Morality Matters

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Wolfram01:
I wonder if anyone knew that Metro 2033 had a morality system? There's not a single mention of it. Turns out, throughout the game there's things you can do - like helping a beggar out or a little street urchin - that will in fact cause you to get a different version of the ending. Pretty crazy. I didn't find out until after I beat the game and was looking at a guide, and I kind of went... huh?? What ending are they talking about?!

I did not know that...not like i'm exactly going to play through the game again though, it didn't quite impress me all that much. I got the ending where i sat down all relaxed as everything exploded (i hope this doesn't count as spoilers, because really, this could be the ending of so many games or the beginging of others).

anyway, I was playing Mass Effect 2 at a friends house, having never played one before. You know the first conversation reel thing? Where you can a troop is begging to come with you to save another member of the crew? I thought she seemed too emotionally attached and believed that she would slow me down, so i told her to stand down as I'd given her an order, believing that trying to keep everyone alive was a good thing to do. What happened was that my shepard, rather than soothingly explaining to her that she was a lower-ranked and less experienced officer, started barking out about how she'd given an order and it must be followed! My friend, whose game it was, immediately went "You dick! though i should have expected you'd always pick the bad options"...
I'm sure it probably got better as it went along, but this got "my knickers in a twist" about the whole mass effect morality system. It annoyed me how good and bad choices were always in the same places and at first glance didn't always seem particularly good or bad. I also came to not like the cutscenes trigger commands. left triggers a good option, right a bad one...always? So killing an enemy soldier in a cutscene is totally evil, but waiting about 5 seconds and then killing him outside of one is acceptable? Or maybe Garrus was just annoyed I used his gun (sorry, i'm pretty sure he was called Garrus, but I could be wrong...the archangel guy either way).

I found it very funny though that my friend seemed to immediately think I already knew everything about Mass Effect though. He was really bitter and unhelpful about everything, screaming at me to pick up the first ammo clip before the game had even told me the red rectangle wasn't part of the scenary...maybe i need a better friend to play videogames with xD

the witcher was the only time being a dick to an npc made me feel bad. the second time through, i made choices that were complete opposite of what i did the first time through and some of them *SPOILER* like siding with the humans or killing the captain of the guard *END SPOILER* really made me feel bad

I like the morality system attached to the Frenzy mechanics in Vampire:Bloodlines because it fits the blood-thirsty nature of these creatures. KoTOR was on to something with ther light/dark side mechanics. Again...it belongs to that universe where the dark side of the Force is mentioned multiple times and even the best decisions might lead to that path. Morality needs to be thought out and adapted to the genre, universe and nature of the characters.

Broken record, coming through!

I'll keep repeating myself when it comes to this topic, but Silent Hill 2 had the best "morality" system of any game I ever played. You were never aware of the choices you were making untill the game ended. If you were protective of Maria and spent a lot of time with her you'd get the Maria Ending, if you kept yourself in a bad health condition and highlighted that kitchinknife the girl gave you too many times you'd get the Suicide Ending.

A good morality system is one that is invisible to the player, but every game shoves it into your face like a moral coconut cream pie.

Fronzel:

Dude, that's just a rip-off of D&D's system with one of the two axes removed.

And most the other morality systems are D&D's minus the other (Law/Chaos) bar.

Fallout's Karma bar, KotOR's Light Side/Dark Side Points, Fable's Good/Evil appearance, Jade Empire's Open Fist/Closed Fist and Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade system are all just the Good/Evil Axis in various different forms.

Lesson learned: GO FUCKING PLAY CHRONO TRIGGER. that seems like such an awesome game.

Chrono Trigger did it so well. I actually felt guilty in my actions. And I felt tricked in the ways they turned the arguments against me when I didn't directly ask Marle how she was. It awoke real emotions of betrayal and guilt.

I think morality gets too simple in a lot of games because being the angel is too easy.

