Double Agent
Freedom from sin - February 8, 2002 - Erin Mehlos

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this column are those of the participants and the moderator, and do not necessarily reflect those of the GIA. There is coarse language and potentially offensive material afoot. Whoohoo! I have one star! Don't say we didn't warn you.

If I were to give you an intro in addition to this feast of letters, you'd just get fat.

Let's go.

Quite the topic you got here


Wow, that's quite the topic you have there Erin. Looking forward to reading the responses to this one, that's for sure.

I think what you've just touched on is an example of one of the ways to do the whole "turn games into works of art" thing. These days, advocates of the cause are fervently running around, asking when we'll get our [name of movie], and how to flesh out these cinematic qualities. However, as I've said time and time again, I think we need games that don't look to achieve artistic meaning through emulation of another medium, but strike out on their own. Games are inherently interactive, and personal experiences--lets make some art out of that.

If you make a game that truly smacks of freedom, and truly implements an effective reward/punishment system, and innocently asks the player to make a moral statement out of it all, guess what you've just achieved. You've turned gaming into its own art form. In this respect, GTA3 serves as a playground more than an artistic achievement. GTA3 told you you were a criminal, gave you no other choice, and presented it in an engaging manner. If we could take that and add more options, and lace it in a more subdued environment then... wow. Unfortunately, most people just aren't in a position to recognize such a situation, or even care about it. Those that did see the potential would likely split into two groups. Is this a work of art, and possibly a completely tangible moral indicator, or is this a truly frightening creation that exposes too much of what we don't want to see?

A game of that nature would surely bring a lot of controversy, a lot of innovation, and a lot of people that just don't care. In other words, a game like that would be real art. Of course, its not the only way to achieve such an effect, but we'll leave that for another day....

Shit, I just used this topic as a springboard, didn't I?

-Justin Freeman

PS. I'd go to a DA party--as long as the imagery wasn't half as vivid as that last descriptive line.

I'm loathe to get into hurling around the a-word, but certainly a game like that of which you speak would be a human experience like none other, putting much of what the mainstream finds acceptable to deem "art" to shame.

Hopefully a synthesis of today's views will help us better envision its implications.

Suspension of disbelief

Keggermeister Erin,

Here I am at 22, Associates degree in hand and still at it, yet I've never been to a party (at least not one that didn't involve camping out in the living room, clad in PJs, with my pre-pubescent, equally nerdy buddies playing video games.) I can't say as the general idea of drunkenness has particularly appealed to me thus far, but somehow the thought of a Double Agent booze-up sounds like a real gas. Of course it's entirely unfeasible, what with people living all over the globe. Add on top of that the sad reality that, surely, at least a number of us are not quite so vocal in person. But kudos to you anyway for that delightful little scene that's dancing around in my head now--you get a gold star.

For now, I don't believe that the kind of game-playing freedom you're talking about is going to be much of an issue. Without considerably redefining the nature of console gaming, that kind of do-anything approach simply isn't going to fly. The way I see it, "story" is on one end of the spectrum, and "freedom" on the other. As we all know from the tedious Console vs PC debate, console titles lean more toward story and PC RPGs, freedom. I think games that do go for a more freedom-based approach will be more of a novelty than the norm in the RPG industry. At the most, I could see more games incorporating Metal Gear style Easter-eggs into the mix, granting more of a free "feeling," while still maintaining narrative control. Short of some kind of revolution in game design, I doubt there's going to be much threat of a paradigm shift.

With that said, as games become increasingly realistic there will have to be a point where simply nothing will be believable unless you allow for free will. When, and IF, true virtual reality comes into being, this would become especially important. If I try to play a driving simulation, but it won't let me go off the road, or hit a nearby pedestrian, or drive strait into the Circle K, then I'm going to feel a little cheated. Maybe I won't even want to get in the car. Maybe I'd rather walk. I should be able to have that choice. And maybe I wouldn't think to drive over to the other side of town, and pick me up a hooker, but maybe somebody else would. By God, I say they should have the right to!

Hmm.... maybe I'd better stop right there.

El Cactuar, dreaming of girl gamers, be them puking or otherwise

Moral issues aside, the fact is that for games to continue building in realism, freedom of action is tantamount to suspension of disbelief.

How many times in traversing the narrow tracks of Spira did you stop to run Tidus into a seeming niche or alcove in an attempt to push beyond the predermined path and explore the wider world? "C'mon! The gap between these trees is as wide as Auron is badass -- if I wanna go get lost in the woods, that should be my prerogative!"

The boy can hold his breath for the duration of a blitzball game and leap twenty feet in the air to rain death on the enemy party with his Overdrives, but he can't scramble up a gently sloping snowbank?

