Tell Us Dammit

Dammit we want you to tell us stuff – like has a video game ever done a decent job of providing a workable, fair moral framework in a video game?

This isn’t some marketing survey or whatever. It’s an emotional investment in you. Yes, we’re interested in knowing you, Kotaku reader person. You probably know enough about us – more than you even want to, we’re sure. But, hey, we’d like to know about you, too.

I had this discussion with a group of friends last night. I can't think of a game that has ever done a really good job of providing a moral network, or mechanic within a game, that made sense or worked properly. Despite being incredible games, both Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption attempted this, but arguably failed.

Can you guys think of any better examples?


    They're never nuanced enough.

    You can either kick puppies and eat babies, or rescue puppies and adopt babies. There are almost always clear "good" and "evil" choices and they are generally too exaggerated one way or another.

    Mass Effect is probably the only recent game I can think of that tries to come close. Instead of choosing good or evil, you are always good but decide between being a goody two shoes or a dickhead, with several levels of goody two shoes and dickheadness available.

    Bioware games attempt to implement a morality / alignment scale into their RPGs (think KotOR and Mass Effect), but other than allowing you to role play through stories a bit more, they provide next to no tangible benefit, and had only minor impact upon the end result of the story.

    Again, in Bioshock, there was very little incentive to either harvesting or saving the Little Sisters, as the diminished amount of ADAM earned via saving them is made up in a bonus later on.

    In order to have a decent morality system, there needs to be consequences to every action and decision, and these consequences need to be more than superficial changes.

      There needs to be consequences sure.

      The issue though always becomes that one side or the other has something someone w ants which negates the morality

      I think the only way to have a game with useful moral is to have an actual choose your own adventure game

      The issue really becomes that the morals still have to be bound by the story because otherwise you need to write a tangential arc for every decision which in most cases is too miuch work and when it is done it's normally save the factory and let Jeff get away or kill Jeff and see gun prices rise when the factory explodes

    inFamous was the perfection of morality, amirite? :P

    I think the problem is the fact that most games are very in your face about it. They present 2 clear cut choices, no room for compromise. Or, alternatively, they always let you know. In RDR, if you did something shitty, your honor bar or fame bar or whatever it was would immediately pop up and tell you that. inFamous was waaaaaaay to obvious and not very consequential. I'd really love to see a game that doesn't really tell you how good/bad you've been, yet still gives you the options to do what you want and makes a meaningful impact. I suppose in some respects, Mass Effect achieves this. But that has more to deal with story and character personality than morality. But that ties into morality, doesn't it? ARGGGGH. I should go back to sleep. Shtooopid uni.

    Deus Ex did a decent job of giving players non-lethal options that were actually realistic in a stealthy environment.

    But no, I don't think I've ever found a seamless system that didn't feel like a gameplay feature add-on. Fairness is another issue. Usually games reward 'evil' behaviour with extra resources or money, or else balance out the good/evil advantages so that the choice is meaningless except for virtual morality.

    It was interesting: regarding Fable II, there was an interview with Peter M, in which he claimed that 98% of players (or something) went the good path. The system itself may not have been especially dynamic, but the game itself had enough of an impact to encourage people to play a certain way. (I would argue that RDR had the same exact issue)

    I have blogged about this extensively, but here are some highlights:

    "The only true morality choice in GTAIV is the one that affects NOTHING (in terms of reward/incentive): the assassination of Darko Brevic. However, even in this circumstance, the gamer is left with a choice of cutscenes, and will often (as I did) perform the action which creates the greatest drama in the story, not that which is mandated by their moral compass."

    "There is no moral choice in Shadow of the Colossus. You can play or not, but if you play, you will be taking down these great beasts with your sword and bow. Beyond climbing their bodies, stabbing them and shooting them, there are no other ways to interact with them.
    This may be a over-dramatic statement, but if you truly feel these creatures to be majestic and noble, then being forced to kill them by the linearity of the game amounts to a type of emotional rape.
    It's like that moment in Metal Gear Solid, when you realise with a slow sinking feeling that – once again, forced by the linearity of the game structure – you have been unwittingly assisting the terrorists all along."