In real life the reason we aren't all saints is because thats a very tough thing to be. We are being put under pressure by our own emotions, by society, by material needs etc. This means we sometimes do questionable acts. We don't do wrong things because we decide to be an ass, we do it because we feel forced to.

In games its all clear sailing most of the time. Why start stealing if we have more gold than the national treasury? Why would we want to kill innocent civilians if they seem like decent folks? If our friends seems trustworthy and helpful what would be the purpose of stabbing them in the back?
For moral choices to feel more real, I think games needs to put on the pressure a bit more. Being the good guy may have to be hardcore mode, the really tough game choice, not the default action that ends up being the easy way out.

So far games have done morality best when we are ignorant of the consequences of our actions. I think that can make a nice illusion of gray area stuff, but then our choices are really caused by our own ignorance not any real moral choices.

what i hate arpund moral choice systems are two thing: the most systems work with a bad or good choice. that is ridiculious. the reason why i hated fable 3 so much was that you always had to choose between a evil or a good awnser, even when it didn't make sense. why is saving my girlfriend wherofore i kill a couple of people i dont know a bad thing? moral choice systems are only interresting when YOU use your MORAL to choose. mass effect did it right, with giving a couple of anwser, but nobody in the game knows what is good or bad.

the second thing i hate are the statictics. i dont have a bar what says what my moral is in real life. people that know me or how i look at myself tell me that. but in game whe always have a bar which says i'm evil, but the NPCs in the game don't act really different. if i'm evil i want to be feared or be attacked. this gives me the feeling that the world where the game takes place, is alive and is aware of the things i do and did.

I think a really good example of morality implemented without any form of mechanics is Eve Online.

There is no mechanic of morality implemented by the dev team at all, but there are moral choices to make every day in that game. Because screwing over another character you see in game is essentially screwing over another human being in the world and the persistent nature of the game means that they can come back at you for revenge, even when you're offline with your assets, territory etc.

So in EVE you are faced with moral choices, should I kill this lone miner in null sec space? Yes because he may have valuable loot and the lulz factor will be high. No because he could have been working there for ages and will be really frustrating for him, plus he could call his entire alliance and be on our asses quicker than a long sentence prison in-mate.

So i guess the main gripe with morality systems in games today is that it is morality regarding actions towards what are essentially pixels on a screen.

I actually enjoyed what Bioware did in Jade Empire more than any other game I've played. Instead of "Good" and "Evil", they went with a system where you could be a complete suckup, a completely evil murdering jerk, or more of a "survival of the fittest" neutral stance.

The game still only clung to a 2d meter (open palm = good, closed fist = bad), but the choices gave you much more freedom.

For instance, you might encounter a prisoner in a cage. The open palmer would free them. The evil person might kill them & loot their body. But the closed fist would tell them they needed to get free on their own and prove they were strong enough to survive by killing their guard. Sure, it was still technically evil, but it walked a wonderful line between "save everyone" and "kill everyone". I felt much more like a real character, and not some cartoony goody two shoes or mustache twirler. I felt like everything I did was completely justified, even though the choices were completely vile at times.

rollerfox88:
I can think of a way - make sure the games morality system is based on how you feel about the characters and story, rather than being based on the rewards behind the choices and the ending you get. Probably quite hard to do, but *insert saying expounding the values of not taking the easy way out here*.

rollerfox88:
Imma let myself finish, but...
thought of an example. That story that was on the Escapist today, about the (potential) lady who played through WOW until she had maxed her level without killing anything. Not killing anything was a moral choice on her part - she wanted her character to be a flower child, at peace with the universe etc. As far as I know, she will have had access to the same content (items, areas, level bonusses or whatever you get on WOW), and the actual WOW universe probably doesn't give a shit that she hadn't killed anything, but it made her feel better about her character and it's behaviour.

Possibly. I'm projecting quite hard there, but hopefully my point is clear.

