How video games can solve the problem of trolley problems

Note: This article contains big spoilers for the video games Prey and Soma. They’re both very good games and I encourage you to play them. While I know you will still find a lot to enjoy if you have something spoiled ahead of time, I encourage you to play one or both of them before reading on. That’s because if you read this first, there will be something the games cannot teach you, and which you may therefore never learn. You’ve been warned.

Note the Second: This article also contains comparatively minor spoilers for Maniac Mansion, Fallout, Fallout 3, Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One and a few others.

I’ve written about the “trolley problem” before. To briefly explain it for those unfamiliar with the concept, the trolley problem is an ethical thought exercise. The participant is faced with a series of dilemmas of escalating severity, the outcomes of which can be determined by whether or not the participant throws a hypothetical switch.

For instance, a train is barrelling down the tracks toward a man. If you throw the switch, the train will follow a different track, avoiding him. It would be tremendously difficult to argue, in that instance, that it isn’t ethically correct to throw the switch.

But then we have the train barreling toward two men, and if you throw the switch it will follow a different track and hit one man. That’s ethically muddier. Yes, you’d save two people instead of one, but that one will only die because you interfered. He’s safe unless you throw the switch. Which is ethically correct? Would your answer be different if it were five people in the train’s path and one that would be hit if you threw the switch?

The dilemmas take many forms from there, ultimately asking the participant to decide whether or not to intervene in any number of hypothetical situations. There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s simply a way for us and for sociologists to gauge our moral compasses.

When I wrote that article I linked to above, in January 2016, I referred to this as the Moral Sense Test, because that’s what I knew it as. (And, at least then, what it was actually called.) In the few short years since, the trolley problem has bled into the common language of popular culture, fueling a winkingly absurd meme page, an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and a card game by the Cyanide & Happiness guys, to name just a few examples.

I think it’s notable that the trolley problem has so rapidly found widespread resonance. After all, it is at is core an exercise in which we are faced with exclusively undesirable outcomes and are asked, in essence, to chose the least-bad one. That’s something the entire world has been doing, over and over again, since 2016. It’s become a part of life, and our entertainment reflects that.

But video games, well before there was ever a term for it, have been conducting (ha ha) trolley problems almost as long as they’ve been around. In fact, you face one pretty much any time a game gives you an actual choice.

In 1987’s Maniac Mansion, for instance, the evil Meteor (an extraterrestrial hunk of sentient rock turning the Edison family into murderous monsters) wreaking havoc in the basement of the Edison Mansion can be dealt with in a number of ways, and you get to decide which is most fitting. You can call the Meteor Police to arrest it. You can stick it in the trunk of an Edsel that you then blast into space. You can get it a book deal. (Maniac Mansion is weird.) If I’m remembering correctly, you can also simply destroy it. The fact that I can’t be sure of that lets you know, ethically, the kinds of choices I gravitated toward, but that’s neither here nor there.

The point is that each of these outcomes have potential pros and cons, if you’d like to think beyond the strict narrative boundaries of the game. The Meteor Police can take it into custody, but what if it breaks out? You can shoot it into space, but what if it lands somewhere that it can do even more damage? You can get it a book deal and give it something productive to spend its life doing, but does it deserve a happy ending — and profit — after ruining so many lives?

For another high-profile example, jump ahead 10 years to the game that kicked off my favorite series of trolley problems: Fallout. Your home of Vault 13 needs a part to repair its water purification system; without it, everyone in that shelter will die. You find the part you need in the town of Necropolis…where it’s in use by another community. Swap out the nouns and you’ve got an actual trolley problem. Do you throw this switch to save one group of people while damning another? Do you have that right? Can you rationalize it ethically?

You can, in fact, resolve this issue without damning either community. (At least, without directly damning either community.) Through a more difficult series of events, and a reliance on a skill your character may not even have, you can fix the Necropolis water system so that it will run without the part you need to take home. Time is of the essence, though; take too long to figure out how to do this — and risk not being able to do it anyway — and the residents of Vault 13 will die. That’s its own sort of trolley sub-problem: Is it ethical to risk lives you could save right now in the hopes that you might be able to save more later?

The Walking Dead

Jump ahead again to 2012’s The Walking Dead, 2015’s Life is Strange, and games along those lines, packed to the brim with trolley problems that often wear clever disguises, and which — much more in line with a formalized Moral Sense Test — process and analyze the numbers, letting you know what percentage of players made the same choices you did. You get to see how your personal morality measures up against a larger social average. (Presumably the developers of these games closely study the dilemmas that approach a 50%-50% split, in order to keep future choices just as tricky.)

Here’s the thing about the trolley problem, though: You’re making a decision consciously.

…well, yes, of course. Does that matter?

In a way, no. In a formal, Moral Sense Test-like environment, we are being asked to think. To ponder. To make a difficult decision that requires personal rationalization. Ultimately, we provide an answer. It may be one we’re unhappy with, neither outcome feeling personally, ethically correct. But that’s okay. Groups of people get studied through the years and sociologists track tends to come to some larger understanding of what is ethical.

In another way, yes, it absolutely matters, and it matters crucially. Because what we can get out of trolley problems ourselves is distinct from what a researcher studying data would get. To the researcher, those final decisions (along with, possibly, how long it took us to reach them) are important, but that’s it. We collect our $5 check and leave the office and they crunch data. The study goes on without us; the part we play in it has concluded and our specific answers will be smoothed out by averages.

But we, the individuals responding to any given trolley problem, can learn a little bit more about who we actually are. It’s a bit like that vegan billboard with a row of animals and the question “Where do you draw the line?” You’re supposed to think about it. Thinking is the point. Your decision — even in thought exercises such as these — is important, but it’s the thinking, the rationalization, the responsibility of accounting — inwardly — for what we would or would not do in a certain situation that matters.

That’s valuable knowledge. But because we know we’re making a decision — and an imaginary one without external consequences at that — it’s essentially bunk.

The decisions we make when faced with dilemmas on paper, in a formalized setting, in a multiple-choice questionnaire…they aren’t real. They reflect what we think we would do rather than what we would actually do. Because…well…they have to. We don’t know what we would actually do until we’re really in that situation.

In a general sense, we can see this in the number of films and television shows that pass focus group muster (or are altered to meet the feedback received) and flop massively. The participants in these focus groups are almost certainly honest — they stand to gain nothing from dishonesty — but the kind of project they think they’d enjoy isn’t the kind they actually end up wanting to see.

Or, as The Simpsons concluded after showing us focus-group absurdity in action, “So you want a realistic down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots?”

In a less-general sense, I worked at a university a few years ago, and we had a mandatory active-shooter drill. It was unpleasant, as you’d expect, but what will always stick with me is that during the debrief, as folks discussed exit routes and hiding places and the best ways to barricade specific doors, some of the younger members of staff made comments — under their breath sometimes, slightly over the rest of the time — about how they’d just run at the shooter and tackle him, try fighting, at least go down swinging…you get the picture. They mumbled and interjected, and that sucks, but at the same time, I get it.

A woman I love and respect dearly who is, I think, three or four years older than me, was evidently very displeased with their comments. She spoke up finally. She said, firmly, “You haven’t been in an active-shooter situation. I have. Everybody thinks they’re going to fight. They don’t. Everybody thinks they’re going to be the hero. They aren’t. When somebody comes to work with a gun and starts shooting at you, the last thing you’ll be wondering is how to get closer to them.”

I’m paraphrasing, necessarily. It was a sobering moment. She shared more details that aren’t necessary, suffice it to say both that a) hiding doesn’t indicate cowardice and b) the 250-ish mass shootings in America so far this year prove her right. You can count the number of people who tackled a gunman on one hand. Everything else is either resolved by the police or the gunman himself.

It’s a long way around, but in that debriefing, we were faced with a trolley problem, and the group of younger males gave their hypothetical answers. They weren’t lying. They were honest. That is what they assumed they’d really do. But my friend spoke up with the cold reality that in the moment, under pressure, unexpectedly having to respond, without time to think or plan or weigh options, they’d do something very different.

