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Ellie with lights behind her in The Last of Us Part 2 Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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Games need to return to black-and-white morality

Tales of good vs. evil are more relevant than ever

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From young adult writer Ava Jae to author K.M. Weiland, the axiom that morally gray characters are more compelling than traditional heroes is advice many writers dole out these days.

Bemoaning the lack of tension in stories around black-and-white morality, many writers believe readers prefer the unpredictability of gray morality, which is in stark contrast to the clear, objective morality in black-and-white tales.

Then there’s the gray morality of “prestige games” like The Last Of Us Part 2 and BioShock Infinite, featuring characters that are a menagerie of trauma and barely disguised flaws, never able to rise above their own worst impulses. Their personalities blend together like sloppy gray sludge: the good guys are bad, the bad guys may be good, or at least well-intentioned, and it’s all, well, gray.

Gray morality presents a worldview that states these two poles aren’t that different: a perspective that actually widens the disparity in our fractured world. Our lives are already gray, and these shades seem to keep getting muddier.

The distrust of black-and-white tales may stem from their prominence in many child-friendly franchises: Mario saves the princess, while Bowser kidnaps her. Guybrush Threepwood of Monkey Island fame rescues his lover as the earnest, wannabe outlaw, the antithesis to LeChuck’s scheming, undead pirate captain. Samus Aran blasts aliens to smithereens, versus the ghastly Mother Brain, who’s the ... brains behind the machinations of Metroid, I guess.

Tales of black-and-white morality feature enemies that have always been bad, and will always be bad. While the heroes are good, and always find a way to succeed despite the odds, even if they have to strain against their own moral codes.

Even though games featuring such morality have fallen out of fashion, we still need more of such tales of absolute morality in games — back to the days of where goodness and evil are staunchly and dynamically opposed in their stories.

Stories are inherently moral

Many AAA games lend credence to the argument that moral ambiguities inherently make for richer, better narratives. The Last of Us Part 2 was certainly a success and the Far Cry series shows no sign of slowing down. One author takes this a step further by eschewing the concept of good and evil altogether in fiction.

Despite the recent preference for gray stories, however, black-and-white morality has always been hardwired into our consciousness. Stories are inherently moral. That can be seen in how we are instinctively drawn to those we admire and define as heroes, even in morally gray games.

No matter how much developers prefer heroes and villains that are sympathetic, games already implicitly frame characters as heroic or villainous, even if they go out of their way to get us to sympathize with the villain or question the hero’s motives.

Far Cry 5 - Daniel Seed holding gun
“We’re not so different, you and I,” seems to be the primary position of many gaming villains these days
Image: Ubisoft Montreal/Ubisoft

In these titles, the good guys, it should be noted, almost always win, even if their actions may not necessarily be moral. Joel from The Last of Us still garners plenty of sympathy, despite his excessive rampage and outbursts throughout the series. The tension of the game’s brutal final act comes from the contrast between how we have been led to perceive him, and his actions in the most important scene in the game.

But that decision loses its impact unless we already mark him as the hero. The twist is emotionally resonant only as much as it contrasts with our expectations of Joel as the hero we are rooting for. Even in stories with no clearly defined heroes and antagonists, the audience still seeks the black-and-white among these shades of gray. This is all the more evident in the latest The Last of Us Part 2, where Joel’s decisions and ultimate fate have still largely been met with sympathy.

The twists and turns of black-and-white tales

The objective morality of black-and-white stories does deliver the dramatic tension that many seek in morally gray stories, the latter typically taking place in a desolate universe where anyone can be muddied by the corruptible stench of depravity, or even just the need to survive.

So much gray pop culture exists in worlds where terrible acts beget terrible consequences, the cycles of violence wrought by morally ambiguous characters persisting endlessly — the most famous example being the depressingly gray universe of Game of Thrones, where endless bloodshed wrought by its characters against each other has always been par for the course.

game of thrones ep41
There was plenty of violence on both sides, after all
Photo: HBO

Or the grimdark world of The Witcher, with Geralt of Rivia earning his reputation as the Butcher of Blaviken for killing a much maligned monster, who had been a victim herself. It’s harder to make characters feel trapped in their circumstances when they can always compromise on their subjective sense of moral code and do something underhanded — an action that may feel uncharacteristic of them — just to keep the story moving.

Instead, the steadfast nature of black-and-white stories forces their characters to walk a moral tightrope, which is far more than just a pedestrian or idealistic view of morality. These tales exemplify triumphing over personal struggles — a popular theme in stories — allowing heroes the opportunity to explore the depths of their convictions.

This has been explored before by Polygon’s opinions editor Ben Kuchera, in which he argues that Captain America’s tale of staying true to his convictions in a morally gray universe makes for a more compelling tale than that of Superman’s. Putting uncompromising characters in a complicated world is a recipe ripe for dramatic tension, rather than a way to avoid complexity and more adult themes.

Undertale is one example, even as it lets you discover the limits of your morality. Here you can choose to be good or evil: either wholeheartedly embrace goodness through the pacifist route by sparing any monsters you run into, or lean into wickedness by slaughtering everything you meet.

