Moral Choices: On Forgiveness

Words: 2972 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

Narratives often tend towards a simplification of right and wrong, and audiences tend to appreciate that simplification. There’s a lot of complexity when it comes to moral questions, and in many cases members of the audience care less about that complexity and more about things like action or drama.

And so when we often watch movies, read books, or play games, there is a common divide between “good guys” and “bad guys.” A character must fall into one of the two camps. It’s possible for a character to switch camps, though often this is presented not as an actual shift but as the removal of a veil. A character thought to be good ends up betraying the heroes because they were actually evil all along. An antagonist betrays the main villain because actually they’re good and were just waiting for an opportunity to switch sides. There are examples of characters who have more complicated motivations that make these switches compelling, but the bulk of how characters move into the camp of “good” and “bad” reinforces this simplification.

But my subject here is not to talk about the simplification of the good guys versus the bad guys. There are occasions where that simplification can be useful, and besides I’ve already written a few essays on the complexities of “good and evil” and moral ambiguity more generally.

Instead, I wanted to focus on these switches, and more specifically on the switch from evil to good. A villain betrays the evil overlord and joins the good guys, and is now a good guy. This switch is important because it gives us an opportunity to look at the problem of forgiveness and how we relate to this problem.

The subject is tough because “forgiveness” is itself a tough problem to solve. Someone has done something bad: what do you do? There is the immediate reaction you may have of being angry, and the action you take based on that anger. These in and of themselves raise questions about the appropriateness of anger and punishment, but even then we have still not reached our subject matter. Because what we care about is what comes after that. Someone has done something bad and been punished for it: what do you do then? At what point is a character redeemed?

I raise this issue in no small part because it is a question we grapple with – or more accurately refuse to grapple with – in modern society. Forgiveness implies the idea that a person who has offended us re-enters our good graces and is treated “normally” again. Their bad action is both forgotten and not forgotten – it still motivates our perception and trust, but also must not motivate our perception to the point that we treat the person differently. Setting aside issues of when someone has done something bad and what the appropriate punishment should be, once that punishment is meted out we often ignore the problem of forgiveness entirely.

Hence why I think forgiveness is so poorly treated in our media. Characters must belong to a category of “good” or “bad,” and moving from one to another is not a process of learning or becoming, but merely a reflection of that character’s true nature. A bad guy doesn’t actually “become” a good guy – they were really a good guy all along. Forgiveness is no longer important, because there is nothing to forgive.

So I want to take a deeper dive into the morality of forgiveness and reflect upon how it gets portrayed – and not portrayed – in games. It is by looking at the very lack of any exploration of forgiveness that we can see how this simplification of right and wrong can have a cascade effect on writing more generally.

Forgive and Forget

Let’s begin with the most common formulation of the switch.

Throughout a game, Character A has been a Bad Guy. He’s usually presented as a sort of “noble” Bad Guy – hero characters may try to appeal to him, saying that he’s doing something wrong, and he responds with great difficutly. He may look visibly hurt in having to respond to the accusation, and will often appeal to something like “the greater good” or “loyalty.” Already, the story is trying to signal that actually this character is good, and is simply forced to be evil.

At some point, though, the main villain reveals a grand plan that is Really Evil. It is so evil that Character A cannot be a Bad Guy anymore. He betrays the main villain in some way. Most likely, the heroes were captured and about to be killed by the main villain, but Character A frees them and helps them escape. Often during this sequence Character A may temporarily join the heroes. Thus showing he is now a Good Guy.

Then, just as the heroes are about to finally make their escape, the main villain gets in their way. The escape is prevented, and the heroes likely face their end. At which point, Character A performs some kind of amazing act that gives the heroes time to flee. Most likely, this amazing act will cost Character A his life.

Now not every switch takes this form. Sometimes this character becomes a permanent member of the party. Sometimes the character doesn’t die, but instead just becomes an NPC who helps the heroes from the sidelines.

But what is key is that these tropes are common enough that we can think of numerous examples that are close to or even exactly like the situation I’ve presented above. And this example highlights the problem of forgiveness.

Usually when we’re presented with the Bad Guy Who Will Become Good, that character needs to be presented in a few ways. Firstly, the character needs to have some kind of moral motivation, a recognition of right and wrong. That recognition provides the heroes with an appeal to this character’s better angels that can help him to see that actually he’s been wrong this whole time. And usually he will acknowledge that he’s working for the forces of evil, an acknowledgment that can often make the switch all the more confusing.