But that WoW example isn't really a game system. That was just a clever player going outside the expectations of the game. If we're talking about a dev-created morality system, there's inevitably going to be some content or experience that is only accessible by choosing a particular path. i.e. the way the story in Mass Effect plays out will be different based on the choices you make. I'm not saying that's the best example of a morality system, but it doesn't matter how nuanced and well crafted the moral dilemmas are, any meaningful system will inevitably involve choice-specific content.

If in a game you're faced with the choice of killing a notorious criminal or giving him a chance to turn his life around, and then the effects of that choice show up later in the game, naturally there will be different outcomes and different content as a result. All I'm saying is that the attitude of "oh look at all this content I can't access" is the wrong one. Personally, I find a game that plays different the second time more rewarding and I don't dwell on what I'm not seeing on the first go.

I think the real problem with morality issues in games, whether linked to a meter or not, is that they're inextricably linked with the overarching story, which is itself often so poorly written and implimented that you can't take the morality choices seriously.

My favorite example of this is the original Mafia. Never mind that you surrendered to cops when caught; even if you'd just shot twenty of them in the previous mission, you *still* surrendered, which to me seemed like a one way trip to the death house, but to the game was just a bump in the road. No, to me the big thing was the protagonist sparing two NPCs, which in turn leads to the big dilemma during the endgame. NPC one was fair dos; it was set up as a reasonable proposition from the start, even if it would have been nice to have a choice. NPC two was just daft. You break into a building, kill scores of people, get to the target, spontaneously have a crisis of conscience and let her live.

To which my reaction was, what?? I just waded through a river of blood to get here, I've never met this person before in my life, and on a whim I'm letting her live? What about all the people I just killed, and am going to have to kill in order to break out of here? Don't they deserve a chance to see the sun rise in the morning? But no, they're clearly marked as antagonist and therefore doomed to die, whereas this silly bint is marked as plot point and therefore must live. Stupid.

Bad story equals flawed morality system, gaming's GIGO.

rsvp42:

rollerfox88:
I can think of a way - make sure the games morality system is based on how you feel about the characters and story, rather than being based on the rewards behind the choices and the ending you get. Probably quite hard to do, but *insert saying expounding the values of not taking the easy way out here*.

rollerfox88:
Imma let myself finish, but...
thought of an example. That story that was on the Escapist today, about the (potential) lady who played through WOW until she had maxed her level without killing anything. Not killing anything was a moral choice on her part - she wanted her character to be a flower child, at peace with the universe etc. As far as I know, she will have had access to the same content (items, areas, level bonusses or whatever you get on WOW), and the actual WOW universe probably doesn't give a shit that she hadn't killed anything, but it made her feel better about her character and it's behaviour.

Possibly. I'm projecting quite hard there, but hopefully my point is clear.

But that WoW example isn't really a game system. That was just a clever player going outside the expectations of the game. If we're talking about a dev-created morality system, there's inevitably going to be some content or experience that is only accessible by choosing a particular path. i.e. the way the story in Mass Effect plays out will be different based on the choices you make. I'm not saying that's the best example of a morality system, but it doesn't matter how nuanced and well crafted the moral dilemmas are, any meaningful system will inevitably involve choice-specific content.

If in a game you're faced with the choice of killing a notorious criminal or giving him a chance to turn his life around, and then the effects of that choice show up later in the game, naturally there will be different outcomes and different content as a result. All I'm saying is that the attitude of "oh look at all this content I can't access" is the wrong one. Personally, I find a game that plays different the second time more rewarding and I don't dwell on what I'm not seeing on the first go.

I see what you're saying, and games definitely should have the Mass Effect model of morality. But where WOW has succeeded in my opinion is by creating the game in such a way that it is possible to play through without killing. Could you say the same of other RPGs, such as Dragon Age, or FPSs such as Halo or COD?

Shycte:
I thought DA: O was pretty cool on this front. There was no real, morality system, just your relationship to other characters. Of course, that only works is the characters are good and three dimensional so you care about them, which they were in DA:O. Damn you Morrigan, damn you.

