Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Derailing the Trolley Problem
In 2008, the game development company Chunsoft (best known for the likes of Dangranronpa and Zero Escape) released an odd visual novel called 428: In a Blockaded Shibuya. The game was unusual in many ways. For one, it was released on the NIntendo Wii, which is not a console known for visual novels, and for another, almost all of the game was rendered using photography rather than illustration. The game was exceptionally well-received on its release, and it has the distinction of being one of the few games Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu has given a perfect 40/40 score. Unfortunately, in 2008 there was little appetite for visual novels in the west, so between that and the game's general weirdness, 428 was never released outside of Japan.
That changed about a month ago. In early September, the ten-year-old visual novel was re-released for PC and PS4. and--perhaps due to the growing popularity of visual novels in the US--it was finally localized, with the title 428: Shibuya Scramble. I took this as an opportunity to play the game I'd heard so much about, and I'm pleased to say it largely lives up to its reputation. The usage of photography (and especially the lighting) is excellent, the game's musical score is fantastic, and the writing is a lot of fun.
On its surface, 428 is a cross between a mystery and a farce. The game mostly follows five main characters as they go through a single day, each with a clearly-defined goal. The player can make choices for each character, which in turn affects what happens to the other four characters, so in order to avoid bad ends and solve the overarching mystery the player must guide each of the characters such that they don't get in each other's way, gradually building the right sequence of coincidences to guide the cast to the conclusion. When the right choices have been made, the resulting series of misunderstandings, near-misses, and lucky breaks represent farce at its best, with all the humor it entails, but the mystery elements are no less important--as much as I enjoyed the farcical elements and the comic relief, it is the gradual unraveling of the antagonist Alphard's master plan that provides the most overall entertainment.
428 is full of quirky characters, amusing diversions, and subverted tropes, and the game is clearly meant first and foremost to entertain, but there is still a consistent thematic undercurrent that runs across all five of the game's main storylines--specifically, a rejection of the logic and assumptions that underline the Trolley Problem and its variants.
What's the Trolley Problem?
What with its prevalence in ethics and psychology classes and the recent popularity of Trolley Problem memes, odds are pretty good you've heard of the Trolley Problem before. For those who haven't, though, a brief explanation is necessary.
At its most basic level, the Trolley Problem is a thought experiment that goes something like this: an out-of-control trolley is running down a track towards five people. It will kill the five people if it hits them, and the five people cannot leave the track. You have the option to pull a lever to divert the trolley to another track, where a single person is similarly stuck, killing the one person in exchange for saving the five. Do you pull the lever?
There are, of course, multiple equally-valid answers to this question, but the most common response is the Utilitarian (or Consequentialist) one, which says that you should pull the lever because one person dying is preferable to five people dying. Pulling the lever minimizes the overall harm done, and therefore it is the "good" choice. There are also a wide range of variations on this problem, bringing in different situational factors to apply different philosophical or psychological principles, but the core premise is (usually) the same: you can take action and kill one person, or stay inactive and allow multiple people to die.
Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes
There are a number of issues with the Trolley Problem, ranging from it's lack of applicability to normal day-to-day decision making to the almost inevitable panic that such a situation would bring on were it actually to happen, but 428 addresses one of these in particular: the Trolley Problem assumes that there are only two options, and that either option is 100% guaranteed to result in a horrific outcome.
The real world is (thankfully) a lot more nuanced than that. If one were in the actual situation described by the Trolley Problem, one could a) try to stop the trolley, b) try to clear the tracks, c) get someone else to help, or any number of other possible responses. Which of these is feasible would depend on the exact situation, but the absolutist case imposed by the problem is so absurdly unlikely that it is ultimately meaningless.
...Or, at least, it should be. The problem with framing things in a context similar to the Trolley Problem is that it can lead to some unsafe assumptions. The Utilitarian answer to the Trolley Problem relies on the principle that one should minimize the overall suffering experienced. This results in the implicit assumption that some suffering is unavoidable and therefore acceptable, which can lead to viewing the intentional killing of one to save five as not only preferable to allowing the five to die but rather as actively virtuous. Which is kinda messed-up.
This absolutist thinking is ultimately what drives the fundamental problems in 428, and the game's heroes spend much of their time fighting against it. On three separate instances, certain characters attempt to kill one or more people in order to "save" a larger group, and in each instance this behavior is clearly and unquestionably morally wrong. Occasionally you'll see the Trolley Problem's alternatives framed as "easy but wrong" (not pulling the lever) or "hard but right" (pulling the lever). 428 argues that the "easy but wrong" choice is accepting either of the Trolley Problem's alternatives at face value, while the "hard but right" choice is finding a third option that does not minimize suffering but rather eliminates it entirely.
The Transplant Problem
One variant of the Trolley Problem, sometimes called the Transplant Problem, supposes that five people need transplants of different organs in order to survive, and a doctor has the ability to kill one healthy person to harvest the necessary organs to save the five. The outcomes in this case--kill one to save five, or allow five to die but do not kill the one--are the same as the Trolley Problem (although reactions to this one tend to be somewhat different). 428 sets up almost this exact problem and uses it to demonstrate the foolishness of the thought experiment.
