Using Moral Ambiguity Intelligently In Fiction – A Ramble

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 is a screenshot from “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (2004), showing a character called Heather Poe who becomes obsessed with the main character after an impromptu transfusion of vampire blood saves her life.

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).

This is a screenshot showing Grünfeld Bach, a character who would usually be one of the “good guys” in many stories but, intriguingly, is one of the villains in this game.

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.

This is Nines Rodriguez, a character who is good, even at great personal cost. Likewise, it’s rather clever that the game presents him as an anarchist (since these types of characters are usually presented as villains).

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.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Was The Horror Genre So Moralistic? – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Moralising in the horror genre

With Halloween drawing ever closer, I thought that I’d take a quick look at the horror genre again and how it has changed over time. I’ll also be talking about how moral rules are used to make horror fiction, comics, movies etc… both more and less frightening.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’ve become fascinated by old 1940s-50s American horror comics yet again after rediscovering this interesting archive site.

One ironic thing about this genre of comics is that, during the mid-1950s, they were pretty much banned (on both sides of the pond) because of fears that they would “corrupt the youth” or some similar nonsense. The monster-sized irony here is that they’re probably some of the most moralistic comics ever made.

These comics have a ridiculously strict moral code. Not only are literally all crimes always punished by death (or worse!), but even the slightest character flaw (eg: anger, greed, lust etc…) can quickly lead to horrific, and wildly disproportionate, consequences. In order to survive a 1950s American horror comic, you need to be a perfect paragon of virtue.

A similar trend can also be noticed in American slasher movies from the 1980s and 1990s too. Although I haven’t really seen that many of these films, it’s a well-known trope of the genre that the characters who survive these films usually tend to be the celibate, teetotal characters.

So, why did the horror genre used to include a lot of stern moralising?

The first reason probably has to do with it’s inspirations. Fear has been used by religions, politicians and other groups to get people to obey their rules for centuries. When these rules are sensible ones (eg: rules against murder, theft etc..) then this makes sense. But, often, the exact same scare tactics will be used for sillier or more illogical rules. Since these scare tactics were taken a lot more seriously in the old days, it’s likely that they had a strong influence on the horror genre.

The other reason is because one of the best ways to make people nervous is to set an unrealistically high moral standard and then to judge everyone against it. There probably isn’t a single person on the planet who hasn’t felt anger, jealousy, pleasure etc.. at some point in their lives. So, by telling stories about how these parts of human nature (which have all been experienced by your readers) lead to horrific consequences is a great way to frighten the audience.

Of course, these days, the horror genre is a lot less moralistic. There are a number of good practical reasons for this.

The most obvious dramatic reason is that too much morality makes horror stories, comics, movies etc… ridiculously predictable. After all, if a character doesn’t meet up to the moral standards established by the story, then the reader instantly knows that the character’s chances of survival are precisely zero. As such, too much moralising can remove all suspense and drama from a horror story.

The other reason is that perfect paragons of virtue aren’t usually very interesting or dramatic characters. Not only are paragons of virtue extremely predictable (if you know what rules they are following), but characters often tend to be at their most interesting when they display realistic character flaws. If the main characters are interesting and realistic people (as opposed to robotic paragons of virtue), then the audience is going to care more about what happens to them.

Plus, morality can be used in much more creative ways in modern horror stories, movies etc.. One way to do this is to make the story’s moral standards somewhat different to widely-accepted moral standards. A good example of this can be found in the “Final Destination” film series, where cheating or escaping death is framed as an immoral act that is always punished by unseen forces. By framing basic human instinct as immoral, these films are incredibly unsettling and unpredictable.

Sometimes, the disproportionate moral rules of old can be used as a source of horror in and of themselves. If a story’s moral rules are shown to be arbitrary and antiquated, then the fact that they can still affect characters in the modern day is certainly a disturbing one.

Likewise, a complete lack of moral rules can either be played for laughs, or used as an additional source of horror.