This. That scene jumped straight to my mind when the stealing lunch in Chrono Trigger was mentioned. The "Utility over sentiment" line made me feel genuinely guilty. I think a lot of people that complained about DA2's Mass Effect-esque dialogue aren't giving it the credit it deserves. I'd have preferred them to have stuck with full sentence options, but with the real choices having no inherent morale judgement attached (even their placement on the wheel wasn't consistent), and no mechanical benefit to always sticking with the same kind of response, those that approached with ME-style "I choose the top-right without looking at it cause I'm playing a paragon" missed out on a chance to play a character with some genuine nuance.

Also got to jump in on the Deus Ex and Witcher love - if every game approached choices like the Witcher I'd be a happy bunny.

rollerfox88:
I see what you're saying, and games definitely should have the Mass Effect model of morality. But where WOW has succeeded in my opinion is by creating the game in such a way that it is possible to play through without killing. Could you say the same of other RPGs, such as Dragon Age, or FPSs such as Halo or COD?

Obviously pacifist runs on stealth games are par for the course, but that does include some RPG hybrids like Deus Ex and Alpha Protocol

First person games - only one I can think of that isn't marketed as a stealth game is Mirror's Edge, which is also a bit of an exception :P

Planescape: Torment (the only thing you have to kill is a zombie in the very first room, plus one other person unless you can pickpocket. There are a couple of others you have to fight, but you don't have to kill them)

The original Fallouts (of course you'll inevitably be indirectly responsible for a lot of death no matter how noble your intentions, but no one needs to die by your hand)

Course, I can't think of any RPGs that are less than a decade old...

I liked Fable 3's choice. I honestly didn't know what one to pick (mainly because neither one was obviously highlighted as good or evil), and so I spent maybe ten minutes wondering what one to kill. I went with killing the girl in the end, but I did have to think it through. The choice surprised me, coming so early, and it threw me off greatly.

Steve Fidler:
The Chrono Trigger mention is quite out of left field, but somehow passed the fences on this. When explaining to my friends that once I had gotten every ending in Chrono Trigger, that in any subsequent play-through I just ignored getting all of the optional characters, and always had a team of Marle, Ayla, and Lucca. I never revived Chrono, I never repaired Robo, I never helped Glenn with his soulsearching quest for a raison d'etre, and I definitely never picked up that evil Magus fool. Of course, when I told my friends this, they were like "YOU MONSTER! HOW COULD YOU NOT HELP ROBO!" This is meta-morality, for sure, but an interesting note.

On the subject of Morality systems, though, is that especially in newer games they have made it very, very obvious what choice does what. Dragon Age 2 is a good example of this. A halo and angel wings is good and pure, a green leaf is peaceful, a purple laughing face is sarcastic/unbiased, and a red gavel is warmongering. (I probably missed something.)

The reason they did this was obvious, because people were complaining that when they picked what they thought to be the 'evil' choice, it ended up being more good than evil. But isn't that the point? To pick what your character would do, not necessarily "The Evil Choice."

Actually. . A lot of the 'evil' options in Dragonage 2. . . I considered quite good. For example, its evil to let the Dalish kill that guy who they believe is a Werewolf. I mean the Dalish Elves arent a group known for their skilled liars. And they usually dont track a guy over half the country if they dont know his a werewolf. And I would kill a werewolf.

Oh yea, and the one where you tell the bloodmages they are the stupid ones for running away from the Circle (Evil) While saying, please go back to the circle (good) I mean. A lot of the Evil options are either Neutral or Good. Marking them with a hammer thats red doesnt mark them as evil. It marks them as Harsh/Straightforward. As Bioware said themself. The Blue one with anglewings isnt the good one either. Its called (Diplomatic). And the Purple I think was supposed to be Witty/Sarcastic.. I found it easier to just call it Jerk.