In 428, the sister of one of the major characters is in need of a heart transplant, but she has a rare blood type and as such donors are exceptionally hard to find. Her father, along with a detective who happens to be an old family friend, learns of another healthy person with the same blood type. The father asks the detective to kill the healthy person so that the daughter can receive the transplant she needs, and the detective agrees to do so. The aforementioned major character spends most of the game helping the targeted girl escape from the detective, even though the girl's death could save the character's sister (along with another patient who needs a different organ and has the same blood type).
By the logic of the Trolley Problem, killing the healthy girl to save the two patients is arguably the "right" choice, but in 428 the father and the detective are clearly (and rightfully) portrayed as antagonists. This problem does not take into account the feelings of those who would receive the transplants--who would certainly not in good conscience accept the sacrifice of the healthy girl--and it ignores other possible ways to save the sick individuals. The decision to pursue the healthy girl is made out of desperation, not out of a Consequentialist desire to do what's right. The ostensibly correct answer to the thought experiment seems to immediately become wrong when the people involved have names, faces, and lives surrounding the decision itself.
The Quarantine Problem
The second instance of Trolley Problem logic comes late in the game, when it is revealed that one of the major characters has been infected with a virus that has a 100% mortality rate. There is an antiviral that can cure the disease if it is administered within 12 hours of infection, but as soon as symptoms start to appear the infected person has no hope of survival and becomes extremely contagious, and the antiviral is locked away in a place that would be nearly impossible to reach in time.
The immediate response of the Japanese government is that the infected girl needs to be quarantined in order to protect the people of Tokyo. If quarantined, the girl will certainly die, but at least the virus will not spread. One person will be sacrificed, but millions of others will survive. Again the outcome is essentially the same as the Trolley Problem, albeit with inflated numbers--take action to kill one, or stay inactive and allow many to die.
428's major characters reject this logic, prioritizing getting the antiviral over quarantining the infected character. The characters feel so strongly about this that several of them disobey direct orders from their superiors in order to make it happen. From the removed, outside perspective of the government officials, there are only two choices: quarantine and the death of one, or no quarantine and the deaths of many. With the actual situational context, though, those involved understand that so long as there is a possibility of averting disaster entirely, that possibility is worth pursuing. They are, fortunately, able to give the infected girl the antiviral, saving both her life and the lives of the people of Tokyo. Had they accepted the absolutism imposed by the Trolley Problem, they would not have been able to accomplish this.
The Terrorism Problem
The final character who attempts to impose the logic of the Trolley Problem on a more complex world is 428's main antagonist, a Palestinian-operative-turned-CIA-agent named Alphard. In the lead-up to the events of 428, the aforementioned deadly virus has been weaponized by certain terrorist groups, and the US government fears it will be used in an attack on a major city. A small private pharmaceutical firm based out of Japan has been working on creating an antiviral, and it has recently finished development. Alphard is sent as a spy with three key goals: 1) to retrieve the antiviral for the US government, 2) to destroy the samples of the virus held in Japan, and 3) to keep her identity and her connection to the CIA secret.
To be clear, Alphard is not a good person--if I were to describe her alignment along the traditional scale, it'd probably be Chaotic Neutral--but her goals in 428 are ostensibly for the greater good. The US wants access to the antiviral so that it can react to a potential bioterrorist threat, the existence of the virus is inherently dangerous and it should be destroyed, and Alphard cannot act as effectively if her identity and her affiliation are known. The problem is Alphard's methods. She is obsessed with success, at one point noting that she sets unreasonably high standards for herself, to the point where failing to successfully complete even one aspect of a mission feels to her like a complete failure. She is entirely Machiavellian, not driven by any considerations of right or wrong but only taking the actions necessary to achieve her current goals.
This all leads her to be completely willing to sacrifice the lives of a few innocent people in order to accomplish her task, and her superiors with the CIA are willing to turn a blind eye to Alphard's methods given that their counterterrosim goals are highly likely to avert many more deaths than Alphard's scheme would cause--if her plan went flawlessly there would have been exactly five deaths, and that was seen as an acceptable level of collateral damage. The logic here is the same: sacrifice the few to save the many.
Ultimately, Alphard succeeds at her first goal and half of her third, but the only ones to die are some of Alphard's co-conspirators. The virus is not destroyed and several characters learn what Alphard looks like, and Alphard views this as a failure on her part--and, indeed, it feels as if the game's heroes emerge victorious--but this effectively just amounts to the creation of a third alternative for Alphard and the CIA, in which the many are protected (through the acquisition of the antiviral) without any sacrifice of innocent lives. In this, again, the absolutism of the Trolley Problem is rejected, although Alphard herself is unable to see it.
So Where Does this Leave the Trolley?
The Trolley Problem is still an interesting thought experiment, and it serves as a useful tool for explaining certain ethical and philosophical principles, but, as 428 demonstrates, it isn't really very useful for modeling real-world behavior. In some cases, it can actually do more harm than good, as the Trolley Problem's framing discourages looking for creative and better solutions. 428 is ultimately an exhortation to think creatively when presented with a problem, as in the complexity of real-world issues there are almost always more choices beyond whether or not to pull a lever.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition