Upon waking in your new form, you hear the confused discussion of your own voice from your old body, asking why nothing has happened. ‘Kathryn? Can you run a diagnostic or something?’ You are left with a decision: turn off the computer allowing this copy to exist, killing him in minutes, or leave him, trapped in this underwater base, under threat of death by robotic monsters on one side or the black depths of an oceanic trench on the other.
So why do decisions like this, and the ending of the game, present something that resonated with me on a deeper level than other experiences in my 15+ love affair with video games? Perhaps it lies with a deeper understanding of human consciousness. More likely however is that artificial intelligence becomes more of a reality in everyday, present life, and these dystopian experiences highlight a fantastical, highly exaggerated version of what we could expect in the next century. Games like The Swapper, The Fall and SOMA share ethical conundrums that are on the surface outlandish in comparison to current day topics such as robotic labour (used in car construction, for example) or driver-less cars, but are certainly connected and nuanced. It brings into question the value of human life, the importance of an individual, and also the emergent intelligence of humanity as a species. SOMA appeared to me as a breakout piece of fiction in a world currently dominated by recycled pieces of intellectual property and sequels, and a consistent re-treading of ground. As I read through someone of the great works of science fiction of the 20th century, including Neuromancer, Dune, Brave New World, Foundation and perhaps the increasingly relevant Robot trilogy, the time feels ripe for a revolution in the science fiction storytelling of video games. As we reach the imminent releases of revolutionary pieces of virtual reality hardware such as the Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive, we could see an explosion of experiences designed to stimulate sensory reactions and prompt moralistic choices which feel more real and direct.