Secondly, the character needs to never be portrayed doing something particularly evil. If the main villain wants a peaceful village to be destroyed, the Bad Guy Who Will Become Good must never be presented as taking part in that destruction. Of course, if we think about the implications of this character’s allegiance, we’ll see the inherent problem with the portrayal: it’s pretty much impossible to work for the forces of evil and keep your hands clean. But by hiding those moments, it becomes easier to swallow the idea that actually this character is secretly good.

These components of the presentation are themselves important for the simplification and the avoidance of forgiveness. In order to forgive someone, they must actually engage in some kind of transgression – they must do something wrong. There must be something to be forgiven. But if the character is never really evil, then there’s nothing to worry about.

Forgiveness can also be avoided through a sufficiently impactful transition. Namely, if the character sacrifices himself to save the heroes. Often the Bad Guy Who Will Become Good opposes the main villain in a way that leads to his death at the villain’s hands, so that the heroes can escape. This trope is common, and serves a useful function: by making the character’s sacrifice so extreme, he must be forgiven. This claim ends up being true in two senses. Firstly, because he was willing to give his life, it shows his dedication to the cause of righteousness. So his redemption does not need to be questioned about its realness. Secondly, by giving his life he “earns” redemption, since any evil he may have done is wiped clean by this single good act. He has repaid any debt he has accrued from his past actions.

But this trope still ends up being a way of avoiding the problem of forgiveness. Because it presumes that the forgiveness is deserved and the redemption is complete and presents that presumption to the player as true. The character is no longer talked about in terms of what they did as a Bad Guy. The character is now a Good Guy. When the character is brought up in the future, it is usually in the context of his sacrifice, perhaps even in the sense that the heroes are going to avenge this character (thus cementing his place among the Good Guys). The character not only is good, but effectively always was good.

While I raise this discussion in the context of narrative tropes, that is merely to make clear how the issue of forgiveness ends up being dodged in video game narratives. But such dodging is not necessarily restricted to the use of those tropes. Often characters can do “bad things” more generally, but those bad things are ignored or forgotten so long as the character is presented as a Good Guy. Excuses are made that would, in other contexts, be rejected for an explicitly evil character.

The Morality of Forgiveness

Let us switch now to discussing forgiveness more broadly.

Forgiving is an act related to anger and vengeance. When someone is wronged, we regard it as proper to be angry at that wronging, and to demand some kind of punishment for the wrongdoer. We tend to place greater emphasis on these things when the wrong is done to us, but we at least recognize in the abstract the relevance of these feelings when we are not the target.

But the premise of anger and revenge are that they are deserved. The wrongdoer, in harming someone else, ought to be punished. And the punishment needs to be comparable to the wrong they have committed. We often talk, for example, of making sure that a punishment fits a crime. So we recognize that while anger and punishment are merited, there is supposed to be a limit on those desires.

To let those feelings out of control is to engage in a form of cruelty. To punish someone for a wrong beyond what is deserved by that wrong is to engage not in a sort of righteous vengeance, but a mean-spirited form. We may even try to distinguish punishment and vengeance more broadly, saying that the former relates to what is deserved, while the latter relates to what is undeserved. This distinction is difficult to maintain, because the line between “deserved” and “undeserved” is so blurry that only the most extreme examples will serve any use in explaining the difference.

And here is where forgiveness enters the discussion. Because forgiveness is about both determining what is “deserved,” as well as what to do once punishment ends. We often frame forgiveness as an act of grace. We get to decide when to forgive. But forgiveness is a component of being moral as well. Because the lack of forgiveness is cruelty. The refusal to forgive leads to imposing an undeserved punishment upon a wrongdoer. The idea of forgiveness as grace works insofar as what punishment is deserved is objective, and by giving that person less punishment we are saving them. But outside of that context the framing falls apart.

