Former French Prime Minister André Léon Blum once said, “Morality may consist solely in the courage of making a choice”. This could not be truer for the way videogames treat the concept of morality. While most games with prefabricated, linear storylines orchestrate your character’s reactions and determine your overall personality, leaving you with the sole task of gunning down enemies or jumping over obstacles, several RPGs give you the freedom to choose whether you want to be the trigger-happy, devil-may-care mercenary or the archetypal Robin Hood, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Or well, just steals from the rich.
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What’s more crucial, however, is how the game lets you do it, or should let you do it. While it’s true that it doesn’t necessarily break a game down, it can, in many ways, colour the experience in ways that are hard to explain. It only takes some of the most prodigious RPGs in recent memory to present a stark contrast.
Take for example, the Mass Effect series. Depending on whether you’d like to be the ‘ultimate hero’ or the ‘ultimate badass’ (as the game puts it) and your subsequent choices regarding the same, the game assigns you Paragon or Renegade points. These points build up over time and dictate how the plot branches out, and what game-changing decisions are eventually available to you. BioWare took this feature to a new level in Mass Effect 2 by adding a context-sensitive interrupt system during conversation, warranting immediate reactions, and injecting bursts of morality in your Shepard. However, this illusion quickly fades when you are thrown a set of red or blue-coloured numbers at the end of a sequence and may leave your character looking a bit like the Terminator.
Juxtaposing this with Skyrim, we see a different kind of morality subsystem; one that is much subtler, making the classification of actions into black-and-white exponentially harder, and altogether more realistic. There is no point based system which labels your character as inherently good or bad. The world fluidly mirrors your choices and actions in a way that seamlessly blends into the experience. Your Dovahkiin’s morals aren’t just an added feature of the high-tech toy. In a way, they are the game, differentiating you and your experience as truly your own, and leaving the land and its characters with your stamp of approval.
For instance, those who prefer to play as a benevolent vanquisher-of-evil would be horrified at the prospect of joining the Dark Brotherhood, a group of hired assassins. Players have the choice of either joining them, taking this nefarious organization down or simply not caring. Many gamers complain about the game’s non-discriminatory crime mechanic, where a 40 gold bounty is placed on a one’s head for murder, regardless of whether the victim is cow or emperor, and where one could be jailed for something as innocuous as knocking down silverware. The seams do begin to show there, but the embroidery that the morality weaves around them doesn’t let the overall fabric of immersion rip apart.
The Mass Effect point system not only prevents the player from pursuing other courses of action in the game, but may also result in some unexpected, varying from fawning to violent to indifferent, reactions from the player’s team members and NPCs. But is it really fair to have your team massacred just because you didn’t want to play the Big Cheese, the valiant defender of the ‘innocent and helpless’ all the time? Shouldn’t the availability of the choice of being a charlatan, reckless, gun-slinging miscreant in the game be equally valid and substantial?
Lemony Snicket wrote, ‘People aren't either wicked or noble. They're like chef's salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.’ Question is, what do you want as the dressing?
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