Well, since I still seem to be re-playing a classic mid-2000s computer game called “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines“, I thought that I’d look at what this intriguingly intelligent game can teach us about moral ambiguity in fiction.
I’ll be spending most of this article taking a critic-like look at the game, but if you’re just interested in what storytelling lessons can be learnt from the game’s presentation of morality, then skip to the final four paragraphs of the article.
However, I should probably point out that this article will contain some SPOILERS for the game. Likewise, since this is an article about moral ambiguity in something from the horror genre, it goes without saying that I’ll be talking about some fairly heavy subject matter (eg: crime, torture, religious extremism, mental illness etc..), but hopefully not in too much detail.
But, before I discuss the way that morality is handled and presented in this game, I should point out that the game’s well-crafted moral ambiguity does not mean that the game is a “corrupting influence” or anything like that. The moral ambiguity only works in dramatic terms because the player already has moral standards – which contrast with the more amoral world of the game.
Anyway, one of the interesting things about “Bloodlines” is that it’s one of the earlier games where almost all of the characters are morally ambiguous to some extent or another. Even more so, it is a game that pretty much forces the player’s character to be morally ambiguous too. After all, you play as a vampire.
The only vaguely moral way for your character to obtain a regular supply of blood is to obtain it from rats (which is a very time-consuming process). Other than this, your character has to drink other people’s blood (using violence or trickery) or buy blood from a creepy serial killer who works in a morgue. This moral ambiguity helps to hammer home the point that you are playing as a vampire, and helps to increase player immersion in the game.
Likewise, the only ways for your character to earn money are to be a hired hench-vampire for other characters, to blackmail other characters, to sell dubiously-obtained goods or to exploit the gratutide of a character whose life you can save early in the game.
This works well in the context of the game, since it increases player immersion by showing them that they’re a character whose nocturnal undead life means that they can’t earn money in legitimate ways.
Intriguingly, the game also often places you in situations where making an “immoral” choice is often the most rewarding choice (in terms of blood, money and/or experience points). But, it counterbalances this very slightly with a “humanity” points system, which will occasionally penalise you for being too evil. This forces the player to make complex moral decisions on a regular basis and also increases the horror and drama of the game by making the player feel guilty about the choices they make in-game.
But, most intriguing of all, is how the game handles the subject of villains. Although the game’s main villain (La Croix) is the classic megalomaniacal “evil politician” character who, quite predictably, is initially presented as one of the more “good” characters – the game’s other “villainous” characters can be a lot more interesting.
The most intriguing of all is Grünfeld Bach, the leader of a group of devoutly Christian vampire hunters called the Society Of Leopold.
Although he is the type of character who would traditionally be seen as one of the “good guys” in many stories, he is presented as a fearsome adversary to the player and their fellow vampires (many of whom are interesting, well-developed characters).
Although the game quickly shows the vampire hunters to be fanatical religious extremists, it explores this subject in a variety of chillingly creepy ways.
In one later part of the game, you have to infiltrate their monastery in order to rescue a kidnapped archaeologist. Whilst sneaking through the caves beneath the monastery, you can overhear two henchmen talking about how Bach once shot a man for refusing to obey orders – which is a chilling example of how authority can corrupt even the most “good” people.
Likewise, an optional side-quest during this level involves rescuing a vampire who has been captured by the Society Of Leopold. When you meet him, it quickly becomes clear that he has been tortured. Although this, in itself, shows how religious fanaticism can make good people evil (and is designed to reference the Spanish Inquisition too) – the game takes this a step further when the vampire disturbingly points out that the torturers actually seemed to relish their work. Again, showing how evil can flourish when “good” people feel that they can do anything. Or just how evil people can use religion as an excuse for their actions.
On the other hand, one of the closest things that the game has to a “good” character is Velvet Velour, a powerful vampire who owns a pole dancing club. When giving the player quests, she constantly warns them not to harm innocent people. She’s a really interesting character because the game presents one of it’s very few compassionate and good characters as being in a line of work that is often criticised by conservatives and liberals alike as being “immoral”.
But, the game then adds a bit of nuance by having one of the vaguely important human characters be the owner of a somewhat sleazy video shop. You need to talk to him (and bribe him for information) in order to complete various quests but, although he doesn’t actually do anything evil in the game, he comes across as a thoroughly creepy character who seems to know a lot of very disturbing criminals.
Likewise, another “good” character is an anarchist vampire called Nines Rodriguez, who saves the player’s life on two occasions. He also talks a lot about the evils of elitism and capitalism too, drawing on his memories of the Great Depression for examples (which seem oddly prescient in our post-credit crunch world). However, his reward for such a moral life is… to be framed for murder.
An interesting “neutral” character is a vampire computer hacker called Mitnick who hires the player to hack a few computer systems, fake a robbery and plant some surveillance devices.
But, the morality of what he asks the player to do is more ambiguous than it initially seems, since he needs the stolen information because he belongs to a group of vampires who are discriminated against by other vampires – and information-brokering is one of the few ways they can gain favour with, or protection from, other vampires.
Another fascinating example of “neutral” characters are Jeanette and Therese Voerman. They are two vampire sisters who run a gothic nightclub. Therese is very stern, severe and moralistic. Jeanette, on the other hand, is shown to be capricious, manipulative and spiteful. They’re literal opposites, even in terms of how they talk and dress.
Yet, slightly later in the game, you learn that they are both actually just one person with a split personality (caused by a horribly traumatic past).
In addition to forcing the player to make a difficult moral choice at one point in the game (do you save one personality, or do you save both?), this character is also a brilliant example of how excessive external displays of propriety and moral virtue (eg: Therese) are often used to conceal a more “immoral” side (eg: Jeanette).
So what can all of this teach us about moral ambiguity in fiction? Well, simply put, you should only include lots of moral ambiguity if you’re going to do something intelligent with it.
If the moral ambiguity is designed to provoke thought in the audience and make them more aware of their own moral standards, then include lots of moral ambiguity. If the moral ambiguity is just there to be “edgy”, then don’t include it (unless for comedy value).
You should also only include moral ambiguity if it works in the context of your story. In a game like “Bloodlines”, the ambiguity works because the game “realistically” explores a fantastical subject (eg: vampirism) that is often presented in a very simplistic way in horror movies. The ambiguity is justified by the context of the story – kind of like how “Game Of Thrones” is a more “realistic” take on the medieval fantasy genre.
Finally, the game also shows us that moral ambiguity only works when characters have well-developed personalities and motivations. If you have well-developed characters, then any moral ambiguity you include will fit into your story really well. If you don’t, then it will come across as a juvenile attempt at being “edgy” or whatever.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