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The no evil sided war.
by Bernardo Del Castillo on 07/25/12 05:22:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

My favourite novels, movies, and games are all grey.
My long time game design plans are as grey as they come. I love moral ambiguity because I feel games should speak about the world, and that in the real world most conflicts happen without any side being evil, or crazy or destructive.

Sometimes misunderstanding, miscommunication, or lack of synchronicity can be a much more destructive force than actual rivalry, and it is often unsettling to realise that in most cases, good and evil are almost solely on the eye of the beholder.

Hollywood and maybe to some extent the whole of western philosophy have bestowed upon us a tremendous burden. There is always someone else to blame, there is always a face, closer or further away that is acting against us.

Very little thought goes into my responsibility as a social component, while we can see a massive emphasis placed on our individual self as a beacon of independence, disconnected from any group. But what are we without a group?

Anecdotes about things going wrong.

A very long time ago I met a girl in a late night screening of rather obscure films. We hit it off straight away, she was into similar things as I was, so we chatted for a while after the film. In our chat, age came up, and I told her that I was almost 23 at the time, but I mumbled and she understood I had just turned 23. I didn't correct her, because I never really know how to. But as things went on, we continued to see each other and we ended up sort of dating for a couple of months.
A few weeks later, I told her that my birthday was coming up, and she was confused. She thought I had lied to her to make myself older (thing that didn't really matter to me, and had never crossed my mind). But that was the beginning of the end, and precise incident was the first stone, that none of us threw, as stupid as it was.

The whole growing up process for most people is an exposition of this thesis. It's a generalisation, but most of us as teenagers even though we love our families, at some point in our lives, we challenge the authority of our parents, it is a normal step of growing up. Parents think they know what is best for their children, and that they can prevent mishaps, but the child needs to learn from it's own mistakes and eventually establish a sense of independence. Often this conflicts are only a phase, that disappears with time. But it may also happen that children or parents incapable of empathising end up falling out even when all the parties involved really agree on the ultimate goal.

When it comes to bigger conflicts such as war, most of us understand that the rivalries emerge generally for political reasons. Administratively one geopolitical group has certain interests that collide against another group's interests. As the diplomacy dance goes, there is symbolic chest beating, poking and negotiation, but if the knot is too tight, it snaps, the struggle turns violent.
Often looking back, we judge the conflict from the narration of the winners (a-la George Orwell), but within the fight, no one is really fighting for ideals, it is more about politics in a higher level and survival in its immediacy.


who here feels Makarov is a rivetting character full of depth and complex emotions?


Today in the age of information, we are trained to evaluate morals almost everywhere, and our views of History are no different. And since information is often so opinionated, there seems to be a belief in the proof of moral superiority. The Germans in WW2 were evil Gengis Kahn was ruthless. The communists threaten our lifestyle, the fascists hated happiness. Even when we are familiar with the partiality of war and politics, the current view seems to justify that we are better than them. Of course, bad things are done in both sides, but the fight comes down to media exposition: the winner is the one who's got more likes in their youtube campaign, and thus the winner is mostly forgiven while the loser is demonised.

But is it true? Don't we know that the other side is often just taking care of it's own interests? Aren't all War Heroes just mass murderers seen in a different light?

We rarely delve honestly in these topics. The alternative of recognising that maybe we are actually unwillingly but inexcusably a-moral is unacceptable. Maybe we are just pawns in the big machine without any real belief other than what our media sells to us. Because really there is nothing we can do to stop it.

Where to draw the line? (Contains Spoilers).

I recently played Spec-Ops: The Line. As many of you know, the game is based loosely of "The heart of darkness" by Joseph Conrad, and less loosely of the movie "Apocalypse Now", based of that book. And unexpectedly, for the first time in a long time I have seen a piece of media that flirts with the grey area of: who is the bad guy? Sometimes in very interesting ways.
Pick up any military FPS, and look at the hordes of enemies you mow down. military shooter enemies are not people, they are obstacles that move, shoot and bleed that the player must overcome to get to the next objective. Often with the final goal being to overcome a stronger enemy that threatens your life (and many other lives) more or less directly. This makes the act of killing less disturbing, and more just a skill fuelled pyrotechnic spectacle.
As in many summer action movies, the few actual characters in these games are caricatures, which is entertaining, simple and safe. An enemy might trick you into thinking they are on your side, but in the end, masks fall off and the true evil shows, making it rather unlikely to relate.
In a base level, this idea slowly perpetuates the concept that we should expect evil from our rivals. I for one am not convinced that there is such thing as un-adulterated evil, I believe there is definitely craziness, but I have never empirically seen a true evil person, meaning evil that has no purpose other than the opposite of bringing benefit to anyone.

