Duel Shock: Morality and Choice

Redartifice and Beardy McMuttonchops tackle moral choices and morality systems in games.

Warning: There are some spoilers here for Far Cry 3, Dragon Age Origins, Fable, and Red Dead Redemption. Nothing earth-shattering, but beware.

Redartifice: Welcome back to Duel Shock, where I and a co-writer tackle a big issue or facet in gaming. This time I’m joined by the Beardeogame Brother himself, Beardy McMuttonchops, and we’re talking about moral choices in games.

Some form of moral choice has been in games since the early RPGs back in the early nineties, but the increasing complexity of video game narratives mean that more and more games are putting in some sort of choice. These choices range from reasonably binary, immediate, explicitly “good” or “evil” actions, to choices that are ambiguous and may pay off much later in the game. I believe that with more and more RPG elements in mainstream games the nature of the choices we make are becoming more and more knotty and complicated.

What do you think, Beardy? Are we seeing games explore a deeper moral complexity? Or is it just the same binary choices between simple options dressed up to look deeper?

Beardy: Both, I think.  Some games try to dress up binary choices with layers of moral complexity, but they ultimately still boil down to choice a) or choice b), which usually correlate to a good choice or an evil choice.  But the moment you install some kind of morality ‘system’ in a game that quantifies how good or how bad you are and rewards you for it, it no longer actually becomes a moral choice.  It becomes a game mechanic.  You end up making decisions based on which aesthetic or gameplay reward you want to receive, not by doing what’s morally correct.

In the real world, making a moral or immoral decision usually doesn’t quantify itself in such a tangible, cumulative way.  In real life, you don’t get a halo for helping orphans, or devil horns for kicking puppies.

I think the games which have succeeded the most in implementing moral choice are the ones who don’t dress up their choices as moral choices at all.  They’re the games that present a situation to the player, and ask them to make a choice without the promise of a reward for good or bad behaviour.

Knights of the Old Republic penalized players for walking a centrist path.

Redartifice: I agree with what you say about it becoming a game mechanic- a good example is probably the Knights of the Old Republic games, where you pretty much had to go all dark side or all light side to access the better powers. This bipolar moral system is present in quite a few games, and it seems to always be a case of stay the path, which is less than ideal. Even though it’s a strict structure, what games do you think have done it well? I thought that the first InFamous made the dark choices less about being evil and more about being selfish- you didn’t dive straight into the puppy killing.

I worry a little that what these games are presenting is moral absolutism- there is right, there is wrong, and there is no inbetween. In fact, I often go out of my way when playing games to take a third option, as I feel that’s a better way to earn a victory. Dragon Age: Origins had some good moments where you could push for a third option, and it’s this moral ambiguity that I think helped make the setting a little more unique than bog-standard fantasy. Which games do you think bucked the absolutism trend?

Beardy: It’s funny you should mention Dragon Age: Origins, but I’ll get to that in a second.  I’ll answer your question first.  One series of games that does the absolute good and absolute evil alignment well is the inFamous series.  The first game was a little more subtle about it than inFamous 2.  In the second game, to me, it still boiled down to “Do I want ice powers, or fire powers?”

Dragon Age didn’t have a universal good/evil meter, but you could gain the approval or disapproval of party members.

I think Dragon Age: Origins is a game that has the best examples of a moral choice system in a video game. Firstly, there is no meter or bar or graph showing how objectively good or how objectively evil you’ve been.  There are only the decisions you have made, and the ramifications of those decisions.

For example, in the Redcliffe quests you’re tasked with saving the Arl from sickness, but at the same time you find out that his son has been taken by a demon of the Fade who is trying to cross over to our world.   There are a couple of options here.  You can either kill the boy, thereby killing the demon as well, or you can try to save the boy.  But if you try and save the boy, you risk the life of one of your party members, or you can allow the boy’s mother to sacrifice her own life to rid her son of demonic possession.

In that situation, there is no right, and no wrong.  There is only the situation, and how you as a player choose to react to it.  And the best thing about Dragon Age: Origins is that these types of decisions are present at every part of the story.  Some decisions you make will even make the characters in your party abandon your struggle and fundamentally change how the events of the game play out.  I’d often agonize over making a decision for quite a while before actually making a choice.

Redartifice: And sometimes the real fun in these games is making a choice and then going “Oh, Wait, Shit!” and living with the consequences! One really nicely done choice in Dragon Age: Origins is the resolution of the Dwarf storyline, where you can support either of the leaders. The “good” choice is to support the traditionalist leader, but the post-game reveals that ultimately this disadvantages the dwarves in the long run. I like that “good” choices can have bad outcomes, it’s refreshing.

Fallout: New Vegas did away with a binary moral system- but you could still provoke NPCs.

I’ve been playing through Fallout: New Vegas, and I’m continually surpised at how some of the choices are presented- you can dick over anyone, or go out of your way to do something nice even though it puts you at a disadvantage. Another game that I really need to finish but had great choices was The Witcher- you’d make a choice based on incomplete information, but it’d only pay off half an hour later.