So while trolley problems — literal and figurative — are a great way to get people to think about right and wrong, ethical and unethical, where they’d draw the line…they are a terrible way of gauging how somebody would actually behave in the same situation. Both points of data are important, but we can only measure one in a controlled environment.

In the Moral Sense Test. In a debriefing. In a video game.

Controlled environments.

And so when you need to decide in The Walking Dead which of the starving members of your group get to eat that day and which have to go hungry, you know you — you playing the game — have the dual luxuries of time and distance. When tree-man Harold in Fallout 3 asks you to euthanize him, though keeping him alive against his wishes means foliage and wildlife returning to the Wasteland, you can think ahead. You can act pragmatically. You can understand that whatever happens, these are characters in a game and while you may not be happy with the outcomes of your choices, you won’t really have to live with them.

Enter 2017’s Prey. Initially I had intended to write this article focusing on Prey alone and praising it for being the best execution of the trolley problem I’ve ever seen.

Consider this your second — and final — spoiler warning if you ignored the one that opened this article.

Prey begins with a trolley problem. A real one. Several real ones, actually. Your character is run through a series of tests, including multiple-choice questions. Some of them are classic trolley problems, plucked right from the Moral Sense Test.

And that’s it. It doesn’t quite matter what you pick, because you don’t know the purpose of the test (yet) and, just like trolley problem exercises in our world, there are no consequences for your decision.

What we learn, gradually throughout the game, is that this isn’t our first time taking these tests. We are aboard a massive research station in outer space. We have developed neuromods (basically sets of knowledge, skills, and talents you can plug into your brain) using alien DNA. The neuromods are not able to be swapped in and out safely, at least without massive memory loss, but your character, Morgan, volunteers to be a test subject to change that.

So every day you’ve been taking the same tests, your memory wiped clean from installing and removing a neuromod. The scientists administering the tests are tracking your responses to see if there is a kind of memory left behind. Will your answers be the same each day? Will you arrive at them more quickly, because you have seen them before, even if you don’t remember them?

Well, we never find out because Prey is a horror game and the aliens bust out of containment and slaughter almost everybody aboard the space station.

You then wake up in your bed, as though from a nightmare…but the nightmare is real. It’s your bed — like your entire apartment — that’s a simulation. In order to avoid the panic that would come with waking up in surroundings that are in anyway unfamiliar (remember, your character doesn’t remember she’s repeating the same day and over), the researchers have set up a small number of rooms to simulate the same events in exactly the same way every day. Also, y’know, they want to make sure deviations can’t affect the data they’re collecting. Morgan is in a controlled environment.

One of the game’s great moments comes soon after the test, when you wake up in your room and you can’t leave. Something has gone wrong. You’re trapped until you smash the window overlooking the skyline in your high-rise apartment and find…that you’re actually on a sound stage.

It’s a good mind-fuck moment, but smashing that window also smashes the barrier between the two halves of the trolley problem’s data. Instead of simply answering questions on a touchscreen, Morgan is now going to find out what she would do in reality.

For most of Prey, you don’t encounter other survivors. You discover their corpses. Your friends and colleagues are torn to bits, smeared across walls and floors, in some cases braindead zombies controlled by the aliens running amok. As one might expect from a game such as this, you can find their audio logs and read their emails and dig old notes out of the trash cans to learn about who each of these people were.

Because they were people. They’re chunks of bloodied meat now, but they were people. You get to learn who they were and what they were doing. The first time you find a body, it’s scary and gross. As you learn about them and the lives your careless research has ended, it becomes sad. And then, of course, you get used to it. You’ve seen enough dead bodies — whatever number that is — that you are numb to them.

Which is why when you finally do encounter a survivor, it matters. In most games, meeting an NPC means you’ll get some dialogue or a mission or an option to buy things. Here it jolts you back to reality, because you have evidence that you aren’t alone, that someone else has lived through this nightmare, that with a friend by your side it becomes that much easier to figure out how the fuck to get out of this mess.

At least, that was my experience. Yours might have been different. After all, survivors have needs. They have requests. They can slow you down. And as the space station is gradually taken over by the aliens — something you witness unfold during the game, with hostiles encroaching as time passes into previously safe areas — you might well have decided to focus on yourself, your own survival, the much-more-pressing matter that’s larger than the safety of a colleague could ever be.

And at the end of the game, whatever decisions you made, however you handled the alien menace, whether or not you put your own needs above others’, you learn that you aren’t Morgan at all. You are a captured alien. You had Morgan’s memories implanted into you — like a neuromod — and were run through a simulation of the disaster that really did happen on the space station.

Why? Because whatever the real Morgan and others attempted was unsuccessful. The alien infestation has spread to Earth, and while humanity still exists it has decisively lost the battle. Throughout the game you searched for ways to beat back the invasion, without having any idea that it was already too late to win.

Humanity’s only hope is to broker a peace with the aliens. They won’t leave Earth, but perhaps they can achieve a kind of truce that would allow mankind, at least, to survive. By running you through that simulation and seeing how you responded to various things, the researchers are in a better position to decide whether or not you — this one particular alien — can feel enough empathy toward humanity to broker that truce.

In summary, it was a trolley problem. And the researchers in this case understood that hypothetical situations might not correlate to reliable data, and that can be a problem, especially now when they might not ever get another chance at success. They had to be certain, and for that reason they didn’t give the alien any formal version of the Moral Sense Test; they plunged him into a simulation without his knowledge or consent, because that was the only way they could be certain his responses to stimuli would be genuine.

They could have — if they really wanted to — found some way to ask him the same questions, giving him time to reflect, giving him the luxury of rational thought. But the only way they’d know for sure is to watch him make or not make those same decisions.

Is it worth attempting to rescue a survivor drifting in space, or does the fact that he’s minutes from death make him a lost cause? Do you put yourself in danger to retrieve necessary medication for another survivor, or do you leave her behind? (Complicating this one is the fact that she expressly tells you not to go back for it; she understands that she’s going to die and that it isn’t your problem.) Do you find some way to neutralize the alien threat? Do you contain it so that the neuromod research can continue? Do you say “fuck it” and just jet back to Earth leaving the space station to its fate?

The core “it was all a dream” reveal earned Prey some backlash, but not as much as I would have expected. The game was strong enough and well-enough written that many critics and fans gave it the benefit of the doubt and were willing to believe that the ending justified itself, whether or not they understood the reason for it.

Those who were critical of it argued that your decisions didn’t really matter, because you were making them in a simulation, and once that simulation was over you weren’t even in the same world anymore. But I’d argue that that’s exactly why they mattered. Before the reveal, you thought this was reality, and acted accordingly. Had you known it was a simulation, you might as well have been answering a series of yes or no questions.

The reveal means that at the end of the simulation, the researchers have a strong understanding of this alien’s particular sense of personal ethics…as well as the value (or lack thereof) of human life.

What Prey does beautifully, though, is encourage conversation beyond the boundaries of its own design. The alien saw through Morgan’s eyes. You see through the alien’s eyes seeing through Morgan’s eyes. The alien is, ultimately, playing what is essentially a video game, which is also what you’re doing. It’s a Russian nesting doll…a simulation within a simulation (and containing other, smaller simulations). You have a level of “belief” in the world that you wouldn’t have had if you’d known it was a simulation at the outset.

Games are always testing you, whether or not they do anything with the results. Prey just has the guts to let you know it. When the adventure aboard the space station is over, the alien is sitting upright in his chair, in a room far from anything he’s just experienced. You, likewise, are sitting in yours, in your own room, far from anything you’ve just experienced. The alien is directly and explicitly judged for his actions by the researchers.

Which…were your actions. They call him out for those he abandoned, those he failed to save, those he couldn’t save, and praise him for making decisions that helped others, to whatever small degree, even in the face of looming human extinction. The first-person view employed by the game means the researchers are also speaking to you, judging you precisely as much for precisely the same reasons.

