Sunday, May 10, 2009

Analysis: State of Emergency and Amorality

White cowboy hats versus black cowboy hats; white Kung fu gis versus black kung fu gis; white knight armor versus black knight armor - it's every traditional story you've ever read or seen that details the struggle of good over evil. And because these are traditional stories, the hero in white always wins in the end over the villian in black. This is because the term "traditional" could be exchanged with the term "moral" without any negative repercussions - a traditional story is a moral story where good always prevails in the end.

However, that's traditional storytelling. Nowadays in the current social climate of cynicism and aspirational apathy, traditional storytelling with a moral bent isn't welcomed by a public that doesn't relate to princesses trapped in castles or saving the world from utter annihilation of the world. Instead we eagerly follow stories that celebrate the life and accomplishments of criminals and sociopaths.

This is an anti-hero: a hero of a story that doesn't embody the usually qualities and trait we associate with a hero. The origins of the anti-hero go back far in literature, seen in Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" and Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Othello". Still, it's significant to note that a character like Bob Kane's Batman is more regarded by our contemporary society as a hero than as an anti-hero; whereas back during the first years of his inception Batman paled in comparison to his contempories by being obsessive, dark and gritty, these days an audience won't accept a hero aligned with traditional heroic qualities: unselfishness, transparency, infallible integrity, and the adherence to definite moral boundaries.

However, the more savvy and aware we are to a world that exists without moral boundaries, the more we require our heroes to follow suit. That's why the anti-heroes that exist nowadays are each a mere breath away from being villians themselves. These are characters that are immoral: they perform actions and duties they know are wrong, but do them nonetheless to suit their personal needs and goals. In video games we have protagonists like Kratos in "God of War" (2005) who gladly sacrifices an innocent soldier to appease the angry gods and overcome an impassible obstruction; we also have the protagonists of the "Grand Theft Auto" games who each start out as a lowly thug who work their way up the criminal hierarchy by committing crimes and misdemeanours; furthermore we have "Conan" (2009) who pillages villages and loots treasure who goes on a murderous quest to satiate his own greed and lust rather than any ideal of goodness and morality.

This continuing trend has devalued our heroes into anti-heroes and our anti-heroes into nothing more than villians who perform good deeds. From the embedding of this literary trend, there isn't much room for the tragic hero, a hero with a major flaw, since audience want gritty, realistic heroes of dubious integrity to replicate the same ambiguousness in real life.

Indeed, this sliding trend as seen in video games has our anti-heroes performing immoral behavior. However, this isn't the end as there is still yet another "bottom" to exploit: that of amoral behavior.

Amorality is neither moral or immoral behavior; rather, it the absence of either. Amoral behavior recognizes neither good nor evil; an example of this is the amoral behavior of a child who can't yet differentiate between right or wrong, as does someone who is legally insane.

The legitimate advancement of amorality has been debated by philosophers ever since Socrates. Machiavelli's "The Prince" advocated the rule of force over the rule of law, and eschewed ethics and morality to maintaining the ruling status quo. The Marquis de Sade advocated amoralist egoism and posited that virtues leads to failure, whereas vices lead to success. Nietzsche railed against the "master-slave morality" in which religions like Christianity hypocritically preach love and forgiveness yet at the same time condemn unbelievers of said religion, and urged a re-examination of all morals.

I suppose the opinion of whether or not amorality is positive among philosophers is like asking two economists whether or not the economy is doing well or not. However, video games are breaking new literary ground by offering amoral video games.

That's right: there are amoral video games. They don't know the difference between right and wrong. There is no good, and no evil. You could even argue that they've been around for awhile: "Pac-Man" (1980) has a hero and and nemeses for the hero, but in the absence of a story its unclear who is good and who is evil (unless its argued Pac-Man is good because you are good).

Similarly, "Berzerk" (1980) had you facing off screen after screen of killer robots and the indestructable arch-nemesis, Evil Otto. However, besides the name nothing indicates the morality of either side; even though like Pac-Man it is commonly inferred that your character is good, the robots say "Stop the intruder!" meaning that you have trespassed upon their area and are only defending themselves. The aggressive, homocidal behavior of the robots can be attributed to their need to revenge their fallen comrades. In Berzerk, it's a clear case of both sides trying to defend themselves - which means the fault will fall to the transgressor: you.

