The world is a terrible place – psyche and morality in Beholder and This War of Mine
This article contains minor spoilers.
When I first played the game Fable, which changed your character’s reputation based on “good” or “bad” decisions you made in the game, I thought it was a pretty nifty concept. If you wanted to be the hero that everyone admired, then you didn’t break laws and didn’t kill civilians. If not, then you felt free to indulge in your massacre and team up with the bad guys.
The thing about this game mechanic, though, was that it didn’t feel like it connected with you personally, even if you disregarded the fact that it involved an entirely fantastical world with monsters and bards. The citizens could hate you and riot against you, but it was based on a very black-and-white view of the world, where you knew exactly what could get you in trouble. (That didn’t mean it wasn’t any fun, though!)
In contrast to Fable, Beholder and This War of Mine are two games that explore more of a gray-black area of morality – where you choose between, say, saving a loved one or countless strangers. The games look at these questions from different character points of view, but ultimately show that it’s not so different after all.
Beholder: how does big brother feel?
In Beholder, you play an apartment landlord that spies on your tenants for the government. After bugging your tenants’ apartments while they’re away, you use the information you record to report anyone plotting against the government or breaking the law.
In this way, even though you are only one tiny gear of the totalitarian regime that oppresses its citizens and gives them no privacy, you are integral to its success. But as a person, you are liable to think for yourself – and not necessarily benefit the abstract entity that is the government. This provides another angle on the “Us (the people) versus Them (the government)” mentality.
And in Beholder, your choices affect everyone around you. The story unfolds differently depending on how you play, meaning that you can help the citizens (secretly) fight the good fight and sacrifice the money and medicine you might need for your family, or you can keep on with the government’s oppressive tactics.
More likely, though, to stay in the government’s good graces you may have to frame other people for your own actions – whether you plant an illegal substance in your tenant’s apartment and report it to the higher-ups, or backstab a friend you finally made. This can spiral into a dark loop where your tenants become more depressed and may ultimately make you pay for your actions.
In any case, there doesn’t seem to be a win-win for you, your tenants, and the government, who’s just trying to keep the community happy through complete surveillance and making everything, including wearing blue ties, illegal.
This War of Mine: the citizens’ fight
In This War of Mine, you play a group of civilians trying to survive a war together. You delegate different tasks like exploring, cooking, or trading to different folks, making use of their strengths. And, if you have the Little Ones DLC, you might even have a child – they might not be able to do much, but they do keep the morale higher in the household.
Keeping up morale is a big deal in This War of Mine, as it can completely cripple your chances for survival. Every single action affects the psychology of your characters.
Let’s take a look at one example. When you scavenge for resources in other parts of town, you have the option of stealing from other people who need those resources just as much (or more than) you do.
As one of the first options in the game, you have the choice of stealing everything from an elderly couple – and, if you do, will see them as skeletons later in the game. Even if you choose to take the moral high ground at first, you could try to take something – by force or in stealth – from other people later on, like from a place sheltering orphans.
Regardless of whether or not you hurt someone, just the fact that you did something wrong haunts your character for a long time. That, or just the general quality of life – whether your character is always sick and cold and hungry. They can become very depressed, and that in itself may have very dark consequences.
Or, if you happen to save someone being tortured along the way, your characters will feel much better afterward, which will in turn affect their capacity to work.
Regardless of what you do in this game, This War of Mine differentiates itself from other war games because of its emphasis on the citizens affected by war – how living in a ravaged environment where a compromise in morality could psychologically destroy them. This is similar to Beholder, where compromising morality affects the fates of others in your stewardship. It’s a theme that I’d love to see in other games as well.
Image credits: Warm Lamp Games, 11 bit studios