I went through my game with a mix of them all. Because it wasnt a morality-system. As much as it was a speechsystem. A lot of people missed that fact. If you really had to find an example, go with the original wheel that did the direct Renegade/Paragon. Mass Effect 2.''

Sidenote: I did a Witty-rogue who remained neutral doing most of the game, then slightly started siding with the mages. Then instantly went Templar when shit hit the fan, and as templar spared as many mages as possible. Getting nothing but Bloodmagic and a giant Fetusguymonster in return. Was this the evil choice? I really dont know. . I myself consider it the top-of the top paragon. Because I didnt just save a few mages now. I saved every innocent person in the city from Templars comming from outside to secure the city after it was taken over by bloodmages (Yes they were Bloodmages, the ones I killed anyway, and that was clearly the majority). I saved a well good part of the circle, and I went out of game leading the Templars. So yea, everyone living in harmony. Thats a good ending right there, had to go through a shitload of Neutral/Witty/Harsh choices to get it. But suprisingly enough, everyone living in harmony, killing of bloodmages. And leading the templars. Is not Diplomatic, by your logic. Its evil.

On a sidenote: I do think you have to read some of the letters you find in every quest that has to do with Blood-Magic. I mean 'really' nobody saw it comming? A guy named 'O' inside the circle. Showing up every time something with bloodmagic appears. Youknowwhat, its their own fault. Bioware didnt make it too subtle people are just a bit too daft.

Extra Consideration:
Extra Consideration: Morality Matters

Our panel welcomes a new member and turns its eye to the question of morality.

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Awesome discussion on an upcoming issue. This time around, I think you've pointed out some of the pitfalls... maybe next time you'll be brainstorming solutions?

As much as we all knock on Fable for the shortcomings of its moral choice system, the "big choice" in Fable III is actually a pretty decent example of how to frame a moral dilemma--and let's not kid ourselves, without a dilemma, there is no sense of consequence or weight, so there is no "choice." You're forced to choose the "protect everyone, but now they hate you" path, or the "everyone loves you, right up until they die horribly" path.

The way you view the morality of your actions is quite the opposite of what the uninformed masses think, and that puts morality in a very revealing light--it's extremely subjective. By and large, you aren't judged by whether your goals or methods are truly right, but rather by whether they align with the values of the people judging you. Protect them and they hate you, make them love you and they'll be laid waste by the imminent assault. That's fertile ground for a moral dilemma (though it was not tended as well as it ought to have been, admittedly).

Fallout's recent entries have treated morality in interesting ways, too. They've compartmentalized certain aspects of it, so it's no longer "good" or "evil." Here are a few of the high points (we're all pretty aware of the low points):

1. "Karma" and "reputation" are separate. Karma is like your cosmic morality. If you steal something, even if no one sees you, your karma goes down. Granted, it has nearly no impact on the game, but the idea itself is interesting. Your reputation is based on what people witness you doing--your public morality.

2. "Fame" and "infamy" aren't two ends of one slider, they're two separate measuring sticks. You gain each separately, and you don't lose them. Do something nice, gain fame. Do something not nice, gain infamy. You're only in good standing if your fame outweighs your infamy. This prevents the old trick of stealing everything you want, and then just doing a few delivery quests to get back to a good reputation.

3. The same action affects more than one reputation. It's nice that you helped the Followers of the Apocalypse, and they'll love you for it... but you also pissed of the Brotherhood of Steel, who are in direct competition. You can't keep the interests of all these factions separate forever, so somewhere along the line you've got to choose.

Basically, the mechanics of the system work far better than the implementation (which has its moments). It still doesn't totally address how we can connect players to the decisions they're making in a heavier way. To me, that comes back to making sure that both choices (if there are only two) are appealing to the character and to the player, and that both have drawbacks as well.

And what this comes back to is a complete overhaul of the way we create "villains."

