Fable and Other Moral Tales: A Study in Game Ethics (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran an excerpt from Comparative Media Studies graduate student Peter Rauch’s thesis about ethics, morality, and games. Today, I run a second selection which explores some of the ethical and moral questions raised by the game, Fable. Fable is the brain child of British game designer Peter Molyneux, who ranks as one of the best theorists working in the games industry today. I was lucky enough to be able to sit down for an extensive public conversation with Peter Molyneux at the Education Arcade conference several years ago. Highlights of that conversation recently appeared in the first issue of the new Harvard Interactive Media Review, alongside articles by such game scholars and critics, as Ted Castranova, James Paul Gee, Eric Zimmerman, and Alice J. Robison.

It is nothing short of astonishing to listen to Molyneux talk about a game that is still in production. He has a deep respect for the potentials of the medium and an enormous ambition for what he hopes to accomplish in any given project. His conversations are conceptually sophisticated and always full of surprises and challenges which overturn our expectations about what games can and cannot do. Molyneux’s descriptions of his games in production are provocations that force other game designers to take stock of what they are doing with their time all day. Unfortunately, his games are often better in theory than in practice. The hard realities of the industrial process and the need to ship product often results in the need to cut features and as a result, by the time Fable shipped, it didn’t include many of the things which had generated the most excitement and speculation within the gamer community. I think we can learn a great deal by listening to Molyneux talk about what he wants to do with his games; we may learn as much or more by examining what happens to such a vision when it gets shoved through a studio mode of production.

Fable and Other Moral Tales: A Study in Game Ethics

by Peter Rauch

A third-person adventure game, Fable occupies a well-worn genre. Its claim to originality developed from its treatment of morality. Like Black & White, Fable received a great deal of press during its long development time, and also like Black & White, it was perceived by many players that the creators’ ambitious promises were not realized in the final game design. In practice, Fable is an unremarkable adventure game, and while many actions do have moral consequences, these consequences are predominantly superficial. However, a great potential for moral argument remains inherent in the design.

Fable is a world to be explored, with an ethical framework to be discovered through play. The narrative involves human-like characters that can lie, coerce and kill each other. Some of the actions of these characters are categorized as “good” or “evil” according to the beliefs of the designers, and the player is relatively unrestricted in choosing to perform them. Finally, the player’s actions are acknowledged by the rest of the world, however imperfectly, in the sense that NPCs respond to the player’s past actions, as well as the avatar’s appearance. Fable possesses all the raw materials to create a convincing, semi-realistic world that is intentionally biased toward a specific worldview–to argue the validity of a moral philosophy. That this possibility was not realized, or not sufficiently realized, or not meaningfully realized, does not alter the game’s potential. As such, Fable seems an ideal place to start when conceptualizing games that make meaningful arguments about morality.

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The player begins Fable as a (male) child in a small, fantasy-medieval village in the land of Albion. Childhood functions, rather appropriately, as a tutorial, introducing the player to most of the basic play mechanics, as well as the game’s moral engine and social system On the day in which the game begins, it is the protagonist’s sister’s birthday, and he needs money to buy her a gift. His father, eager to cultivate noble habits in the boy, offers the protagonist a coin for every good deed he does. The player is then presented with several conflicts demanding his or her intervention: each allows the player to make right or wrong choices, and the player is explicitly told the morality of his or her choices by a change in the protagonist’s “alignment.” The player can engage in these conflicts in any order; I have numbered them here only for convenience.

In the first conflict, a little girl tells the protagonist that her teddy bear has been taken. Elsewhere in town, the protagonist finds a little boy being threatened by a bully. The little boy is in possession of the teddy bear in question. The bully, the player learns through dialogue, is the little girl’s older brother, and wants the teddy bear so he can destroy it. (How the little boy came to be in possession of the teddy bear in the first place, in such a way that its owner was unaware, is never fully explained.) The bully offers to pay the protagonist one coin to get the teddy bear from the little boy. Here, the player has two initial options: he or she can beat up the bully, or pummel his victim. If the player chooses the former, the bully will begin whining with the first blow, and eventually run away. In this case, the little boy thanks the protagonist and gives him the teddy bear, which can then be returned to the little girl. Both assaulting the bully and returning the bear to its owner are considered “good,” and have a positive effect on the avatar’s alignment. If the player chooses to assault the little boy instead, the boy will complain about this injustice and give the player the teddy bear in an attempt to stop the violence directed at him. At this point, the player faces another choice: to give the teddy bear to the bully, receiving a coin as reward, or take the teddy bear to the little girl, performing a good deed for which the protagonist’s father with also pay him one coin. Attacking the boy is a “bad” action, as is giving the teddy bear to the bully–each gives the player two “evil” alignment points. Returning the bear to its owner is a “good” action, worth two “good” alignment points. Consequently, a player who hits the little boy and then returns the teddy bear to its owner will end up with the good and bad actions cancelling each other out, numerically, although the player can get an additional two “good” points by attacking the bully after the fact. No matter which course of actions the player chooses, the protagonist will end up with one coin.

