Choice and Morality, Part Two

Do you remem­ber this image?

A bit of his­to­ry. In imi­tat­ing the pen and paper game, Dun­geons & Drag­ons-like video games have long exposed an align­ment field. This was a text field with­out game con­se­quence. Mak­ing choic­es that could affect the game or character’s moral sta­tus is a more recent phe­nom­e­na. Knights of the Old Repub­lic (2003) pops into mind for most peo­ple as the ori­gin of light side and dark side choic­es, but Fall­out (1997) and Planescape: Tor­ment (1999) both use a sim­i­lar sys­tem. In any event, moral­i­ty choice has explod­ed in games. In addi­tion to the Fall­out and KOTOR fran­chis­es (includ­ing SW:TOR), Fable, Sacred, Bioshock, Over­lord, GTA, Mass Effect, Force Unleashed, and inFa­mous have joined in.

Look­ing at that list illus­trates a suc­cess­ful inva­sion of role­play­ing con­cepts. Shoot­ers and action games rou­tine­ly include ele­ments that were once only the domain of the rpg. Between such a fea­ture creep and the growth of open world games, it seems we’re teach­ing com­put­ers to sub­sti­tute for a good Dun­geon Mas­ter.

Back on top­ic from the last post. Moral­i­ty choic­es sound fan­tas­tic. And the games in the list above range from good to great to sub­lime. Then why do I judge the use of moral choice in games a fail­ure?

First, our moral­i­ty is imma­ture and unso­phis­ti­cat­ed: Saint­ly or Demo­ni­ac, to quote the chart above. Games have nev­er hid from this fact. The orig­i­nal Fallout’s moral titles are Cham­pi­on or Child­killer. The updat­ed ver­sion in the series fol­lows with “Last, Best Hope of Human­i­ty” or “Scourge of Human­i­ty.” To illus­trate an exam­ple, inFa­mous offers the options of help­ing the cop and accept­ing his reward, or killing him and tak­ing what he has. At least that evil choice has expe­di­en­cy to rec­om­mend it. More often, evil choic­es are evil for the sake of evil, with­out log­ic, expla­na­tion, or moti­va­tion. Kick the pup­py.

More to the point, the moment of deci­sion mak­ing occurs before the start of the game. As moral choic­es are bina­ry, play­ers fol­low by mak­ing a whol­ly bina­ry char­ac­ter. “I’m going to play good,” and so every choice in the game is pre­des­tined. Indi­vid­ual game deci­sions don’t mat­ter. As game design­ers, we can’t be sur­prised. We’ve tied in game advance­ment, abil­i­ties, and now Achieve­ments to a character’s align­ment state, reward­ing them for reach­ing the ends of the align­ment spec­trum. Thus, play­ers look for oppor­tu­ni­ties to farm align­ment sta­tus in the same way they look for ways to har­vest expe­ri­ence points.

As a result, the only thing test­ed is the abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy moral and immoral choic­es. Giv­en how stark the choic­es offered, this isn’t dif­fi­cult. More­over, play­ers would rebel against such dif­fi­cul­ty or obfus­ca­tion. It could lead to their 100% good char­ac­ter mak­ing an evil choice. It gets in the way of them grind­ing to a final align­ment state. Woe to the game that makes moral choic­es dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish. Indeed, we’ve solved this prob­lem by out­right iden­ti­fy­ing which is which through user inter­face.

Blue choices are good, red choices are bad. Just like political parties and lightsabers.

Blue choic­es are good, red choic­es are bad. Just like polit­i­cal par­ties and lightsabers.

What’s worse, games don’t deliv­er the promised gains from the moral­i­ty sys­tem: replaya­bil­i­ty. The game’s plot, vil­lain, and game­play don’t change. Only a small amount of con­tent, if any, is exclu­sive to play­ers of one align­ment state or the oth­er. A cou­ple side mis­sions, per­haps. In most cas­es, the dif­fer­ences between moral and immoral play can be reduced to:

  1. Fla­vor in AI reac­tion and dia­logue
  2. Epi­logue cutscenes.

So why have game mak­ers been attract­ed to moral choic­es? They promise depth and replaya­bil­i­ty, but the cost:benefit is high. What work is required falls on writ­ers and voice actors. What does that tell us? There’s lit­tle effect on game design … or the player’s expe­ri­ence.

Soon: How can we fix moral choic­es?

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