My idea for an effective morality system is one where you don't know the alternative. The game's objectives are spelled out for you (go here, shoot that) and if you don't agree with them, good luck fighting all your former friends who are now convinced you're a traitor. If you escape, congrats. you survived the consequences of your moral choice.

More like real life, I think, but it seems to work best when the PC is a soldier, or otherwise required to follow orders without question.

Shycte:
I thought DA: O was pretty cool on this front. There was no real, morality system, just your relationship to other characters. Of course, that only works is the characters are good and three dimensional so you care about them, which they were in DA:O. Damn you Morrigan, damn you.

Thats how I feel. When I make an Origins character I don't feel like I'm making a hero or a jerk, I feel like I'm making a hero with different faults. There is more moral grey between the choices than any other game iv'e played, there is no meter of good and bad there is just a question of your own morality, or how your friends will think of you but people make decisions based how it will effect others opinions in real life two, so it works.

rembrandtqeinstein:
The granddaddy of morality systems is still unequaled: Ultima 4. The game tracked 8! morality axes with many decisions raised one axis while lowering another.

Thank the Old Ones that someone finally mentioned Ultima in a discussion about morality systems in games! How that isn't exhibit #1 (both good and bad) in everyone's mind is beyond me - of course, I'm old and played the final games in that series while in graduate school (by the way, and completely unrelated, Ultima is the original KOTOR, a great single-player CRPG killed by its bastard MMO offspring).

My optimistic take on Ultima is that it worked well, perhaps too well - I think the developers at Bioware/Black Isle/Troika/Monolith/Bethesda are unduly influenced by the morality mechanics introduced by Ultima which make sense for a game focused on a quasi-religious "avatar". They've inherited the system (and the player's expectation of the system), but really don't have anything interesting to add.

My pessimistic take on Ultima is that it worked well - the same way that game's ability to create the illusion that NPCs had their own lives worked (cf. Ultima VII) - because that's where Richard Garriot and his team at Origin decided to spend their resources. In both cases, today's developers fondly remember these features and try to hearken back to them (remember Oblivion's radiant AI?), but come up short because they just don't have the resources to devote to these issues when so much man-power is consumed by 3D graphics, 'realistic' physics, and the gameplay components dependent on those aspects of modern AAA games.

I don't really mind the one-dimensional morality meters. Sure, they can be annoying when they don't correspond with what you think your character considers either a good or evil action, but other than that I think they do their job well enough.

One of the only significant morality choices I've faced in a game is having to throw my companion cube into a furnace... I still have nightmares about it to this day.

Quite honestly, sure the game goads you into feeling for the cube, but it's just that, laughing at the fact that you can't do anything about it.. makes you feel out of control. Try to tell me that the first time you played that game you tried to thing of any way possibly of saving that cube. (of course some people took it upon themselves to save the cube by hacking...) but to me putting THAT much effort into proving a game wrong, even though there was no morality system to mention... is something significant... if such things could be more readily integrated into other games... a meter wouldn't be required. I think a meter is the wrong way to approach things, and the background cogs and gears of the method should not be apparent to the player at any given time, just the effects... al-la crono trigger.

This brings up fond memeories of decision making in mass effect 1 and 2. I was usually heartless when it came to combat situations but outside of fighting i always took the kind path.

Oh man, I had totally forgotten about that thing in Chrono Trigger. Good call.

For some reason what springs to mind is an incident while playing Half-Life: Opposing Force. I'd enlisted one of the fat comic relief security guards to tag along, and after I reached a point he couldn't follow, I idly decided to shoot him. Whereupon he said "Hey! I thought we were becoming friends..." in an incredibly hurt voice, and I felt so bad I had to reload my last save.

LOL
Really, you were doing him a favor though. He would of just been butchered by aliens if he had stuck around.

I think with more advanced game AI and other progressions in development, morality systems should eventually become better. My hope is that eventually they wont even be "systems" that we can easily recognize, like some layer sitting on top of the rest of the game. With enough advancements, they will be fully integrated in the game and we wont even notice them. That would be the best outcome I think.