So, yes, morality is a surprisingly important part of the horror genre. It can be used in a variety of different ways to make a horror story, comic etc…more or less scary.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Some Thoughts About Morality And Storytelling

2013 Artwork Morality Storytelling Sketch

Don’t worry, this article isn’t calling for censorship and it isn’t a moralistic lecture either. I absolutely hate censorship and moralistic lectures. Instead, it’s an article about how writers should deal with the subject of whether writers should include their personal moral views in their stories.

First of all, everyone has their own personal moral code and opinions which they’ve arrived at either through a lot of thought and/or their own experiences. Even if you don’t think that you have a moral code, you probably still do. However, whether or not you should include these moral views in your stories is a slightly complicated subject. Yes, you are probably going to do this unintentionally to some extent or another, but this article will focus on whether or not you should do this intentionally.

Ok, what about controversial moral issues?

There are some stories which exist purely to put forward a particular moral opinon – TV Tropes even has a page about these types of stories and refers to them as “An Aesop” (which is, of course, a reference to Aesop’s Fables). I’d personally advise against writing these kinds of stories because they can often be fairly patronising and insulting to your readers’ intelligences.

If some of your readers completely agree with you, then they will probably enjoy your story and feel smug after reading it. But if people disagree or have more nuanced and complicated opinions, then it might put them off from reading your story. Yes, it might get them to think about the subject in a slightly different way, but if your story is very uncompromising and confrontational, then they’re probably just going to stop reading.

After all, when people read a story, they’re looking to be entertained. They aren’t looking to be lectured.

Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t or shouldn’t include your own moral views in your stories, but you have to do this carefully and consciously in a way which doesn’t get in the way of the story which you are telling. Remember, telling an interesting and entertaining story is your first priority. If you want your story to make a moral point, be fairly subtle and make sure that, if the subject is pretty controversial, that you at least acknowledge the existence of other views about the subject in question. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them, but at least come up with a reasoned argument against them rather than just ignoring them.

This is just my personal opinion, but if you are fairly conservative, then you should be a lot more careful and cautious about inserting your moral views into your stories than if you are more liberal. This is mainly because, with regard to some subjects (eg: LGBT rights, reproductive rights, the treatment of poorer people etc…) conservative moral views can have a very real and very damaging effect on the lives of other people. Of course, if you’re fairly conservative, then you probably won’t agree with me about this subject anyway….

Ok, this is starting to veer into politics. What about ordinary morality? You know, good and evil?

As for more “ordinary” types of morality, it is totally up to you how you handle this subject although it can have a serious effect on the tone and atmosphere of your story. If you write a story where the “good guys” are always paragons of virtue and the “bad guys” are completely evil, then this story might be fairly entertaining and fun to read – but it isn’t particularly realistic. Again, realism isn’t a intrinsically “good” or “bad” thing in storytelling, but it will affect the general tone and atmosphere of your story.

Likewise, stories where literally every small misdeed (regardless of who is responsible for it) is “punished” in some way or another can still be entertaining, but these stories can get fairly predictable (eg: your readers know that something bad will happen to one of your characters long before it actually does) if you are not careful.

The fact of the matter is that people are usually fairly morally ambiguous to some degree or another. Yes, some people might be more evil than good and vice versa, but everyone is a mixture of good and evil to some extent or another. Likewise, the universe can sometimes be an unjust place and bad things can happen to good people and vice versa. So, if you’re writing a more “realistic” story, then you should take this into account.

Whilst showing the villain getting their just desserts is a fairly satisfying way to end a story and it can work very well in “realistic” stories, it can often be a good idea to show the villains getting away with some lesser misdeeds or even to show the main characters getting away with various misdeeds in order to give your story a sense of realism. Likewise, it can be a good idea to show the occasional injustice happening to your villains or to your main characters. There aren’t really any “rules” about this subject, so use your own judgment.

Plus, if you’re writing a more “realistic” story, your villains can’t just be two-dimensional, “evil for the sake of evil” characters. You should show why they are doing the things that they are doing and, most importantly, why they think that they are doing the right thing. Their reasons will probably be fairly misguided, fanatical or vengeful but they should have at least a vaguely believeable reason for doing what they do. This doesn’t mean that you have to justify or excuse your villain’s actions, but your villains should have as much characterisation as your main characters do.

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Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