Morality Matters, Part 2

We’ve often wondered what would happen if we locked some of The Escapist‘s most opinionated contributors in a room and let them talk about whatever they liked. Until we can find a room with strong enough locks (and get sufficient insurance to cover the inevitable destruction), there’s always email.

Two weeks ago, Yahtzee, and James Portnow welcomed newcomer Mikey Neumann to the panel as they tackle the question: How should morality systems work? Today we bring you the rest of the discussion.

imageYahtzee: That’s right, you’re with Gearbox, I completely didn’t make that connection. Say hi to Randy for me.

The Chrono Trigger example is an interesting one. It’s a judgement of the player’s actions within gameplay from the standards of a conventional morality. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of players playing Chrono Trigger for the first time without knowledge of the judging thing were caught out by it, because the things they were doing without thinking weren’t motivated in evil, they’re just standard player behaviour.

I don’t think it’s possible to accurately judge a player’s character from their avatar’s actions because, in entering a game, the player essentially rebuilds their identity from scratch. Their number one motivation above all else is what will benefit them, their status, and the ease with which they progress through the game. I made this point a while back when I was writing about Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which attempts to psychologically profile you as you play. If you go into the ladies’ bathroom, for example, your profile leans towards sexual gratification being a motivating characteristic. But I wasn’t going in there for kinky sex reasons. I was going in there because I was exploring the level, following the standard Silent Hill behavior of leaving no stone unturned in one’s search for health drinks.

But Chrono Trigger‘s thing, and that moment in Zelda Wind Waker when a wealthy homeowner calls you out on smashing his pots despite this being programmed behaviour in Zelda games, aren’t so much serious moral judgements as they are quick gags at the player’s expense, like a Penny Arcade strip about how silly real world rules seem in a video game setting. They don’t base the game around them; they’re closer in spirit to Easter eggs.

Any game that does draw attention to morality — Infamous, for example, did it with particular obnoxiousness — will just make the player consciously decide if they’re doing a ‘good run’ or an ‘evil run’, and so they’ll just make every choice without thinking. Which is wise, because the gameplay of Infamous (as well as games with morality gameplay like Mass Effect and Dante’s Inferno) reserves its best rewards for players who are all the way good or all the way evil. And by default, that’s all the average player cares about: what will benefit gameplay.

‘By default’ being the operative phrase there, because I said, a game can spark emotion if it establishes characters effectively. For want of an example of choices in games that made me feel I’d gone too far, there’s a moment in Alpha Protocol where the option comes up to rough up an elderly informant, which I went for without thinking. One of Alpha Protocol‘s flaws was that the quick choices you had to make didn’t give much indication of what, specifically, you were asking Mike Thorton to do, and after he’d smashed the unarmed old man’s face into the bar and broken a bottle over his head, reducing him to a weeping, shaking, incoherent mess, I was quite disgusted at myself. Mostly at Mike, though, the vicious twat.

imageMikey Neumann: I agree with what you’re saying, Croshaw. I like the cut of your gib, so to speak.

Your musings on player motivation are a great way to look at it, and one I hadn’t thought about as a motivator. I guess I was examining it from a perspective of certain moral quandaries which can enhance gameplay when used correctly.

Just to continue to add in some ancillary examples to the debate: what’s the verdict on Assassin’s Creed? My favorite activity is using the poison blade on the bloody minstrels trotting about town. It’s not obvious to people around, so it’s a safer murdering option. Which, to me, is the greatest deterrent to immoral activity: you’ll be killed or punished (AC, GTA, etc.) Where Assassin‘s breaks down a bit for me is when I plan my murders briskly, only to have the game be like “Ezio wouldn’t do that. Try again.” There’s an underlying system dictating the morality of my in-game avatar. I still dig the games; I just get a little peeved when I can’t use Assassin’s Creed as the stress reliever I want it to be by senselessly murdering warbling ding-dongs.

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imageYahtzee: You know, I actually quite like how Assassin’s Creed does it. When you come down to it, ethical codes are unique from person to person, so if a character is established with their own personality and history, and you want to judge the player’s actions from a moral standpoint, it probably should be according to the moral code unique to that character rather than some amorphous idea of universal good and evil. A lot of games that have characters whose plots depend on their being good and heroic, regardless of player activities, all they can do if you start gunning down primary schools is have someone say “What the hell, man?” without further effect. The ‘desync’ thing is a neat way of getting around that.

Games like GTA always have to walk a bit of a tightrope when it comes to characterising the lead, they need to be someone who could believably flip out and start rampaging down the street. That’s something that they did very well with Niko Bellic, a man who seems like he’s no longer surprised by anything, least of all his own actions.

imageMikey Neumann: I think this debate is wrapped up.

Final thought from me: Morality is only fun when both sides are fun. Sometimes being immoral is just as fun as being pious.

imageJames Portnow: Final thought from me:
There aren’t two sides to morality…

imageMikey Neumann: Finaler thought from me in no-way a response to Portnow’s final response:

Oh, posh.

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