The result of this typical irony? Strings suspending spacecraft and shrink wrap comprising walls of ice become visible, and the player is cruelly reminded this is far from reality.

Free-thinking radicals

Hmph. Moral responsibilty? That's for the real world. I may have compunctions about smashing smiling gopher heads in reality, but if they give me one of the best healing items in Paper Mario, I'm a slamming fool. No, I'm not especially interested in making in-game, on-the-spot moral decisions, I'm interested in the oppurtunity to force everyone else to make them.

This may seem irrelevant, but bear me out, I have a point...

During the bomb-freezing mission in MGS2, I found myself almost impossibly stuck in the section of the warehouse you have to drop down into from above because I would always miss the guard's head with the trank and instead get him in the shoulder. In essence, this led to him calling for backup and falling asleep immediately after, fifteen times or so. And every time the guards would simply kick the poor bastard in the head and go back to guarding.

Now I don't know about you, but if I was one of those guards, I'd have kicked this guy's ass after the third or so false alarm. And I was honestly a little disappointed that he never did. GTA3 has proven that developers finally have a handle on how to 'free' the player to do what he wants. Now what I'd like to see is the same freedom bestowed on the enemy. And I don't mean in a pre-scripted 'I just realized my leader is evil - let me fight with the good guys' way. I mean if I punch a guard taking a leak in MGS, I don't want him to look around for 30 seconds and forget I exist. I want to see him decide to leave his post, compromise all the terrorists' elaborate plans, even take out his fellow guards, just for the chance to chase me down and beat the crap out of me.


A lot of big-to-do has been made about NPC AI, particularly its implications in the realm of difficulty, but tying this in with the the gist of the previous letter, monsters, prison guards and enemy soldiers just won't be believable foes until they can think for themselves. And when I say "think for themselves," I don't simply mean they'll have reasonably varied patterns of attack in offerring themselves up for slaughter -- I mean they'll run, pursue and act out according to their own artificial sense of self-interest.

Of course, if the enemy can think -- and flee and surrender -- of his own free will, you might start developing sympathy for his meager NPC plight, and be less inclined to paint the corridors red with his splattered vitality, adding another dillemma -- and another dimension of humanity -- to the mix.

Facing the music

I believe that when a game offers you the freedom, there should be suitable outcomes depending on your actions. As to what these outcomes entail, that's totally up to the developer to decide in the context of their game. After all, they did make the damn thing. That's not to say every game has to conform to any particular moral/religious/other standard. It would be a real pisser in GTA if after you completed all the missions, your character is forced to spend your life in prison, and does a lengthy monologue on how crime doesn't pay. Although it is quite cool in the original Ogre Battle that if you make a pact with the demon Galf, the ending sequence informs you that he possesses your body and commit unspeakable atrocities in your name. There's also an ending where your subordinates have you quietly executed because you were just such an uncaring bastard and not fit to rule.

Now, as for the completely non-linear gameplay of Sir Galahad, son Holiness Noble les Justes et Purs de la Terre Brouillée de Lapin...

If the son of Lancelot's intended role the game was to keep the peace, do good deeds, and generally preserve the peaceful tranquility of Fuzzy Bunny Land, then the game should focus on providing you freedom in doing so. Given that Galahad is the embodiment of holy knighthood I don't think that he would have the will to inflict sexual violence on livestock or kill the very fuzzy bunnies he was sworn to protect. That's like giving Mario the option stomp on the princess' head and have non-consensual anal sex with her while she's stunned.

Even if the guy IS anatomically correct and the game gives you so much control that you can actually initiate such non-relevant acts, I'd imagine the developer would want to take some simple precaution or implement a certain outcome to keep you from totally warping the game. For instance, maybe you'll find that Galahad is physically unable to do something he would find inappropriate. Or maybe right as you commit the first violation you're only able to see the knight's shadow and then you find yourself in Bunny Land Prison with a GAME OVER screen. If anyone thinks, "who are these guys to tell ME what to do?" then they should stop to realize who actually made that game they're playing. If someone want a game where you can fuck goats and torture innocent creatures then they're free to produce it themselves. Or, since they probably aren't capable of handling such an ambitious project, they can harbor the thought in their head for a second, giggle if they must, and then get back to thinking of a clever way to liberate all those captive bunnies from the clutches of an undead King Arthur.

Justin Speer

Obviously if the practical upshot of Galahad's existence is to be just and pure in all things, then screwing livestock is counter-productive, and I can certainly see where it doesn't follow to let the player progress through the game making a wanton jackass of a character who's supposed to stand for all that is good and prudish. Which is why consequences for your actions are a must....

