Making Morality Matter

Making Morality Matter
Ethics Without a Net

Steve Butts | 31 May 2011 13:02
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The reset mentality is part of the problem. Many gamers are driven more by utility than context, so if there are multiple endings, they're going to do what they can to see all of them, regardless of whether or not that breaks the context of the story. Without a sense of lasting consequence or finality, a story element is still optional. Just look at the difference between the transparent resolution of Knights of the Old Republic and the more layered resolution of Heavy Rain. In Knights, players have to choose between one of two roles. In one, you embrace the Dark Side, supplanting Malak to become the new Sith Lord. Using your power, you destroy the Republic fleet, and move against the Core Worlds, wiping out the last remnants of the Jedi Order along the way. If you choose to go on the redemptive Light Side, you still kill Malak, but only after teaching him some respect for the Light Side. The Republic Fleet, with your help, is able to destroy the Sith and restore order in the galaxy. The difference here lies in whether or not the player has opted for the clear choice of a "good" or "bad" ending.

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Heavy Rain's resolutions are much more guarded. Whether or not you get a "good" or "bad" ending in that game involves not just the outcome of the various choices you've made, but also on your own definition of what "good" and "bad" mean. You can still save Shaun, but you might also find that some of the major characters go insane or even kill themselves based on the experiences you've led them through. As in the real world, you can't always anticipate the consequences of your actions in Heavy Rain, and watching your best intentions turn sour offers a stronger moral hook than simply giving the player the choice between the two unambiguous choices we're offered in most morality games.

The compelling challenge to make decisions with too little information and accept the consequences is universal. How game designers choose to deepen these moral messages matters, not just because it means better games, but because it's the one thing that best communicates the artistic potential of games to non-gamers. If designers can create intriguing narratives that give players the freedom to explore these moral issues, that has the potential to do far more than gameplay or graphics to elevate the entire medium. These are the challenges we should be facing in the future, not checking a FAQ to decide whether or not to drown a village so we can get a magic sword that does 2 more damage than the one we already have.

For all his optimism, Steve Butts is still likely to kill a man for a pair of really nice boots.

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