Moral issues and choices are extremely commonplace in games today and, for whatever reason, often touted as a major selling point that totally alters the direction of the game’s story and you, the player, are the author. I would say there’s no easier way to add a layer of depth and engagement by introducing ethicality and engaging the player in a way that allows them to craft their own personal narrative. The problem with this, unfortunately, is that the scope of morality is vast and indefinite. It’s conceptually ambitious on a level that I’m not even entirely sure could ever be fully realized because morality, as well as being nebulous, is remarkably complicated. Moral choices manifest in such a way that it robs the game of its ability to be a whole and well-rounded experience so if they’re only going to become more prevalent, then they will need to be neatly nuanced.
Following are my 5 ideas on what the issues of morality in games are, and how they might be fixed:
1. Good or Evil Are Your Only Actual Choices
If one is to consider the essence of goodness or evilness, what qualities might they choose? What makes goodness or evilness primarily and unequivocally that which we consider them to be? You’d most likely, at least not realistically, describe someone you personally know as just evil or good. Obviously, there are attributes to be associated with either good or evil, but what? For the purpose of games where you never actually become “the villain”, per se, like Mass Effect, your choices of attributes are essentially between selfishness and altruism. But on the other end of the spectrum where you have a choice between hero and villain, as in inFamous, this is a little more questionable because your choices then are rationality or sociopathy which is a total disservice to iconic villains and heroes.
In both series, however, you are locked out of options or special abilities if you don’t pick a side and stick with it. Gating content behind moral choices is understandable, to a degree, because the furthest reaches of the morality meter are more often than not just a few little extras to reward players for their consistency. But then, doesn’t that sort of take the decision out of your hands? Why would I willingly make my character less powerful? That’s sort of the catch-22 by intertwining moral choices with other gameplay mechanics. inFamous is especially guilty of this because if the Evil power is objectively better than the Good power then my decision is no longer grounded in the framework of the game’s narrative but rather its metagame for lack of a better term.
You can’t even abstain from these two choices because if the choice isn’t outright dichotomous then you’re being punished for neutrality, which is certainly a valid position to take. Mass Effect 2 calls upon you to end a quarrel between two party members and if your paragon/renegade score isn’t high enough then you effectively lose one of the character’s loyalty, meaning that they are essentially guaranteed to die at the final mission. inFamous will just lock you out of nearly every single power in the game if you don’t pick a side. You shouldn’t be punished explicitly because you didn’t choose the ‘appropriate’ good guy/bad guy answer.
2. Villains Are Totally Unnatural
Though I suppose that could be debated. When a story has you playing as some everyman or ordinary person thrust into incredible and dangerous circumstances, they are still at heart an ordinary person. inFamous: Second Son stars Delsin Rowe, a mid 20s slacker who has an issue with authority. When his amazing superpowered abilities awaken, he’s excited and enthused. He even likens himself to a superhero. So, why all of a sudden does he want to become a psychopathic killer? When presented with two options, one being wildly extreme and the other rational, why would I ever naturally pick the extreme one?
What reason would Delsin have to ‘corrupt’ someone when he has faced alarmingly little prejudice and has no viable compulsion to just start willfully killing innocents and recruiting others to help him? He doesn’t have one, and that’s why being a villain in inFamous is nonsensical.
Most normal people prefer ‘goodness’ as they see it. I bet you’d rather live in a country where the government wasn’t despotic and forcing the citizens into poverty or driving them into the middle of town to beat them. Likewise, if you saw a little girl who looked weird but was otherwise harmless a la BioShock, I doubt your first instinct would be “I’m going to brutally murder this child”. Disregarding the fact that ‘evil’ on its own is a terrible descriptor, senseless murder is just completely immoral and malicious. So why is that typically the result behind ‘evil’ actions and choices? Because it’s clear that no rational person would ever do these things and to be evil is to be abnormal?
If evil is that which we consider to be undesirable, why does the list end at “impulsive and violent”? There is a myriad of other ways to communicate ‘evilness’, so why stop at the most obvious? Too few are the games where I can be manipulative and cunning with a veneer of friendliness and sincerity. Instead, we get a near farcical interpretation of ‘evil’ which is just killing everyone for no apparent reason. I’d call that insane before I called it evil.
Mass Effect 2 offered a new style of making off-the-cuff decisions by introducing interrupts to conversations. At the press of a button, Shepard would launch into either a paragon or renegade action that would change the situation. That sounds like a great idea, both fluid and more natural, but the two often don’t mix well. Shepard can use a renegade interrupt, despite having fully invested into paragon, and just assault a reporter but then later console a friend after she finds her father dead.
Out of those two, which do you see yourself actually doing? It’s easier to be good because that’s just sort of a natural inclination. Even if you’re astoundingly cynical it’s easier to walk past the orphanage, thereby ‘saving’ it and gaining the approval of your peers, then it is to burn it down. You’re not just going to punch a reporter for asking you difficult questions, that’s just totally out of the realm of reality unless you just are totally indifferent to social rules.
