Dealing with a moral dilemma in my game

I’ve been working on my Introcomp game, and I’ve been running up against a serious problem. I don’t know how well I can explain this without spoilers. Basically, the only way for me to get this to work is to make people input commands and do things that I’m not comfortable making people do.

I’ve tried every way I can think of to get around this. Initially, I tried neutering my PC and making him deal with obstacles in more mundane ways, but any time I set up something like a regular adventure game puzzle, he starts feeling less like a dark supernatural entity and more like a raccoon trying to break into a garbage can. So, that sucks.

If I badass him up, then because of how power works in my universe, he needs to do unpleasant things. I’m fine with reading about characters doing screwed up things in regular fiction, but I get uncomfortable when I have to intentionally tell characters to hurt themselves or hurt an innocent creature. And this thread is so deeply woven into everything that if I pull it out my entire story will collapse.

I’ve written many thousands of words worth of story draft for this, and I’m pretty invested in it. I need to start more of the actual coding, but I keep putting that off because I’m concerned it will upset people.

And it’s not just a problem with this project. Everything I write somehow ends up getting really dark. Even if I set out to write something funny, incredibly messed up things still happen. I’ve figured out that I can get a story to end on a happier note if I make all of my characters birds, but I don’t think that’s a viable solution here.

I’m curious how other people feel about this. Does having to tell a character to do something cruel upset you? Or do you step back and read it just like you would a regular story with the same level of disconnection from it? Should I keep going with this and just put a whole lot of content warnings on it? Or ditch the interactive part and turn it into regular fiction? I think there’s a reason I don’t see a whole lot of grimdark in IF.

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It depends. I don’t mind being “evil” if there’s a motivation behind it. Cruel or evil just for the sake of being evil is dumb and a turn off for me.

People in real life don’t do bad things because they want to be bad. They do it because it serves a purpose in some way, even if that purpose is to seek penance through inflicting emotional self-harm via making everyone hate them.

So basically, give me a reason as to why I’m doing this cruel thing and I’ll be fine with it. If there is no reason hinted at and the action causes the character to be unlikable, I probably won’t continue playing, just due to the fact that I have a low tolerance for unlikable characters.

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Characters do things for reasons. Protagonist characters need to do things for reasons the audience understands and (somewhat) sympathises with, or else the audience can’t identify with the character and they get bored and go off and do something else. An interactive-fiction protagonist does what the player wants to do, not necessarily what the character wants to do. If the protagonist really, really needs to do a thing to move the story forward, you need to give the player a really, really good reason to do that thing, strong enough to override however the player might feel by default.

For example, if the protagonist is motivated by revenge, the player should experience the happiness the protagonist felt, and the loss as that happiness was taken away, so when they arrive in that moment the player and protagonist’s motivations are aligned.

Alternatively, instead of giving the player motivation before the event, take advantage of the interactivity of the medium and give the motivation afterward: the player is asked to make a choice, the player does the “good” thing, then you can show the player the terrible consequences of their inaction, so that next time they play they understand what’s at stake.

Lastly, keep in mind that some people just aren’t interested in terrible acts, even in the safe isolation of a virtual world, and no amount of narrative incitement will motivate them in that direction. That’s OK, a creative work doesn’t have to be universally appreciated to be valuable.

He’s not evil. There’s another character that’s encountered later on that kind of serves as a reflection of who he was and who he should’ve been, and that is the only purely good character in the story.

But because of who the character is, people will assume that he’s evil, and his refusal to acknowledge the emotional impact of what he’s doing doesn’t help with that. He does explain the rules, and if he really was as emotionless about it as he seems then it wouldn’t work. So, it’s implied that he must be feeling something, but he comes off really cold.

He has really strong reasons for doing what he’s doing, but they’re complicated and not something that will be immediately evident. I have a human POV who does some of these things, too, but she obviously feels distress about it and will only act in this way if it’s a matter of saving herself or someone else. That makes it feel necessary and less upsetting.

I don’t always disconnect myself from stories when I’m reading them, but telling a character to do something cruel often does upset me more, and it can get me to stop playing a game.

