Thursday, January 22, 2009

Within Constraints: Little Sisters and the Perception of Video Games

I was intending to write a post about Democracy 2 today. It's a game I think I may love, but I need just a little more time to be sure. It's not a game that's easy to love, but if you like seriously hardcore simulation games, there's a demo available for download. Instead of talking about Democracy, it's time for an obligatory Bioshock post. I think there's some covenant all game bloggers have to write at least one Bioshock post, so it's time for me to make quota.

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.

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Blogger Sparky said...

Thanks for this great post, Nels. I thought about mentioning the scene in the nursery, because in my second playthrough I decided that this moment convinced "Jack" not to harvest anymore. My problem is that the game doesn't acknowledge the possibility of this scene's emotional impact. Save all the little sisters from that point on and you still get the "bad" ending.

I'm not really keen on having the whole evisceration process play out in a long bloody animation myself, but I thought the absence of a body was the wrong choice. I never failed the escort mission, but I understand that if you do there's a body then. So it seems very strange to only deny the effects of harvesting in the case of player agency.

Fortunately I felt there was somewhere to go with that, as I described. However, I thought that there was a way in which the seeming absence of consequence (the scene in the nursery is fairly late in the game) was subtly more disturbing than the presence of a body would have been. This is something bodies like the ESRB should take into account, IMHO.

It isn't entirely fair to blame Bioshock alone for my post, which also emerged from the decision to make children unkillable (by direct combat) in Fallout 3. I just couldn't work that in without taking it on a tangent.

January 23, 2009 at 5:41 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

Yeah, I didn't mention that, but your observation that the lack of consequence as contrast against the game's broader themes was quite astute.

Even if intentional, it was a bit too subtle though. Instead of seeing "Murder is blameless and consequence free," I think most just saw game tropes and thought "I kill people in games all the time. This isn't any different." Playing that up a bit more might have actually been a interesting tack to take in make the Little Sister decision more poignant if more visual options were off the table.

January 23, 2009 at 6:52 AM  
Blogger CrashTranslation said...

I've already commented Michael’s original post, but to add to that from what I've heard there originally was a different sequence for the Harvesting of the Little Sister. After you grab her she is pushed out of frame, your hand jerks and you hear a neck snapping sound, and you raise one hand with a slug in it and toss the dead body aside with the other. I'm not sure how accurate a description that was as it comes from an old magazine preview but I can only imagine how different the sequence would have felt with that animation.

Also I'm surprised neither of you commented on the fact that if you Rescue the Little Sister she tries to stop you by yelling "No! No!" but if you choose to Harvest she instead only communicates in animalistic grunts and cries as if she is in fact not actually a human any more. What difference would using the same vocalisations have had on the decision to Harvest?

January 23, 2009 at 10:37 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@CrashT That's actually a very interesting point about the Little Sister vocalizations that I hadn't noticed. But the kind of person that would harvest them would likely see them as monsters rather than as people, so it's a great way to subtly convey that.

(Sorry about the delayed response, as you may have noted, I was off Burns-ing it up with only mobile internet)

January 25, 2009 at 5:23 PM  
Blogger Jason T said...

Is it okay to respond to a post that's already several months old? Well, I just discovered this blog, so forgive my lateness.

@Sparky: I had always assumed that the entire point of the nursery scene was to give you one last chance to get the "good" ending if you'd been harvesting all along (and that you could get it as long as you lost no little sisters in the Proving Grounds). Seems like a lost opportunity.

@CrashTranslation: I was kind of relieved, in a way, that the little sisters don't try to fight you off in the harvesting scene (which I too attempted only after finishing the game by rescuing the first time through). The possible connotations with child predators seemed far too likely, and not something I'd be willing to play through, period. Still, the tamer vocalization did feel a bit like a cop-out—sort of, "Ah, I see what you did there."

@Nels: Some of my favorite examples of this technique are in Mass Effect. I know everybody hates Conrad Vernor, for instance, but it really made me feel like a jerk to make him cry.

June 7, 2009 at 10:22 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Jason It's never too late for comments! ;)

I think it's interesting given most gamers are conditioned to think of NPCs primarily as resources. Having them responding to negatively in ways that don't immediately lead to their or the player's death can still be pretty poignant.

I wish more games would capitalize on this. Not due to some "violence isn't the answer!" ethos on my part, but simply because we're so enured to combat. Somewhat ironically, it's the non-violent responses that now have greater power to provoke.

June 8, 2009 at 2:24 PM  

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