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Videogames and Morality Systems: The Illusion of Choice

by: Chris Carson ; edited by: Michael Hartman ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

Videogames are constantly advertising themselves as non-linear experiences littered with moral dilemmas and difficult choices for the players. Unfortunately, they rarely deliver on those promises. Why is it so difficult for morality systems to be implemented well, and what can games do better?

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    In The Beginning, There Were Pixels

    Donkey Kong There weren't much more than pixels in the beginning, either. The life of videogames, both as an industry and as a medium, began very simply. Videogames were born in arcades, where everything was about a challenging experience (both to interest the gamer and to take as many of their quarters as possible) and high scores. In the games back then, story either didn't exist or could be explained in a single sentence. Character A was you, and Character B was the villain, who you needed to defeat. There were no choices to be made in between either, just baddies to defeat and obstacles to avoid. When games first began to leave the arcades, they remained confined to these standards for some time due to the youth and the technological limitations of the medium. Arcades haven't actually changed much, and there's still a place in the world for games that are light on story and heavy on competitive high scores. Outside the arcades, however, things are a little different.

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    Every Hero Has a Story To Tell

    While arcades may not have changed much since then, the medium and the industry outside of them certainly has. As technology increased and games "grew up," the demands of the gamers that were growing up with them started to increase. Suddenly, people weren't happy with being a faceless hero, chewing through hordes of the enemy's armies for no reason other than them being the enemy. Gamers wanted to know who that hero was, and what their motivation to be on this adventure in the first place was. They wanted to know the hero's story, and the stories of everyone around them. Most important, they wanted compelling storylines - characters with personalities, love stories, moments of comedy, tragedy, high drama and everything in between. As the technology increased enough to allow for deeper storylines, the industry grew in size to allow for writers. The industry had begun to change. Moral complexity in videogames finally went a little deeper than Wario and his obsession with treasure. Even as they grew deeper, writing in games lacked interactivity for a long time. The gamer would do the adventuring, avoid the obstacles and defeat the baddies, and then they'd watch cutscenes with pre-scripted dialogue. Sooner or later, developers realized gamers wanted more. It made no sense for such an interactive medium to always guide the player along a strictly straight line in the story.

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    Open Worlds Can Be More Than Just Sidequests

    Grand Theft Auto 3 One of the early trends in non-linear games were the open worlds games, or "sandbox games," as they're sometimes called. Sandbox gaming was a good step in the right direction of allowing choice, but it's still only a step. Rockstar has developed some of the most popular sandbox gaming experiences in the Grand Theft Auto series, but like most other sandbox games, they still have a fairly linear storyline without any real choices to be made. The open world you can play in between your missions allows some freedom of exploration, but it's still just a place to play around. You can interact with the environment, but there's no real motivation to do so. At worst, there are literally no quests or missions to do outside of the main storyline, and at best, there are relatively pointless side missions that have little or no affect on the game.

    From sandbox games and a desire for large open worlds to explore came the massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs. MMOs provide huge worlds with the potential for all sorts of interactions between various real players, and plenty of NPCs aligned to any number of different factions besides. They are also frequently patched, which makes them something the developers can constantly update and change. In the MMO, game developers finally have a framework where they could create truly organic experiences, with a bevy of choice. True interactivity. Well, in theory. In practice, MMOs and other games still have a long way to go.

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    Black, White, And The Grey Area In Between

    The idea of morality in gaming is, thus far, just that: an idea. It's a great idea, but in translating that idea to reality, it rarely becomes any more than the idea. MMOs are especially guilty of not understanding the grey area. One of the most common ways to inject morality into MMOs seems to be with the idea of warring factions. Sometimes this is centered around PVP, or player-vs-player combat, and sometimes it is centered around the NPCs in a setting more geared to PVE or player-vs-environment. Still, the idea of polarized factions is not a true morality scale. Choosing to be Horde instead of Alliance in World of Warcraft, or choosing to work with one faction instead of another in a game like Star Wars Galaxies or Aion is something players do because they like those races more, not because they have any views on the alliances.

    Baldur's Gate was one of the first series of games to introduce morality. Based on D&D, it allowed for the players to be good, neutral, or evil. However, any actual interactions with that morality scale had absolutely no shades of grey. As well, the game provided an incredible amount of perks to players that chose to play on the side of good, and made things nearly impossible for those that chose to play on the side of evil. It's pointless to implement a morality scale without some form of motivation to play all the different points on it, and this is a mistake videogame developers are still making. Infamous, which came out only a couple of years ago, is another example of a game that really discouraged playing the evil route.

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    Modern Failures in Roleplaying Ethics

    Fable Evil Hero Since those early days of morality systems, RPGs like Fable and Bioshock have carried forward the idea that morality in games ought to exist in stark black and white without any complexity. You are either gearing up for sainthood or committing acts of the sort of pure, unadulterated evil that would make most sociopaths think twice. They also have a near complete lack of consequences for actions on either side of the scale, often changing nothing prior to the game's ending.

    Still, though there are a lot of failures in the field of morality scales in gaming, they are still attempts, and it shows that developers are stumbling towards an understanding. Major changes to an industry don't happen overnight, and the sole fact that they are starting to crawl towards success is enough to justify some hope for the future of morality scales standing tall and proud as a game mechanic. Still, at least for now it almost seems that for every step forward, it seems the industry takes three or four steps back with games that show no understanding at all of what makes something a genuine choice.