Like the alien, you don’t get to answer some trolley problems and walk away, leaving the researchers to their data. You’re there, being lectured, accounting for the decisions you’ve made and the action you’ve taken or failed to take. You’re being told exactly how reliable you would have been in the face of catastrophe.

And it’s remarkable. It makes you think about what you’ve done in a way that has nothing to do with in-game rewards. The reward — or punishment — is inward, because in this moment of forced reflection you have to come directly to terms with who you’ve proven yourself to be. Were you a good person who tried their hardest? Were you a selfish ass? Probably you were somewhere in between, so were you closer to either end? Where do you draw the line?

In the first draft of this article that I never wrote, I was going to argue that Prey was gaming’s best trolley problem, because it both adheres to and undercuts our expectations of one, and it measures how we’d respond to a formal test and how we’d respond to an informal disaster. It asks us where we’d draw the line, and then it tests us, and forces us to account for drawing it any differently.

When I chose to end Harold’s life in Fallout 3, that was it. I felt his wishes were important, and keeping him alive against his will seemed cruel. If The Wasteland were going to be restored, it would have to find a way to do it without keeping an innocent man in a state of permanent agony. But then I moved on, and I did some other quests, and while I never quite forgot about Harold, I never had to account for what I did. As suggested by the dialogue options you see here, I was essentially answering a multiple-choice question, and afterward I could walk away.

In Prey, my decisions literally defined me, and they made me realize that they could define me in any other game as well. The only thing missing from other games is a panel of researchers materializing at the end to call me a standup guy or a piece of shit. But now that I’ve been judged for it once, unexpectedly, it’s redefined games in general for me.

They are simulations. Whether or not a researcher learns what I do, I can learn what I am.

Then, months later, I played Soma, and it may have outdone Prey with its own trolley problems, this time without ever drawing attention to the theme.

And that, I think, is important. It’s one thing to make a decision on paper. It’s another to know — or believe — you are making a decision in reality. It’s a third thing, and perhaps the most telling, to not know you’re making a decision at all.

In this third case, conscious thought doesn’t even enter into it. And when you make an ethical decision, you get a far better sense of who you are when you’re on autopilot. When you’re not thinking. When you aren’t even aware of what you’re doing.

In Soma, we play as Simon, a man suffering from a brain injury. Early in the game we visit his doctor, who attempts an experimental treatment (with Simon’s consent, I should add). He captures a digital model of Simon’s brain, and plans to run it through a variety of simulated treatments while Simon himself goes about his life. The idea is that eventually the simulation will hit upon a treatment that works, and then that treatment can be explored and potentially performed on the real Simon.

Fine, right?

Well, as Simon, you sit down in the doctor’s chair, the doctor starts working his equipment to capture the digital model of your brain, and in the blink of an eye you’re somewhere else entirely.

At first you don’t — and can’t — know where you are. The doctor’s office is replaced by cold steel and sparking electricity. You’re in an environment more advanced than the one you left, but also one that is clearly falling apart and long past its prime. Robots of various kinds roam the halls. Some seem to be afraid of you; others are clearly aggressive. You’ll probably ask yourself what the fuck is going on.

…and then you’ll probably know the answer. This is the simulation Simon’s brain is undergoing. Before the process began, we and Simon — and probably the doctor — figured a digital model of a brain was nothing more than 1s and 0s that could be reset millions of times over for the sake of simulating the results a near-infinite amount of stimuli and potential treatments would have on the real brain.

In fact, our outlook is given away by our word choices. “The real brain.” “The real Simon.” Everything else is just…data.

Until we wake up in this spooky, damaged environment that’s barely hanging together, infested by robotic creatures doing it further harm and attacking…well, us. Our consciousness.

This is how Simon’s brain — digital though it is — processes its situation. It doesn’t know it’s experiencing a simulation, so it assigns shadowy shapes to the dangers and represents its own neural pathways as a series of long, winding corridors, some of which are already damaged beyond repair. As the doctor bombards Simon’s brain with various potential treatments, the brain incorporates these new feelings — pleasure, pain, anxiety, hopelessness, fear — as additional aspects of the world it’s mentally constructed. New enemies appear, friendly faces introduce themselves, potential ways through and out of this ringing metal hellscape come together or fall apart…

It’s a clever and interesting way to observe the treatment as it happens from within the simulation, not just seeing but experiencing the ways in which the human mind strains to apply logic to that which it cannot understand.

…only, y’know, it’s not that. That was your brain trying to apply logic to what it couldn’t understand.

One of Soma‘s best twists is the fact that the situation in which Simon finds himself isn’t a twist. He is exactly where he seems to be.

He was in a doctor’s office one moment, and the next he was in this underwater research facility, isolated at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The more he explores and learns, the more we understand. Earth was struck by a meteor that wiped out life as we knew it. The researchers at the bottom of the sea survived the mass-extinction event, but obviously that would only be temporary. Humanity was doomed, and there wasn’t anything the few survivors at the bottom of the ocean were able to do about it. Simon’s nightmare turns out to be real.

And once you know what’s happening, the question instead becomes, “How did I get here?” After all, what does Simon have to do with any of this?

The answer is actually pretty simple: Nothing. Simon has nothing to do with any of this. So why is he here?

The answer comes later in the game, but I think it’s possible to overlook it if you’re not being thorough. You’ll find some recordings of the doctor who performed the experimental procedure on you. In one, he’s talking to Simon. To you. Only it’s something you haven’t heard before. It’s a recording made some time after you sat down in that chair and had your brain mapped.

The doctor tells you that the experiment has failed. None of the treatments seemed to work. He would not be able to help Simon recover from his brain injury.

However, the digital model of Simon’s brain could still potentially help others. It’s valuable data. It’s a major step forward in mankind’s potential understanding of neurology. He asks Simon for permission to keep using it, to keep experimenting on it, to share his findings and research with the greater scientific community.

Simon doesn’t hesitate. He says of course, please use it. He understands that he can’t be helped, but sees no reason whatsoever the digital model of his brain shouldn’t be used to help others.

You can possibly guess what happened at this point, but let’s step away from Soma for a moment.

I’ve thought about things like this before, and I’d have no problem with allowing the doctor to continue his research on my digital brain if I were in Simon’s situation. I know this, without question, because there is no reason not to. I would stand to gain nothing by refusing, and I’d be robbing society of potential enrichment.

The first time I was given reason to consider these things was when I read The Emperor’s New Mind, a non-fiction book exploring an intersection of mathematics and philosophy, with an eye toward artificial intelligence. Specifically, it was an early stretch of the book about teleportation.

It’s been years since I’ve read it, so I can’t quite remember why author Roger Penrose spent several pages discussing the established sci-fi concept of teleportation. Indeed, he’s specifically focusing on the fictional portrayals that we see in things such as The Fly and Star Trek, wherein a human being stands in one place and some futuristic device removes him from that place and places him at his destination.

Penrose argued that such a thing wouldn’t quite be teleportation. Instead, the man standing in one place would be destroyed by the process, and a second man — though identical — would come into existence at the destination. You aren’t teleported, in other words; you cease to exist and another version of you is brought into existence elsewhere. (This theory was even discussed in an episode of Breaking Bad.)

I didn’t quite buy it, which I remember thinking was okay. I didn’t get the sense Penrose was trying to convince me he was right; I think he was more encouraging me to think about things that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. I was a philosophy minor, which means I’m pretty comfortable with the thought process being more important and often more valuable then wherever you land at the end of it.

At the very least, I figured the distinction was academic. If Scotty beamed Kirk up, did it matter whether it was a single, smooth process or a destructive/reconstructive one? If the end result was the same — Kirk was there and now he is here, no worse for the wear — did it matter?

No. It didn’t. Easy.

Much later a friend shared with me the concept of Roko’s basilisk. I’m far from the person to explain it accurately, so please do correct me in the comments, but I’ll do my best to offer what I retained as the summary.