But it can depend on the context; there are some games about dark things that succeed in getting me to become complicit in them, because they’re all about complicity. The Baron was one, and Sentencing Mr Liddell was another. But many people quit Sentencing Mr Liddell for precisely that reason. Emily Short mentioned that in her non-review and we had a bit of a discussion in the game about it. Yoon Ha Lee had a similar reaction to Emily:

quote from Yoon Ha Lee

My line for what I’m willing to play in an IF is different from the line for what I’m willing to read in a story (not by me). (I am reading a series of books right now that I don’t recommend to anyone else because it has a single military strand that I really like, but ZOMG everything else…) And the reason is this: in both cases I’m in someone’s “shoes” with the POV, but in the game I feel psychologically complicit by typing in the command (or whatever). In a story there’s still a veil of distance between me and the POV because I didn’t write those words. This is also why, in computer games, I tend to wind up being lawful good even though I am not lawful good in real life: there is something really unbearable about the idea of hurting pixels/pieces of text that can’t fight back.

This isn’t me saying don’t do it–taking people to a dark place can be a valid artistic goal. It’ll lose you some players but that’s inevitable. So (as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you) ultimately you have to decide whether it’s the right choice for you.

(Content warnings for Sentencing Mr Liddell and The Baron about child abuse; also the discussion with Emily that I linked is spoily. Even the content warning I just made is at least somewhat spoily.)

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I think Screwtape said mostly everything I would say… except my default ideal position is that I’m personally into doing what characters want to do when it’s evident what that is because the writing’s putting me there. The same way I want to see the full range of characters and behaviours when I read books and see films, I also want that in IF. That’s the whole point for me of going to all these imaginary places and ideas and atmospheres and not-me’s. I’m all about going to the character, if there is one.

Past evidence from around here, already referenced by mattw in his post, suggests this is not the majority position, and I think that’s probably true in general. But yes, you think about what audience you want (your ideal readers and such) and you hope you reach a bit further, and be aware that you can reduce your audience due to this rejecting-doing-bad-things phenomenon. Which is fine if you didn’t want those people in the first place, but not if you did (or reckon you can trick them with some inbetween position :wink: )

Paradoxically, ‘one big moral dilemma moment games’ can turn me off precisely because they seem to me about a mechanic of sticking you into one spot where they want you to agonise over doing A or B, and there can be a vibe of trickery or judgment. To me, these moments shouldn’t come entirely as a surprise because I’d have hoped the character(s) should have been written so that the action at this point is something you might anticipate the character would take. Foregrounding the moment, or the moral judgment, over the truth of the character, is not to my taste in IF.

The sort-of-details you’ve shared about your game do sound pretty complex. Saying the trouble character comes off as ‘cold’ definitely sounds like a difficult writing situation and a challenge to your worry about making players do difficult stuff. If the player is the cold character, and we’ve not had enough access to their thought processes, yes, I reckon you could definitely have trouble having the player act in character. The main way what I espouse has a chance of working is when you give lots of access to the character’s psych. This goes both ways. I also don’t let players do what the character really doesn’t want to do, either.

On that note, here’s something amusing I read in a testing transcript of my own games. The PC’s a well brought up six-year-old, and she meets someone she doesn’t understand or like. The tester typed KICK KID. The game blocked it with ‘Kicking people is naughty!’. Then the tester typed KICK HER ANYWAY.

-Wade

There are lots of examples of villain protagonists in literature in games, and you’re correct that agency and interactivity can change a lot - it’s one thing to read what a villain is doing, it’s another to actively participate in those doings, especially if the motivation isn’t apparent.

Voice and tone will help. There is a line to be trod carefully between edgy and exploitative. Even if the character enjoys being evil, the authorial tone can go a lot towards mitigating the reader’s attitude toward what’s happening. A simple example is to perhaps not choose typical adventure second-person for some or all of the story. It’s one thing to tell a player “You” are perpetrating an activity as opposed to a separate, removed character in third-person.

I’d suggest from what you describe that this is a good case for authorial honesty - don’t be coy about spoiling your content and put a prominent warning section up front with an option to reveal details about what specific elements the story contains. In my experience, the IF audience really appreciates that for difficult material.

Cannery Vale has a content-warning list an entire page long, and that was one of my best received games. Similar with robotsexpartymurder - which I never would have even attempted if CV hadn’t gone over as well as it did. As long as you are honest about the content up front on the title page, and your reader is able to know exactly what they’re in for beforehand, I think you can trust an individual’s discretion whether the story is for them or not.

