Moral Choice Systems

Now that I’ve fulfilled my “talking about religion” quota for the moment, I feel I can justifiably take a break and talk about video games some more.

Including some sort of moral choice system (whether along a “saintlike” and “OMG EVIL!” axis or simply via the computer tracking your choices) isn’t something that is considered revolutionary in games (if it ever was) but lately it seems as if more and more developers are inserting some sort of system into their game that tracks the player character’s morality (giving them an appropriate ending).

I think if this blog were more popular, gamers would swarm it with hateful comments were I to say this, but I actually don’t mind moral choice systems. However, I think there are many ways in which moral choice systems fail to be very effective in engaging the player, here are just a few:

Make one choice that’s counter to your alignment? Congratulations, you’re stuck with that alignment for the rest of the game!

So you’ve spent the whole game being an absolute saint. You stop to help everyone (over the objections of your party members, in some cases), perform endless fetch quests (even though the townspeople are perfectly capable of doing the tasks themselves) and so on and so forth. Then, towards the end of your quest, you’re presented with a choice, and just once, you decide to go with the less than saintly option.

Congratulations! You are now Evil McEvilson for the rest of the game!

This is a problem that mostly effects games that have a moral choice system that uses a good/evil axis, as late in the game, your decisions tend to give you more “points” on one side or another, the unfortunate side effect of this is that one bad (or good) decision can potentially push you over to the other side and “lock” you into that side for the rest of the game. Jade Empire is a great example of this issue in action. Did you make a certain Closed Fist decision towards the end of the game? Congratulations, it doesn’t matter how long you spent picking every Open Palm option, you’re now irredeemably evil!

Lack of Options

When making a decision in a game, most often in games with a clear alignment system, you will get one choice that amounts to “Good” and one that amounts to “Evil”. Even in games that don’t track your alignment, you usually have the option of one “Good” choice, one “Evil” choice, and maybe one that’s more in-between (sometimes picking this option nets you something the other choices wouldn’t give you). The end result is that the player is very limited regarding the kinds of choices they are allowed to make in-game.

Obviously, I think expecting the developers to include scenarios that encompass every sort of reaction a player might have is unrealistic, but there have been many cases in games where I’ve wondered why I couldn’t take a third option or do something a little extra to accumulate good/evil points (such as withholding an object from someone until I’m paid for it or giving something back at no charge).

Rewards Tend to Favour One Alignment Over Another

I read an article about this a couple of years ago, and basically what it said is that developers tend to attempt to influence the player’s morality by giving them more rewards for choosing the “good” option. I don’t think it’s as sinister as that, but it does seem to imply that the “evil” choice is the easiest way out.

The thing is, that given the choice between getting a cool sword and being good and not getting a cool sword and being evil, players will usually opt for the cool sword (unless they’re the type that just likes causing mayhem). I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve chosen one path simply because I know it’ll give me a better reward.

Now that I’ve looked at some issues that plague moral choice systems, here are some examples of games that at least try to address these problems:

The Witcher

I love love LOVE The Witcher (and its sequel Assassins of Kings) because no choice in the game is ever a simple matter of good vs. evil. For instance, do you choose to give up a suspected witch to an angry mob–even after you’ve found evidence that she isn’t entirely innocent of the things the villagers accuse her of doing? Do you choose to aid a group of rebels who desperately need supplies? The best part is that the impact of your decisions isn’t entirely felt until a few hours later, so you won’t be able to save beforehand and make another decision if you didn’t like your choice.

Dragon Age: Origins

The developers of DA: O cite The Witcher as one of their influences, and it shows. Like The Witcher, there’s no meter that tracks your “good” or “evil” decisions, and while many decisions do seem rather cut and dry, the game does throw in a few grey areas just to keep you on your toes. Dragon Age 2 also adds in “helpful”, “snarky” and “aggressive” dialogue choices and tracks how many you make (snarky!Hawke is my favourite, but aggressive!Hawke is just badass.

Mass Effect (and Sequels)

The Mass Effect games have a more traditional “good” (Paragon choices) and “evil” (Renegade choices) system. Although, I should stress that “good” and “evil” don’t really describe either alignment, one is more co-operative and diplomatic, the other very racist pro-human, get the job done, why aren’t we seeing to the mission the mission is important. What really sets Mass Effect apart, though, is that Paragon and Renegade points are tracked on separate meters–making a choice in either direction doesn’t (usually) result in an automatic loss in the opposite direction, so my pure Paragon Shepard in Mass Effect 3 was able to make one Renegade choice in the entire game without having people treat her like Satan incarnate (if you’re wondering which choice she made, let’s just say a certain assassin won’t be able to sit comfortably for a long time–or ever, actually).

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