In my experience, I have come to observe most situations in life as a-moral. Questionable actions still respond to a person's desires, which may differ absolutely from ours, but they hold internal logical coherence for them(of course not talking about batshit crazy James Holmes, cases like those are unsettling because they are often unexpected and disjointed from the reality of the person).

However, this fabled evil seems more than possible, almost commonplace now, as a trait, un-relatable isolating and hermetic, provoking the new existentialist conception that in the end it's us versus the world. Someone, somewhere is actively trying to screw me over because they can.

And before anyone jumps, I'm not saying it video games alienate us and create paranoid teenage killing machines. But, joined to deeper cultural constructs, it seems that in the occurrence of any conflict we immediately tend to ask ourselves: Who is the bad guy here?

I'm personally not sure if that is the correct question we should be asking.

Spec-Ops treads this terrain timidly, and it succeeds grandiosely as often as it fails miserably. It unexpectedly creates empathy with the enemies: at various random points in the game you run into enemy soldiers that are commenting on how beautiful the scenery is, or how much they would like to be back home with their families. This is disquieting and interesting. But the game leaves you no alternative to killing them if you want to progress. And not only that, when you blow their heads off, it incoherently triggers the well known FPS-cool-slowdown... should I care? or should I just spray their brains on the wall as your regular locust?
Is there content here? or are we going for the good old shock value?


Yeah... suck on that, father of 3


It doesn't even give you any apparent options to do anything different, and it punishes you for doing what it is forcing you to do. It's is not like the choice you make in InFamous, to save your girlfriend, that also punishes you but feels deserved and meaningful.
It is shock, and effect but in different ways it actually translates into unexpected content too. Alike other War games, you have no control, you move from point a to b and kill. Maybe as a comment on war, why do conflicts continue? Is there a point? or is it an engine that runs itself? Is SpecOps trying to prove that when we get into the downward spiral no one is in control, and no one can predict the outcome?

To this effect, a few scripted moments work extremely well by themselves. But the situations that lead you up to them rarely feel coherently connected. One particular moment in the game is designed to cheat the character, the player, and turn against the premise of the game itself. And although it's ham-fisted, borders on cheap, and it lacks of any form of tact or subtlety, it succeeds in almost every way, giving you a deliberate and significant sense of helplessness.

Sadly, the game finally shoots itself in the foot by making it's main character go crazy. You are the evil guy, this is not ambiguous grey, this is clear and simple black. I suppose it is easier to close it up eliminating the subtlety and defining the "truth", but I hope it would have had the balls to really deliver the uncertainty it promised.


A tale in the desert

At this point for me it all related back to Journey, by thatGameCompany. Seems like an unlikely match, since in the surface Spec-ops is the complete opposite of Journey in more ways than one, but both games share a lot of implied meaning (and sand). Jenoa Chen has expressed that one of his goals with Journey was to present the idea that controls and input in regular games condition players to be dickheads, but if you are only given options to "be nice", the players will be nice. In this beautiful game the concept is illustrated perfectly. There is really no way to hamper another player's game other than just ignoring your co-op partner, but the solemnity and the solitary grandeur of your adventure effectively make you long for that companionship.

On the other side, Spec-ops is masochistic, it gives you a trigger and tasks you with killing whether you want it or not. At first stereotypical middle eastern mercenaries, then allied soldiers, and later the innocent and the helpless. You can't be a nice guy, you can't spare the innocent, if you want to get to the end of the game, you must pull the trigger when you don't feel like it. Finally, everything is corrupted, no matter what you do, you already lost when you started the game.

In Journey, you are an anonymous being, you don't belong to the left or the right, to the rich or the poor, you don't hold the flag of freedom, or goodness or anything. You don't represent anything, you are a blank slate in an unspoken path of atonement. The "bad guys" seem to be your ancestors, but there is no revenge, even though they brought themselves to extinction fighting greedily over the knowledge delivered by the gods. Your pilgrimage to the mountain shapes your new knowledge, without intending to polarise your views. It's an act of redemption to everything, not just your side.

Spec-Ops flips this around, by presenting you with a military poster boy as a main character. He knows his right from wrong, and he has his set of values. He is the generic stereotypical military marine character, that meets anyones expectations. Soon after, his heroes, his moral values and his alignments are questioned. Everything that the character held as true, rapidly descends into madness, and then further. Where Journey builds a character from dust to make amends as an avatar of life, Spec ops deconstructs a character and rapes its will, making it a force of chaos.

