when it comes to teaching people the nuance of morality, video games aren’t exactly our go-to guide. Sure, Mass Effect offers a slew of ‘this good, that bad’ binary decisions. Yes, AI-policed open worlds peddle a solid illusion of actions having consequences, but few games really nail the stress of ethical decision-making. If I’m honest, it’s hard to remember the last time an interactive outing left me reeling from a series of conscience-racking choices. Yet last week, an unassuming-looking indie game called The Big Con offered me exactly that.
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This ‘90s-set grifter caper puts players into what’s essentially one big morally ambiguous situation, and lets them live their life, judgment-free. A cutesy point-and-click adventure, at first glance you’d be forgiven for writing this off as another quirky coming of age story. Yet The Big Con’s tale of pickpocketing and hustle is one that’s wormed its way into my brain.
Put in the shoes of sassy teen, Ally, in-between puns and legally safe MTV references, you overhear that your mum’s video store has been plunged into life-shattering debt by a greedy landlord. With Ally’s mother unable to raise the funds, the once straight-laced teen finds herself suddenly needing to find tens of thousands of dollars. For Ally the choice is clear – steal or become homeless.
Despite the interactive medium’s massive potential for generating empathy, too often morality is little more than a meter to be gamed. Refreshingly, that’s simply not the case in The Big Con.
“The thing that I really didn’t want to do was beat people over the head with mechanical and systemic consequences of their actions,” explains the game’s creative director, Dave Proctor. ”I just want you to think about what you’re doing, to have those conversations with yourself and never put it on a meter.”
“I love Fable and Mass Effect – they’re both wonderful games – but I didn’t want to do that,” Proctor continues, “I didn’t want you to have to play Paragon or Renegade. I think that makes you dissociate from what you’re actually doing. I wanted players to think ‘Oh, I have to steal this wallet from this person, and now they look a little bummed out… I did that’”
From lifting the wallet of a condescending neighbor to carefully hustling a stockbroker out of hundreds of dollars, The Big Con’s tale of blurred morality, swagger and desperation resonates on a profoundly human level.
“That’s another reason why there’s no morality meter. It would be really disingenuous to have that, because Ally is neither good nor bad, right? She is doing this thing to save her mom’s business – to help her family. Morality isn’t always that black and white.”
In each level, Ally is given a set figure of money she has to ‘raise’ in order to help her mum get the cash she so desperately needs. Yet you don’t always have to stop there. Using a combination of wily pickpocketing, eavesdropping and puzzle solving, it’s up to the player who they rob and how much they fleece them for. Despite hitting the necessary cash target set by Ally’s grifter in chief, Eric, most of my marks barely noticed the cash I’d stolen. The result? I felt compelled to go back and take every penny I could.
“Well, that tells me you’re very good at pickpocketing!” Proctor laughs. It turns out though, some younger players gleaned a more morally upstanding lesson from The Big Con.
“One of the team at our publisher played the game with his six-year-old kid, and there’s a moment where you learn that you can pickpocket. He turns to his kid and asks whether to pickpocket these three disaffected youths, smoking cigarettes in the corner. His son replied “no Dad, they’re not bad people. They’re just sad!
“Which I love!”, Proctor exclaims with a laugh. “Then they both had the big conversation about, well, why? Who do we steal from? Why is Ally doing what she’s doing? And do you understand that this is difficult? She’s doing something bad, but she’s doing it for this reason. How does anyone’s first conversation about moral relativism go with their child? I have no idea, but I’m sure the kid’s a real straight arrow now…”
In want of a better descriptor, The Big Con feels like an empathy simulator. Through no fault of their own, Ally and her hard-working mother suddenly find their lives turned completely upside down – and must game the system to survive. Unintentionally or not, as Ally’s journey continued, it was hard not to feel like the game’s title was a dig at capitalism itself.
“I don’t know that I ever fully kind of thought of The Big Con as anti-capitalism, but I do strongly critique the system in which Ally must operate. The only way she can operate within it is by cheating it. There’s a lot of little moments in there that poke fun at capitalism – especially ‘90s excess. The ‘90s was wild – really that sort of prelapsarian, Golden Age before everything could fall apart, as we have now seen happen many times in the last 10 to 12 years.”
With the planet hurtling towards an irreversible climate emergency, this scathing critique of greed and wealth inequality feels more relevant than ever. It’s one that’s made all the more pertinent thanks to its choice of medium. Video games are inherently expensive, and despite all their brilliance, they all require costly devices to run. Still, no matter what players are ‘meant’ to take from The Big Con, Proctor says that the feedback has been incredibly humbling.
“What really touches me is that people are relating to the story that we’re telling. Whether they’re small business owners, teenagers, or just struggling under the ever-loving boot of capitalism, people are really getting what we’re doing. It makes me very proud of our team for pulling this off.”