Roko’s basilisk is a hypothetical AI that could exist in the future. It’s advanced and capable of independent thought to degrees that we couldn’t possibly hope to create today. However, the reason we can’t create it today is that, y’know, we aren’t trying. We aren’t actively working to create it. We’re doing other things that gradually push the research forward, and we’ll eventually get there, but we’re not there today, weren’t there yesterday, and won’t be there tomorrow.

This pisses Roko’s basilisk off so much that when it does exist, it exacts revenge — in digital form — on everyone who didn’t actively help bring it about sooner. It tortures and torments simulated reconstructions of them for all eternity.

This is a scary concept, for some. “He’s basically God, but at the end of the universe instead of the beginning,” my friend said, and he definitely wasn’t referring to a loving or forgiving God. This was the Old Testament bloodthirsty God.

It’s not scary to me. It wasn’t and isn’t. Because a simulation of me isn’t me. I’ll die at some point. If a simulation of me lives on, who cares? If it’s tormented, who cares? If it’s treated like simulated royalty, who cares? It isn’t me, and I’m not here anymore.

The threat of Roko’s basilisk relies on a belief that a simulation of me is me.

But it’s not. So there.

Teleporters and basilisks. If it’s a copy, it isn’t you. If it’s you, it isn’t a copy. This is easy stuff, people.

So back to Soma.

Doomed at the bottom of the sea, one of the researchers has an idea. She comes up with a ray of hope, or the closest thing to a ray of hope the last straggling survivors of the apocalypse could have.

She proposes the construction of what she calls an “ark.” It’s basically just a computer, and the survivors can digitize and install their consciousness to it. Then she’ll blast it into space and…that’s it. They’ll still die, here, alone, without any hope of rescue, at the bottom of the ocean. But in theory, at least, mankind will live on. It’s just 1s and 0s representing people who are no longer alive, but it’s something, right?

In the game, we learn all of this in the form of gradual backstory. The ark project has already happened. It’s never presented to us as a “solution” to the problem. Instead, it’s something constructive the researchers can do, a project they can work on rather than wait around to die.

Another researcher, though, seems to subscribe to Penrose’s belief. Copying one’s consciousness to the ark wouldn’t really copy you over, because the two versions of you would deviate from each other far too quickly. One of you is on the ark, and the other is at the bottom of the sea, doing things, living his life, going about his final days, drifting further and further from who he was when his consciousness was copied to the ark. Before long — before any time at all, really — it wouldn’t be you on that ark anymore. It would be something — or somebody — based on what you were at some point. That’s distinct from “you.” It would be somebody else.

So this researcher shares his views with some others. He calls it Continuity, and he convinces others of it as well. It requires the survivors to commit suicide as soon as they upload their consciousness to the ark. That’s Penrose’s teleportation. The version of you on the ark would be you, because you existed here and now you’re there. There would be no deviation (aside from the necessary one: one of you committed suicide), and you would actually get to live on in a digital form.

It’s madness, of course. It’s idiotic and false, but it catches on, and a number of researchers do kill themselves right after the upload, all in service of Continuity. Which is complete bullshit. Because they exist. The “real” versions of them are destroying themselves and the false, lesser, artificial copies are being preserved.

I know exactly where I stand. The Continuity. Penrose’s teleportation. Roko’s basilisk.

I understand what everyone’s getting at. I see their points. I follow their arguments. And I disagree.

But what of Simon?

Simon, we learn, isn’t Simon. At the beginning of the game, Simon is Simon. When we find ourselves in the sealab, though, “Simon” is a robot with Simon’s memories loaded into it. That’s why we popped right from the doctor’s office into the research station; that’s when the mind-mapping happened. Whatever Simon did after that, “Simon” doesn’t have access to. Between the space of two seconds, he stopped existing there and started existing here.

His consciousness is loaded onto this robot because the doctor spread his research far and wide. He made it available — again, with Simon’s consent — for others to use, to study, and, in this undersea laboratory, to employ. As we wandered the research station and fought to survive, we thought we were controlling Simon, but we were controlling a robot who thought he was Simon. Oops.

At some point, “Simon” has to explore the depths of the ocean outside of the lab. The pressure would crush his robot body, though, so with the help of another AI he decides to load his consciousness — Simon’s consciousness — into a different, sturdier body.

Why not? He’s just a robot, right? What difference does it make which body he uses?

So you sit down in a chair like you did at the beginning of the game and in the space between two seconds your consciousness is copied from one body into another. You open your eyes in your new, sturdier frame and…you hear yourself asking, from the chair you initially sat down in, why the transfer didn’t work.

Because that version of Simon kept existing. It sat in the chair and…stayed there. Nothing happened, from his perspective. But from your perspective, everything happened. You popped into existence elsewhere, in another form. The Simon in the chair panics and passes out.

That’s it. You need to explore those depths. That’s your next task. You aren’t making a moral or ethical choice. Soma is linear and you follow a set of objectives in a predetermined sequence.

But when this happened, I didn’t leave the research station the way I should have. That was my goal, that’s what I had been working toward, and now I could do it. But I didn’t do it.

Instead I walked over to the Simon in the chair and shut him down.

Because if I left him there, he’d wake up. And he’d be trapped. Because he can’t go any farther and his body can’t withstand the pressure. He’d be left alone with the scary monsters at the bottom of the sea with no hope of rescue. So I shut him down. I killed him.

Because he wasn’t a robot.

Or, he was. Obviously he was. But wasn’t he also Simon? Wasn’t he me?

He was. I controlled him. The game said I was Simon, and I controlled Simon. Later I learned it was a robot with Simon’s consciousness, and fine…it’s sci-fi. Life goes on.

But then when I transferred to another body, and that Simon stayed alive…panicking, asking why the transfer didn’t work, fretting, knowing he was trapped…I suddenly saw him as more than just a robot with Simon’s consciousness. He was me. I really would be leaving “me” behind. I really would be subjecting “me” to an eternity of hopeless torment. That robot could survive without any hope of escape for years, decades, centuries. Trapped and distraught and miserable. And I couldn’t let that happen.

So I didn’t let that happen.

And the best thing about how Soma handles this trolley problem is that it doesn’t present it as one. I’m not being faced with a moral dilemma. I’m not being told that my ethics are being measured. In fact, they aren’t.

A number of situations like this occur throughout Soma, and at no point do your decisions have in-game consequences. If you spare someone’s life, they won’t come back and help you later. If you choose option A, you don’t get a better weapon. If you choose option B, you don’t get a better ending. If you choose option C, you don’t open up new and interesting dialogue choices.

Soma is designed so that it doesn’t matter, to the game, what you do. It is, after all, a dead-end situation. Humanity is doomed. You’re a robot investigating a sea of corpses. Do the right thing, do the wrong thing, it doesn’t matter. It’s already over. The game doesn’t care, and the tasks unfold the same way however polite or rude you are while doing them.

And that’s fantastic. Because it means the consequences are within you. The game doesn’t judge you; you judge yourself.

And because it doesn’t judge you, and doesn’t even pretend to judge you, the data you can gather about your own moral compass is far more reliable.

Soma didn’t present me with a moral choice regarding shutting Simon down. I could do it or not; it wasn’t the task at hand. But the mere fact that I saw it — immediately and urgently saw it — as an act of mercy is remarkable.

Had I been asked if a simulation of me were me, I’d have said no. In fact, I had said no every time I encountered the prospect in the past. Put my hand on that lever and present me with the trolley problem, because I know my answer.

But Soma doesn’t structure it as a trolley problem. I think it “knows” that players will question things like Continuity and the simulated treatments for Simon’s brain damage and many other things and arrive at their own conclusions. I’m pretty sure most of them would have arrived at the same one I did: a copy of something isn’t that thing.

And Soma is fine with that.

But then it puts us in a situation that gives us a chance to prove our beliefs. It’s just something that happens. We don’t have to pay attention to it, but we will.

Because when we can sit back and rationalize something in a hypothetical sense, we’ll come to a conclusion. In reality, faced with the actual situation, without the luxury of theory and cold logic to separate us from what’s really happening right now, we could well come to a different conclusion.

