Games always contain ethical structures. The designers make choices that influence what ethical issues are represented. The game itself becomes a playground for (re)negotiating ethics. It is the agentive force of the player that influences what ethical structures are actualised. This agency ultimately leads to varying realisations of the game’s narrative. In making a connection to Ryan’s distinction between “bottom-up” and “top-down” forms of narrativity (2009, 45), it becomes obvious that ethical issues can either be generated by the player or the game itself. This essay elaborates on how both instances of narrativity bear ethical implications.
Ethical reflection is often connected to emotions. Järvinen describes “[w]ell-being emotions [as] basic emotions that relate to desirable or undesirable events.” (2008, 92) Ideally, the player will care for their avatar and other entities in the game world. The feasibility of care, however, greatly depends on the game’s structures. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice requires of the play to protect Lord Kuro from harm. Thus, caring for your avatar and NPCs is an important aspect of the game. However, given that fighting and executions are an integral part of the ludic experience, the player has little agency in deviating from the narrative’s demand from a bottom-up point of view. Whereas most sections can be solved without taking lives, boss fights must be overcome in order to progress through the game. Killing is a necessary evil that the top-down story design imposes onto the player, reducing the freedom of choice of playstyle.
Sicart regards players “as moral beings with the ability to judge their own experiences according to ethical values and cultural practices.” (2005, 14) As the above case exemplifies the ludic and the narrative level may interfere with the player’s conviction. This may well lead to what Zagal calls “the player’s dilemma” (2012, 68). Regarding Sekiro, continuing the story will lead to the player killing Gyoubu at the castle gates, which effectively leaves the gates unprotected and leads to Ashina castle being invaded. However, little do such occurrences contribute to overall experience. Nothing hints at the fact that the player’s actions have such a strong impact. Returning to the castle after progressing through the story, it becomes obvious that the player’s progression has had an impact on the castle’s defences. As the narrative never reflects it, only through introspection is the player able to grasp the brevity of misery brought upon Ashina through their interaction. Albeit no feedback provided by the game, the player may still face the dilemma of having brought misery upon the virtual world.
The issue of creating dilemmata is worsened towards the end of the game. Sekiro offers three endings, depending on how much of the narrative was explored: the death of Kuro, the death of avatar, or both surviving. In order to unlock all endings, the must exhaust dialogues and explore the world. Again, it is up to the player to decide what kind of suffering is realised.
Games can create ethical issues from a player perspective or a narrative perspective. A prewritten story may run counterintuitive to one’s ethical framework. Ultimately it is up to the player to decide which ethical framework to adhere to; one’s own or one that best fits the top-down narrative. The top-down nature of game narratives will however constrain how ethical decisions can interrelate.
From Software. 2019. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Activision.
Järvinen, Aki. 2008. “Understanding Video Games as Emotional Experiences.” In The Video Game Theory Reader 2, edited by Bernard Perron and Mark J.P. Wolf, 85-108. New York and London: Routeledge. Ebook. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.470.8469&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2009. “From Narrative Games to Playable Stories: Toward a Poetics of Interactive Narrative.” Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies 1: 43-59. https://doi.org/10.1353/stw.0.0003
Sicart, Miguel. 2005. “Game, player, ethics: A virtue ethics approach to computer games.” International Review of Information Ethics 4 (12): 13-18.
Zagal, José P. 2012. “Encouraging Ethical Reflection with Videogames.” In The Videogame Ethics Reader, edited by José P. Zagal, 67-82. San Diego, CA: Cognella.