In the second conflict, a woman complains of her philandering husband, and asks the protagonist to find out where he is and what he’s doing. Sure enough, the player finds the man engaged in an amorous embrace with another woman–upon discovery, he offers the protagonist a coin to keep quiet. (The game warns the player that rumors travel fast in the village, and people will know he took the bribe.) If the player takes the bribe, he or she receives two “evil” points and gets the coin, although he or she can balance those points out by breaking his promise to the adulterous husband and telling his wife the truth. From a monetary perspective, this is the ideal solution, since the player gains two coins, one from the husband and one from the protagonist’s father for doing a good deed.

In the third conflict, a merchant asks the protagonist to watch his barrels while he runs an errand in town. Some local boys urge the protagonist to break them and see what’s inside. Honoring the merchant’s wishes gets the player two “good” alignment points and a coin from the protagonist’s father, while smashing all the barrels earns the player two “evil” alignment points and a coin from inside one of the barrels. Curiously, if the player can break all the barrels and get back to where the protagonist was supposed to be standing guard before the merchant returns, the merchant will thank him for watching the merchandise, and the player will receive two “good” alignment points and a coin from the protagonist’s father, despite having broken his promise. Again, the “neutral” path, i.e. performing both good and evil deeds with no apparent logic connecting them, presents the fastest way to earn money, buy a gift for the protagonist’s sister, and advance in the game.

At first glance, it would seem that these examples do not lend themselves to moral subtlety. Even in “real life,” morality is taught to children first in broad strokes, and the morality of many fantasy worlds is similarly rendered in black-and-white. It makes perfect sense, from a design perspective, to deal with morality on a very simple level in the tutorial and flesh it out as the game continues. However, the Fable tutorial fails to accomplish even this, because of a poorly thought-out reward system that severely limits players’ choice of action and defines morality in terms of discrete actions, regardless of motive or intent. In the conflict involving the teddy bear, no non-violent options exist: the player cannot attempt to reason with the bully or threaten him verbally. While it can be argued that some conflicts can only be solved through the judicious application of violence–Fable is an adventure game, after all, and much of the game is spent killing–few would argue that this is necessarily the case for conflicts involving children, and that beating up the bully is the best moral option available to the player. In addition, the “evil” alignment points given to the player for hitting the little boy can be cancelled out by attacking the bully, even though there is no logical reason to do so. Therefore, in Fable, random, illogical violence for the sake of violence is perceived as morally superior to violence as a means to an immoral end. Similarly, it could be argued that taking the adulterous husband’s bribe and then telling his wife anyway is, morally, the worst option, since it could be interpreted to represent an amoral pursuit of profit. Finally, that the player can break the merchant’s barrels without him realizing it, and be rewarded for it, simply makes very little sense.

The problems presented here are twofold. First, it seems that Fable‘s designers put very little effort into deciding why given actions are right or wrong. Actions are decided to be moral or immoral, but few clear principles seem to have been defined to guide these decisions, and those that do are not consistently applied. Second, the game as it currently exists can respond to play actions, but not player intent. The importance of intent in morality is hotly debated of course, and intent is coded into Fable by the designers. However, the player has no role in deciding this intent. Like the protagonists of many adventure games, Fable‘s hero is presented as a tabula rasa, and the player never hears him speak (dialogue choices are generally presented as a simple “yes” or “no”). A character who cannot speak cannot easily articulate his intent, but this intent does nonetheless exist at a narrative level.

Peter Rauch is a graduate of the Florida Atlantic University Honors College,

holding a B.A. in Liberal Arts and Sciences with a concentration in American

Studies. He has no major experiences, accomplishments or credentials, but is

nonetheless interested in politics, theology, and all manner of media texts,

from literature to videogames.

Rauch recently completed a Masters in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. He is currently at work on a number of articles concerning the interplay of videogame texts and culture with philosophy, religion and politics. He lives in Cambridge with his partner Alana and cat Shazzer.

If you enjoyed this excerpt and would like to read more of Rauch’s thesis, you can find it at the Comparative Media Studies site. We are in the process of making more of our thesis available online.

Comments

  1. So how is it that the content of video game in particular creates such fertile ground for discussion of concepts such as ethics and morality?

    Why doesn’t anyone discuss the ethics of tennis?

    Perhaps the analogies in tennis are too abstract…