As they stand right now, they usually suck ass, because they are either too black & white and rigid, and most of the time end up effecting nothing besides a different closing FMV.

A basket full of varied things:

a) I think Knights Of The Old Republic is not given enough credit. The good/evil slide is simple and straightforward and, oh no!, black and white - but that's exactly how the Star Wars Universe works. What it really comes down to is how the mechanic serves the story, instead of the other way around. The game makes the math on the morality visible, just like it does the math on everything else, but the morality is so intregal to the story that the interactivity is happening on a story-based level and not a technical one. I think this is the best use of a morality system in a game, not because of how it's made but because of how it's used.

b) A lot of what's being referred to here as morality systems actually are not, but are simply choice driven gameplay. A lot of people seem to be fans of Deus Ex's "moralless morality system", but the choices don't really come down to morals. It only seems that way when you add your own to the experience. You can leave your bro to die and be totally cool with it, if you so please. He was just a bio-modded dink anyway. The one-dimensional slide bar isn't a simplification of morals, it's the morals that are the simplification. It isn't as much a limited game mechanic as much as it is a representation of a limited understanding of morals that permeates just about everything in fiction or media. Basically morals are supposed to be that simple becasue that's the whole point of their existence. And screw religion and stuff. rabblerabblerabble

c) Yahtzee's big gripe with the morality systems seem to be that it's just a way of blocking content until the game is replayed differently. Let me apparantly be the first ever on the face of the planet to say "I'm cool wit dat". I mean, let's face it: when you're trying to play as many games as possible and very rarely revisit ones you've played before, and moreover, it might be your job, this is an easy bias to sprout. The "replay-required" path system is probably one of the most effective ways to convey consequence to a player, and adds some spice to the role playing experience when you know that it is impossible to explore the whole universe in one go because of choices you have to make. It also makes your character's journey feel more unique.

You know what I dislike sometimes in morality systems, the fact that good actions are good.

I guess in Fallout Karma sense it still makes sense, but hear me out.

I could a) let the small child fall off a cliff because I'm a jerk,
b) save the small child out of a sense of honor or good morality,
or c) save him simply because the villagers will like you more

Because then they'll trust you more and it'll be easier to rob them blind.
This point comes up with the everquest reference you made where actions were more to make some people happier and maybe some not, but less of a straight up the action was good or evil.

Evil for the most part is pretty cut and dry evil pending complicated moral dilemmas.

Good actions can be made for all the wrong reasons but still be taken by the system as being "good" when the inevitable intention is evil.

Perhaps one would be better served to only have outside reactions to your actions and leave it to the mind of the player whether they are being truly just, moral, etc. instead of a specific bar. Taking a philosophy class recently gave me interesting angles to look at some of this with, but oddly enough these systems of morality are very consequentialist in nature.

I suppose it may be often difficult for a developer to predict why you save the child falling from a cliff, so it is much simpler to run off of consequences instead of intentions, but still...

I'm playing through Dragon Age: Origins right now, and while it does express characters' opinions of you on an Axis, I'm surprised it hasn't yet been mentioned as a game that truly presents morality in shades of grey. Every pivotal choice I have come to thus far in the game has truly given me pause; not just because I'm weighing how it will affect my party members' feelings, but because the dilemma have legitimately presented nuance instead of "Pick A to be Jesus, B to be a douche." The game talks about racism and classicism and bigotry in a way that really resonates with me.

I think they are so pointless. I will never replay a game to get an alternative ending and slight change of dialougue, and the game is shorter as time is spent on alternative endings. Fable 3 seemed rediculously short.

The way they may work is giving different items based on choices or making the story utterly different upon a major morality choice

i think james really meant 1 dimensional morality systems where you have a slider that moves up/down the alignment bar like in KOTOR. I've never actually seen a 2 dimensional morality system, but it seems like a much more interesting concept :P

[/nitpicky math nerd]

The.Bard:
I actually enjoyed what Bioware did in Jade Empire more than any other game I've played. Instead of "Good" and "Evil", they went with a system where you could be a complete suckup, a completely evil murdering jerk, or more of a "survival of the fittest" neutral stance.