Soma raised a question I’d already answered many times before. That could still be interesting, but probably wouldn’t be meaningful. What gave it meaning was the fact that, for the first time ever, it got me to answer that question differently.

It reset my thoughts. It allowed me to think the problem through all over again, arrive at the same conclusion, and then proved me wrong. It showed me the flaws in my own reasoning not by providing a counter-argument, but simply by giving me the chance to practice what I preached.

And I didn’t

And I didn’t even realize I didn’t.

I wasn’t in that situation and thinking, “Actually, now I understand that simulations of me are me.” I was in that situation and I thought, “I can’t fucking do this to myself. I can’t leave myself here. I’d rather die than be left here.”

And I moved on with my life. I moved on through the game. I turned the game off and I got ready for bed. And somewhere, at some point, it clicked in my mind.

Because I wasn’t given a trolley problem. I just did something and later reflected on that decision and realized just how completely my actions flew in the face of what I thought I believed.

I understood myself a little better after that. Soma took both the trolley problem and the real-world application of the same problem, and let us see whether or not our actions supported our beliefs.

The game doesn’t know what my beliefs were before this moment. The game doesn’t care. Nor should it.

But I should sure as hell care.

Soma didn’t present me with a difficult moral quandary. At least, not directly. It just let me do whatever I did. And then later, inside, lying down, trying to fall asleep and failing to do so, I found myself evaluating my decisions and reevaluating things I thought I’d figured out long ago.

Trolley problems help us decide where we draw the line, but they tend to involve rationalizations after the fact. We decide what we’d do and then attempt to justify it, landing on some explanation that satisfies us, regardless of its degree of bullshit content.

This version of the problem asked me to draw the line, which I did. Then it pulled back the curtain to reveal that actually, when not drawing it consciously, I drew it somewhere very different.

That’s the best version of the trolley problem, I think. It’s not just a difficult one that provides useful data…it’s one that makes us realize how far from the truth our rationalizations actually are.

Video games are uniquely positioned to help us experience these awakenings, and so far I believe Soma has done it best. Games are simulations that immerse us in little worlds, and we do within them as we please. If a game can reveal the band of darkness between our beliefs and our methods, that’s uniquely valuable, and potentially revelatory.

Announcing: The MaXmas Bash! (and more)

Things have been quiet, so let me address that first.

50% of the reason for that is me being busy. I submitted another draft of my book to the publisher at the end of July, and I’ve been working regularly on scripts for Triple Jump. Subscribe to them if you haven’t, because they’re fantastic.

In fact, the latest video I wrote happened to be uploaded today. Check it out and get a sense of why Triple Jump is a large — though rewarding — time investment:

Yeah. That’s 72 minutes of me going on about Batman games, and obviously the time it took to research them, find them, and play them was…well, you can imagine what it was.

I’ve also been working at my actual job, of course, and moving into the home I recently bought. That’s…a lot.

The rest of it, though, is me being drained and fatigued and frustrated by the world and what’s happening in this country specifically. It’s disheartening to see photos of overcrowded detention centers and to read the stories of mistreatment. It’s disheartening to hear the president telling congresswomen of color to go back where they came from. It’s disheartening to walk into work so frequently past flags at half mast because there’s been yet another shooting that won’t change anything.

I’m a very empathetic person, as you all certainly know by now, and it takes a lot out of me. Usually by the time I’m done with the things I need to do, I don’t have the energy to do much of what I’d like to do. I might watch a movie. I might read a few pages in a book. I might play a video game. More likely, I’ll be so drained I just go straight to bed and hope I’ll wake up to a better tomorrow. Eventually I hope that will actually happen.

All of which is to say, I haven’t had “extra” time or energy for a while. As soon as that changes, I’ll be doing more here. I still have a lot of things I’d love to cover, and I thank you for sticking with me and being patient in the meantime.

The one thing I really regret is that I wasn’t able to get you anything in terms of the lost ALF episode I managed to obtain. The time and energy weren’t there, but, also…well, a second unmade ALF script made its way into my hands. It’s called “Reflections,” and though I missed my self-imposed deadline, I now get to write about two episodes that never were. So stay tuned for that. A whole other script to discuss means it will be absolutely worth the wait.

Of course, there are two holidays I never miss, and I’ll talk to you right now about what to expect.

Trilogy of Terror: Every year I cover three related horror films in my Trilogy of Terror series. This year I am covering three films by one of my absolute favorite directors as I discuss John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy. If you’d like to watch ahead (and I suggest you do, if only because they’re very good films), here is the posting schedule for the writeups:

Oct 17: The Thing (1982)
Oct. 24: Prince of Darkness (1987)
Oct. 31: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

The MaXmas Bash!: And for Christmas, I bring out the big guns in the form of the Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash! This year, though, in memory of Max Wright, we’ll do something a little bit different. The MaXmas Bash! is going to be similar to the Xmas Bash!, but with a few tweaks to pay homage to the star of ALF, the show that kicked off this whole stupid mess.

The MaXmas Bash! will be a live stream event. To participate, you just have to come to this very site at the appointed date and time. There will be seven forgotten Xmas specials (two of which star Max Wright!), lots of strange Xmas music and curios, vintage commercials, live chat, and much more. We’ll be raising money for The Trevor Project once again, and pouring out some eggnog for the late, great Willie Tanner.

Join us right here on Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. Eastern. I’ll set up a Facebook event page for those who like to keep track of it that way, but you don’t need to RSVP. Just show up ready for another heaping helping of the most syrupy, gooey, cloying Xmas crap imaginable. You’ll like it!

Anyway, that’s all for now. At some point I’ll be able to post something that can’t be boiled down to “I’m still not dead,” and hopefully soon. Once the book is completely done and dusted, I’ll have a lot more time. And, hey, who knows. Maybe we’ll get that brighter tomorrow after all.

Don’t lose hope.

At the absolute least, I’ll see you Oct. 17 for Trilogy of Terror and Dec. 14 for the MaXmas Bash! Don’t miss either of them. I love you all.

Reflections on Max Wright’s Passing

Here’s a fact: Max Wright hated being alive.

Can I say that with confidence? Yes. Do it mean it unilaterally? No; of course I don’t. But at some point, early in the production of ALF, he stopped enjoying what he did for a living. He had a few roles after the show, but nothing major. He stopped doing interviews. He stopped acting in general. He retreated from public life, living most of his final years alone, behind a door that rarely opened. He stopped talking to his friends and family.

I shouldn’t have the right to say “he stopped talking to his friends and family” and mean it, and yet, I do. For the past few years, people claiming to know him, to miss him, to want messages passed on to him, seeking assurance that he was still alive and hadn’t died in his apartment without anyone knowing, reached out to me. I won’t provide any names — or their relationships to him, which would just as easily give them away — but please take a moment to consider something with me:

Max Wright was so difficult to get a hold of, so impossible to reach even by those who loved and cared about him personally, for decades, that these people reached out to me for help.

Me.

The asshole who chronicled the worst experiences of Max Wright’s life and made a crack joke every few sentences. I refuse to believe any of them reached out to me because they expected I knew him. I do believe they reached out to me because they’d tried everything else and were desperate.

Here’s another fact: I never met the guy. I never spoke with him, or corresponded with him in any way. Now I never will. He passed away last week. Whenever his old friends and estranged family members wrote to me, I replied politely. I let them know that I meant no offense by my jokes, and that I wished them luck in finding him.

I’d be surprised if any of them did manage to get in touch. He made a conscious effort to be left alone. In 2015 the National Enquirer located and tried to speak with him. He refused to open the door and provided only a two-word quote: “Please leave.”

If he knew it was the National Enquirer, I have to say I can’t blame him. They were the ones in 2001 who ran the photos of Max Wright at a gay hobo crack orgy.

Here’s a fact: The words hobo, crack, and orgy are funny.

Here’s another fact: On April 18, someone (anonymous aside from the letter J.) left a comment on this blog saying, “Max Wright’s crack addiction is not funny,” and J. is right.

