Move over "BioShock." The 2007 video game that has moral quandaries that are twisting my gut is "Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn."
[Warning: SPOILERS ABOUT "Radiant Dawn" THROUGHOUT THIS POST]
If you've got a Wii and at least 20 hours of life to spare, I recommend playing "Radiant Dawn" yourself. You too may experience a series of ethical dilemmas that make killing Little Sisters -- or frying companion cubes -- seem no more tortured than a coin flip.
"Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn," like previous games in the series, is basically glorified chess -- if only chess pieces had little lives as fantasy characters and got stronger every time you played a new game with the same pieces. Oh, and if the pieces transformed into cooler pieces if you used them a lot. In the old "Fire Emblem" games, the pieces/units/characters would die and stay dead for the rest of the game if you put them in a bad spot. In October I both praised that death feature and expressed my concern that the removal of it from the Wii sequel's default play mode would undermine the emotional impact of the new game.
So I was coasting through the new "Fire Emblem" on Wii using the game's new save system, keeping all of my characters alive, lamenting the loss of the old death feature. This new game was a no-consequence breeze.
Then something happened that shocked me. And I realized that the "Fire Emblem" designers are still pros at emotionally manipulating their customers.
Let's put it this way:
Has any game ever required you to fight to the death against the very characters you just spent several hours leveling up?
Spoilers ensue, but, really, I highly recommend you read on, experience the game yourself, or both.
The surprise occurred in the game's third section, which is about 15 missions long and takes more than 10 hours to play through. In the game's first section the player controls a unit of characters commanded by Micaiah, a silver-haired magician. Her friends are pretty weak, but as a player you have no choice but to level them up and give them some decent strengths. In section two, you control two other different group of characters, most of whom appeared in the 2005 GameCube game "Fire Emblem: Path Of Radiance." And in the game's third section you control those three groups separately in different missions.
So section three, chapter seven starts you at the north of a swamp. I was there Sunday, taking the forces led by "Path of Radiance" hero Ike on a southward advance. A few dozen enemy troops stood in my way. The first shock: So did Micaiah's forces, the characters I had been controlling for several hours earlier in the game. They were my enemies now. The computer was controlling them and they were out for Ike's guys' blood. But they wore the armor I gave them, wielded the weapons and sported the powers that I trained them to handle. And now I could kill them. Or they could kill my guys.
They were my enemies now. But they wore the armor I gave them, wielded the weapons and sported the powers that I trained them to handle. And now I could kill them. Or they could kill my guys.
Thankfully the mission could be completed if I just weathered 12 turns of action. Micaiah's forces were far away from Ike's. I could maintain a safe distance. So I kept my current squad away from my old squad. But panic kicked in when one of my old guys, a master swordsman named Zihark who I had built into an incredible killing machine, started marching toward my current Ike-led units. What was Zihark doing?!? Hadn't I trained him to be smarter than this? He was either going to kill my current guys. Or he was going to get himself beat down. He moved in toward one of my mages. Thankfully, they missed each other.
Okay, I thought, the "Fire Emblem" designers are having a little fun with me. This was just a joke. Then it happened again -- but worse.
A few chapters later I was controlling Micaiah's forces, including trusty, reckless Zihark. We were holed up in a castle. The sides had flipped. Now Ike and his pals were my enemies. I had just spent a few missions powering them up. Now they stood at the foot of a castle ready to crush my current guys. For most of the chapter, I held them off. I had to do that for 12 turns, just like I did in the earlier mission. But on the 12th turn, my man Ike, who was serving as the "enemy" boss of the chapter, made his move. He broke through my defenses and his back-up fighter took down one of my horsemen. I canceled out of the game, re-booted and re-played the turn (cheap tactic, I know). Ike broke through again and his back-up killed a different one of my guys. I re-booted. I believe I went through this process about six more times before I kept all of my characters -- my new ones and my old ones -- alive. I couldn't have ended it any other way. It would have been -- sort of -- like one of my kids beating up another one. Or worse. Intolerable.
So I thought I was in the clear.
Then I hit the final chapter of the game's third section. Another flip-flop. I was in charge of Ike's forces again. Micaiah's forces were the enemy, as were about 80 other unnamed combatants on the field. And things were worse than ever.
This was the "BioShock"-trumping moment. I could not believe what the game was asking me to do.
This time, the mission goal wasn't to survive for 12 turns. It was to annihilate every character on the other side. Was I reading this right? I had to slaughter all of the enemies? All of Micaiah's forces? This was the "BioShock"-trumping moment. I could not believe what the game was asking me to do.
I sat dumbfounded. Really? I have to destroy all of those characters I spent all that time improving? Zihark, and all the rest, had to bite the bullet?
I did what any gamer does in a panic. I went to GameFAQs.
That's how I learned the trick. There was a hidden tripwire in the mission that would bring everything to a satisfactory close. All that really needed to occur were 80 troop deaths.
A ha! So I'd keep my current characters, who I was controlling, away from my old characters. Ike's people wouldn't touch Micaiah's people. Ike's people would just destroy 80 other Micaiah-allied enemies instead. And all would be well.
That's quite a calculation. And as soon as I did it, I felt a bit sick. Video games always require you to value some characters' lives over others. Goombas lives don't matter. Mario's does. But here I was deciding that some of my enemies should die and that other shouldn't. It got more twisted. After a few turns of action I noticed that the kill-counter in the upper right hand corner of the screen was counting deaths of enemy soldiers and unnamed partner soldiers who were fighting alongside Ike as part of the same total. That meant I could reach my goal of 80 battlefield deaths not just through the slaughter of certain enemies but through the death of my own allies.
Is it creepy that I took this as good news? This meant the mission would end sooner, that my chosen people on both sides would be out of harm's way faster. I began to root for my "enemy" Zihark when he strode out into the battlefield again and started chopping down my allies.
I had made quite a judgment of gameplay-based morality. I had decided that some characters, some who were with me and some who were against me, deserved to live. I'd judged that others, some with me and some against me, were better off dead. I'd chosen favorites. Essentially, the characters with names, the ones I had trained -- they deserved life. The unnamed grunts both helping and harming me? Expendable. I'd cheered for the deaths of supposed friends and allies and was relieved when they failed to kill enemies I had once trained. I refused to assist some allies in need. I'd transgressed traditional battle lines.
Like I said above, I felt a twist in my gut. What kind of battlefield general had this game made me? What kind of commander of men and women?
It's all a bit inspired. And it's all a bit sick.