Every year or so, the Wheel of Video Game Discourse lands on “let’s talk about how choice in gaming usually means save the orphanage or burn it down”. The usual suspects appear here. People bemoan the fact that, despite a critically-acclaimed story that does indeed give the player choice, the Mass Effect Franchise’s moral choices are neatly divided into good vs. evil. The example of Bioshock is brought up as a study in what it means to gamify a moral decision as players who want to make the “right” moral decision will miss out on many upgrades. Undertale will be cited as a game that was built entirely around that framework, intrinsically linking gameplay with the player’s own sense of right and wrong, and playing with the morally hazy areas in between by taking advantage of assumptions about how video games generally work.
And that’s all well and good, but there’s another discussion that sleeps just below the surface of this one, one that I find much, much more interesting: why do these games force you to choose between good and evil in the first place?
Even in the case of games like The Wolf Within Us, The Walking Dead, and Life Is Strange, hard decisions exist on this spectrum. All of these choices, from the most mundane dialogue decisions to literally choosing which characters to save, necessitate complex internal calculations about what a player values most, and that’s why these games are so beloved. They reward players for making hard decisions with beautiful narratives that seem to flow according to player choice.
But what happens when a game takes a single small step outside of that spectrum?
You get the final semester in Persona 5 Royal.
spoilers ahead, obv
There is one moral decision at the heart of Persona 5 Royal, and it’s an offshoot of the thought experiment at the heart of Persona 5, which revolves around the concept of self-determination, and what it truly means to embrace yourself, even the parts of yourself you’re scared of, in modern society.
Persona 5 Royal picks up where Persona 5 left off, but makes a hard left turn once the endgame begins. For most of the new content, you’re helping a new party member come to grips with her own trauma, shaking off a comfortable façade that she assumed in order to mask her grief.
Near the end, however, a trusted confidant (Takuto Maruki, your therapist throughout the whole game) reveals himself to be the extra semester’s main antagonist. In your conversations with him throughout the game, he talks to you about how, as a therapist, he wants to give people the power to fight against their own trauma, to give them the ability to self-actualize the way the Phantom Thieves can.
This culminates in Maruki revealing that he actually does have the power to shape the world in this way. His persona allows him to literally grant people’s wishes, to make their cognitions reality. His ultimate goal is to do this for everyone, creating a perfect world without unnecessary pain. This is a super-common trope in media, where a well-meaning but ultimately evil villain promises a utopia at some incalculable cost, but Persona 5 Royal makes it clear that this isn’t the case. Maruki would essentially ascend to godhood, yes, but people would still be able to do as they choose. Maruki would just be ensuring that everything turned out okay.
As the protagonist, you’re actually able to go along with this plan and receive a “bad ending”. This ending sees you and your friends out in the city having a good time, talking about their lives as if nothing has changed. You go to Leblanc and have a party. The scene ends with Maruki smiling, shrouded in shadow, just out of sight. It’s not foreboding, or at least it’s not meant to be. You’ve created your utopia.
If, on the other hand, you do what the game wants you to do, you get the game’s true ending, and get to perform the Persona series’s requisite deicide, striking a blow for free will and self-determination. But, like, are you, really?
The question at the heart of Persona 5 Royal is never really answered. It’s not so much a moral dilemma as it is a dilemma about what morals actually are. It’s probably the only choice I’ve ever made in a game that stuck with me, because really thinking about that decision necessitates really thinking about what you think life actually is.
Everyone would be fed. Cancer would be cured. No war. No murder. No crime. A perfect society, where even the most terrible people could be immediately, instantly rehabilitated. The one crucial flaw is that nothing in that perfect world would be truly earned, it would just seem like it’s earned. It’s the red pill-blue pill question, except there’s no overarching evil plot to harvest human energy and also everybody gets Matrix powers to live their ideal life.
How can you weigh that one flaw against the entirety of human suffering? And on the other side, how can you argue that this society is human at all, when it is literally controlled by the whims of one man?
There’s so much tied up in this question for me personally. I’m codependent. I have trouble making the decisions necessary to living my own life without external validation. If I know one of my friends is stressed, or sad, or sick, I feel an overwhelming uneasiness if I’m not able to help them get through it. Maruki’s utopia is incredibly attractive to me.
Paradoxically, therapy has caused my pendulum to swing the other way on the subject. My sadness, my grief, my loneliness, my anger, my flaws, are all things that make me me. Accepting them and dealing with them has made me into a better person. In a world like Maruki’s, that kind of personal growth wouldn’t be possible for me or for anybody else.
I wish that more big-budget games had narratives that allowed players to grapple with morality in this way, sidestepping a good-evil approach for something more abstract. Those are the kinds of decisions that stick with me.