    "In Jedi Knight, there are plenty of non-violent NPCs around in many of the levels. Controlling fledgling Jedi Kyle Katarn, you can choose to cut them down on your way through, or you can leave them alone. At the end of every level, you get to choose a new Force power, some from the light side (like healing, etc) and some from the dark side (like grip or lightning).
    When you get to the last level, you do not get to make a moral choice; rather, you discover that you have already made it. If Kyle’s Force powers are dark-side weighted, Kyle Katarn will kill his best friend and become Emperor of the galaxy. If they are light-weighted, he will save his best friend, and carve a memorial to his dead father.
    Of course, being a part of the Star Wars EU, there is a canon ending, which is naturally the light-side ending. However, the notion, primitive as it might be, that all your actions might be contributing to your final result (much like other games such as Fable, and to a lesser extent, Mass Effect), is a much more interesting one than we saw in GTA IV."

    "Maybe this is life. Maybe we don’t choose our redemption. Maybe the linearity of the game structure (quite apart from being mandated by technical limitations) is a suitable analogy for the lack of control we have over our own destinies. Someone else (game writer) chooses our ultimate destiny, and all we can do is push the right buttons along the way.
    So, maybe the sandbox is meant to be amoral. A linear game will give a player a moral issue, but not allow them to resolve it in their own way. Neither way seems a perfect manifestation of a morality choice."

    Sorry for lengthy post, but I've done loads of thinking about this.

    Both games you cite were great, and yeah both systems arguably failed. But all systems of ethics can arguably fail, that's why ethical philosophy is thousands of years old. If the combined history of ethical philosophers can't come up with a system that works in all cases for all people, how can we expect a team of game designers to do it in a year or two?

    That being said I think we can do a much better job of exploring ethics and ethical situations that we are doing now. For one thing, their presentation is deplorable. Life doesn't give us binary choices and plenty of time to check the internet to see which one is "better." Life doesn't give us the opportunity to check what would happen if you did something a different way. Life doesn't even necessarily tell you that you're making an ethical decision.

    Just for an example, I quite like the idea in Heavy Rain where the game doesn't make it blindingly obvious every time you are making a significant choice, the choices just happen and you might get a different experience because of it. I think we need to place much more responsibility on the shoulders of players to interpret what they've just done, rather than use obvious good and evil metrics. That's just in presentation... we need to think a lot more about what the consequences of our choices are...

    As others have mentions its almost always with a 'good' and 'evil' options. On that not being evil is awesome! Now to find a reporter to punch..... not you Mark ;)

    The original Deus Ex was not to bad for this, although was limited to how you played the game (Guns Blazing, Stealth or Tech) as well as pros and cons of government and big business meddling in control and the ethics of bio mods. The downside was that you could play through the entire game, and decide to choose a different ending (I know that me and a few mates did a saved game right before an ending and went back after and did the other endings).

    Although you might not think it as well, Assasins Creed has a strong sense of good vs bad and series of ethics as part of it as well (e.g. kill one too many civilians and the level resets. Liberating), but ultimately becomes a reason to go kill X in area Y.

    Morality isn't something you can quantify into some kind of point scale. You end up going into extremes. Bioware is particularly bad at it honestly. KotOR's good or evil choices kind of made sense in the context they were in, but the choices presented were very exaggerated. Obsidian's follow-up was better, but a lot of that was because the setting wasn't so black and white. Jade Empire tried to have two competing philosophies (Closed Fist and Open Hand, to do with whether you help people by helping them, or by refusing to help them to encourage them to be stronger) but that basically devolved into the same asshole-or-saint choices. Mass Effect is still the same, really. I think the best Bioware has gotten was actually the alignment system in Dragon Age, where you're not 'good' or 'evil' and instead of some giant meta-chart showing how many old ladies you helped cross the street or kittens you drowned, your actions change your companions' opinion of you. To me that seemed a lot more realistic.

    I still don't like the idea of a point scale though. It's too gamey, too black & white. The Witcher is a fantastic example of presenting you interesting moral choices. There are multiple points in the game where you're asked to choose between two options, neither of which are black or white, and your choices have major and sometimes unexpected consequences down the line. There's no "good or evil" choice, rather a choice between two grey options. Far, far more interesting.

