How Games Do Morals

Morality has become a prominent factor in large scale games these days. Seen prominently in across many genres, though perhaps most so in RPGs, the ability for players to make varying moral choices is an extension of the designers efforts to allow agency in their games. Games, as an interactive medium, allow players unprecedented control over their experiences, and built in morality tracking is a recent, and popular, iteration of this. Players can dictate if they want to be the hero, or the villain, within the same storyscape.This ability to dictate ones own experience is what really sets games apart from other media. However, the polarity of a “Good and Bad” morality system doesn’t quite do the fundamental concept enough justice.I, along with many others, have started getting in on this whole Star Wars: The Old Republicbusiness, and have enjoyed the well written, but very straightforward morality scale of Light Side vs Dark Side. Now, this may not seem as though it requires any great intellect to identify the Jedi and Sith dichotomy as, perhaps, the most polar example of morality. They are good guys against bad guys in the most simple sense. However, as it’s the game I’m currently playing, and one that’s gotten a lot of press, we’ll use it.As I’ve gone through this game, I find myself unintentionally drifting in a gray area. Half the choices I make are “Light Side”, half are “Dark Side”. The game, apparently, thinks that my actions are erratic, as if I can’t make up my mind. At first, I thought that perhaps I was in a different mood one night, being a vindictive dick because I could, and feeling more gracious and sympathetic the next, helping out some refugees.

However, this wasn’t the case. I was playing a Bounty Hunter, and I’m the type of person who asks: “What would my character do in this situation?” The character I was playing was the type of person who did what they were paid most to do. I wasn’t being inconsistent in my character at all, I was just following a different set of rules. Mine.

I love games. They’re almost like an evolution of the “choose your own adventure” books that used to be sold in the mid 90’s. However, it feels like we’ve a long way to go in developing ways to present players with real agency. The track that I play my Bounty Hunter isn’t formally recognized in the game, and therefore isn’t fully realized. My illusion is broken.

Now, a game that I played last year that I thought started to take this concept in an interesting direction was Catherine. Instead of the usual “good vs evil”, we saw “conservative and familiar vs adventurous and free”. Not only did this game shirk off the mantle of blandness that most morality systems don, but it presented it in a way that made the players apply the questions asked in the game to their own lives. This was a only microcosm of morality (as it was only analysing a single comparison, and the story was heavily scripted) but it was done very well. However, it still lacked the true freedom that I think games can achieve.

You only pick the conservative side if your girlfriend is watching you play.
This is a really tough problem for current game designers, especially in large scale games, where a player has many freedoms about where to go and what to do. I personally think the solution lies in one of two directions. Firstly, the morality system used by Bioware in Star Wars: The Old Republic (well, all their games really) revolves around my dialog choices. When you voice act every thing, and create cut scenes for the events, you’re going to end up with some beautiful events, but these events will be limited in variety. There is a reason you can only select ~3 options per choice. Voice acting more static choices would be extremely taxing on a development group.I believe the solution to this morality system that maintains a dialog based presentation revolves around the use of procedurally generated content. Specifically, entities within the game that are capable of understanding and responding to custom user responses. I have seen some really neat stuff in regards to this idea, and I would bet if some big studios through serious money at this approach, that we could see something really great come of it.The second solution is for a game to forgo dialog all together and devise a system where player’s actions are noted and reflected in changes to the game world. This scheme provides a less clear narrative to the game, but players are already free to act in any way they wish within the rules the game sets for them.It’s an intriguing avenue of gaming to examine, as agency is really the core difference between games and any other form of story telling. Why wouldn’t we want to push it as far as it can go? I can’t wait to see how far past the sliding “good-evil” bar we can push this medium.

By developing some sort of dynamic pony-meter, perhaps?

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