Video Games

Quarrels with Morals

Mass Effect Morality

Mass Effect  MoralityMorality systems has become the trend in many modern games

Does a time ever come where a man decides to dedicate himself to the best parts or worst parts of himself? He might walk in on his child eating breakfast and wonder ‘Should I offer my precious boy seconds? Fry him the last of my bacon, scramble the last of my eggs and squeeze lemons for his juice to make him strong?’ or he could wonder ‘Should I stuff the breakfast down my pants, throw the plate to the floor and use his tears as water for my tea?’ Surely he has to choose one or the other  right?

That is the kind of option that morality systems usually give us in modern games. The choice of do-good superhero or dastardly villain. Can’t we be the middle guy who does what is reasonable and make choices for ourselves and not some red or blue hue?

The choices in games such as Infamous don’t exactly leave the player tapping their fingers and sweating over decisions, in fact I’d say they leave our fingers still and our foreheads drier than ever. An example of this is seen at one point in a story mission where the player finds the body of a woman killed by one of the factions of the game and later finds the husband down in a sewer blocking the door needed to get out. Naturally we are graciously given two options, either tell the man his wife is dead but you will avenge her death or simply electrocute the door into opening and kill the man. In another instance in Infamous 2 you are given the option to acquire new powers from your secret agent friend who represents good or your anarchist swamp dweller friend who represents evil. Whoever you choose results in your moral standing.

Infamous 2Not only is this not a moral choice but it punishes the player for choosing a power they might want that opposes their moral standing. I chose the swamp dweller because I wanted to shoot napalm instead of ice and that somehow made me less good than I was before. Isn’t it what I do with these powers that matters? These feel less like moral choices and more like a ring for me to jump through to keep progressing.

Games likes this also punish you for trying to remain neutral and take things away from you when you decide not to be totally good or totally evil. The system in Infamous and its sequels demand you to fill your good or evil meter in order to access better powers, whereas if you remained neutral you would arguably be just as powerful but without the added bells and whistles. Mass Effect is another game that forces your hand as Bioware decided that if the equivalent ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ meters were not high enough that we could not make certain dialogue choices. Almost as if we were arm-wrestling with the game itself; you can struggle all you want but in the end your hand is going down on that table and it will be left or right.

A game series however that does the morality system well is the Fallout series. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas had a point system where your actions or choices were either bad or good and added or subtracted from your karma meter, this much like previous games. Though players usually found themselves going one way or the other, it was possible in most cases to stay completely neutral to the end. The games also have your companions and factions respond based on the decisions you’ve made. Not only did the game pose fairly challenging moral decisions but also had the world around you react to them. The Fable series and Infamous also did this to a lesser extent, changing the look of your character and changing how NPCs reacted to your presence, clapping you on the back or hurling rocks at you. This is a big step and makes the player feel like their decisions actually matter. It is completely understandable that some developers just don’t have the resources to do what companies like Bethesda does, but how difficult could it be to give the player sound morality choices without clearly highlighting good and bad?

In the Mass Effect series especially, you were given options to be ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’. Though I wouldn’t put these options as simply as good and evil. The morality system in these games felt more realistic as you were still trying to defend the galaxy, though you could be a more optimistic compassionate Shepard or a cold, calculating, objective Shepard. These didn’t make you simply good or evil but they changed how your character goes about achieving his goals in some small way and it felt truer to how someone’s personality can never be as cut and dry as good or evil.

falloutThough our games wouldn’t be remiss without sweaty, shaky decision making, maybe there is room for these choices to not only affect our character’s personality and alignment but the world around us as well, just as it does in games like Fallout. Giving the player weight to their decisions and holding them responsible would make us all put down our controller and think for a second without blindly pointing to whichever colour we prefer.

Perhaps what we need is not to fix the oblivious ‘this or that’ of the choices but to essentially present us more challenging choices in general. The choices we are given should be more engaging and difficult before we think about whether these would be good or evil choices in the first place. Make us sway back and forth between compassionate and reasonable. If the choices given to us were more ambiguous, if they didn’t have blue or red text to tell us which was good or evil, but if they were both boring greys that depended upon your own sense of right and wrong instead of colours telling you what the good guy would do and what the bad guy would do. Let me do what I would do.