You know what’s great in a video game? Side quests. Lots of content. Games that let me choose my own path and do extra, fun, cool things in addition to the main storyline. I’ve only been playing Batman: Arkham City for a day now, and there is already so much to choose from. The downside to all of this? I’m pretty sure I am terrible at prioritizing my role as the Dark Knight. Penny Arcade illustrates this embarrassing tendency artfully:
The panel calls-out a couple things here that made the first game’s puzzle quests a bit ridiculous, but in Arkham City, there is actually a compelling reason to solve the puzzles over saving a lone goon.
When you solve the very first of the Riddler’s puzzles, he sends the Bat a message saying that this time, out smarting him is a “matter of life and death.” So now there is not just the “this is a Batman game and the Riddler’s puzzles are a mechanism in the game” level of finding the trophies and hidden images, but there is also the much more frightening and true to the “Riddler is a psychopathic super-villain who uses violence to force Batman into a test of wits” aspect of the game. This makes me very stressed. The sane, day to day part of my brain knows that events are not realtime in Arkham City. If I ignore a main quest for half an hour while I dick around trying to pilot a remote control batarang through some unnecessarily twisty ductwork, then no one is going to die due to my lack of diligence. The game will wait for me to get my act together and go rescue some hostages or pour Round-Up on Poison Ivy or whatever it is they need me to do next.
However, more and more games are adding zero-sum decisions to gameplay. Folks like BioWare and Square Enix are forcing me to choose between saving hostages or learning the truth of the larger plot. I keep imagining the game is just going to confront me with a Sophie’s choice, comic book style, where I have Bane on one side of the city and Mr. Freeze on the other, both seconds from slaughtering innocents, neither willing to wait for the Bat nor aware of the other’s plans. Like the Riddler, many super-villain plots revolve around attracting the Bat’s attention. Not so much in actually harming any set group of people, but in doing so with a larger purpose. What happens when multiple super-villains begin attempting to get “louder” in their demands for attention? Who is at fault? Does Batman take responsibility for, as Commissioner Gordon so eloquently puts it at the end of Batman Begins, “escalation?”
My point here is that I love exploring and flying around as Batman, but I feel guilty about doing it because it requires me to ignore victims. Every time I see some poor schmo amid the alleys of Arkham City, I ask myself: is it wrong to ignore their cry of help if I’m in pursuit of a larger threat? How does one assess that question when you cannot accurately gauge just how crazy a given super-villain is?
My answer is that, right now, video games still make it obvious enough for me to know that, “Hey, it’s ok. That guy is not going to get beaten up unless there is a timer running telling you that, or an Objective Icon appears, or a cut-scene demanding your attention. Until then, trying to achieve your current objective is objectively correct.” I suspect that soon, perhaps very soon, video games will give up on giving us the correct answer. Games will begin forcing us to determine what is “right” on our own. And when that comes, I’m not sure I’m ready for the consequences.
Bioethics is controversial.
No one endorses the ideas or concepts explored here, not even me.
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