I want to go back to moral absolutism. It’s a very heaven-and-hell way to talk about choices in games, and I worry that using such a strict sturcture is actually strangling storytelling in these games. Do you think that this is improving, or is the use of multiple endings and choices in games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 just a fad?

Beardy: I think it’s becoming much more prevalent now that more developers are realising that interactivity shouldn’t just be expressed through gameplay, it should also be expressed through storytelling.  One of the most satisfying things about some recent games like Dragon Age: Origins, the Mass Effect Trilogy and the Fallout games is that your actions actually matter.  You aren’t simply a participant in the story around you.  You’re actually shaping it through the choices you make.
I don’t think absolutism is a very good way of presenting a choice for players.  Maybe since developers are still dabbling in the complexities of allowing for player interaction within the narrative itself, absolutism is a way for developers to still provide the option for diverging story pathways, but still funnel the story down set paths.

Fallout: New Vegas is a great example of no absolutes.  Even the progression of the story and the overarching plot is dictated by the player in not just one or two paths, but four completely different paths.  That’s not counting the myriad of different options the side quests present to you.  The best thing Fallout: New Vegas did was ditch the Karma system.

I think Mass Effect has the best portrayal of absolutes in games.  Because they’re not good or evil absolutes, they’re Paragon and Renegade.  While that might seem like a rebranded choice between good and evil, it really isn’t.  It comes down to whether Sherpard personifies the best of the human race, or whether he or she is willing to do whatever is necessary to save it.  An important but distinct difference.

While Renegade doesn’t always mean evil, it had its moments.

Redartifice: I agree with you about Mass Effect being a bit of a subversion, as it seems absurd for someone who is supposed to save the galaxy being “evil.” The Paragon/Renegade system makes you feel like a hero at all times, just either a Dirty Harry or a… not Dirty Harry. Using alternative structures for the choices in a game  outside of good/evil is a good idea, and I’d like more games to use it.

One game I wanted to pick your brain on is Far Cry 3. This game talks obliquely about the morality of what you’re doing, but gives you no real choice until the very end to do anything different- even then it’s a single button press. I actually think this is a bit of a failure as far as moral systems go, and it cheapened the ending a bit for me. Do you have any games where a moral system seemed to conflict with the rest of the game? Where do you think a moral system in a game is inappropriate?

Beardy:  I dabbled in Far Cry 3 a bit, but definitely not enough to be able to comment on the story.  I spent most of my time hunting deer and getting viciously mauled by all the friendly jungle critters.

You know I can’t really think of a game with a morality system that is inappropriate for the game it appears in.  Some are so absolutist that they become comical, like when you become the King or Queen in Fable 3 and all of your subjects come to petition you.  The different options are so extreme in their alignment that the whole sequence becomes laughable.
I thought that the morality and choice system in Red Dead Redemption was a nuanced, organic way of managing morality in a video game.

In RDR, most of the story missions won’t ask you to make a choice one way or the other.  There aren’t really any points in the story that even react to your standing in the community.  You have a fame meter, which increases as you become better known, and an honor meter which either increases or decreases based on your action in the world.

And it’s those actions in the world that really define your John Marston.  Does your John Marston help a woman who’s about to be sexually assaulted in an alleyway behind the saloon in Armadillo?  Will he kill a bunch of coyotes chasing a person he doesn’t know, or does he ride on and ignore their plight?  Does he kill a man for a plot of land, or does he buy the deed from him so the man can move down to Blackwater to retire?

Redartifice: For me Red Dead Redemption was a little bit backwards, in that I never felt like I was making a choice the way you do in Dragon Age- I never felt he was “my” John Marston. For me, Red Dead presented a character, and I wanted to live up to his ideal- I rescued people because that’s what I thought John Marston would do, not because I wanted to play him as good or evil. Marston was so well drawn that I didn’t want to be evil as I thought it would violate his code, and I wanted him to be redeemed for his past actions, whatever they were.

I tend to agree that Fable flubbed it a bit by sticking to such a rigid structure, and in Fable 2 anyway it always seemed impermanent- if you got too good you could just eat crunchy chicks until you were evil again. This made me feel like the morality system was ultimately irrelevant. I also didn’t like the “purity” system in that game, as it came off as preachy and out of step with the setting.

Another morality system I felt was a little underbaked was Bioshock’s Little Sisters. While it is a confronting choice, whether you kill a child or spare them for less reward, rather than face you with continued plot based decisions it was essentially the same choice over and over again.

It seems we’ve got a pretty good concept of what a good moral system is in a video game- one that doesn’t present a black and white choice, but requires the weighing of several factors, and one that isn’t necessarily immediately linked to rewards but that pays off down the line. What areas would you like to see games improve in the way the present moral choices?

