Take away the usual frame-work of right and wrong away and you leave the player with the a powerful canvas for creating a character which allows them to explore what they, as a player, are morally comfortable with. Obviously the narrative of a game is still going to provide some structure for the morality of the choices which a player makes - but the post-apocalyptic environment itself is where the narrative is embedded and sets the terms for how that narrative evolves. The more open the narrative, the more the player can play with moral choices and create a unique character.
A great example of this is Fallout 3, another open world game from Bethesda, creators of Oblivion and Skyrim. As I mentioned back in my blog, "You Are Where You Play", the character development in most Bethesda games is fairly open (and hollow), the player is left to create their own details surrounding their character (outside of the game space). It is this sort of open-ended character development that really allows players to explore different moral positioning. The setting definitely lends itself to a sense of there being no hard and fast rules of society - a ruined (yet familiar) world where might is right holds sway - and Bethesda certainly layer in the opportunities for the player to align themselves with different moral stances.
A ruined world inhabited by a range of societies and creatures.
What I'm not saying is that the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 3 is bereft of social rules. Instead the social rules that are present are localised to different societies within the game, and it is the players choice as to which of those societal rules they want their character to align themselves with. Does the player want to align themselves with the more traditional communities such as Megaton or do they want to embrace the anarchy of the slavers? Where do they want to position themselves in terms of cultural identity? All cultural identity is both inclusive and exclusive - through aligning yourself with one faction you also exclude yourself from other factions. This isn't just a factor of games, but something which you can observe occurring within the world around us - games simply allow us to experiment with these different positionings.
[Small spoiler alert - I'm about to discuss a particular mission in Fallout 3 - if you haven't played it you may want to skip the next paragraph]
Early on in Fallout 3, one of the first missions the player is likely to come across presents this choice quite starkly. The town of Megaton represents a community which can be seen as a reflection of the more traditional moral stance is present in our world today - hard working people, law and order, freedom of religion and commerce. The player is soon presented with a lucrative opportunity which involves setting off the undetonated nuclear device which the town is built around - destroying not only the entire township but, of course, all of its inhabitants. This is a clear moral choice, and yet the player is given freedom to actually follow through with an action which in our time would be considered to be a crime against humanity. Straight from the get go you have to make a choice about what moral stance, what cultural identity, you want to adopt in the game - what sort of person are you?
Tenpenny Tower, a bastion for the morally ambiguous?
Of course these types of moral choices are not unique to post-apocalyptic games, but I do feel that the setting emphasises them. Tenpenny Tower presents its own set of moral choices, played out through the discourses embedded in the depiction of ghouls within the game. Some ghouls are simply rabid creatures, lacking in any of the characteristics which we would identify as human. Some, on the other hand, are definitely human, despite their mutated appearance - and there are some definite parallels to the civil rights movement present in the choices which the player must make. Do you support the xenophobic residents of Tenpenny Towers or embrace the humanity of the ghoul population? The moral choice again serves to frame what sort of identity you want to craft for your character.
Not all ghouls in Fallout 3 are rabid caricatures of the human population.
Of course Fallout 3 has a narrative of reconstruction which is generally framed in moral terms which are reflective of our current world. However like most Bethesda games the player has the freedom to ignore the main quest if they want and forge their own path in the world. This freedom, combined with the setting, presents a powerful opportunity for players to explore different moral positions. It's through the moral choices that the player makes that the imagined character is fleshed out, mostly in the players mind. Sure there are repercussions for your actions, but much of the characterisation within Bethesda games take place within the mind of the player.
Who will you be? How will you treat the worlds inhabitants?
Of course the post-apocalyptic setting isn't always the player against the computer generated population of the world. What moral alignment the setting brings to a game can be even more evident when the gaming experience is player against player. I've mentioned Darkwind in previous posts, a post-apocalyptic car warfare strategic MMO (now that's a mouthful!) and the setting within the game certainly frames how the players behave towards one another. It's a game where perma-death is a mechanic, meaning that when a players gang member dies, they are are gone for good. Despite this most people are not precious about their characters - the number of times I've heard the phrase, "...this is the apocalypse, people die!" is more than numerous, it's a mantra that the players live (and die) by. The setting, a ruined world where life is cheap and death is around every corner, seems to have imbued the player base with a rugged view towards their characters. This isn't to say that it's strictly dog eat dog, most players abide by gentlemanly rules when in organised events, there is an understanding of the work that players have put into developing their characters - and those who go out of their way to intentionally kill others quickly find themselves hunted by the player base. Accidents do happen however, and when they do it is rare for the players to take it personally, "this is the apocalypse, people die...".
Resignations are generally honoured in Dark-wind... generally.
The post-apocalyptic setting presents some unique opportunities for game developers, both in terms of character building and for allowing players to situate themselves within different moral positions. It's a rich genre which has gone from strength to strength through recent years, and for good reason. Games allow us, as players, to inhabit different roles and explore different moral frameworks - something which I can't but feel is a positive experience. What's the old saying? "Before you judge a man, try walking a mile in their shoes" - games can let us do that, and the dusty shoes present in the post-apocalyptic games are a great setting in which to do so.