As videogames strive to find their own artistic identity amidst the ever-changing technology arms race, the question of morality has loomed large as a hook on which to attach the hopes of a million critics and industry analysts. It’s an issue that simply will not go away, and offering up a black-and-white narrative path (with optional shades of grey) in 2009 and beyond is seemingly de rigueur for every development team.
Manuel - When Bioware brought the swinging arc of good and evil to Knights Of The Old Republic back in 2003, did they envisage it becoming a staple feature of almost every RPG and action game in the proceeding six years? More to the point, does it actually serve any purpose? Do these choices actually mean anything? For the most part, I’d argue not.
BIGsheep - I often get the feeling that moral choice is this generations “thing”, just as collectibles, cell-shading and bullet time were in years gone by. It’s a mechanic that used correctly can really extract the most from a game but when used poorly can sully the name of those that do attempt something interesting.
Manuel - Agreed, but even the best examples have problems. The harvesting decisions in Bioshock essentially boil down to resource-gathering methods with a view to increasing your arms cache; simple window dressing for pre-existing mechanics. The narrative acknowledges that in a very clever way of course, but it highlights the fact that players really have no choice in what they do, regardless of the visage of decision-making. My question is, are developers afraid of following through on moral decisions in meaningful ways? And is the illusion worth it?
Pogo - I think you summed it up in that final line, “is the illusion worth it?” I think for a game to evoke our deepest moral choices, the experience as a whole needs to be decision-based. We’ve all heard the clichés; ‘your actions will affect the world around you’ or ‘you choose your own path’, but they’re always tied to the backbone of the title with little room for deviation. The backbone could be a main story, or particular events and triggers which inevitably happen regardless of the choices you’ve made. I suppose this then leads on to the amount of scale, time, effort, and probably most prominent, money, that this will take.
BIGsheep - Speaking from a technical point of view, the reason why moral standings can only affect so much is because it’s really hard to plan for every eventuality. Take a game the size and scope of Mass Effect, how do you take the hundreds of choices and sum them meaningfully into an outcome that varies? All you can do is take each decision as it comes, weighting them as necessary. Come the end you boil down to good or bad, maybe at a push indifferent, because going down an ever branching hierarchy of responses is an extremely intensive process. When faced with a pair of decisions you have just four outcomes, but ramp that to sixteen boolean choices and your possible outcomes escalate to over sixty-five thousand. That’s a big switch statement.
I think this very binary state is where the moral aspect in games can become tiresome if done poorly. GTA IV’s multiple “kill A or B to continue”, is a great example. It ultimately didn’t matter as you had to end someone’s life to proceed. The best moral choices are where you don’t necessarily have to make the call at all.
Manuel - In defence of a small portion of GTA IV, the act of killing or allowing Dimitri to live (late in the game) was fairly well implemented. There were no signposts as to what, if anything, would alter by your decision, the narrative simply ended up at a point in which you had to make that choice for yourself. It was one of a few moments where your own morals came into play, as long as you were invested in Niko enough to care. I genuinely didn’t know what to do, torn between the urge for revenge or the willingness to allow somebody to atone for past crimes. The fact that it did change the narrative in a meaningful way later on was neither here nor there, you had no way of knowing that at the time.
BIGsheep - Recently I feel it has been Fallout 3 that has handled the topic far better than most; whilst many quests in the Capital Wastelands do have two sides to their story, it does not necessarily mean there are only two ways to complete them. On numerous occasions disputes can be settled easily with a bullet to the head of one of the two parties involved. However, if you looked hard enough you could generally talk your way around the situation, either by getting one side to back down or by bringing in a third party.
Most people skirting the surface could make a snap moral call on who was right and let their weapons do the talking, but I preferred to take it that one step further and try and mediate my way through. Does that make me more moral by choosing that route? I’d like to think so but my in-game karma meter doesn’t agree as I broke into someone’s house in the process.
Pogo - I see what you mean about Fallout 3. It did have some great ways of offering choice within the side quests, but I was a bit disappointed again by the overall lack of reactions to my choices. You still end up fighting with the Brotherhood of Steel, trying to overthrow the Enclave. The first time I saw the enclave introduced I thought it would be a huge turning point in the game. Could I end up working with them? But it didn’t come to fruition. The addition of the final choices when you meet the president were a nice touch, but again, not really changing too much. Maybe I’m asking too much for an entire story curve ball.
BIGsheep - I still think we’re some way of a game that is capable of truly telling just how “good” a player is. Not too far, though, as design and technologies are converging upon that spot. The more Designers and AI engineers push NPC-player interaction then the closer we will be to allowing them to judge whether a player’s action have been just or not. Each NPC may have a different set of parameters defining that judgment but that’s not too dissimilar from the real world.
Manuel - Hopefully that’ll hold true. The problem until then, from my perspective, is that designers seem to be intent on revealing the consequences of every decision you make in-game. It’s no coincidence that the strongest moral ambiguities that I’ve faced arrive at moments where minimal signposting has occurred before or after the fact. I don’t want to know what happens to my morality meter if I choose to kill person X or let them live; to me, it’s far more engaging if that mechanic stays in the background. If moral choices boil down to decisions that simply reward you in different ways, they cease to become moral choices at all.
Part of it seems to be the trend towards non-offensive difficulty levels, people seem to be afraid to make a game that isn’t balanced perfectly down the line. If I choose an evil path in Fallout, does it make anything easier? Not really, just slightly different. If I choose to be virtuous in Fable II and sacrifice my physical appearance, does that make the game more difficult? Fundamentally not, because of the system of checks and balances that evens everything out. “For every action, a consequence…” – that can be undone with easily obtainable items.
As an example; if I steal something in Fallout and nobody sees, should my karma meter decrease? After all, that governs the way in which NPC characters react to me within the game world. Ideally, if they didn’t see it, they should treat me the same; but I’d know that I did it. The problem with that scenario is that you simply don’t care enough about the NPCs at present to make it not worth your while to steal, but, if you added a layer of ambiguity by removing the karma meter, becoming unsure as to the consequences of your actions in the process; I’d be willing to bet you’d think twice.
Pogo - So how about moral obligations in the multiplayer world too then eh? Kind of funny to think how many times I’ve been left an incapacitated heap on the floor with a crappy pistol during a Left 4 Dead rooftop finale. I suppose people have made their moral choices in these situations, as have I… that and my friends list is suddenly three lighter!