Morality Matters

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.

This week, Yahtzee, and James Portnow welcome newcomer Mikey Neumann to the panel as they tackle the question: How should morality systems work?

imageMikey Neumann: Who starts? Do I start because I’m new here and forgot to bring Banana bread? (A mistake I will _not_ repeat.)

Morality systems, to me (see? now it’s harder to disagree because I quantified whatever inane bullcrap I’m about to spew with an opinion modifier. It’s like when people say something truly horrible but they preface with IMHO and then punctuate with a “lol” just to imply that whatever bigotry/racism/sexism is tongue in cheek with a 2x lolmod.)

That carried on too far. New sentence.

Morality systems, to me, are a scary road to go down, speaking specifically from a development perspective. I understand where certain types of games (Western RPGs, hello) can benefit greatly by laying out a lattice of rules for the players to choose either a light or dark side with which to role-play their adventures in a larger universe. It does not, however, lend itself to every genre of game very easily, and whilst I think Tetris could greatly benefit from a morality system, choosing which pieces live and which ones explode into the ether, it does not make sense.

Developmentally, a morality system, even in the most black-and-white sense, can begin to double up a lot of your production assets. Twice the dialogue, twice the animation– it can be daunting, and that’s just for a simple ‘do this or do that’ implementation on the micro level. That’s not even accounting for what back end macro system is tracking these choices and using some algorithm to determine what those choices actually mean (some games slowly make your visage turn into Satan, some games have the characters treat you differently.) And that’s all dependent on the player agreeing that whatever choice he/she made lines up with the games definition of moral or immoral.

So, the decision to add a morality system better be worth it and something more than a bullet point on a box. I’m curious what you guys think they add. What games have done this really well? Morality systems don’t tend to have much of an effect on me, but I play games like a monstrous dickbag. My go-to Deus Ex strategy was to lure kids with candy, quietly execute them, and use their bodies as distractions for tougher enemies. I know the kid isn’t real, am I seeing “through the Matrix” so to speak? Do you guys have a similar lack of care for digital peeps?

imageYahtzee: Morality systems are something I’ve railed on a lot in the past. My problem is that their only purpose in a lot of games is to deny the player access to some of the game’s content until they replay the entire thing from the start. And sometimes it doesn’t even do that, and you have games where the good choice and the bad choice both have exactly the same effect, and then what’s the point? Some games seem to think guilt alone is enough punishment for taking the easy out.

I’m with Mike in that I don’t care for digital peeps the same way I’d care for a real world person, because if I did, I’d be completely insane. I’d be bent over with paroxysms of guilt after uninstalling a game at the thought of all those lives cruelly snuffed out by my unfeeling hand. But having said that, there are games where I’ve ended up caring about characters, and having to make moral choices that fuck them over kind of got to me.

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. Meanwhile, when asked to choose between sacrificing my girlfriend or a bunch of innocent civilians at the start of Fable 3, I condemned the snooty cow with a dismissive “Hurry up and get to the monster killing part, game.”

I think morality systems only work if the player does feel invested in the choice. But what too many games don’t realise is that the players aren’t automatically invested just because they say we are. I am not going to be emotionally torn over sacrificing my hero’s love interest ten minutes into the game just because you rendered a single tear sliding down my hero’s generic, emotionless face.

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imageJames Portnow: I’m not sure what I can add that I haven’t said in our episode on morality bars, but the short of my stance is:

A. If you peg morality in your mechanics to a 2d bar, your moral choices will be 2 dimensional. No writer can write around this, no level of voice acting is going to save you.

B. There are lots of non-extrinsic ways to do morality. If you look at EverQuest‘s faction system, they simply had different races judge the same action in different ways, so what the Dark Elves thought was righteous the Hobbits probably didn’t find so awesome. This allowed the player to explore their own beliefs and gradually gravitate towards the groups that they agreed with.

Unfortunately this is expensive and most games simply don’t have the design time, so we can always hop on the terrible stop gap of doing axial morality (a la D&D), but the real answer if you want to provide moral choice in a game (rather than just another way of leveling) is to make the actions in the game raise inherent moral questions. Unfortunately for this to really have an impact we’ll have to wait for the audience at large to be willing to look at game mechanics as expressive and think about what they mean rather than just doing them to progress. Fate of the World is a good example of this (though it falls a little bit more on the serious games side).

C. There are ways to deliver moral choice with unsharded MMOs or with Social Games that offer possibilities perhaps unparalleled in stand alone games, but I’m not going to go into that here as it took my whole talk just to scratch the surface at GDC (I’m sure I’ll rant about this somewhere on The Escapist sometime…).

imageMikey Neumann: Points for the OpFor mention, Yahtzee.

You guys brought up some interesting things. I guess it comes down to what is your definition of morality within a game system? A case could be made that Zelda: Four Swords on the Gamecube had a real morality system because it was quite possible to screw the hell out of your fellow fuschia and tangerine Links by simply choosing to put your greed over their well being. But, that’s meta-morality. I just have lingering guilt from friends that no longer speak to me for the crimes against Nintendo humanity committed in the name of Rupees.

Back to the seemingly RPG-heavy side of the morality argument. What do we gain out of this manufactured morality? Is it simply the belief that we can role-play on a massive scale where even seemingly innocuous choices can come back to have effects we had not imagined?

You know what game did that amazingly well for the time period? Chrono Trigger. I will never, for my entire gaming life, forget being put on trial and made to look a fool for choices I did not know the game was tracking. I stole that old man’s lunch, and the game friggin’ knew I did it. I felt that pang of guilt in my stomach when I realized, not only was I going to jail, but those bastards kind of had a point. I broke the law. But that was so effective because I was unaware the game even had a morality system in place to be tracking my transgressions. I simply thought I got away with being in the moment.

Come back next week for the rest of the discussion.

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