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    Moral Dilemmas And Metagaming

    Fallout 3 Speech Skill Of course, some of those steps forward make it a little further in the right direction. We've yet to see a true, complete success, but some games are getting closer. MMOs may often be guilty of relying too heavily on the idea of factions for morality, but there is sometimes room for some moral choice between the players themselves, though that is more up to the player community than the game itself. Bioware has championed story and morality in their promotion of their upcoming Star Wars MMO, The Old Republic, but how well they deliver on that promise remains to be seen. As far as true moral scales go in MMOs that have been released thus far, the closest most games have come is a sort of moral freedom that allows you to interact with people in any manner you choose without providing set choices for you to make. For instance, games such as Rift allow players to kill NPCs, even quest-givers.

    Single player RPGs such as Oblivion and Fallout have offered the same sort of moral freedom. You can steal things you need and choose to help the same people you stole from with their problems, or you can simply kill someone instead of assisting them. This provides for all sorts of interesting points on the scale. Unfortunately, since those games do actually have a scale, this leads to a ton of metagaming, where players can do a handful of irrelevant good deeds to "make up" for bad deeds they've done, or vice versa, essentially erasing extreme acts they've taken. It undermines the relevance of actions taken when their consequences are so lacking in permanence.

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    Hope For The Future: The Beginnings of Success

    Mass Effect 1 Radial Dialogue Menu Bioware has done some of the best work on morality systems of anyone in the industry, despite their early failures with the Baldur's Gate series. They employ some of the best writers in the videogaming world, and even if they've yet to implement a completely perfect system, they seem to understand the need for shades of grey. In games like Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect, they've provided gamers with choices to make that are sometimes genuinely difficult. Some of these choices have real effects on gameplay as well, going as far as changing the party members traveling with you in some cases. Still, with the exception of quests specific to party members you may have lost, it still fails to change the missions available to you. Also, while there is some understanding of grey, it's still incomplete. Generally there is simply a neutral choice in addition to the good and evil choices. Real "slippery slope" moral dilemmas remain just out of reach, but they've made excellent strides in the right direction.

    The Witcher has picked up where Bioware's left off and has shown the most promise to go in the proper direction with morality and non-linear choices in games. In both the first game and its sequel, there are pros and cons to every decision made, and the decisions are designed to affect the world (often the political landscape of that world), rather than always being built solely on the concept of a moral dilemma. This adds a lot of grey instead of simply one neutral option, and in a lot of cases, the consequences of decisions made aren't revealed right away. It still lacks subtlety sometimes, but it is more than a few steps in the right direction. If the industry continues along the path that they've laid out, we may just see successful morality scales in the future.

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    Taking Away The Safety Net

    One of the biggest difficulties in telling a truly interactive story through the medium of a videogame is the core fact that it is a videogame. Faced with consequences one doesn't want to deal with from a poor decision, it's easy enough to load a previous save and make the other decision, a power I think most people wish the had in real life. It's the lack of that power that makes realistic storylines so compelling, though. They have the weight that real life does. To achieve this in games, consequences should be revealed as long after the decision as is possible. The less likely developers make us, as gamers, to turn back, the more likely they make us to care about the decisions we make.

    When we're faced with choices in games that are supposed to be difficult for the characters we're playing as, those choices need to be difficult for us to make us well. The complete consequences need to be hard to predict and just as hard to undo; the safety net of re-loading a save and washing away our bad decisions needs to be taken away from us. Only them can we start to think about making the decisions we actually agree with instead of trying to make the decisions that will net us the best rewards in-game.

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    Making The Illusion of Choice Into a Reality

    The Witcher 2 Conversation That future may still be some ways off, however. The sheer "black and white" quality that continues to be present in morality scales is evidence enough of this. After all, how many real life decisions do we face where our options are on the absolute extreme ends of the spectrum? These choices would be more believable in games, and harder to make, if there was a lot more grey in them.

    The other major thing I'd like to see is some truly non-linear games where the experiences are organic. It should be entirely impossible to be presented with all the quests in these kinds of games in a single playthrough, because the choices you make should affect the game you get, not just the ending. Outside of the core storyline, there should be entire characters and quest paths the player can miss out on or have added to their game as a result of their interactions with the game world. There should also be pros and cons to any way the gamer chooses to play the game, instead of present lopsided rewards for one type of playthrough. MMOs have some of the most potential to deliver this, as they present some of the most freedom for gamers to take exceptionally different individual paths, but all games attempting any sort of choice-based system have definite room to grow in this department.

    The industry has made some huge strides from the early days of titles such as Pong and Pac-Man to deliver well-written, believable characters and storylines. It has also begun to deliver some interactivity in those storylines in the form of morality scales, but those are still in a pretty fledgling stage, and developers have a long road ahead of them. There appear to have been some real strides made in the right direction in recent years, however, so there's reason to be hopeful that going forward, some successes may be found. I'd bet on there being a lot more failures along the way, but it's still nice to think that there might be some success at the end of that road.

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    All Images Taken From Official Game Websites:

    Donkey Kong



    Fallout 3

    Mass Effect

    The Witcher 2