Bear with me, because this is a bit of a long rant, but it’s hopefully worth the read…
Alright, so lets talk about morality and moral choices in games. There’s obviously a lot of games out there that provide moral choices as a core game concept: the Fable series, Bioshock, almost all of Bioware’s games… So all of these games are supposed to be centered around this idea of moral choices between good and evil.
And the basic way in which these games implement morality is with what basically accounts to a slider with good on one end and evil on the other. So in order to become an evil character you have to have a lot of evil points, or if you’re wanting to play a good character you’ve got to have a lot of those points. But the problem is that in order for this to work, and for the game be able to determine where you are on this slider, every decision in the game has be reduced into a simple black and white decision; one choice will yield good points and the other choice yields evil points. Unfortunately, this also makes the most of the game’s choices uninteresting and defeats the initial draw the whole moral choice idea had in the first place, because all of the choices are so easy to make.
Alignment comes from pen and paper role-playing games, but the difference is in a pen and paper game, that your alignment was something that you chose before you played and you attempted to play the game to represent that alignment. So if you chose chaotic evil as your alignment, you would attempt to play the game in a fashion that represented chaotic evil, and you would attempt to be as backstabbing and ruthless as possible. Whereas in games that offer these moral choices like Fable or KOTOR, usually what you’re doing is not choosing your alignment before you play and attempting to make decisions based on that, you’re choosing your alignment on a decision-by-decision basis. But the problem is that usually when people play these games, they decide early on in the game, that “I’m gonna be good”, or “I’m gonna be evil,” and then the game just gives you opportunities to reinforce that decision you made when you first started playing. And when the consequences of your choices are explicitly declared to you in this way, the choices lose their meaning.
Now I’m gonna bring up Fable. I know it’s old, but I haven’t played any of the more recent games like Bioshock, and Fable pretty clearly expresses what I think is wrong with morality in games. So the center theme of Fable is that you have these moral choices that you make that affect your character in a visual way. So as you play the game you develop a reputation, and the way your character looks changes, and the NPCs in the game are supposed to react in a way that represents this reputation you’ve developed. But when you actually play the game it becomes again just that basic reinforcement of an good/evil alignment choice.
So you start out the game as a kid and you do tasks for your dad and he rewards you for doing good deeds with money so you can buy your sister some stuff, and anyway… One of the tasks you do is that this guy who’s guarding some barrels that he’s keeping in his shed; he wants to go do something else, and he leaves you there to protect his stuff. So you have the choice of whether you want to guard his stuff like a good boy or just run in there and smash all the barrels and steal everything. And I imagine initially, that most players weren’t aware they even had the ability to make a decision, so in order to counter that, they have this little kid run up and just scream at you the whole time that you should run in there and steal the stuff.
The problem is that what they’ve done is essentially a gross over-correction for a simple problem. The kid screaming for me to be bad didn’t make me want to go destroy the barrels to express my freedom, it made me want to stand still and not decide anything because the game was trying to force this freedom of choice on me in an obnoxious way. So the guy gets back and he thanks me and a little bubble pops up telling me that I get good points, and immediately afterwards I run into the guys shed and I bust all the barrels and take his stuff.
So there’s two problems: The first is that the decision isn’t really interesting because the game forces it’s choices on you, and the second problem is that it immediately rescinds that forcefulness after you’ve gotten the good points for staying there, because you can still go in and bust his barrels and get the bad points anyway. And doesn’t really feel like you had much of a choice anyway because the good and bad points were immediately made trivial and insignificant. Even worse is that these “morality” games do this so often that it’s sort of become a tradition to have this type of insignificance. And I think, If I’m really supposed be to playing a game about moral choices and dilemmas, then there should be some sort of real consequences to my actions, right?
So maybe a good/evil slider isn’t the best way to do morality in a game. Not to say that giving a player the choice to do something clearly good or bad is wrong. I’m all for as many choices as possible in a game, and sometimes good and evil are really that clear. But maybe there’s a way to implement moral choices in a game without having it pop up “You gained 5 Good Points!”, or “You got 12 Evil Points!” because you shot some dude in the head with an arrow. If you’re proposing a game where the main draw is issues of morality, then your choices need to have more depth and impact in how you continue to play the game.
Really I believe that games should be giving us more open-ended moral questions, which aren’t so much good or bad, because you don’t know the real consequences of your actions when you’re making the choice. GTA IV is a good example of this. Although it is clearly not a role-playing game or a morality centered game with good and evil points, it actually provides some very interesting moral choices. On an early mission in the game, you are directed to go kill someone, which is a pretty common mission objective for a GTA game, but when you arrive, the person tries to prove to you that they’re innocent. Now, as the player, you haven’t been given any proof that this person is guilty or innocent. So this creates this interesting choice where you’re not quite certain of the consequences of what you do choose until much later in the game when either the person comes back to stab you in the back or to lend a helping hand. But the thing is, it creates this feeling of moral choice without ever popping up a icon, or giving me a hint at where my character is on the good and evil slider. I mean, looking at this type of decision, think of how trivial and pointless the decision would feel if the game popped up a window telling me I did the right thing by not killing him, and then gave me some points for it. I think it’s enough of a reward if you feel like you’ve done the right thing, even if the game doesn’t tell you so. I mean, it could just as much be the right thing to kill the guy.
So I think the point I’m making is that these simple moral choices, by which I mean picking a good or evil alignment option continuously, are not the same as real moral dilemmas. A moral dilemma can only happen when you don’t have the information neccessary to be entirely informed about your decision. A moral dilemma is picking the lesser evil. If I’m playing a game about morality, I want to come out of the experience thinking, “Wow, that was tough!”, without having to fight a boss or kill some tough guy I had to beat up with a stick. I should be genuinely filled with doubt about what right and wrong really means to me. I want to be genuinely affected by emotions that came from the game. And I think that’s something that’s really difficult to do with games, because people typically play games to escape reality, to escape consequences. “I don’t realy want to shoot my boss, so I go play Half-Life 2,” or something. But if I’m playing a game about moral choices, in order for me to feel genuine emotions about something I’ve done, there have to be consequences that are real to me. I have to lose the ability to do something if I make a bad choice, I have to pay the price of staying in jail for a while when I kill somebody, because the guards caught me, or I get benefits for doing something that those around me appreciate. I mean there should be games that provide a fantasy world, that give you an escape. I’m not going to deny the thrill of being able to just do whatever you want and nobody can say anything. So, I’m definitely not saying that morality is the end-all be all of game design. We certainly shouldn’t all run out and make our gamers feel sorry because they jumped on a goomba and killed him in the next Mario game. But if you ARE making a game about morality and serious issues, and trying to push it as something new and exciting, (which most games of this type do. ) then you really need to consider whether what you’re putting into your game are simple black-and-white choices or real moral dilemmas.