The Enemy

As I said, I find that having a bad guy makes our lives easier, and makes the narrative easier to digest, but not better or any more true. And in this sense, The Line falls short from what it could have been, dismissing it's own growing ambiguity.
However, the Line manages to present some very thoughtful questions about Players, War, and People. Of course, there is nothing wrong with light fun too, but not always do we see an intention to discuss topics further in our industry.

I wish more games spoke about this, and managed to go the full mile, like Journey. Because the truth is that life moves forward with or without crazies and bad guys.

This article and others on my blog at Myprinterbitme 


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Comments


Rob Lockhart
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Contrary as I am, I can't resist pointing out that this type of simplification is part of the process of crafting a work of escapism and fantasy, which is a necessary segment of entertainment. I won't belabor the point, though, as I believe that segment has grown disproportionately large.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Yes, you are correct, a lot of the industry's production clearly focuses on this escapism and fantasy, and I feel that a certain rate of polarization is unavoidable too.
But I feel that touching somewhat heavier subjects brings maturity to a medium, it has happened with many platforms throughout history. And as you point out there is too much that feeds on the simplification, be it for lack of risk taking, or lack of vision in the opportunities of the medium.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Once again, correct. As you hint Joe, I feel some degree of simplification is necessary in order to allow creators to explore the desired themes, so I'm not saying it is shallow, I'm saying that complexity should not be avoided as an axiom. Often in games, I see a lot of genres strip away some perfectly enjoyable aspects of their design, because "the audience will find it too complex, or get bored".

Particularly in the subject of enemies, Antagonists, and Rivals, there is rarely a critical view of some other entity that is not the player competing doing things differently but validly (except for sports, in this sense Battle Royale and to a lesser extent, Hunger Dames do a decent job too).
I understand that heavy handed sort of character exploration is definitely not everyone's cup of tea though, but a lot can be done by simply abstaining from presenting.
Shadow of the Colossus is extremely simplified in many ways, but without ever fully exposing, it never narrows down the morality of the characters or enemies, and it's more thought provoking because of that.

Robert Carter
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Theres a lot of complex issues not completely thought through in this article, but given the subject matter it would be near impossible to truly delve into all of the proper angles without being a particularly long essay. That said, I feel many issues did not even get an ounce of actual Socratic thinking attached to it, and they feel almost thrown in to the article haphazardly.

For the sake of keeping the comment short I will only address one area where I feel this happens; " Don't we know that the other side is often just taking care of it's own interests? Aren't all War Heroes just mass murderers seen in a different light?"

First, your argument immediately assumes that all sides interests are inherently equal. While there are many cases where this may be true, I would say they are the exception. In major conflicts especially. Now, its important to know Im talking about groups here; individuals fight for their own reasons. For example, in the American Civil War outlaw Jesse James did not originally fight, but stayed out of the war. After the Pinkertons burned down his house, with his mother and younger brother still inside, Jesse fought for the south. He did not share any political ideology with the side, much of which was wrong, but he did fight for them for his own reasons. The Civil War would be a very interesting piece for a topic like yours, since it is filed with complex issues and motivations of the people who fought for both sides.

But the interests of both sides were not equal. While the issue of slavery was not the only reason for the war, it was one of the biggest reasons. Many individuals who fought for the south were good and honest people, many did not care for slavery, and many even wanted it abolished. General Lee, when he resigned from Lincolns army, remarked how he hoped after the war, regardless of the victor, that the blight of slavery would hopefully be washed away. His position against slavery was made known before the civil war, and was made clear again by his actions afterward. He only wished to not fight against his homeland, the south, though he took no joy in fighting another part of his country. He could have done great damage to Lincolns army from the inside, but he resigned and wished them luck instead. That man fits your shade of grey, but the side he fought for needed to lose.

Case in point: Stalin was just seeing to his interests too, as were the Nazis.

As for all war heroes being mass murderers, this is just a cliche hollywood line that has no merit because it cannot even survive even the minimum amount of logical scrutiny. Killing and Murdering are two very different things. Though murder involves killing, killing does not automatically invoke murder. The recent shootings in Colorado, that involved a mass murderer. A soldier who goes and guns down knowingly defenseless civilians or POWs who have surrendered and are complying would qualify as a mass murderer. A man (by which I mean man or woman, I am denoting the species not the gender) who rushes in to incoming fire to save an injured comrade and kills a few of the enemy along the way in his defense of this comrade is not a murderer. Even if he and his comrade invaded the territory of the ones shooting at them.

