If there is one thing that my previous articles have made obvious, it is that I approve of games giving players choice with regards to how their own experience plays out. I love being able to impose my own morality on the world and its denizens. However, there is one particular type of “choice” in a game that always tends to chap my hide for one reason or another: That one would be moral choice in games. In theory, I should love this. I should enjoy being able to make decisions that have a noticeable impact. Yet it is often the case where games make missteps along the way that negatively impact my view of moral choice systems. This week, I will go through several games with moral choice systems and talk about why exactly I find them either bad or good.
The first moral choice system to discuss is the one from inFamous. In inFamous, the player sees the world through the eyes of Cole McGrath, an average, everyday bike messenger who, after a massive explosion, finds himself with superhuman, electro-kinetic powers. At various points in the game, the player is forced to make choices that influence Cole's morality, skewing it more towards good or evil. There are several problems with this. First, the player's karma directly influences the powers he/she has access to. There is no bonus for maintaining a low/neutral karma and the best powers are only unlocked to those who are completely good or completely evil. This immediately removes any chance of having a nuanced approached and instead makes morality a binary decision that the player makes at the start of the game. Furthermore, the choices themselves tend to be bafflingly, cartoonishly stupid. For example, near the beginning of the game, the player encounters an electrician who refuses to let him/her through in order to get to his next objective because he is worried about his missing wife. The player has to a make a choice to either inform the man of his wife's death and convince him to let him/her pass. Or, the player can instead opt to pump him full of electric and kill him. This is not a choice. This is whether or not Cole was raised by Hitler! No sane person, when faced with this situation, would kill an innocent man for the evulz! The player is choosing between having common sense or not. The game also has several other similar choices like this that do not make any sense. Moral choices like this are, in my opinion, the worst kind.
Better, but still really bad, are moral choice systems like the one from Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 2 is a story about Commander Shepard going on various space adventures in order to stop an evil alien race from kidnapping and harvesting humans. Throughout the game, the player, as Commander Shepard, makes various choices that usually (but not always) fall into two categories: One category, Paragon, represents decisions that try to satisfy as many people as possible. These usually fall into the category of Lawful Good, but occasionally drift into Lawful Stupid. On the other side, we have Renegade choices. Renegade choices often favor expedience and getting the job done regardless of who the player pisses of in the process. These usually fall the Chaotic spectrum of morality, and occasionally drift into Chaotic Stupid.
This system is superior to the one in inFamous for a few reasons. First, Paragon and Renegade points are tracked independently of the other. Increasing the Paragon score will do nothing for the Renegade score. This means that Shepard does not need to be completely one or the other and the player can better impart his/her own morality upon Commander Shepard. Another way this system is superior is that these decisions are more Lawful vs. Chaotic more than they are Good vs. Evil. Shepard is predefined in the sense that he (or she) will always be a hero who is out to save the galaxy. The player simply determines whether he (or she) will play nice-nice or go all out and save the shit out of the galaxy whether it wants to be saved or not. This has the added side-effect of not having the game judge the player on his/her actions. On the other hand, this system has a very critical flaw. In some dialogue scenes, certain Paragon/Renegade options will be completely locked unless the player has the prerequisite Paragon/Renegade score. This is bad because it means that, in order to get the best possible outcomes, it is often necessary for the player to generally stay on the Paragon or Renegade path almost completely. All of the potential nuance of the character is erased in order to create either a Lawful Stupid or Chaotic Stupid character.
(Author's Note: Bioware responded to these criticisms in Mass Effect 3. Now Paragon and Renegade points feed into a general Reputation score that determines the player's ability to make dialogue options. This is better because all that is really necessary to get options is to just go out and do stuff and the focus is not about being Paragon/Renegade. It is instead focused on what the player believes to be the best and the consequences of these actions.)
The best versions I have seen of moral choice in video games would be the ones from Fallout: New Vegas and Alpha Protocol. These systems are one of the best because they function in a way that makes sense. Instead of a karma system, these two games use Reputation with the various faction in each game to determine the player's overall morality. Again, this makes sense. People in these games judge the player and give him/her options not based on how the world at large thinks of him/her, but rather on what that character thinks of the player. This means that the player's actions are not judged by the game developer's notion of morality and have direct consequences on the game world. And again, this allows for nuanced choices and for the player to display his/her own notion of morality through the player character. A reputation system allows more even more nuanced morality choices because the developers in each game give the player several different and varied characters or factions that represent different ideals and philosophies. These factions each react to the player's decisions and these reactions affect the game world and, in turn, the player. This is a far better simulation of real life. Most choices are not binary (as in, a Good/Evil or Lawful/Chaotic choice). There are usually many broad and diverse options when approaching different situations. A reputation system best captures that because it enables the game to respond to these options in an equally diverse way.
Morality is a complicated subject, so when games portray it as binary, it tends to get under my skin. People do not consciously choose to be good or evil. Ideally, games would not even track morality. Rather, they would just give each action logical and rational consequences. It is crucial for games to evolve past morality gauges if they want to be grow as a medium, tell even better stories and explore more interesting themes/concepts.