The game still only clung to a 2d meter (open palm = good, closed fist = bad), but the choices gave you much more freedom.

For instance, you might encounter a prisoner in a cage. The open palmer would free them. The evil person might kill them & loot their body. But the closed fist would tell them they needed to get free on their own and prove they were strong enough to survive by killing their guard. Sure, it was still technically evil, but it walked a wonderful line between "save everyone" and "kill everyone". I felt much more like a real character, and not some cartoony goody two shoes or mustache twirler. I felt like everything I did was completely justified, even though the choices were completely vile at times.

Actually I hate to say this but that system in Jade Empire is unfortunately a knock-off of the 1d meter from KOTOR. The concepts behind it as explained by one of the NPC's earlier on made me think, "Wow this is something new!" especially with the path of the closed fist but unfortunately this concept failed in implementation. If the meter had been 2d with a law/chaos axis then it would have been a departure.

I think that RPGs would benefit from changing the 'moral' choice system to a 'personality development' system. You could have bars for the certain emotional dispositions of the character, and have buttons assigned to those dispositions for reactions during conversations. 'Evil' could be replaced by any number of more psychological traits, like 'sadistic', 'hate filled', 'rage-aholic' etc. For instance, you could just press the B button for anger in real time during a conversation and your character will respond accordingly. I also think that this can allow conversations to be more cinematice and organic, as long as you developed the system so that players reliably got the response that they think they're going to get.

(I could see it getting problematic though if the character gets angry at the wrong thing. For instance, someone could tell them that half the people in this one town were killed by the enemy, and the player might have hated that town so much that he wanted them all to die, but when he presses the anger button the character acts angry that they were killed at all.)

You could have more interesting combinations of personality traits this way. Maybe your character isn't particularly angry or hate filled, but is just greedy. Hell, maybe he or she is also compassionate, but greed wins out. If you have a plurality of emotional responses in a game that affects the player status, you can naturally build complex, three-dimensional characters instead of this linear division between 'good' and 'bad'.

Take Reaver from Fable. He is lustful, greedy, vain, and sadistic, which constitutes a certain kind of evil. But he's anything but hot-tempered. In fact, he's also kind of a coward, which could be another factor. But another villain that is also considered evil could be just the opposite. They could be hate-filled and bent on revenge, easy to excite, but also brave in the face of danger. Hell, they could also be puritanical. Think of the villain from Fable 2. He was a cold puritanical nut-job. In most traditional ways, Reaver is more of a villain than him, but he's the one you face, and Reaver turns out to be your reluctant ally.

You could also set these things as binaries as well. Binaries work fine if you have a lot of them. For instance, you can contrast greediness with altruism, lustful vs. puritanical, cowardly vs. brave, passionate vs. cold and rational. etc. etc. Even if some of them are false binaries, they will still make for greater gameplay depth. You can even have characters associate with those who approach them on the scale in one quality, but disapprove of the character's other qualities. That would actually make for complex relationships. Maybe Bioware does something like this, idk. I'd play their games except I'm just not a fan of the turn based action. The only one I did play was KOTOR. I loved the plot and the choices, but the gameplay just wasn't a turn-on.

I'd say that a strict "morality" system isn't gonna make things much more fun, but it would be nice to have a bunch of choices as to what happens in the game world.

Maybe if an RPG did the whole "faction opinions of you" thing that Mercenaries did, it'd be pretty cool.

What about Fallout: New Vegas's morality system? It changed depending upon which faction you were dealing with. By the end, you certainly had to pick sides, and nearly all the big factions were morally grey . . . well maybe the Legion were more evil than good, but still that was an interesting system I'd like to see further developed.

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