This game doesn’t believe in ambiguities; there’s no conclusion to be had when you embark on a morally gray route of killing some monsters but freeing others. And if you decide to commit wanton genocide, it presents your decision as motivated by a force of incomprehensible darkness. There’s no heartbreaking backstory that gives you any room to shrug and explain away your choice. The result is a deeply emotive narrative — with many players feeling a palpable sense of discomfort even as they commit to a dark path.

It’s this sense of uneasiness that reminds players of their own moral leanings. This dynamic can only emerge from the absolute contrast between good and evil, as plain as black and white on the diametrically opposed poles of morality. A Plague Tale: Innocence showcases instances of this polarity — seen in the dastardly deeds of the Catholic church and the deathly plague of rats, which contrast with the innocence of the de Rune siblings as they try to survive during the Hundred Years’ War.

Unlike most video game protagonists, 15-year-old Amicia de Rune doesn’t kill for sport, often finding herself in a moralistic bind of having to kill despite not wanting to. Her combat prowess also is limited to the durability of her slingshot, and being spotted by any enemy soldiers means putting herself and her younger brother in active danger.

What is crucial is the depiction of the almost cartoonishly evil Catholic priest, the sort of thing that is frequently deemed a cardinal sin in fiction.

Yet in this story, it’s not the notoriety of the church that demands nuance. What A Plague Tale: Innocence seeks to impress upon you is the heroes’ endless struggle to remain alive without losing their humanity, even in the face of abject wretchedness.

Even the plague of rats, symbolic of Europe’s Black Death in the mid-1300s, devours their victims indiscriminately, be it villager or soldier. It’s an inexplicable force of nature that simply has no real allegiance to any moral code, landing outside the axis of good and evil.

The world may be morally gray, but the characters fall simply into the archetypes of “good” or “bad,” which does little to minimize the story.

Black-and-white morality in real-life

But the concept of black-and-white morality doesn’t just remain within the fictional realm. It has the capacity to influence how we frame and perceive real-life events.

Unlike fiction, allowing a sense of moral dilemma over both sides, particularly in the current era of burgeoning social change, reinforces the kinds of false equivalencies that might slow down social change.

Consider the media’s fixation on telling inspiring rags-to-riches tales of billionaires and triple-A studios, even in the face of discomforting details about profiting from underpaid and oppressive labor practices.

Or the sightings of police officers kneeling alongside protesters, a scene reminiscent of redemption arcs of anti-heroes, except in this case it’s often alleged to be a publicity stunt before the police brutality begins again. Defense of the police and their violence appeals to our familiarity with the paradigms of gray in many stories about moral ambiguity, as well. It’s akin to a shield of incorruptibility: Good people can do bad things sometimes, without being immoral themselves.

What’s also perfidious is the implication in gray stories that “goodness” is just a hair’s difference away from “badness,” when it’s a perspective steeped in privilege: The oppressor is as multifaceted as the oppressed, and the hero as capable of evil-doings as the villain.

BioShock Infinite
Fighting racism is as bad as being racist, when you really think about it and want to sell video games
Image: Irrational Games/2K Games

This perspective allows even the most racist or authoritarian among us to argue that their beliefs are just that — beliefs they are free to pursue, and should be free to do so, instead of the reality of plain ol’ boring and evil white supremacy or fascism. Video games love to blend the good and the bad themselves until they become a gray goo, eventually and sometimes relentlessly symbolically arguing that all lives matter.

The most telling example of how gray morality undercuts storytelling is the infamous betrayal by Daisy Fitzroy, a black revolutionary from BioShock Infinite. She’s revealed to be just as corruptible by the allure of power as her racist enemies, even as she was fighting for her people’s emancipation from slavery.

The white protagonist, Booker DeWitt, even spells it out. “The only difference between Comstock [the game’s Big Bad] and Fitzroy is how you spell the name,” he says. It’s a damning conclusion that the rebel faction is just as unethical as the nation’s leaders, while plainly ignoring that its depiction of Jim Crow-era racism contained real-life parallels to the events that birthed the American Civil War.

What feels infuriating about this perspective is this: If you don’t fight for your rights in the correct way — the polite, civil way that fits snugly within the frameworks of society — you will be tarred with the same brush as those who are actively bolstering the forces behind inequality.

We see this in modern politics all the time. Politicians who take away healthcare are just doing their jobs, while those protesting against them for making medication unaffordable are framed as uncivil and dangerous. It’s disingenuous to claim that both sides are equally at fault; one group is championing civil rights or access to healthcare while the other is looking out for their own interests.

I’m not saying that gray stories are never compelling, or that goodness cannot exist in gray universes. But setting ethical considerations aside to craft such fiction in games however, or other mediums, can be actively disempowering. We don’t currently need more redemption stories about villains or tales about the corruptibility of heroes. The number of games that tell us heroes and villains aren’t that different has become numbing and demoralizing.

What I crave, and what I think we deserve, are black-and-white games centered around the concept of absolute, objective morality. Being committed to righteousness can be conflicting, but that’s the strength of truly “good” characters, versus the abject danger of truly bad ones.

Watching our heroes stick to their convictions, even against insurmountable odds, ratchets up drama, rather than destroying it. The concept that good can ultimately triumph over evil is a timeless one, and stories that rally around this trope — around unadulterated hope — can help guide us through the year’s ceaseless onslaught of calamities.

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