If the core of the story is “why does this person do these terrible things”, then I don’t think it’s a good fit for interactive fiction — the player needs to know basically everything the protagonist knows, otherwise they can’t usefully participate. That’s one of the reasons the amnesiac protagonist trope is so common it’s ridiculous: the player and protagonist start in exactly the same place.

If you really, really want to make this story interactive, perhaps you could switch the viewpoint character to somebody else, whose motivations are simpler? Then you can depict this tortured soul doing terrible things, and the player and the viewpoint character can both wonder what his motives are, setting up a payoff later on. Of course, this has its disadvantages: what is the viewpoint character doing to advance the story if they’re not the protagonist? The viewpoint character probably wants to interact with the protagonist fairly deeply to find out more about them, but NPC interactions aren’t often terribly nuanced in interactive fiction.

There are various ways to finesse this. I suppose I have to mention Spider and Web as a well-known example – the protagonist knows lots of stuff that the player doesn’t. That’s the whole point of the game. The player spends most of the game acting from story motivations which are not revealed until later on.

The finesse consists of giving the player a clear game structure – goals which are clear and understandable. These could be based on standard game tropes (locked doors and puzzles), story tropes (mad scientist gotta build invention), or anything else which gives the player short-term goals to focus on.

It’s worth comparing the survival horror genre. Horror games have a similar problem: “Why does this person do these really scary things?” (Walking into haunted houses, etc.) The player needs to feel that sense of “I don’t wanna”, but they also have to actually go ahead and do the stuff. And there’s a well-established set of design tools to make that work, like I said. Players want to explore, they want to follow up narrative goals (rescue your little sister, etc), they want to solve puzzles, they want to collect collectibles and tick off achievements.

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Another famous game that finesses this is 9:05, and I can’t say more without spoiling it. (It’s very short.)

The Act of Misdirection also does a good job of getting you to go along with something the player doesn’t know–you’re working through a stage routine, and you have to figure out the next step in the routine, and there’s something the PC doesn’t know but it isn’t exactly what you don’t know.

BUT these are different from getting the player to have the PC do seemingly awful things without knowing why the PC is doing them. I guess if the person explains the rules, the player could either do what the PC says, or they could nope out of it, as they choose. And once the rules are established the player can act in accordance with them. But it’s a tough design problem.

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I’ve played a few games in the “hapless anti-hero” theme, where the hero believes that they’re acting for “good” throughout the first half or so of the story, only to then reveal the Big Bad was manipulating them and they’ve actually been making everything worse. (Usually the second half is to then try and fix everything they broke in the first place.) This sounds like a different angle than what you’re going for, though.

I think it’s going to be very hard to write an interactive story with a protagonist who is perhaps acting for the greater good (at least in their own mind) while doing apparently evil things, all while keeping the actual player in the dark about what those “greater good” justifications actually are. Usually you’ll need to provide some kind of justification that makes sense to the player, even if it’s not entirely true.

On the other hand, some people really do enjoy playing the Evil Bastard characters (it tends to be a smaller percentage, unless merely cartoonishly evil instead of graphically evil) – but then those players might be disappointed if you do have a reveal later that actually they were doing the right thing after all.

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This was all really helpful. I’ve spent the last couple of days rolling it all around in my head.

There’s a lot that I strongly agree with. I definitely plan to give people the option to view a full list of content warnings even if there are spoilers. And the tone will immediately convey that the story is dark. That should be obvious from the first sentence of the introduction. It’s not explicitly described, but it’s clear in the intro that something very bad has just happened and that the characters are responsible for it. So even if someone skips the content warnings, they should still have an idea of what they’re in for. I suppose if they choose to proceed from that point then it’s on them.

One thing I don’t agree with is that the PC shouldn’t be strongly characterized and act according to their own nature. The PC never really does what the player wants. That’s an illusion. The PC does what the author wants. The author chooses which actions to implement and which choices are successful. I don’t think I’ve ever played a single piece of IF that let me do everything that I wanted.

I think this is a serious weak point in a lot of the IF that I’ve played, and I don’t understand the idea that the only way to create a successful interactive story is to make the protagonist the same person as the player. All storytelling mediums that I can think of are interactive to some extent. When I read a book, there’s a lot that’s filled in by my own imagination. Even when I watch a movie and everything plays out right in front of me, I still zone out sometimes and imagine what would have happened if one of the characters had done something differently. I see no reason whatsoever why interaction has to come at the cost of character.

