IF Comp 2012: The Test is Now READY (Jim Warrenfeltz)

The Test is Now READY is a puzzleless, parser-based sequence of moral choice scenarios. As usual, the jump will be followed by non-spoilery comments; then if I have anything spoilery to say, there will be spoiler space. The fact that I am reviewing it at all indicates that there are beta-testers.

The Test is Now READY presents the player with a sequence of moral dilemmas, each fairly contrived, some with rather obvious “correct” answers: save yourself or someone else? put up with months of boredom to maintain someone on life support? Etc. This places it very squarely the moral choice genre of interactive fiction, with much less trapping than many such pieces.

It occurs to me that there tend to be two things people mean when they talk about moral choices in games.

Probably the more common is a test of virtue where there’s an obvious altruistic/selfish division: are you willing to do the altruistic thing, or would you succumb to the desire to do the selfish one? This is typically very weakly designed, because it’s impossible for the game to replicate the real-world consequences of action. It costs the player little to be altruistic, but it also does no real harm to be selfish. So the player’s decision is likely to be governed by a) whether the player is curious to see what will happen if she plays “evil”; b) whether the player is invested in a particular self-image of virtue/subversiveness that will be reinforced by playing one of those paths; and possibly c) whether she is annoyed by being asked a question with an obviously telegraphed Right Answer.

Most scenarios in The Test is Now READY felt as though they fell into this category, and they didn’t work for me any better here than typically do elsewhere. “Would you sacrifice the life of your son to save dozens of others?” is not a very angst-producing question when my “son” is a token NPC whose existence I’ve only been aware of for three turns.

The more interesting kind of moral choice, I feel, is the test of judgment, where there isn’t an obvious straightforward answer. But doing those scenarios well requires that the player/reader have an opportunity to explore the scenario very thoroughly, to posit possible solutions or objections and see whether they change the calculus. None of the situations in The Test is Now READY really give the player enough space to dig into the problem that way — to explore motivations, to question the details of the scenario. There’s one case that I felt might be trying to fall into that category — would it be worth torturing someone if doing so would furnish information to save thousands of lives? — but I disagree with the premise of the question, and there was no way to express that disagreement or dig into it at all.

The Test is Now READY is also a “test as premise” game with an intentionally contrived explanation. The title is a pointer to this fact, though the full explanation doesn’t come out until a bit later.

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At the end of the game, you receive a scoresheet profiling your moral personality, which explains that you’re an artificial intelligence and that your brand of morality is being profiled in order to assign you work. This in itself has some mildly interesting implications: that some kind of AI can be produced that has ethical stances not explicitly programmed into it (as a result of a black-box moral learning algorithm of some kind, perhaps); that AI is allowed to do jobs of this level of importance, in place of humans; that different AI moral makeups are all considered acceptable and will all be put to work, rather than having the humans shut some of them down.

Admittedly, these implications go unexplored because the game is now over.

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