However, these two examples are early arcade games that offered lots of fun and game play but little in terms of exposition; in fact, these games lack the platform from which to make any real judgement to its state of morality. Modern games have either been moral, or moral stories featuring an anti-hero or immoral like "Manhunt" (2004) or "Postal" (1997). That's where "State of Emergency" (2002) by VIS Entertainment and published by Take-Two comes in and fills the void.

State of Emergency is a third person beat' em up action game that has a new venue for a playfield: a riot. The story has the player taking part in an armed uprising against the "Corporation", fighting security guards, police, a riot team, the army and even sympathetic vigilantes as you complete objectives and try to obtain a high score.

State of Emergency suffered a backlash from video gamers who bought into the hype that this was another Grand Theft Auto game, considering that Rockstar, the maker of both games, had released "Grand Theft Auto III" a year previous. Gamers complained they couldn't aim weapons, carjack cars and that the levels were too small. However, that's the point: State of Emergency is a fast-paced action game, and not the open world sandbox game of GTA III. You couldn't aim weapons because that took too long, and the levels were small to accomodate the fast action and the numerous objectives that needed to be completed in short time. Unfortunately, State of Emergency never got the proper accolades it should have for being what it is: a fun, old-school game.

Being a Rockstar game, everyone could be reassured that there would be a level of controversy that has permeated every Rockstar game (except "Rockstar Presents Table Tennis" (2006)). Other Rockstar games were notable for its use of violence, sex, drugs and foul language, but State of Emergency was controversial for depicting a riot as being a fun environment to play in, having you kill both people of authority as well as innocents running around and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

State of Emergency allowed you to do many immoral activities; this isn't a video game you should recommend at your next PTA meeting, nor at your local law enforcement charity bingo fundraiser. Shooting cops and blowing up blameless bystanders sounds pretty immoral and evil until you see this game for what it is: largely amoral.

The "Corporation" and all of its agents are portrayed as corrupt and evil, whereas the rebellious insurrgents are depicted as good freedom fighters. It's true that the game rewards you in points, time and health bonuses when you kill a law enforcement agent with a weapon or your bare hands - a statement when compared to reality would conform to an "immoral" standard. However, this game features the same kind of oppressiveness shown by a totalitarian empire as does "Star Wars" (1977), admittedly, a children's movie. State of Emergency does differ in tone by featuring violent gore and blood that isn't suitable for children, but does feature just as Star Wars the same shallow depiction of evil that requires stopping.

Where State of Emergency is most interesting is in its depiction and treatment of innocent bystanders. While your protagonist is depicted as a moral character who is fighting the evil "Corporation", how you deal with these innocents is up to you. In the beginning stages it is easy enough not to target these uninvolved civilians, but in later stages and with more powerful weaponry it becomes harder and harder not to target and kill this collateral damage.

State of Emergency interestly has this amoral approach: only during certain times are you penalized for killing and injuring innocent bystanders; the game will say "Civilian casualties penalized," and take off points for every wayward bullet or RPG. However, at other times there is no penalty; you can fire into a crowd of innocents and enemies and let "God sort them out". In this way, State of Emergency depicts these innocents as a temporary hindrance at times. You're not trying to save them, nor are you trying to hurt them. Instead, they are just a objective at certain times to not harm despite the obvious duress you are under in this game.

However, this is very extreme amorality, right up to the point of immorality. What else would you say about someone who doesn't care if you live or die, but just sees you as "safe to shoot" or "not safe to shoot"? Being amoral to this degree reeks of moral insensitivity and immorality, but is still amorality. This close approximation makes for some confusion between amorality and immorality, but there is a difference, no matter how slight.

Makes for some great philosophizing. Also, makes for some great old-school action.

Rated: two out of 3 stars. Recommended, for the anarchist in you.
Played to completion on the PS2 on both Revolution and Chaos mode. Scored a high score of 2 or 3 million, can't remember, but it's higher than what you can get.

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