I think that’s also one of the reasons why it’s harder to deal with darker material in IF. It’s not just that you have to give the command, it’s that there’s not much done to remove the feeling that it’s actually you doing it. A strong character can function as a buffer.

I’ve been playing through some of the games that people mentioned, and one of them was Sentencing Mr. Liddell. I had a very different response than Emily Short:

I was raised in an abusive home, and I’ve experienced other abusive situations. One of the things that the mother said really reminded me of my grandmother. It was not the pig that I hit. To me, it was incredibly clear that the game was not actually telling me to hit the pig, and I had no problem at all with the hitting that I did do.

And that’s the problem with that game. The author characterized the people around you but went out of their way to make sure the PC had no character at all. My reaction was in line with what I assume the author wanted, but without any kind of character framework built up in the story then people can only interpret what they read based on their own experiences which is something that’s impossible to predict. And when an author is writing difficult material, I think they have a responsibility to consider that.

That’s what my whole problem boils down to. I don’t have enough time to develop that buffer before I throw people into potentially upsetting situations. And even if I did, I’m not sure that everyone would be able to relate to it.

I think the issue most people have with IF making you play characters that aren’t faceless is the word “you”. Nearly all IF is in second person, putting the player in control. When you’re supposed to be the one in control of your actions, it’s very frustrating to have someone else perform actions that you wouldn’t want in your stead.

It’s like playing a game of D&D:

DM: It’s your turn. What are you going to do?
You: I think I’ll just sit here at the bar and sip my drink a bit.
DM: Yeah, no. You get up from your stool, walk across the room, and pick a fight with the biggest guy in the bar.
You: WTF! That’s not what I wanted! Why would I ever do that?
DM: You see, your character has a backstory (which I haven’t informed you of yet), that involves that man. You have a long history. You’re basically arch enemies.
You: But… what…? Don’t I get even a choice?
DM: No. It’s dramatic this way. If you survive this fight, you might even find out why you hate each other.

It doesn’t really work in second person. It does in first or third person though, because you’re not really playing the character in either instance. You’re just kind of hinting that maybe this is something that they should do. If they do something that you don’t expect, or have hidden motives, it’s okay because you’re not supposed to be them. A disconnect or lack of trust between player and character in first and third person is expected. This is generally how books and movies are told, so it’s unsurprising that you cite them as successes in this area.

I guess the reason there isn’t much IF in first or third person is because it’s a double edged sword in that in order to distance yourself from the character enough to allow them to take actions outside of what you want them to do, you’re also just distancing yourself from the character and therefore lessening that feeling of immersion.

I don’t know. Those are my thoughts.

It’s not in second person. I’ve tried writing in second person with other projects, and I despise it. When I find IF that’s not written in second person, I enjoy reading that a lot more, too. I did do one thing in second person recently, but that project was about creating a sense of place. I did the second person thing as a way of pushing myself to look at the setting as my main character. There’s a good chance that will be the only time I ever write anything in second person.

I don’t feel that stepping away from second person perspective and allowing the character to be their own person necessarily means a decrease in immersion. In fact, writing in first person helps me think more like my characters as I’m writing them so hopefully the end result will be characters that are more deeply written and thus easier for people to immerse themselves in. Assuming I’m able to figure out how to pull this off. I’m still learning, and some (or most) of the writing I produce still reads worse than Vogon poetry. But I know how to rewrite, so I guess it’ll get there eventually.

Only to some extent. It’s more correct that the author defines what is possible, and then the player chooses how the character acts within those possibilities. If the author constrains this too much, then they’re not writing IF, they’re writing a novel. Ultimately, however, if the player is unable to make the character act the way they want to choose, then they will usually use their superpower: stop playing.

There are degrees. A lot of IF uses the AFGNCAAP because it’s easier for players to self-insert and get more “into” the story that way. It feels more personal, they feel more emotionally connected to the story. Usually that’s a good thing, but consequently they tend to get more discomforted if they’re forced to act in a way that they wouldn’t do as themselves (in a similar situation).

You’re right though that when the playable character is given a strong backstory and personality, that provides some “insulation” between the character and the player. That can be good for dark stories, but also causes more emotional distance, which can be bad for other kinds of storyline. And some players don’t find it as easy to make this mental separation between themself and the character.

