Editor’s note: Morality choices and systems are a hot topic on Bitmob (read more on the subject here). Aaron loves the concept, but argues that the implementation in most games — a binary good/evil choice — falls far short of the ideal. -Demian


So there I was, staring at an undetonated atomic weapon in the heart of the first bastion of humanity I found after leaving the safe confines of my childhood, Vault 101. The distant sounds of playing children reach my ears. Life finds a way.

Sure, Super Mutants have been known, on occasion, to raid this far from the downtown areas, but you wouldn’t know it when you look at the residents of Megaton. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t the smartest idea to build a town around the remains of a live bomb, yet I can’t help but think that it signifies the strength of these proud survivors. This place could have just been another crater, but it isn’t.

Now it’s safe. Now it’s a home. I try to clear my head. I’ve gotta focus. Mr. Burke is offering a good bit of bottle caps to see this place leveled and now is not the time to go soft. Sentimentality doesn’t pay any bills. Hell, if I play my cards right maybe people will think this was all an accident. I just gotta slit a few throats before their tongues get a chance to start waggin’ to the wrong kinds of folk….

Video game morality is a more recent development in game design that has come to permeate so many of our experiences, and is a key component in Fallout 3 (where the above story comes from). Instead of mindlessly following a predetermined path set before us, we can decide our own. Frankly, the prospect is staggering. This is something that other mediums cannot accomplish. Real choice, not Choose Your Own Adventure book-style, “you stumble into a pit of venomous spiders, you die, turn to page 1,” quasi-choice, but the ability to shape the narrative as we see fit.

 

That was the ideal, at least. The reality is usually much different, and less of a revolution: Instead of endless possibilities, we have two — good or evil. The chance to either be the pious priest or Pol Pot.

This binary morality shows up in almost every game with a morality system. For example, in Bioshock you can either save the little sisters from their monstrous fate, or sacrifice them for your own selfish, increased benefit.

But this ‘bad’ choice quickly loses its weight when you discover that the benefits for sacrificing the little sisters are not even that beneficial. Sure, you get more Adam (which is used to power-up your abilities) in the very short term, but you also lose the chance at some unique abilities or plasmids that can only earn if you decide to save the sisters. And regardless of choice, you end up with pretty much the same amount of Adam either way.

While we as gamers are fine with slaughtering countless legions of enemies with ruthless efficiency, we also tend to bring our own moral code with us while playing games that involve choice. Yes, sometimes we create a persona separate and different from ourselves, and ask “what would my character do?” at key decision-making moments, but I would guess that most players default to a “what would I do?” mode of thinking, at least during the initial playthrough.

And I think this is one of the main reasons why the starkness of these morality systems leave us wanting something more gray, like real life. This is why we become upset when the only options available are save the baby or eat the baby.

Peter Molyneux (of Black & White and Fable fame) wieghed in on this question during an interview with MTV Multiplayer:

MTV Multiplayer:Do you see morality systems in games as necessarily having to be fairly binary? People always talk about applying shades of gray, but, any time a developer tells me about that and then I play their game, I see they’ve essentially had to go back to creating more of a black and white morality system… and I wonder if that’s ultimately because they need to be able to quantify things, need to show distinctions. Do you see an increased graying of the morality? Or does it always have to be sifted apart?”

Moyneux’s response: “Well, here’s the thing. There’s a very simple way to answer that. In conceptual terms, good and evil is a very clear, well-defined and well-understood thing which is great when you’re designing a game. If you’re good, it’s all about sacrifice and care. And if you’re evil, it’s all about being selfish and uncaring.

The way it turns out is, rather than just going for the polarity of killing things is evil and saving things is good, we’ve mixed that up. That’s why we’ve introduced a few other scales, purity and corruption being one of them.

Cruelty and kindness is a really interesting one. Now you would naturally say, “Kindness, that’s good. Cruelty is evil.” Well actually if you’ve got a child … to my son, when I say to him, “You can’t have a chocolate bar two minutes before you go to bed,” he looks at me a says, “Daddy, you’re so cruel.” Well I’m actually being kind. That’s what’s really interesting. The end result is it all boils down to good and evil because otherwise it gets a little bit philosophically complex, but underneath the hood, judging what that is, is quite interesting.. We play out the cruelty and kindness…”

OK…but isn’t this philosophic complexity what makes morality so interesting? If every action can be boiled down to a simple good or evil result doesn’t the question become less about morality but rather the benefit you would receive?

To further illuminate this point I would like to refer to the system used in Infamous. Whenever you encounter a situation that will affect your alignment, a signal flashes on the screen, informing you that your actions will affect your morality meter.

Why resort to such a ham-handed notification system? Because morality is a completely binary mechanic in Infamous. In this game, your morality determines which powers you have access to. You want to use the arc lightening ability? You better crush a child’s skull under your jack boot then.

Infamous makes these morality decisions even less of a choice by making the best powers only unlockable at either end of the good/evil scale. Moreover, for every good mission your complete an evil mission is then lost locked-out, and vice versa.

While the latter point might not sound like such a terrible proposition to those who have not played Infamous, as soon as you realize you would need to complete all of either the good or evil side missions to earn one of the two best powers you understand that the “choice” you have doesn’t really exist.

Infamous developer Sucker Punch might as well have just included a screen right before you start the game, asking, “Would you like to be good or evil?”

In conclusion, the introduction of moral choices in video games is one of the greatest innovations to come to the medium. It allows the player to affect and change the experience and make it an original one, something that cannot be accomplished by film, literature, or any other previous medium.

But game designers need to fully realize that potential. Choices should hold some weight; they should be difficult, or otherwise they become a binary choice, a cost/benefit problem — thereby diminishing what could be one of the gaming medium’s defining strengths.

~Aaron R.

www.SophistGames.com