      I completely agree. I really enjoy Bioware's games, but I have to say that I've often enjoyed them in spite of their morality systems. Mass Effect 2 is a good example of this, where not only is there a bar to chase, but if you stray from either extreme too much then there will be consequences to your game (and potentially the lives of your allies). Having that bar also means that there's little room for moral ambiguity as well, choices like what to do with the geth on Legion's loyalty mission were in my mind morally ambiguous, but the second you make a choice you see, "hey, you took the paragon/renegade choice, here's 25 points!".

      I honestly think if any game has had a successful morality system it is The Witcher. It doesn't try to dictate to you what is good and what is bad, it's only choices and consequences. Taking away that bar as a goal to chase and serving up many morally ambiguous choices meant I actually needed to stop and think for once about what I was doing and what kind of character I wanted to play and as a result made the game far more immersive for me. Can't wait for The Witcher 2.

    I have to say, I enjoy Dragon Age's morality choices because they're always shades of grey – but there's no noticeable effect on the game other than pissing off your party members.




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    Not recently - but Ultima 4 (around 1985) was an RPG built around a complex 8 virtue system of morality. Very innovative, and it worked well. Every action had an immediate impact on the virtue scales, and events.

    From more modern games, Heavy Rain seemed to really offer non-obvious moral choices which had real impact on the flow of the game.

    Fallout 3 has a relatively simple morality system, which nevertheless fits well into the game mission structure and overall story lines.

    I never blew up Megaton in Fallout 3 because I felt guilty..........

    Didn't the Witcher try something like this? They never explicitly stated whether you were being good or evil and the consequences for actions were made so that they didn't become apparent until later in the story so you couldn't simply reload and try another path. It wasn't exactly light side dark side stuff, and I only played it a little bit, but it seemed pretty good.

    I'm still playing through The Witcher and I think they get the whole morality system just right. There are very few 'good guys' and 'bad guys' in the game outside of the clearly defined enemies of the character.

    'Bioware Morality' where you can visibly see how many 'good' and 'evil' points your character has accumilated encourages a player to go down one path rather than picking choices on the fly. As an indication, ask Mass Effect players how many Paragon and Renegade Shephards they have. No neutral Sheps? This isn't a bad thing (love Bioware games) but really makes the morality system black and white.

    In a game where there is no visible representation of morality like in The Witcher, I've found myself agonising over a few decisions I know will have consequences because there is no clear 'good option' or a 'bad option.' Do I side with the Order of the Flaming Rose or the Scio'tel? Or do travel down the Nuetral Path... (which isn't easy to do I've discovered as every faction wants a piece of you). Do I hand over the kid to the angry villagers or do I protect the witch who is looking after the child? Do I sit back and watch? That's a good morality system in my book.

      My female Shep's pretty much neutral. She'a a no-nonsense type and chooses her reaction based on the situation, not based on Paragon/Renegade considerations. She ends up with full gauges of both by the end of the games.

      I'm not a fan of the Bioware morality system, but at least they're getting further away from their original 'bad guy is dumb and violent, good guy is smarter and selfless' kind of vibe with each game they bring out.

      I do prefer systems where it's not immediately obvious which response is 'good' or 'evil'. Morally grey areas do much more to make you think about what you're doing than clear-cut black or white situations.

    Lol @ some of those comments.

    I'm currently enjoying Mass Effect 2, so I'll soap-box that for now. I think morality choices in games are kind of mis-understood. While most choices do boil down to 'stars-and-stripes' soldier or 'victory at all costs' soldier, the benefit of being able to choose is that I don't have to always be consistent. If I feel that letting a criminal go because he needs to save his family, but then I kill the next family man because he's a murderer, I can. Even though there may be no tangible effect on gameplay itself, the fact that I can make whatever choice I want is enjoyable in itself.

    And even though I'm a hardass, I can still get it on with a sweet little quarian with daddy issues. W00T!!!