This is where your shades of grey come in, but notice I did not say which side either party is for, or even if either party are technically soldiers. I also did not say what their group was fighting for. I merely stated the actions of the individuals. This scenario fits your shade of grey, but now lets consider the motivations of the groups behind the men. They may both be fighting for a just cause, but then again they may not. I can think of very few major conflicts where the sides both fought for an equally just cause, though I believe in most conflicts the better side did inexcusable things and the 'bad' side had people who did not do any bad, nor did they see what their side fought for as bad.

My post is already ridiculously long, so I wont go too much further unless you would like me to clarify something. I will say that I dont believe in Black and White, or even Shades of grey. The world is many different colors, including back white and grey.

I enjoyed the article and given the complexity of the issue with the limit on how much you can fit in a short article it was a very good read. Thank you for writing it, and for dealing with some random guy on the internets criticism :)

Robert Carter
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Oh god, the post looks even longer than I thought it would. Im sorry :'(

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Haha yes you are correct, this would require further analysis.
And I wouldn't want to make a defense of Slavery or Nazism as a concept, but I cant help to think that we are looking at it from our temporal bias. History does that, we can't stop looking at things from our perspective: If the punic wars would have had a different outcome what would be of our current culture? When there are social conflicts like that, propaganda runs rampant, the enemy is made to look evil, and after the conflict, those judgements seep into the cultural production. I sometimes love to imagine what would have happened had Germany won the 2nd world war, Atomic bombs not been thrown in Japan. Of course all of that happened, and we cant help but look at it from here, now.

As you point out, the conflicts often respond to several other reasons, other than the "big media" reasons. And personal motivations as what lead the Pinkertons to burn Jesse James' house down are even more interesting as we can see a much clearer response to individual causes and effects.

The distinctions you make about murder and context is obvious, although my assesment is a bit broad, I would not say that it resists no scrutiny, though. I don't make the comment out of hollywood.. As I clearly say.. there is such thing as Crazyness... which is a disconnection from coherence... It is not Evil, it is Chaos, and that's not the topic I'm discussing.
Your particular example of a soldier killing enemies in battle is obviously immediate, and as I said, in that level, in such situations the moral judgement is lifted, more plain command following and survival. But as in your previous criticism, the conditions are balanced "your argument immediately assumes that all sides interests are inherently equal", almost like in sport there is knowledge of the rules. Under different conditions however, other rules apply, In actual conflicts, the individual is in play. If a soldier has a panic attack and can't shoot, but gets shot at, is that balanced ground? is someone wrong there? If there is a civilian in the battleground? a few hundred years ago, shooting an enemy in the back would have been considered lowly treason... but then Guerrilla tactics emerged, and what to do? even the ground. What do you call 200.000++ killed by an atomic bomb? Justified? maybe... necessary? arguably... Genocide? possibly...

I'm not even saying that there is a right answer to those questions, i'm just saying that they are extremely interesting questions that are not often asked, in favor of a clean and simple contrast.

As you say, when Individuals come in it only becomes more interesting and that is exactly the point we want to get into the discussion.

Axel Cholewa
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Now, this is an interesting discussion!

The distinction between murder and killing is a purely judicial (correct word?) one. Wikipedia: "Murder is the unlawful killing, with malice aforethought, of another human [...]." Especially in war this distinction is simply not applicable, because both involved parties have their laws, and for both killing one of their soldiers is probably murder while killing committed by one of their soldiers is probably not. Philosophically this is very difficult ground, and I doubt that in the end you can clearly distinguish the two. This is exactly the grey zone Bernado is talking about.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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Haha, that is very cool Axel, I didn't actually know that definition (tsk tsk, I didn't do my homework well). Yep this puts the conflict in a very relativistic position, because although there are some notions, it's not like there are very clear outlines to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in war.
International Humanitarian Laws can rarely be assured within the conflict and War crimes are generally only considered after the facts, and as such it's only enforced in the controlable ("western") world. I don't see any international organism upholding North Korea to violations of Human Rights in armed conflict. There are higher political conflicts in order there.

I find interest in the fact that the situations define a guideline of acceptable actions, depending on cultural definitions, but that also becomes less structural when the basic individual is involved. Ourselves have come to accept that breaking laws for the right reasons is fine, but those reasons are entirely relative.

In a way, there is an overarching definition of conflict rules, but the player/person/situation is actually the one that generates the effective ruling.

I'm getting ideas for further writing 8)


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