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How Games Screw Up Moral Choices
On Friday, the PlayStation 4 finally got its first big exclusive. Infamous: Second Son is out and in players’ hands. The third entry in the Infamous series, Second Son has been getting pretty good reviews and, if the pre-order numbers are anything to go by, it’s expected to sell quite well. While I haven’t been able to play it yet, from what I’ve seen it looks like Second Son has followed in its predecessors’ footsteps and implemented a morality system, and if its predecessors (and some reviews) are anything to go by, Second Son has screwed up its moral choices.
Giving the player control over their character’s decisions outside of the game’s main mechanics certainly has benefits that a developer would want to take advantage of. By allowing the player to make choices that will influence the narrative and the game’s mechanics, the player is given a larger sense of ownership over the story and their character. It’s a good idea, but problems arise when developers try to quantify and systematize the “morality” of those decisions.
The simplest, and unfortunately most prominent way of systematizing a player’s moral decisions is by deciding which action is good, which is evil, and then assigning the player points based on their decision. This is how games like Infamous and Mass Effect handle morality; not only does it hurt both games’ stories, these systems defeat the purpose of giving players choices in the first place.
Firstly, categorizing every decision as good or bad is detrimental to telling a mature, involving story like Infamous and Mass Effect attempt to do. It means either simplifying the choices, and thus the player character, to a childish understanding of morality, and it forces morally ambiguous choices into a reductive good/evil binary. The first point isn’t as problematic as the second but it still makes the morality system feel out of place within “mature” games. You can either be a murderous sociopathic jerk or Jesus. The lack of subtlety within the choices is reflected within the player character, and when the main character of a story is that simple the overall experience suffers.
The bigger problem, in my mind, is the reduction of morally complex situations to a good and evil binary. The issues people grapple with everyday aren’t so simple as doing the right or wrong thing. Every situation comes with costs and benefits, to yourself and those around you. A game confronting a player with a no-win situation is a great way to demonstrate the impossible decisions that have shaped us and our world.
In Mass Effect 2, Shepard has the decision of destroying or keeping an enemy base. If it’s kept it could be beneficial in aiding in the coming war against the supposedly-unstoppable Reapers, but hundreds of thousands of human lives were lost there and the person you’d turn the base over to has no love for any species besides humanity. It’s a complex choice with many different variables. Is it wrong to use the base if horrible crimes were committed in it? What if the number of lives the base could save far outweighs the lives it took? Is it a waste of life to destroy it and not use it to save others?
These are tough questions in a sci-fi world but there also questions that are debated in science and medicine today. These are the kinds of questions that were asked regarding the Nazi’s experimentation during the Holocaust, research that could prove beneficial despite its horrible origins. These are not easy questions with simple answers. But what does Mass Effect 2 do? Presents you with these complex questions, forces you to make a tough decision, and then gives you fifteen Paragon points if you blow the base up or fifteen Renegade points if you save it.
The act of deeming one choice pure good and one choice pure evil rips all complexity from that moment. It forces a right/wrong dichotomy on top of a situation where right and wrong can’t be pinned down. It robs the scene of its power over the player. The whole point of those moments is that there is no right answer but you have to pick one anyway. By labeling the choices good or evil the complexity of the situation is ripped away. Maybe you decided that you had to keep the base because you knew the lives it would save if you did; you hope that, in the end, when the war is over and the galaxy is saved, you’ll know you’ve made the right choice. It was a hard choice, but it was a call you had to make. You reluctantly select the option to save the base, the implications weighing heavy on you, then a bright orange box with a dark red symbol in the middle pops up on screen saying, “+15 Renegade,”. Oh. Well, I guess you chose wrong.
Even for just those reasons, good/evil morality systems are clearly deeply flawed. But on top of that, by their very nature they make themselves pointless. In Infamous, the more powerful abilities are locked off until you reach a certain amount of good or evil karma, and that sort of makes sense. You can’t use the best powers until you’ve played enough of the game and gotten enough karma. But what if the player doesn’t commit themselves solely to evil deeds or solely to good ones? What if their decisions position them as neutral in the game’s morality system? A neutral player is basically locked off from content in the game that they’ll need as the progress.
A good/evil morality system basically requires the player to choose wholly good or wholly evil in order to enjoy all the perks, powers, and abilities that they can attain throughout the course of the game. When confronted with a difficult moral decision, a player isn’t going to pick the choice that they think is right or that they want to pick, but instead they’ll pick the one that lines up with all their previous moral choices, so they can accrue more of the kind of points they’ve been getting and gain access to all of the options available to them. Every choice becomes moot. The narrative power of these choices is gone as the mechanics of good/evil morality forces the player to choose, not based on their preference, but based on their current moral alignment. This is an even bigger problem in Mass Effect where having enough good or evil points can be the difference between a character living or being killed off permanently.
Good and evil morality systems are a bad idea. By their very nature, they’re self-defeating: creating dull simplistic characters, being overly reductive and passing judgment on complex moral issues, and pushing players to forgo their actual preferences and align solely with one side. Games like The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain take a different approach, by not assigning the player a label as good or bad but by showing what the consequences of their actions are. The player isn’t forced down one path or explicitly told what is right and wrong, but they’re left to contemplate on their actions and wonder what might have been. This idea that there is always a good choice and an evil choice is childish. It’s fine for simple games that just want their audience to relax and have fun, but for games that deal with prejudice, genocide, war, violence, love, hatred, and real world issues, it has to be left behind.
If a game is going to have a moral choice aspect, it should be able to go all the way. I get the binary meter in some settings; it worked well in KOTOR because there is a black and white mentality at the core of its setting, but the only game I've seen handle realistic morality well is Tactics Ogre. There are no black and white choices in Tactics Ogre, but there are some majorly heavy moral choices. Is it worth slaughtering a village of innocent people if it can end a war that will cause even more deaths? Could you join your worst enemy to work towards a common goal? These choices lead the story in completely different paths for a majority of the game, and when they do converge at the end you don't have a "good or evil" meter to show for it, but a complex, political web of potential allies and potential enemies. Your reputation is forged not just through these choices, but the outcome of certain battles and by basic conversation options, and can open up different potential party members and side quests.
And that's the problem: for any sort of interactive moral choice system to be convincing, the consequences need to be fully fleshed out. It should be either a huge part of a game or not a part at all. I agree with RougeWatson that Fallout's Karma system is a good one, with different reputations in different parts of the world being possible.
I agree completely, and what bugs me the most you bring up in the penultimate paragraph. My first playthrough of Mass Effect I treated each situation on a case-by-case basis, really role-playing my Shepard. In the end I had about 50% Paragon and Renegade, which is totally worthless as the game's mechanics only reward you for going all one or the other. In other words, it rewards you not for role-playing but for simply selecting the red or blue option every time. Fallout's Karma and reputation systems are the best I've seen that handle morality and consequences but we're still far from ideal in gaming.