Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Order and Spec Ops: The Line.
I ran into an interesting roadblock recently while playing Wolfenstein: The New Order. At the end of the first chapter of the game, you’re presented with a sadistic choice by the villain and the game is pretty insistent that you actually make it. Failing to choose gets your entire squad killed and when you reload the save, you’re right back at the decision point. I watched that scene where you stare down the villain and he kills your squad a half-dozen times and almost stopped playing entirely at that point. I was ultimately talked out of that decision by some of the other folks on the Gamers With Jobs forums, and while the material that follows is surprisingly rich for a FPS game, there’s still a nagging metaphorical splinter in my brain about how I really shouldn’t have betrayed that squad member just to continue the story. It seems that playing Spec Ops: The Line back in the day had more of a lasting impact on me than I’d given it credit for.
Spec Ops: The Line escalates the misfortune, chaos, and suffering caused by its hard-charging, hot-tempered protagonist steadily over the course of its story and eventually (mostly via loading screens) starts telling the player that they can make the awful things stop happening if they quit playing the game. That idea resurfaced in my mind as I was looking at the sadistic choice sequence in Wolfenstein.
I have a hard time with stories that require me to be treacherous or duplicitous to move forward. I actually stopped playing Fallout 4 before the end because I could see that was the way the story was headed, and I don’t like betraying the trust of even really bad people. I don’t like having to compromise morally to get to the rest of a story.
Yet even the stories central to my Christian faith include some treachery and betrayal. The infamous example is Judas Iscariot, of course, but the Biblical figure my parents named me after certainly had his share of less-than-stellar moments where loyalty was concerned. From trying to escalate Jesus’s mostly-peaceful arrest (that Jesus was cooperating with) into violence in John 18:10 over Jesus’s objections to his denial that he even knew Jesus in Luke 22, he demonstrated that, under enough stress, even his loyalty could crack.
And here’s the thing: Jesus forgave him. In John 21, Jesus not only forgives Peter, but also puts him to work. Once again, God shows his ability to work through and with human frailty to accomplish his purposes. Peter’s story continued beyond the act of betrayal.
And that brings me to a realization that I had only after I started writing this blog post. A lot of my supposed virtue in games (and in life, if I’m going to be at all honest) comes from a well of pride. “I’ll defy the villain even if he kills an entire squad instead of just one of them. My integrity is worth more than those lives.” No, actually, it’s not. And it’s further not necessarily doing anyone any good to insist on always playing the good guy in everything. Now, it may not be harming anything either, and certainly playing upstanding characters can be a lot of fun, but when my internal narrative is such that I’ve convinced myself that I can’t play someone with major character flaws in a fictional context because that would reflect poorly on me, then perhaps it’s time to stretch a bit, especially because I have a nasty streak that I sometimes subconsciously feel I can let out as long as it’s fueled by “a good cause.” Like a lot of people of faith over the years, I have a problem with wanting to cultivate an image of outward purity when the truth is that on some essential level, I have the potential to be absolutely monstrous.
Fortunately, at times like this, I have my co-host. Grant has been running a Rogue Trader game for us, and as many of you are no doubt aware, the Warhammer 40k universe is a little thin on people of flawless virtue. My aloof, toaster-obsessed, pipe-smoking Explorator may be a humorous and strange character, but he’s not anyone’s role model. In fact, he’s even a poor example by the warped standards of his own society. But he’s also not a channel for sadism and cruelty – he’s just a self-interested, socially inept guy who is also a little weird. And while playing him isn’t as comfortable as playing some of my previous characters, at least he’s getting me to remove at least a few inches of the self-righteous stick I have lodged in my hindquarters, or to put it another way, it’s allowing me to start sawing off parts of the log I have in my eye so I can start getting rid of it. Unfortunately, that’s a long log. I have a feeling I’m going to be sawing for quite some time.