Making mission impossible


This discussion of freedom and nonlinearity in games has made me realize that a truly realistic game is going to be very difficult to create. One option is the GTA3 model: you can steal things, kill people, be a cabbie, but is this actually realistic? Sure, I may be technically capable of stealing cars and racing from cops, but I would never actually do that for a number of reasons. The freedom is realistic, but the player's actions often aren't because there's no reason to behave realistically. The alternative, as seen in most games, places many limits on the player. This is also unrealistic, though it is often done to force the player to behave in a way closer to how he or she would act in reality.

What I'd like to see is a game with complete freedom, but realistic consequences. Allow the player to do anything, but have the game world react accordingly. Killing a pedestrian doesn't just cost you a couple hundred dollars and a night in the city lockup, but rather causes the police to consider you a dangerous criminal at large. They would then be as tenacious as real cops, constantly searching for your whereabouts and not giving up the chase if you hide behind a building. One action could completely change the focus of the game, as it would change one's real life. Instead of doing small tasks for a mob boss, you'd now be on permanent run from the law. Perhaps the only escape would be to flee the area and change your identity, or risk it all in one big standoff in an abandoned building with fifty cops outside.

Obviously, a game with that much freedom isn't going to be possible for a long time, but the ideas behind it could be integrated into current titles. What this basically comes to is allowing the developer and player to share the moral responsibility. The player can indeed do what he or she chooses, within reasonable confines necessary to maintain the general concept of the game. But the developer will also promote morality by choosing to respond to actions in an appropriate manner. Although this ultimately encourages the player to act in a specific way, it isn't really about morality. The developers themselves aren't forcing any particular ethical codes on you--rather, the characters in the simulated world are forcing their ethical codes on your character, just as people in the real world would. This would help a game seem truly realistic.


If you get it on with someone's livestock, a shepherd (or a packed train) ought to witness the illicit entry and lets the whole village in on your indiscretion, ultimately denying you a key item or something in that vein.

In the old computer game Elite, which arguably allowed the player more freedom than GTA3, you could go around wantonly blowing away any and all spacefaring ships in a sector, but you couldn't then expect to be allowed to dock at a nearby spaceport, and it was a good bet wherever you went from that point on a fair number of cops and bounty hunters would be hot on your ass. Accomplishing anything laudable in the game from then on could be difficult, if not impossible -- consequences in action.

Rabbit retribution

Ms. Mehlos,

Gamers have had the kind of moral freedom that you talk about to one degree or another for quite a while. Think back to the game Defender -- you were supposed to protect the humans from the aliens. However, it was ALSO possible to fly near the surface of the planet and blast the humans to giblets. If you did that, however, the planet would be destroyed and you'd enter into a series of difficult stages with mutants coming at you from all directions, just as if the aliens had legitimately captured or killed all the humans.

I guess that the developers need to hold gamers "morally" responsible to their actions through consequences like that. If a player actually went on a fluffy bunny killing spree in your example, then they should be expecting a flood of Rabbits of Caerbannog to retaliate.

-Some Random Jerk, still chuckling at the remark about N.O.W. putting out "Right Wing Banter"

Consequences don't necessarily have to be complex and far-reaching to be effective, either. For example, you could go the Zelda route, as the Jerk suggests.

The first time those winged harbingers of death spilled from the sky by the millions like so many avenging angels after I'd savagely beaten an undeserving chicken in Link to the Past, all I could say was "Cool!" Of course, I never did it again -- in fact I didn't even make it out of the first altercation alive. But it only goes to show, interactivity is always appreciated, consequences doubly so. Attention to details like these make the gaming experience that much more immersive. And while allowing for behavior deviating from your character's prescribed role has the potential to hopelessly skew the point of the game, it also stands to render the experience significantly more meaningful....

What the hell; it's for a good cause

Alright, right off the bat, I'm going to prevent this letter from being chosen for the column because I'm going to mention a PC game. Gasp! But you snooty anti-PC game wankers can all go to hell, anyway. Oh, wait, it WAS ported to the SNES, but was so godawful that I try to forget that ever happened.


Ultima VII already pulled off the whole holy-warrior-with-complete-freedom thing. Yes, you could get with that prostitute. Yes, you could rob people blind. Yes, you could knock over the mint. Yes, you could kill every last person in the entire game world.

