In recent years, an increasing number of videogames have implemented morality systems, where your actions throughout – good or evil – affect things like your overall standing, the way that other characters in the game treat you, and even the appearance of your avatar. Usually these are implemented with about as much subtlety as the average episode of Holby City, with your choices being very black and white, often amounting to simply either killing or sparing a particular adversary. Let them go and your good/light meter increases. Shoot enough of them, and you go all dark and emo.
In Red Dead Redemption you play John Marston, a cowboy in the Old West, just as that celebrated era is coming to an end. Described simply, it’s Grand Theft Auto by way of Clint Eastwood, and GTA’s mission structure makes it across to the new game pretty much wholesale. It has a morality system which, in the main, is just as binary as examples in other videogames, but an encounter today made me feel something I very rarely feel while playing (unless I’m avoiding doing the washing-up): guilt. To put this into context, over the years I’ve killed more people than Harold Shipman, Ted Bundy, The Yorkshire Ripper and Alan Carr combined. This week, probably. Luckily the only victims have been little virtual people. They’re not real. This is fantasy. It literally doesn’t matter. It’s not going to warp my tiny little mind, only Keith Vaz’s. Due to this, I don’t usually feel bad at all about shooting any combination of Nazis, aliens, ducks, or anything else. But I did today.
A stranger that I met randomly on a horseride to one of my regular contacts in the game set me the task of obtaining a property deed for him. The old man who owned the land didn’t want to sell it to him, and the stranger hoped that I could persuade him (or PERSUADE HIM, if you see what I mean), for a fee. So off I trotted, to discover that the old timer wanted $200 for the deed. Unfortunately I only had $66 on me. I therefore faced a choice – did I wait until I had the money, or obtain the deed by force? I’d been a pretty good boy up to that point in the game, and so I wanted to see what would happen if I did it the bad way. I didn’t, though, want it to affect my honourable standing, so I rode away from the land, set up camp to save my game, and then returned, knowing that after I saw what would happen if I was a bastard, I could reload the save with my reputation untarnished. Brilliant, eh?
So when the old man asked if I had the money, I lassoed him to the ground and “hogtied” him, taking the deed. He started to berate me, and my honour level in the game dropped by 100 for my naughty action. But just as I was about to reload, the word “Saving” appeared in the top left hand corner of the screen. Noooo, the autosave! It was too late to do anything about it – I’d been taken by surprise. But I’d always thought that the autosaves were overriden by real campsite saves, so I reckoned this would only be a temporary setback. Just before turning the console off, I took out my shotgun, blew the old guy’s head off and immediately pressed the Xbox Guide button. It wasn’t as if I was going to carry on from that bit, after all.
When I reloaded, I was gratified to see that I had re-emerged at the camp where I’d made the original save. Hooray! Unfortunately I then noticed on the missions screen that the task I had just accomplished was marked as complete, and the game had recorded that I’d used force. Still, at least I’d only hogtied the old man when the game saved, so I went back to the guy who’d asked me to get him the deed in the first place and proudly handed it to him. But the deed was covered in blood! The old man’s blood! Nooooo! It had managed to save again somehow! “Jeez, Marston, I didn’t tell you to kill him!” complained the stranger. He went on to inform me that the dead man had a son, and that I’d better hope he didn’t find out about my actions, unless I get my “kicks from killing entire families”.
I left the scene quickly, ashamed, my clever plan having fallen to ashes, worrying about what will happen later in the game if I ever come across the son. “Er… yeah. Didn’t mean to kill your dad. Was just experimenting. It was the game’s fault!” Somehow I don’t think I’ll get the chance to explain. The feeling of guilt was tangible. I did a bad thing. If I had it over again, I’d pay the $200. But I don’t. And while I’m exasperated that my clean record has gone, this whole episode proves that a decent game can invoke an emotional response. And isn’t it much better really that I can’t go back, that now I’ll have to live the rest of my time in Red Dead Redemption knowing about the blood on my hands?
One thing’s for sure: from now on, I’m going to be the Mother Theresa of the Old West. Until the next bastard tries to steal my horse, of course.