This was actually born out of a post by Michael Clarkson at Discount Thoughts. This started as a comment, but then I realized it would be a bit presumptuous to leave a six paragraph exposition as a "comment." If you opted not to follow that link, the summary is that he feels the abhorrence of harvesting the Little Sisters is muted by the rather tame animation and aftermath of the act itself.
I agree that abstract presentation of harvesting the Little Sisters decreases the act's moral gravitas, but the decision to make it more muted was not a creative or artistic decision. It was driven almost entirely by the external forces Michael describes briefly. A public company like Take 2 would never submit to the negative press a game featuring the systematic murder of children would garner. And I really don't think those groups that seek to "regulate" (read: censor) games need any more ammunition, valid or not.
The evolution of the characters that became the Little Sisters is actually quite interesting. Originally they were basically just the sea slugs seen at the end of the harvest animation. Quickly realizing there would be little empathy with such creatures, the character design underwent a lot of iteration. At one point it was sort of a fuzzy squirrel-ish thing. Eventually the team settled on the creepy little girl design, which managed to be both unsettling and empathetic. Listening to Ken and other members of the 2K Boston team talk about it, it's pretty clear they went as far as they could, but wish they could have gone farther. The decision to make these characters little girls was obviously tremendously important, as I can't imagine too many players would be torn up laying these guys to waste:
(Courtesy of the Art of Bioshock pdf from 2K, available here if you're interested)
I played Bioshock through twice, once saving the Little Sisters and once harvesting them. I will say that the moment I actually felt most remorseful about the harvesting decision was in the scene in Tenenbaum's lab/sanctuary just after the encounter with Ryan. If you've been saving the Little Sisters, the room is well lit, with blocks, teddies and other toys scattering the floor. Upon seeing you, the Little Sisters seem happy and cheerful, shyly coming up to you and saying things like, "Thanks, mister."
If you've been harvesting the Little Sisters, the scene is far darker. No toys, poor light and far fewer girls. The few that are there cower as far away from you as possible, and whisper as you walk by: "It's him, he's the one who hurts us." I haven't seen too many people write about this distinction; it's possible it had a greater effect on me than most. But I felt genuine remorse and disgust when walking through that room.
It's unfortunate that Bioshock has so few encounters with NPCs that aren't utterly deranged, as I think scenes like that can convey a lot of the same emotion that a graphic harvesting scene would. Unlike a scene that features the brutal slaying of a child, horrified reactions by NPCs are also feasible in a big commercial game.
And honestly, I'm not convinced that a more graphic scene would be that offputting for some players. Repetition greatly decreases the impact of a decision like that. The first few times, it would be quite horrific, but even the most graphic of scenes lose their impact the tenth or fifteenth time. Scenes that are different, where your countenance as a monster is mirrored in the reactions from different NPCs, would have a more lasting impact.
Other games have tried to do the same, but often, immoral decisions just make the NPCs hostile. It's far easier for a player to justify violence against those characters, since the NPCs became violent first. I think it's far more resonant to have NPCs cowering in fear and revulsion than simply setting all the "good guys" against the player.
I'd like to see more games do interesting things with morally questionable decisions, but given that the main form of interaction in many games is combat, the consequence of immoral behaviour seems rather shallow when it's just more combat (and if there's XP to gain, it's actually a reward). A few games have done great with the "violence begets violence" angle (e.g. Far Cry 2), but I've never seen that matched up well with a system that provided meaningful moral decisions.
For good or ill, public perception of the medium has an impact on decisions we make about our games. Achieving the aesthetic goals we intended within these constraints in going to be increasingly important if video games as a medium are going to continue to evolve. I am absolutely, positively not saying we should self-censor. But when we encounter things that are simply impossible to get past a publisher, it's time to be a bit more creative instead of just toning things down. Hopefully one day we'll have the latitude film does (and even that's not carte blanche), but until then, we can't refuse to address certain things because it's contentious. We just have to find different ways of doing so.
What do you all think? Are there others ways to make the player feel the consequences of immoral decisions without being punishing or just rewarding them with more combat encounters?
Thanks again to Michael Clarkson for the great post that got these wheels turning. Discount Thoughts is fantastic and I highly recommend adding it to one's reading list.