To use another RPG analogy, it’s similar to the difference between showing up at a session and making your own character vs. just being handed a pre-rolled character that the DM made. Both can work, but some people find one easier than the other, and different kinds of story are better suited to one or the other as well.

This is such an interesting thread! I’m really into moral ambiguity in writing so my perspective is probably more as a player than an author:

In a story where I (literally me) am not the avatar character, I will often try to associate with the PC’s rational behind a choice. Witcher 3 (the only Witch I’ve played tbh) was a big eye-opener in how I like to wear the character’s persona like a costume and make choices based on the character rather than myself, even if that choice is something I would never do or even never want to do.
The only thing that breaks that costume persona is when the game suddenly disregards my input AND the PC’s personality.
Again, Witcher 3, there was a side quest I completed but the result was not what the story was leading me to believe it might be. Instead of feeling like “Well, that sucks, I tried” (like most quests), it felt like I was being forced to choose between two options, both of which could have been avoided easily, especially based on pre-existing gameplay mechanics and story devices.

The quest:
It was the quest for collecting the squirrel tails of the elf bandits, who felt justified in attacking innocent human travelers because of the human’s overall bigotry and genocide to their race. You have the choice to let the bandits continue or kill them and report back to the human army. When doing the latter, the army commander remarks that he’ll “make a lesson” out of the civilian elves in the nearby town. When doing the former, nothing changes and more innocent humans are hunted down.
I wanted the option to lie (as I had done many times in game before) and tell the army man the bandits were just normal human bandits but there was no such option. I felt my only real choice was to never turn in the quest which wasn’t satisfying at all.

There are some rough, horrible things I did do as the character (one thing was a kinda Sin City-style brutal execution) but I wanted to do those things because I understood: who the guy I was killing was; why the PC (and me) hated him so much; and the long-term consequence of my actions.

Another example comes from a game called Little Nightmares. It’s very hard to explain the emotions this game gives me as I’m completely in control but also completely powerless in the choices I make as the PC. There’s no dialogue so the story is only told through my actions and I did things I didn’t want to do but was forced to.
Unlike Witcher 3, I don’t know much about the world, just that it’s ugly and dangerous, or the PC but when I committed my first atrocity, I found myself trying to rationalize and thinking “At least I’m not the worst in this world.”
When I beat the final boss, I knew exactly what was going to happen and I realized that I didn’t know anything–not just about the character or the story but the world and it’s definition of “good” or “innocent” and that maybe I am the worst in this world.

I guess to summarize, to feel comfortable with a dark moral dilemma, I really need some context to know if what I or the PC is doing is evil give the world’s society, how evil it is compared to other evils in the world, and is there any justification for the evil (i.e. “The path to Hell is paved with good intentions.”)
One minor thing I think that can help with having a story with constant moral strain is a break when the player can make at least one obviously good choice just to make them feel like they aren’t completely powerless or emotionally bankrupt. After a particularly hard choice and some time to stew on it, maybe let players help a girl find her lost dog (idk, lol). Something that doesn’t change the story but shows there’s some light in the PC–somewhere.

Oh my god, you would NOT want this guy to find your lost puppy.

Trying to show light in him is really problematic. There are backstory scenes later on that show some of how he got to this point, but I don’t know how much light is left. I know that he’s primarily driven by pain, and I don’t think that makes someone evil. But this is not a character who’s simply misunderstood. He’s not working for what he believes to be the greater good. He tried that once. Didn’t end well. He’s not on any kind of redemptive arc. He may not be pure evil, but he’s still a little terrifying.

I designed him this way for a reason. The story is set in what is supposed to be the real world, or an alternate version of it, except that gods and devils are real things that occasionally interact with humanity. People consider this entity to be evil, and the stories people tell about it need to make sense and be in line with their experiences. I don’t want it to just be straight up evil because that’s boring, but it needs to look evil when you don’t understand what’s going on inside of it. Or him. I don’t know, he feels more like an it sometimes.

That’s also why power works the way it does. If it’s possible for people to tap into that then why don’t they? Unless the cost is so brutal that no one in their right mind would want anything to do with it.

At least he’s a fantastical darkness which is less disturbing than some of the more realistic human darkness I was putting in. I had to stop writing that for awhile because it freaked me out.