However, you could also be a Goodly Righteous Defender of All That Is Shiny and Pure. Only, you actually get satisfaction out of walking that narrow path because you CHOSE it. Not because the game forces you to it; indeed, you can still complete the game despite being an evil bastard. But because you decided not to slaughter that poor farmer who unwittingly owns the Hoe of Destruction, you feel a little less like an oppressor of the lower classes. Because you decided not to steal that rather important hourglass from the blind merchant, you feel as if you are respecting handicapped individuals everywhere. Because you decided that even though piling barrels of gunpowder inside the main lobby of the mint is the most effective and, well, fun way to start off the greatest heist in the history of Britannia, that maybe, just maybe, the kindgom you're trying to save might be better off keeping their hordes of gems and gold boullion.

Um, yeah. What I'm trying to say is that in a game world with complete freedom, choosing to be good can be just as rewarding as being evil. Both are equally cathartic, in their own way.

-Jason Golec, who will always win because evil is lazy...

This is an outlook on the issue I can really get behind. Uh, well, okay... with all the sexual exploitation of sheep afoot today that wasn't, perhaps, the best choice of words, but you get my drift nonetheless.

Saving the world has become passe -- we do it all the time; do it because we have no choice but to do it if we want to complete the game. Wouldn't it be a lot more satisfying to take the high road -- refrain from capping that hooker or ramming that goat -- if you arrived at your own moral conclusions? If you fought the good fight, not because you were being led by the nose, but because you chose to be a decent human being?

Who knows. Make it difficult enough to tread that straight and narrow and it might prove just as much fun as picking off civilians with the high-powered rifle you lifted off that dead mobster.

Human response

Once upon a time, that wild and crazy guy, Dave Perry, was interviewed with some other Big Name game designers (if memory serves, it was printed in the now-defunct Next Generation magazine), and he said something to the effect of: 'If in Mario Kart there was a way to knock Mario off of his Kart so that the player could run back and forth over him, that's the only thing anybody would try to do.'

A shock-value overstatement on his part, but I like the line anyway. In the case of Mario Kart -- with the cartoony atmosphere and severe limitation of play mechanics -- violence is a harmlessly absurd joke, and any new way to play the game is a good way to play the game. Bashing the hell out of characters can be great entertainment, as Nintendo found out in spades with Smash Bros.. But as we continue toward truly realistic environments with incredible ranges of freedom, violence starts getting downright eerie. I don't think I'd be too pleased with myself if I took some character realistic enough to be my neighbor off to a back alley in order to kill the poor bastard with an aluminum bat. Hearing him make his final pleas for life in emotional, fluent english; every realistic cry, snap, and crack as the bat connects; a disturbing realisation that the blood doesn't look so 'funny' anymore... Egh.

Games allow us to evade the most annoying responsibilities and consequences of real life, in an effort to have fun. More than that, they amp up the things that make us react favorably. Unreal II and Doom III are entertaining little baubles, triggering the parts of peoples' minds tuned to slapstick violence and adrenaline-pumping action. Got blow'd up good by your best friend's rocket launcher? S'okay, you'll respawn in a half-second to repay the favor. But when people start making games that are more about indulging in long-drawn, psychologically sick fantasies, I think anyone who's willing to play that sort of thing would garner sideways glances from even the most hardcore id fan.

There are some people out there who don't have a decent grasp of reality, and are way too eager to use unfeeling, unthinking, unliving works of fiction as role models. They're a minority, but plentiful enough to make a person worry about stepping outside. As nice as it'd be for all of the sickos in the world to just wrap themselves up in their own private virtual hells, I doubt they'd be decent enough to stay out of the real world forever. And Gord knows what'd happen if some unfit parents left their kids to grow up in *truly* realistic simulations with the ability to kill virtual people. It's a matter of personal mental boundaries -- or lack there-of.

...I haven't even gotten to possible solutions, and yet I've already yammered too much. I'll just close abruptly with this: the dev team 'Running With Scissors' is currently working on 'Postal 2', which is a sequel to one of the most senselessly violent games ever made. It'll use the new Unreal Warfare engine, and they're already boasting that it'll take GTA3's Crown of Infamy.

Too tired to proof-read...should just hit the 'x' now, but...-


If, in reality, the outrageous violence in GTA3 was "bloody and done with a baseball bat that you can feel in your hands through the PlayStation controller," I doubt I'd enjoy the game.

As it is, yesterday's discussion made me re-examine how I felt about it, and the larger subject of realism in videogames, for after writing the column I felt compelled to play a little GTA3....

I don't rightly recall, now, what moronic undertaking of my own device resulted in my getting beaten half to death, but whatever it might have been, I found myself medically in need of a hooker. Fortunately, I was in the right part of town at the right time of night.