      Yep, totally agree SunSkorpion.... I loved ME2's ability to constantly choose... my FemShep was generally a good girl, but occasionally people would piss her off and she'd get temperamental (C'mon, who can resist punching the reporter on the Citadel, or headbutting that stupid Krogan on Tuchanka!!) ..Full paragon with a touch of renengade about her ( maybe a quarter bar :P)

    I liked Dragon Age Origins system. Nothing was just good or evil. Got a little annoying sometimes though because it would take me 20 minutes to choose what to do. Execute whats his face or forgive him, accept Morrigans offer or not etc.

    I also liked Fable and Fable 2s system because the choices were obviously good or evil. It felt relaxing and fun not having to think too hard what I wanted to do. Plus the evil choices were always funny and not super serious like Dragon Age so that was also somthing good.

    I will meantion the witcher as I think they did that very well. Actions have consequences that are more than good or evil. But does it really cover morality. Choose to help the kind hearted (good) elf and and kind hearted (good) dwarf will look down on you.

    I always play my first character through a bioware game following my own morality. I make choices based on what I think of the situation rather than following a specific path. So my first playthrough generally has a fairly neutral status by the end.Hunt and kill people for the right reasons and I might help you but cross the line and I'll take you out. help the poor little orphan kids and I'm likely to help but act like a whiny brat while doing so and I'll slap you like a red headed step son.

    King Arthur has an interesting mechanic in that your spells and units you can recruit are based on your morality. Slightly differently is that they have a 4 way morality system. You still need to choose a path and focus on that if you want the best units but rather than good/evil you have rightful/tyrant/christian/old faith

      I forgot about King Arthur. I liked that system as it also influenced what spells and units you receive. Like in Mass Effect it was pretty easy to see which choices would take you down which path. The only problem with King Arthur is you could manually adjust your morality over a few turns by issuing certain decrees. Sort of made the system a little 'gamey.'

    I always liked the built in morality section in mgs3 (Potential SPOILER) when you have the 'boss fight' against the sorrow and the souls of all the enemies you have killed. If you had been kill crazy up to that point the boss fight took ages if not it was a nice easy event.

    I think the biggest issue with the Bioware School of Fake Morality is that at the end of most of their games, your morality choices mean squat, because the final big good/evil choice you make (in most cases) becomes the one that defines your character completely. For example, in Jade Empire, you could be a huge goody two shoes who is much more likely to hug your enemies and sing camp songs than attack them, but if you make the evil choice right at the end of the game (I will admit it was pretty evil), suddenly you're 100% asshole, both in stats and in how the world sees you. That isn't how morality works, folks.

    What REALLY should happen is that certain choices throughout the game should not be available to you, based upon what type of character you are morality-wise. Would a completely Paragon Shepard give a terrorist organisation complete control of technology that would allow them to potentially rule the universe (even if they did help him)? Of course not! When morality choices don't affect the flow of gameplay (and I mean in a sense other than 'You've got 8 morality points? Well, you can choose to skip this boss fight!'), and your ability to make particular choices down the line, morality becomes just a bunch of numbers with no real context or consequences.

    And while I'll be the first to admit that my suggestion isn't without flaws, it certainly is better than what we're getting currently.

    Dragon Age is probably the game I've played that came closest to a morality system that worked for me with it's different shades of grey, although because of it's spot-on mixup of moral choices, characters and spacey stuff, Mass Effect was to me a better package overall. Either way they're both games I enjoyed.

    The tricky thing is developers can really never win. Some people will always want to be able to do everything without having to start all the way back from the beginning to experience all the content, feeling cheated if they miss out on anything because of one dialogue choice. But on the other hand, some people prefer a character-driven game to give them consequences, sometimes even immediate ones, for their actions. Whether that means you can end up with just a different ending, or no longer access certain characters or areas, why would these people play a role-playing game if the role playing meant not that much?

    To me this is like the Choose Your Own Adventure problem, did you keep pages marked for about 6 decisions ago in case you died, and you could always go back but you get to see all the book had? Or would you go all the way through without looking back, making your choices and if you happened to meet a grisly death then back to the start to try another adventure? More to the point how many people loved those books but hated their smug million-and one ways to die? And finally, yes I was a young girl of the 'Have no Friends' club of one.

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