Addiction isn’t funny. I grew up with an alcoholic father who was distant, abusive, and cruel. The fact that I struggle with mental health issues is unlikely to be his fault. The fact that I feel guilty about them and have had so much trouble addressing them in healthy ways is almost certainly his fault.

In terms of drug addiction, I’ve seen it ruin — and sometimes take — the lives of many people I cared about. Classmates. Friends. Colleagues. My brother.

Joking about a topic or enjoying jokes about a topic doesn’t necessarily mean you find that topic funny. You find the joke funny. Perhaps it’s well told. Perhaps it’s just shocking. Perhaps it’s sarcastic or knowingly inaccurate.

I’ve laughed at jokes about many terrible topics. It’s one way of coping with them. With processing them. Depending on the context, people getting shot, robbed, stabbed, falling off of buildings, and getting eaten by monsters have all made me chuckle.

Because they’re jokes. And laughing at one doesn’t imply in any way that you’d find the same thing happening in real life funny at all.

If you were to ask me how many times I’ve laughed at addiction — real, actual addiction, in the real world — I could answer with an honest zero.

Or can I? Because I’ve laughed at Max Wright.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had crack-fueled gay sex with homeless people, on video.

Here’s a related fact: True or not, that always felt so far detached from reality that humor was the only way I could even vaguely understand it.

I didn’t know the guy. I didn’t watch his life fall apart. I wasn’t there with his wife, fretting through the night that he wasn’t coming home. I wasn’t one of his kids coping with the rumors. I wasn’t a friend trying to hold him together, encouraging him to get help, praying that he would be okay.

For them, it wasn’t detached from reality. They understood it in ways that humor would never have possibly entered into.

For me, Max Wright was the stupid dad from ALF.

The stupid dad from ALF smoked crack and gathered homeless people for orgies.

I’m not going to say there’s something wrong with you if you don’t find that inherently absurd. But I will say that that’s the only way it ever registered to me.

Me. A nobody on the internet, who liked to say bad words about a puppet show he used to love.

Here’s another fact: I was always worried that Max Wright would die while I was writing my ALF reviews, and I wouldn’t be able to make jokes about him anymore.

Because when someone dies, things get more real.

He’s not the stupid dad from ALF. He’s an old man who died without anyone who wanted to help being able to reach him. It’s too late now. He’s dead. It’s too late, whatever you wanted to do. It’s too late for everything now. His life is over.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright has never read my reviews. I know some of ALF‘s writers have. I know Anne Schedeen at least knows about it, because a few months ago she started following me on Facebook. (Here’s a fact: My heart flutters just thinking about that.) I have been given reason to believe two other people associated with the show have read it.

But Max Wright never read my reviews, and he never will. He had no interest in speaking about ALF. He had very little interest in speaking about it even when he was on the show, with the most significant interview I ever found taking place over the course of a few minutes during a smoke break.

He hated the show. He never made any secret of that, and we don’t need interviews to come to that conclusion. Whether he was beating the shit out of the ALF puppet in front of guest star Dean Cameron or getting in his car the moment his final scene for “Consider Me Gone” ended, without even saying goodbye or sticking around for any necessary reshoots, it was obvious.

Max Wright hated his job.

After the National Enquirer story broke, he hated his life.

After dealing with the fallout, he hated that his friends and family were reaching out to him, and he stopped letting them do that. Max Wright hated the world enough that he did exactly what I do and what you do when we hate something: He took active steps to stay away from it whenever possible.

Here’s a fact I don’t think I ever mentioned in my reviews. I meant to mention it in my farewell post, but I didn’t. If you ever wondered why that post is so short, that’s why. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because of this related fact: It still really fucking hurts.

Years ago, I entered into a relationship that turned toxic quickly. I expected it could get better if I worked hard at it, so I did. It never got better. I felt trapped and inadequate. I tried everything. As hard as I worked at keeping it together, she worked at tearing me down.

Thanks to my upbringing, I didn’t know what love was supposed to feel like. Also, I was fully prepared to accept any shortcomings as my own. Things were my fault. Why wouldn’t they be? They always had been in the past.

She bled me dry, emotionally and financially. She spent my money quickly and eagerly enough that — deliberately or not — I wasn’t able to get away. Genuinely. I had nowhere I could go. I could move out, but I’d have nowhere to stay. Now I know I had many friends who would have taken me in, but then, at the time, in the situation, I could not see that. In fact, the one friend I would have turned to is the one she singled out, telling me that she’d spoken to that friend, and that that friend was appalled with me and didn’t want to hear from me.

I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? I was a terrible person who deserved to be treated like that and shut off from contact with my friends.

She never spoke to that friend. At all. It wasn’t an exaggeration, it wasn’t misleading, and it wasn’t a misinterpretation. It was a complete and total lie. She made it up so that I would feel trapped. So that I would have nowhere to go. And it worked.

At one point, finally, I left. I’d love to say I was strong enough to do so in that moment, and maybe I was, but I felt like I was at my weakest. I had nothing to my name. I found a cheap room to rent with someone who was — thankfully — a sweet and understanding human being who became a dear friend and helped me get back on my feet.

But I’m jumping ahead there. I was alone in a room on an air mattress. I had nothing. I had no money. Every single day I thought about suicide, not because I was in despair, but because…well, why not? What was I hanging around for, exactly? Why was this life, this particular life, worth living?

I needed a distraction, and, historically, I had always found that distraction in writing. But writing about anything that had happened to me — or that I was going through — did not seem appealing. I didn’t want to relive any of it. Shit, I still don’t, and it’s hard enough just glossing over it here.

But I needed to write. I knew that. That was my therapy.

And I decided to write about ALF. I could take out my frustrations. I could focus on something thoroughly worthless. I could act like an idiot and tell stupid jokes and give myself a god-damned reason to get the fuck out of bed.

I’d forgotten that the mom on ALF was named Kate. That was my ex’s name.

If I’d remembered that, I wouldn’t have committed to reviewing ALF. Kate was not a name I wanted to hear. In fact, those first few episodes were rough going for me.

But the Kate on ALF was…great, actually. She was funny. She was by leaps and bounds the best actor. She was the most stable and reliable character in the entire thing. I quickly came to dissociate the name from what I had learned it meant.

The writing helped me. The readers and their laughter helped me. And Kate — this Kate — helped me, because she took the most traumatic experience of my life and let me see that it was over, and I could find new things and make new associations now.

Here’s a fact: I was having fun. I was doing something I enjoyed. If you read my reviews now and hear misery and disdain and agony, it’s an act. It’s a lie. I loved every fucking minute of it. Of watching the show, of writing about the show, of reading your comments.

It was everything I needed to get back on my feet again. To be myself again. To learn that I had value.

I’ve laughed at toxic relationships and jokes about them. By no means do I find toxic relationships funny. I can sure as hell promise you that. But by taking my real-life sadness and anger and frustration and playing it up for the purposes of reviewing one of the worst sitcoms in American history, I was able to cope with it. I faced it through humor. Instead of being overcome by my emotions, I chose to wear them like a costume, and I did a little dance, and I made people laugh, and then when I was done, I was able to take that costume off.

Forever.

There’s an entire story you were never told.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright gave me the most enjoyment on the show, by far.

He wasn’t the best actor and he didn’t get the best lines, but watching him was fascinating. He almost never seemed to try, but he did the bare minimum. He hated his job, but he showed up every day. He hated the show, but he never quit. He sped away from the set the moment he had nothing left to shoot in the final episode, but he showed up for work that day and did his damned job.

That’s admirable, in its own way, and also so interesting. Watching Max Wright in the show, it’s less like somebody is playing Willie and more like a ghost is loosely inhabiting him. In the strictest, most technical sense of the word, he’s acting. But mainly he’s just a presence, moving his lips and his body without having any particular interest in anything that’s happening around him.