She did her thing, took my money and took her leave, and as she sauntered off into the shadows, polygonal hips swaying, I jumped out of my smoldering car to whack her -- something I'm not in the habit of doing but was so saturated with the very idea of last night that I felt the need to do -- for vindication's sake; for spite.

So I whacked her -- and was immediately struck with an uncomfortable objectivity, maybe because of yesterday's discussion, maybe because I was tired.

I'd just paid this prostitute, driven her to the seclusion of the harbor, completed our transaction, as it were, and then beaten her to death in the quiet of the moonlight. How utterly bizarre -- creepy, even -- that I could unblinkingly do something so generally reprehensible and plausibly evil. Me, who resets the GameCube when too many Pikmin die.

I made a comment yesterday to the effect of this over-the-top brand of violence being amusing -- and it can be. But even GTA3 has moments capable of making us think twice about the moral implications of our actions. When games become as brutally real as Psiga describes, I don't think we'll need limitations on what we can and can't do -- games will begin to reflect humanity well enough to ( hopefully, anyway) appeal to our intrinsic sense of morality, and pulling the trigger on some unsuspecting NPC will become no easier than pulling the trigger on the guy that sells you ICEEs at the 7 Eleven.

Freedom of the press (wicked FFX spoilers)


Said you:

"Having a Valentine beats the crap out of, say, sending chocolates and flowers to your hand."

You crack me up; I knew there was a reason you've been my favorite current gaming columnist since you started at the GIA. That comment probably applied to your entire readership, one way or the other.

On topic, then, I think that the moral responsibility you mentioned should fall into the hands of the gamer. For such responsibilities to be enforced by a gmae's developer effectively removes any freedom; imagine, for example, if the cops in GTA3 DID arrest you and send you to jail for minor infractions like driving over a cornerful of college students or slamming your flatbed full-bore into a trundling minivan.

The game would quickly lose all its fun, and what makes it unique - the ability to choose whehter or not to be a heartless, innocent-murdering jackass, or an otherwise law-abiding hitman. It doesn't matter WHICH you choose, so long as you HAVE the choice. The game can conceivably be finished with no collateral deaths, if the player so desires, but it doesn't force you to play that way.

In short, applied to such an open environment in RPGs, nothing's to stop you from rampaging across the perilous countryside as Sir Galahad the (im)Pure, razing villages and penetrating goats - but at some point, this loses its fun, and you start over, and go about it the "right" way. From what I hear, Warren Spector's Project Ego for the Xbox (yes, Xbox) may allow this; you control a single hero from youth to old age, and he, and NPC reactions to him, develop based on how you play the game. Looking forward to it, I am.

And now, another topic: mainstream media coverage of video games. There isn't much of quality to read about games in newspapers or national magazines, aside from the occasional hyped-up console release or half-hearted review attempt.

On the matter of the latter(rhyme!), consider this line out of a tepid review of Final Fantasy X by Victor Godinez of the Dallas Morning News:

"Your task is to find out where you are, find your father..., defeat Sin and, of course, win the girl and save the planet."

Now, the discerning reader will realize that this man has made a grave error, and let slip that he probably never finished the game, because in FFX you DO. NOT. GET. THE. GIRL. Oh, sure, there's the "Suteki da ne" scene, but you can't really say that Tidus lives happily ever after with Yuna, because he DISAPPEARS at the end! He also calls it boring, says there's not much new and that old die-hards won't enjoy it, but that series newcomers will. This right here seems iconic to me of the problem with mainstream video game coverage: it's not taken seriously, and not treated with any respect as a medium, reviewed by Joe Staff Writer who has no real grasp of the gaming community or what makes us, as a group, tick.

A movie critic doesn't sit through the first hour-and-a-half of Star Wars, get up, walk out, and assume that the Empire destroys the puny Rebel Alliance with its unstoppable Death Star, now does he? Neither should a game reviewer simply assume that things end up as the box blurb suggests they will.

This same review also encompasses Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, a game which the reviewer describes as "10 times as much fun" as FFX, and in whose water he frolicked his characters for a full five minutes just to watch it ripple splash. Now, Baldur's Gate was fun, and pretty, and the water was cool, but I think our Mr. Godinez misses the point of an RPG like FFX: the story and characterization. He criticizes FFX as too repetitive and praises Baldur's Gate, a game with infinitely less varied gameplay than FFX, but a tiny fraction of the story and character depth.

So, TO THE POINT: what's your collective beef with mainstream press coverage for video games, how can it improve, and, most importantly, why hasn't it done so yet?

Mud Pepper


Closing Comments:

... looks like MP's got your topic all spelled out for you. Let Drew know what you think.

- Erin Mehlos

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