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The Morality System in Games Has Outlived Its Usefulness

Chris Rio | 17 Apr 2014 13:00
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Morality in Games

With many of these types of systems, developers like to point out when you are making a moral choice: "Ooo, what will you choose, player?" But moral choices have to be organic, like in The Walking Dead games by Telltale. Just about every time you are faced with a decision, you a required to choose something quickly, to simulate a real-life encounter, and the game never eases you along one way or the other. The second you point them out with a neon sign makes it seem like they're just thrown in.

Of course, even forcing the player to make choices on the fly doesn't always work because 90% of the time the choices are not balanced at all. I call this the "kill the puppy/save the puppy" paradox. Basically, when faced with a decision, the bad option tends to be way more extreme compared to the good option. The good option on the other hand is basically "neutral," or something that any decent person would do anyway in real life. So: do you murder the puppy, or not? The choice is yours! But not killing the puppy somehow makes other characters think I'm a saint even though there was no risk involved in the choice. The entire system in BioShock revolved around saving or murdering little girls. Even in a game as universally praised as that, there is literally no reason to be bad. In fact, by not saving the Little Sisters, you end up missing out on some of the most useful powers in the game.

The best example I can think of to illustrate this point is the Mass Effect series. Although the franchise always had moral choices, ME2 introduced the idea of instant actions that could be performed during cutscenes. Basically, a prompt would appear on screen that would let you interrupt the scene with a good or bad action (color-coded of course). The problem was there was no way of knowing what was going to happen when you pressed the button. Let's say I wanted to be Han Solo: a rogue but good guy. So when my Shepard was doing an interview with an annoying reporter who was clearly trying to spin my story for ratings, a red prompt appeared on screen. Thinking that Shepard would simply tell her to fuck off, I pressed it. Shepard punched her in the face What? Who does that? It took me completely out of the character, and after that I couldn't trust trying out the bad option without fear of it being way too over-the-top.

Morality in Games

Now compare this to one of the "good" actions you can perform. At one point in the game you are on a mission with Tali who is devastated to find her father's dead body. A blue prompt appears, and pressing it causes Shepard to...give her a hug? Who wouldn't do that in that situation? It requires no sacrifice. What's the point of even having that option? In fact, in ME3 they added even more paragon interruptions that involve just hugging someone. It's impossible to play as a "morally grey" character without coming off like a maniac who goes around giving bear hugs one minute and literally pushing a guy out a hundred-story window the next.

So how do we fix this? There has to be a system that can keep track of your underlying moral standings without intruding into the gameplay mechanics. I think the solution would be to give players even less feedback about where they are morally while role-playing a character. Stop all the pop-ups and obvious good/bad choices. Focusing more on the reaction of NPC's around you would be a far more interesting mechanic than the robotic nature of the "game" rewarding you like a Pavlovian dog.

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