It’s bizarre. There were times I genuinely couldn’t understand what he was saying. I still don’t know if he referred to a woman named Julie or a man named Patchouli. He called himself “Wooly Tanner” in one scene and it wasn’t reshot. It’s just part of the show. Max Wright half-assing his way through the least ambitious sci-fi comedy in history is part of what gives it its charm.

He wasn’t happy. Neither was I. But ALF gave us both a reason to get out of bed.

Here’s a fact: When the Max Wright crack hobo scandal broke, none of his previous colleagues or costars came out in support of the guy.

Nobody, at any point, said, “I know Max and that’s not Max.” Nobody said, “This is a lie made up to sell magazines.” Nobody said, “The photos may look like him, but that’s not him.”

Max Wright was tried in the court of public opinion, and nobody took his side.

But his wife stayed with him.

He had several other drug-related scandals that decade, and she stayed with him.

Here’s a fact: I’ve always wondered why.

Well, okay…it was love. The last thing I want to do to this poor dead guy is introduce the idea that his wife couldn’t have possibly loved him.

But I wondered what those conversations must have been like.

Relationships end over lies. Over infidelity. Over destructive behavior. And that’s okay. Those are understandable stopping points.

What did he have to say to her to keep their marriage together after videotaped evidence of his hobo crack orgies surfaced? What did she say to him? What kind of balance could they have possibly achieved?

We’ll never know. She died two years ago. And now he is dead, too.

By 2015, they were no longer together. They stayed married until her death, but they didn’t live together. He was alone. I don’t know if she was.

And I still wonder what those conversations must have been like. To not get divorced, but also not be together. To not split up over the scandal, but also to never see each other. To stay in each other’s lives, but to live completely separate lives in two different places.

Here’s a fact: For whatever reason, I believe she loved him. I believe she thought he could change, or get the help he needed. Maybe she was right. Maybe she was delusional. But he was the one seeking (very dangerous) sexual action on the side. And she stayed with him.

After she died, he went to Germany.

Here’s a fact: Max Wright had a happy ending.

ALF remains popular in Germany, but he still didn’t want to talk about the show. In fact, he refused to even speak of it to his new German boyfriend.

For the final few years of his life, he was in a committed relationship with a German man. Photos exist. They look happy. You can find them, if you want to. They aren’t as easy to find as the National Enquirer photos of a disheveled old man taking out his trash, but they’re out there.

And that’s a part of his life — the final part of his life — that the English-language reports omit. They’re happy to remember him as a has-been. A washed-up actor with a legacy of scandals. The stupid dad from ALF.

The German stories are where you’ll learn of his relationship. Of the positivity he found very late in his life. Of the happiness he wanted and never had before.

I don’t know what he felt or didn’t feel for his wife, but I do think it says something that she stayed married to him until the day she died, and he entered into a relationship with a man as soon as she was gone. She waited for something that never came. He left for something else the moment he could.

But he found it.

According to reports, Max Wright died in the same little apartment he’d occupied alone for so many years, out of the public eye. But I don’t know if that’s true. The details seem to all be traced back to a single TMZ story, which Max Wright’s son is said to have corroborated. TMZ is hardly a reliable primary source, and I have no clue what his son did or didn’t actually say to them.

He could have died in Germany, for all I know. He could have died happy, somewhere far from his own past, somewhere nobody he used to know would be able to find or reach him. I wouldn’t put it past TMZ to make something up, and they don’t seem to have picked up on the news of his German exploits at all. Maybe they just assumed he died in the last place they saw him.

Because that’s the lens through which they viewed him. Max Wright didn’t exist until he had a camera on him, be it ALF‘s, the orgy guy’s, or the National Enquirer‘s. We see him from a distance, welcome or not. We draw our conclusions. We move along to the next thing. We’ll come back if anything else embarrassing happens to the guy, because that fits our idea of who he is, was, and must be.

They weren’t there for the conversations with his wife. They weren’t there for the talks with his kids. They didn’t experience the desperation of his friends and family who tried to reach him and tried to help.

His isn’t a redemption story. He’s the stupid dad from ALF. We know how that one is supposed to end. It’s a joke, so it ends with a punchline.

I’ve done my part cementing Max Wright as a washed-up nobody, best known for smoking crack in his underpants in an abandoned warehouse. I did it with this blog, these reviews, right here, with all of you.

So here’s the fact I’ll leave you with: He found love with a man who cared about him. That’s evidence that his failures weren’t all he was. That’s not all he had. That’s not where he ended up.

There’s an entire story we were never told.

Probably because we wouldn’t have listened.

Rest in peace, Max.

New video, new show, new house

I announced it on the Facebook page — be sure to follow that if you don’t already for quick updates that don’t warrant a full post — but I wanted to wait until I had something specific to show you before I announced it here:

I have officially joined the Triple Jump team as a writer. You can watch the first video I’ve scripted — posted this very day — here:

So, a few notes on this. Firstly, Every X Ranked Worst to Best is a brand-new show on the channel, and so far I’m the only one writing for it! That doesn’t mean it’s my show in any way — in fact, please allow me to make clear that it is not — but it does mean I get to help it find a voice and an audience, which is immensely flattering to me.

Secondly, you may have come across Ben and Peter at either WhatCulture or Vidiots before. Triple Jump is their personal venture, and I certainly encourage everyone to like and subscribe to their channel. They don’t just make some of the funniest video-game stuff on the internet, but they’re great people as well, and by doing something as simple as subscribing you’re helping them do what they love. (And, y’know, helping me as well.)

If you don’t know Ben and Peter, I’d strongly encourage you to watch their Worst Games Ever series, which has followed them between channels. It’s fantastic.

Also, if you subscribe, you’ll get to watch a bunch of stuff I’m writing, which is evidence that I really am writing, guys!

Yes, I know it’s been quiet here, but I do have a lot of things in the works. One of which is TripleJump, which is a lot of very fun work that I already enjoy immensely, so please do support it by subscribing. Another of which is another draft of The Book I Can’t Quite Talk About Yet, incorporating a third round of very helpful feedback. It’s coming together great, I’m happy with it, and at some point I hope to talk about it before I die.

And the other big thing I’ve been doing is…buying a home. This is a huge thing for me, especially as it was made very clear to me that if I chose writing as a career path I was basically signing up to be a hobo.

Instead, well…I’ve done alright for myself, but I’ve also spent my entire adult life renting. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are certain things I’ve always wanted with a place of my own that I couldn’t easily (or perhaps even wisely) have in a rental, such as a library area, or a freestanding arcade cabinet. Now I get to actually create the home I’ve always wanted, and that feels really great.

So stay tuned. More is coming. Much more is coming. And I appreciate your patience as so much comes together. It takes a while sometimes to get where you’re going, but as long as you’re moving, I think you’re doing okay.

Small Particles

O my countrymen!–be nice;–be cautious of your language;–and never, O! never let it be forgotten upon what small particles your eloquence and your fame depend.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Before we begin, this is your fair warning that this post contains plot spoilers for Far Cry: New Dawn. I can’t quite decide if I’d call them minor spoilers, so if you plan on playing it and believe any story-related spoilers would interfere with your enjoyment, bail now.

Okay.

I finished Far Cry: New Dawn recently, and I enjoyed it very much. It retained just about all of the best things about Far Cry 5 and cut huge amounts of fat. The result is a tight, focused experience that allows for plenty of freedom but also never loses sight of itself for the sake of providing more content.

I wasn’t quite sure going in whether or not I would encounter a sincere ethical dilemma at any point in the story. I hoped I would — as those are almost always my favorite parts of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic games — but I was also fully aware that Far Cry, as a series, is about moment-to-moment action and bombastic thrill.

I did finally get my ethical dilemma toward the end of the game. It was a good one, but it was complicated in a way I didn’t expect and which I still don’t know how to process.

If you regret ignoring my first spoiler warning, consider this to be your last one.

In Far Cry: New Dawn, you play as a different character from the one you played in Far Cry 5, but it’s a direct sequel — set around 20 years later — and you encounter a few of the same characters, including that game’s central villain, Joseph Seed.