3. It’s An Illusion of Choice
In BioShock, at least, you are locked out of some of the more powerful skills and abilities which is in and of itself a statement about the ‘evil’ path, I suppose. But then is it really a worthwhile choice? Let’s break it down into what the system more or less represents: Do you want more game or less? Well, you probably want more so then your hands are tied into choosing the good option. You’re not really free to do or say what you want because you might irrevocably lose something important so you have to cautiously pick a side and stay on it. In doing so, you’re removed from the game and the character is no longer an extension of yourself.
Not only that, but it’s not like the story ever really changes to the point where your actions have done anything. No matter what you do, you end up going to the final battle or whatever the climax of the game is and it’ll be the same–though your character might be more aggressive about it or something like that. The thing is, moral choices can’t properly function in a narrative that has an established end point. If I’m tasked with saving the world but decide not to do it then that would ostensibly be the ‘evil’ choice but then there’s no game because I’ve ended it prematurely. Choosing to save the world, then, is the ‘good’ option but if my character has no desire to save the world then I’ve disengaged myself from the character, their world, and am just playing a game.
JRPGs are often criticized for “but thou must” styled options, but all of the games that proudly display their moral choices are victims of it too. I still have to choose something to progress the game, I’m just allowed to be a jerk about it if I want. Are those qualitatively the same? Maybe, maybe not, but the fact of the matter is that you still don’t really have a choice in the matter. The story moves at your behest and not before that. But maybe that’s not a fair criticism because games typically need a climax so it’s unrealistic to expect a breadth of decisions leading to something entirely different each and every time.
4. It’s Simply Too Ambitious
For a series as immense as Mass Effect, there was no realistic way for them to account for every single permutation that a player’s decisions and it failed to do so beyond a little reference to your actions in past games. The story did not meaningfully change nor did its ending. Morality in games is theoretically fine but there’s just no possible way for it to ever reflect the complexities of real-life morality and the way it influences the people around you.
It’s a problem with perception. Some games, like Dragon Age: Origins, operate on a scale of approval individually on a party member to party member basis. Where morally righteous Alistair approves of your benevolence, the unscrupulous witch Morrigan might just think you’re plodding around and wasting time when you could get results now. I think that’s better but not exactly ideal, because that system is very easily gamed by just foisting presents at random. Obviously, if I punched your grandmother in the nose, showering you with gifts probably wouldn’t make you consider me a good person. Why, then, are video games different in this respect? It’s a more authentic role-playing experience for your actions to have tangible consequences that no amount of material wealth will change.
With this being the case, I’m not sure if it would ever truly be possible to emulate this. There are so many variables and unknowns involved with almost every interaction and where it can lead you. Video games can’t realistically accomplish that, and maybe they’re better off not doing that. But then, ultimately, is it really a moral choice being made?
5. Morality is Relative
Disregarding everything I’ve just said, an option can’t really be objectively good or evil because those qualities can’t realistically exist in such a way that they are easily agreed upon. Your final choice in the original Mass Effect is to let the major standing political power, composed entirely of aliens, in the galaxy die at the cost of several thousands of human soldiers and citizens. Of course, you can make the opposite decision and save the humans and let the politicians die.
This is a good example of what a moral choice should be. Although the game presents saving the politicians as the ‘good’ choice and saving the citizenry the ‘evil’ choice, there is a case to be made that reverses both of these positions. This is the groundwork of a compelling moral decision because there is something to risk. One is ethically appealing and the other more pragmatic, to an extent, but framing options as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ is a mistake that games would do well to correct. A character will organically do what they believe to be right because it aligns with their convictions rather than a preternatural adherence to some moral creed of goodness or adherence to evil.
Moral choices have the power to create something incredibly meaningful and games are the perfect medium with which to explore that potential. None of this is to say that moral choices should disappear from gaming full stop, because there are several noteworthy instances where these ‘moral choices’ aren’t presented or established in a way that they lend themselves to dichotomy. TellTale’s The Walking Dead is the quintessential example of a game that uses choice well because goodness and evil are totally irrelevant struggles when they cease to exist in a world that has become viciously survivalist-like in nature. Your decisions shape Lee’s character and how he is perceived by others. Some may like him, others distrust him. Some will want to help him, while others will turn a blind eye to the dangers he finds himself in. Virtually all of Lee’s choices are timed so you, the player, must stay engaged with him rather than let him zone out for hours with his eyes flitting about and dancing between two options. Alpha Protocol, which was a very unfortunately misunderstood game, operated similarly to great effect.
The Witcher eschews those organic, conversational, and more immediate options for similar dichotomous ones as Mass Effect but then does them well by leaving the player wondering what might have happened if they chose differently. That is what a moral choice should be. It needs to be tough, thought-provoking, and worth questioning.
Fixing some issues with moral choices isn’t possible at the moment. Accounting for each action and combination of actions that a player might take is probably worlds away. What can be done, however, is to eliminate boring and absurd ‘moral’ choices and replace them with morally grey and tough decisions that are equally valid no matter what. Those are the decisions that foster good writing and character development because it speaks volumes more about your character than picking an alignment and sticking with it. I’m sure there are plenty of games that incorporate these choices perfectly but when it comes to the big AAA games touting their own choices and narratives, they just aren’t up to snuff.