Beardy: In addition to the factors you’ve mentioned above, I think that morality systems in video games would benefit from being less tangible.  Most games that include morality systems are huge, epic open world games where your standing within that world actually does matter.  These huge games all boil down to a bunch of systems.  Weather systems, real estate systems, traffic generation systems, loot generation systems, enemy placement and behaviour systems etc.  If morality systems were built into a game at the same fundamental level as all of the other overarching systems, they would become just part of the tapestry of the world you’re playing in.

I realise that would be extremely difficult, because morality is not just a simple mathematical formula or something that could be handled with simple if and or clauses.

Real morality is such an organic and personally subjective thing that I don’t think we’ll ever see a game capture true morality, unless we’re only playing with other people.  An NPC doesn’t have the capacity to interact with a player in such a human way.  At least not yet.

What kind of advances in morality and choice in video games do you think we might see in the future?

Redartifice: See here’s the thing about morality: It’s an entirely societal construct. I think morality systems in games therefore will only progress if the way that in-game actors are programmed takes a massive leap forward. As in real life, no-one is “keeping score,” but if you dick over people it gets around and vice versa. I think if games are going to continue a mechanical morality system it’ll have some form of organic spread, or different individual NPCs will react to it differently.

What I think would be cool is if games expand faction standings, so you can be seen as a saint in some groups and an evil sod in others. Games like the Elder Scrolls have faction reputations, and I can see future games giving you a “public” reputation as well as having an underworld rep. Upstanding society fellow by day, gangster by night!

We may see some games doing the Paragon/Renegade thing (or similar) a bit more- less a good/evil dichotomy, but a difference in approach that changes how the narrative progresses. I also think we will see more games moving to the Witcher/New Vegas model, where decisions pay off much later- we’ll see a further divorcing of the act from the payoff. This takes more complex story writing and story triggers, but the payoff for players when you go “Holy shit, I did that like 4 hours ago” will be worth it.

Beardy: I agree.  The thing I loved most about Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout: New Vegas’ morality systems are that they didn’t actually have them.  It was all about the player, the characters, the situation, and how you choose to react to it.

And that’s really what morality comes down to.  Making a choice.

What moral systems in games do you think were well implemented? Which ones didn’t quite hit the mark? How can game makers improve choice systems and moral systems in games? Let us know in the comments.
Would you like to step into the Duel Shock ring? got a topic you’d like to discuss? Let me know- you can find me on Twitter @redartifice


  1. Dire Wolf · · Reply

    I think in some games a morality system works really well, like a Star Wars game, Fable game or inFamous. Those have the sort of universes where having your character be a shining paragon of virtue or a dark cloud of general evilness really work. Other games though, it doesn’t work that well. Some games need to have moral ambiguity because of the setting (Human Revolutions for example) while in others what the good and evil choices are (more often the evil I’ve noticed) and how they’re presented don’t really make sense, such as Mass Effect. The problem with boiling choices down to good and evil is that there’s a generally accepted type of good, but there are many types of evil, and sometimes there can be a huge inconsistency in the evil choices. Renegade Shepard for example could flip between cold hearted soldier, psychopath and just a massive jerk. Not to mention the choices need to make sense in context of the story, and not just be evil for the sake of being evil, which is something ME3 suffered from.

    If playing to moral extremes fits the game’s story and setting I’m all for some sort of system that measures morallity, but if it doesn’t fit then there shouldn’t be a moral measuring system in place, or if there is it should be behind the scenes where the player can’t see it.

    1. Renegade Shepherd at times could just be a jerk, but I always thought the philosophy was one of expediency- RenShep did what they did as they had a goal that they were trying to achieve. This did vary according to the scenario though!

  2. Morality in games is a mess. Because most games offer a perk for maxing out your Paragon or Renegade meters (for want of a better term), or will present players with a different reward for a different choices, gamers will often play to the result, rather than the choice itself. Mass Effect, Dragon Age and inFAMOUS all had systems that rewarded players that played a certain way. Even GTA IV’s laughable attempts at moral choices had more to do with what you got out of it than actually making a tough choice.

    Catherine is sort of a grey area, because although there’s a morality meter of sorts, it doesn’t seem to affect the gameplay much at all (though apparently affects the story’s ending).

    In some ways, The Walking Dead is one of very few games that present pure morality choices, because they don’t make the game easier or harder, or notably affect the ending. And somehow, they’re still the backbone of the game.

    Here is a really old blog post with more examples: http://shanewsmith.com/blog/2009/11/morality-in-video-games/

    1. I think, as we said, that in games like InFamous is it giving you a gameplay choice rather than a true moral choice. That said, there are games which step outside of that, and as a result have really interesting effects on the narrative within the game- New Vegas and The Witcher being prime examples.

      Even though I’ve not yet finished The Walking Dead, it certainly provides you with some knotty moral issues to navigate, and I think the gaming public has responded well to that. I’m interested to see what Telltale does with their Fables game- while I don’t expect life or death decisions, it could be interesting to see an exploration of morality within fairy tales.

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