As an example, imagine that I have been treated unjustly in some way. I made a bargain with someone, but the other person did not follow through. I may be angry with the other person, and in fact that anger might be deserved. Perhaps even some kind of punishment is deserved. But now imagine that I desire the other person to be put to death for the transgression. We would say that this desire goes too far: it is excessive. Now let us say that I walk back this anger a bit, and say that it is sufficient simply that the person be jailed for the remainder of their life. This would be, from my perspective, an act of grace, and yet would it be forgiveness? No, we would find such a claim ridiculous. For life in prison would still be excessive, and forgiveness is not merely going from one excess to a slightly lower excess. Even rolling that anger back to saying that the person must be punished commensurate to their crime would not be forgiveness, for it is merely me bringing my anger from excess to a reasonable level.

But more than just when it is forgiveness, there is also the mere fact that my anger is excessive belies the immorality of it. To be angry to such a degree is too much, and I ought to rein it in. And if I were to demand a “fair” punishment for someone who was truly repentant, my insistence would become its own form of cruelty. While forgiveness might involve grace, it is not a simple nicety that we extend. We must still be aware of when we are morally required to forgive.

Forgiveness, though, is also a kind of forgetting. Not a literal forgetting, where we pretend that a wrong was never done at all. But it involves a recognition that a past wrong has become irrelevant in our current judgment of a person.

Let us put this another way: imagine our contract-breaker from earlier who is sentenced to some number of years in prison. After serving that sentence, they are released back into society. What do we do with this person? This question is relevant both in how we as individuals treat this person, and how society as a whole treats this person.

Our initial impulse is to judge that person for their past actions. They broke their contract, so we need to be wary around them, because they may try the same tactic again, or commit some other kind of crime. But in making this judgment – and especially in acting upon this judgment – we impose further punishment. And so even those kinds of interactions need to be put under the microscope of what is “deserved” in response to a transgression.

Because forgiveness relates to trust. A person who has done wrong is not trustworthy, but at some point they must be capable of becoming trustworthy again, at least insofar as we acknowledge the idea that people can atone and change. But trust involves letting go of those past transgressions. If a person’s past transgressions are never forgotten – if no one is willing to trust them ever – then the punishment at some point steps into what is undeserved, and individuals and society as a whole become guilty of an injustice.

This whole discussion, though, raises important questions about atonement. Namely, when and how it occurs. How do we know that a person who has done something wrong has atoned? What actions must be taken to atone for one’s past sins? How much time and effort must be expended?

Which in turn steps into a peculiar way in which we often talk about moral issues, which is through the lens of debt. There is too much to be said here, so I will only briefly describe the following: one way in which we think of good and bad is as a kind of currency. Bad actions are like spending and good actions are like saving that currency. So morality is about having a balance that is at least not negative: you have not spent too much. But by doing enough good actions, you can wipe away the debt of bad actions. As I talked about in the previous section, the bad guy who sacrifices himself for the heroes has wiped away his debt: giving his life was a good action that countered any bad actions he might have done previously, giving him at a positive balance in his moral bank account.

These questions are by no means simple. It is through confronting these ideas directly that we discover what forgiveness ought to look like and how we ought to treat others who have done something wrong, no matter how minor that wrong may be.

Concluding Remarks

Narratives impact in a variety of ways how we view the world. There are plenty of examples in plenty of contexts, and so I am merely highlighting one small aspect of it here. Because how we view the nature of forgiveness is reinforced by the stories we tell about forgiveness – or more appropriately, by the way in which stories dodge forgiveness.

We can find examples here and there of forgiveness being brought up in video game stories. But even the best examples will tend to look at related concepts, and not at forgiveness specifically. The Last of Us II, for example, focuses on vengeance. And so while it does end up treating forgiveness, it is only in a roundabout way. It does not attempt to directly engage with forgiveness.

But usually forgiveness is something to be avoided or simplified entirely. Because forgiveness is complex. Where simple narratives favor the fight of Good and Evil, characters can’t be stuck for very long in a middle ground. So if someone was Evil, they must be transformed quickly and totally into Good, so that we don’t get caught up in problems of what they really are.

But there’s no real need for narratives to stick to these simplifications. Video games in particular can explore problems of forgiveness by allowing players to more directly interact with the task of forgiving. To navigate these issues in terms of looking into and judging past actions, determining what kind of punishment is appropriate, discerning how a character must atone and when such atonement is done, and struggling to avoid going too far with any of these things. It is by putting this material directly in front of players and asking them to explore these problems in depth that we can enrich the concepts that have languished for so long.

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