In Far Cry 5, Eden’s Gate — his doomsday cult in rural Montana — is a genuinely dangerous force that commits atrocities against the residents of Hope County, which Joseph and his followers have seized.

Throughout the game you liberate the county inch by inch as you fight your way toward Joseph. When you finally do confront him, the distant explosion of a nuclear bomb vindicates his prophecy — though certainly not his methods. Doomsday was coming, and now it’s here.

In Far Cry 5, Joseph is very clearly a villain. You can argue that he’s charismatic. You can, ultimately, argue that he’s correct. But as a human being, the most slack you could possibly cut him is a willingness to believe that he’s a slave to severe mental illness.

He is not sympathetic, and any sympathy you could possibly feel for him is stripped away every time you see his followers gassing innocents, peeling their skin off, or executing them on the roadside.

That’s okay. There’s enough going on that Joseph Seed doesn’t seem one-dimensional, even if the game doesn’t complicate his role as villain.

In Far Cry: New Dawn, the game complicates his role as villain.

Here, the villain title — within both the game and its marketing materials — is usurped by Mickey and Lou, the twin leaders of a massive group of raiders called The Highwaymen.

Being as Joseph survived the events of Far Cry 5, the twins taking over as villains suggested two possibilities to me. Either Joseph is now reformed, or the twins are so terrible, his behavior seems tame in comparison.

Both of these things are true.

While Joseph and his followers behaved horrendously and absolutely did need to be stopped — in the face of a looming apocalypse or not — they operated by a kind of logic. Cruel, reprehensible logic, but as you take down his three “Heralds” who each control their regions, their individual motives and methods are clear. There is a kind of law — a clear system of transgressions and punishments — at work. The whip comes down for reasons you were explicitly told the whip would come down.

The twins, in sharp contrast, are wildcards. They behave every bit as terribly as Joseph and Eden’s Gate did, but they do so for the hell of it. There’s a bit of loose logic behind their actions (so loose it would only muddy the discussion to get into it here), but they are ultimately creatures of selfish impulse.

Talk back to them and they might smack you. Or kill you. Or kill your friend. Or kidnap your family. Or burn your settlement to the ground. They’re capricious. They’re unpredictable. And so while someone could — in theory at least — carve out a life for themselves within the strict and unforgiving doctrine of Eden’s Gate, nobody, at any point, could possibly be safe from the twins, because there are no rules. There is no system by which one can avoid punishment. When The Highwaymen drive by, you can do nothing other than hope that they keep driving.

So, yes, the twins are worse on a day-to-day basis than Joseph was.

And Joseph has also reformed.

He is no longer violent. He has abdicated his seat at the head of Eden’s Gate, and lives a life of simple, isolated humility. (Well…comparative humility.) The settlement he founded is the most successful one in post-blast Hope County. It’s self-sustaining, quiet, and peaceful. His followers have traded guns and fatigues for bows and cloaks. Unlike the Eden’s Gate of the previous game, which worked to actively conquer the land, the group now coexists with it. It lives in easy harmony with nature, far from the gunfire and explosions and chaos that dominate the map.

Before I even encountered Joseph in New Dawn, the game did a great job of making me consider my feelings toward him.

For starters, I had information my character didn’t. I saw Joseph in Far Cry 5, and I saw the atrocities committed in his name. My character in New Dawn, however, did not. My character sees the fruits of Joseph’s labor and not the blood with which they were fertilized. Enough people in Hope County survived the apocalypse that word of Joseph’s unforgivable ways still floats around, but damned if my character can see any evidence of them. In fact, at one point we turn to Eden’s Gate for help and…we get it. At great cost to their community, they help us defend ours against those who seek to harm us. Because I’ve seen both sides of that coin now, my feelings are complicated.

And so I eventually face the dilemma I should have expected.

I won’t get into the complete events of Far Cry: New Dawn because I don’t want to spoil things unnecessarily, but it’s enough to say that things don’t go so well. (It’s the post-apocalypse, for crying out loud.)

Joseph, alone in a remote cabin, frets for his soul. As certain of himself as he was in the previous game, he’s uncertain now. He isn’t sure he was ever a prophet. His faith in God doesn’t seem to waver, but his faith in himself sure as hell does. Almost two decades of reflection have him questioning whether the ends justified his means.

Far Cry: New Dawn expects us to have experience of Far Cry 5. Our character does not, and this contrite, damaged, tormented Joseph is all they know. But we know more.

So when we are given the prompt to kill Joseph, we recognize it as a bookend to the prompt that opened Far Cry 5 telling us to arrest him.

We didn’t actually have to arrest him. We had a choice. We could silently refuse. And we have that same choice now.

Do we kill Joseph?

What a great ethical question. Has he atoned for his crimes? He certainly seems sincere. Moreso than he’s ever seemed. He’s lost everything and asks for nothing. Could that be enough? Can we (and should we) leave an old man alone in the wilderness? Or should we remember that he was once a young man who did terrible things? Technically the same man and yet…they genuinely could not be more different now.

Isn’t capital punishment intended to remove from society someone who poses a significant threat to others? If Joseph no longer poses that threat, is it right to punish him that way? Perhaps his crimes should not go unpunished, but what about all the good he’s done in the past 20-ish years? He founded the only successful settlement, and he founded it on peace. Does that count for enough on the karmic scorecard?

All of this and more went through my mind when I realized I had the choice to kill him or to let him live.

But then it was complicated. And it was complicated by one word.

Here’s what the game’s subtitles told me he said:

My soul has become a cancer. I am a monster. And I only spread suffering and death in the name of God.

Here’s what actually came out of his mouth:

My soul has become a cancer. I am a monster. And I have only spread suffering and death in the name of God.

Note the word “have.”

I’ve seen plenty of discrepancies between what a voice actor says and what a subtitle tells me they are saying. It happens. Sometimes they skip a word without realizing it. Sometimes they smooth a sentence out because what looks fine in print doesn’t always sound right when spoken aloud. Sometimes they find a certain quirk or vocal tic in the character that affects how they say things in a way that isn’t actually reflected in the script.

And all of that is fine. Actors across all media — and even singers with their own songs — change the words a bit, deliberately or not, when it comes time to perform.

But that one word — Tristram Shandy’s small particle — completely changes the meaning of Joseph’s confession.

If I were only reading the subtitles, I’d conclude that Joseph is upset because he continues to be a rolling source of disaster. If I were only listening to his voice, I’d conclude that he’s upset because he has caused so much disaster in the past.

One of those things might deserve mercy. One of those things might not. One of those things abandons responsibility to a cosmic absolute. One of those things accepts responsibility.

And, in a case like this, I’m still not sure — several days after I made my decision — quite how to handle that self-negating information.

Was the subtitle an error in transcription? Was the voice actor wrong and nobody caught it? We could, in theory, turn to the original script to find out, but does it even matter what’s in the script if it doesn’t reflect what the character actually said?

We’ve all misspoken, and while our intentions undoubtedly matter, are we not still responsible for the things that actually come out of our mouths? Don’t our actual words — whatever we meant to have said — shape the way others see us and respond to us? And…shouldn’t they?

There’s no chance Far Cry: New Dawn did this deliberately (if this were Nier: Automata, for instance, I wouldn’t be so sure), but in this moment, we get both versions of Joseph Seed, coexisting.

In one voice, it’s the old Joseph, the fount of continuous destruction. In another voice, at the exact same time, it’s the new Joseph, distanced from who he used to be.

I have very different feelings for each of these Josephs. I imagine I can’t be alone in that. And what was either a four-character omission by someone at a keyboard or an actor’s slip of the tongue that went unnoticed holds a character’s life — and his future, and the future of Hope County — in the balance.

The reason I love ethical quandaries in games is that they force me to think about them, to process them, to react to them, to learn more about who I am based on how I respond to unclear moralities. They make me more aware of what I think.

This one I ended up loving because it reminded me, unintentionally, to be more aware of what I say.

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