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Morality, For The Modern Player

Posted on Friday, May 7 @ 14:53:34 Eastern by
Free Will in Morality Systems?

Modern Western RPGs have begun adopting morality systems as a way to add depth to the dialogue and extend the suspension of disbelief that the game doesn’t have fixed plot events. Games might boast “big decisions”, but they almost always have a central thread that serves as a pivot point around whatever branches in the story are given to the player, not to mention foldback schemes that seem to offer players a choice but ultimately lead them down the same path.

Though a player can choose to be paragon or renegade in Mass Effect, or gain positive or negative karma in Fallout 3, the story is still of a hero (or anti-hero) that saves the world through a specified series of story missions. At the end of the day, even the most widely branching games have preset endings and usually strict paths to get those endings.

The idea that morality systems provide players free will is only true if they are already bounded by pre-determined paths. This isn't to say that morality systems have been touted as the solution to the illusion of choice in video games. But to say that it will take decades of work in interactive video game storytelling before the consequences of a player's actions are not preset. Until then, morality systems are a good first step in that direction. Still, before this article becomes too pessimistic, the point is to have cut-scenes that react to the player choices meaningfully. (The debate on what is true interactivity or not can be made later.)


Points and Criticisms

Another issue some critics have is in the quantification of morality, which they find dehumanizing because it ascribes seemingly lifeless numbers to the subjective, complex, humane subject of ethics. Earning, say, 3 “good” points for saving a dog’s life does sound arbitrary and foolishly appraised. But while mathematical expression is indeed a form of simplification, the numbers themselves don’t express quantity as much as they do variance of degree.

Our society does this all the time, like assigning a prison sentence of 25 years for first-degree murder versus 2.5 years for burglary. How many years in the sentence matters just as much as the relative difference between them, if just to illustrate what is worse by human definition. In the same way, games weigh various moral options as to their relative effect – rescuing thirty people from a burning building is a more selfless and reputable act than placing a piece of trash off the street into a trashcan. Of course, awarding a player 4,492,291 “good” points doesn’t make much sense, either – a scale, like the one in Fallout 3 which goes from -1000 to +1000, is much more practical.

On the other hand, morality systems can be more profound and mature when there is no morality meter at all, and leave the dissenting eye between right and wrong to the player and other in-game characters. This allows the impact of a moral decision to depend not only on the player’s viewpoint, but also on that of the world of the game. In Dragon Age: Origins, each party member in the player's group can individually approve or disapprove of the player’s actions, which emphasizes the point that right and wrong is a matter of opinion and that the separation between the two is not always ideal.

When one party agrees, another will not. Saving an enemy’s life is generally seen as benevolent, but some party members and warring factions might see it as being too benevolent. The player might be able to influence others to perform or accept your deeds, but there will always be someone whose code of conduct (and who isn't just an enemy) conflicts with the player’s. Fallout 3 does this to an extent by not allowing the player to join with partners who perceive the player as being too good or evil for their tastes.

Solutions to a moral dilemma are rarely two-sided and should offer multiple alternatives that are neutral, impartial, or ethically grey. Not only that, but games need to give these alternatives as much weight as good and evil options. If only good or evil morality points unlock future dialogue choices or grant moral-specific powers, like chain lightning for being evil or area-wide banishing spells for being good, then why would players make neutral choices at all? There is one perk in Fallout 3 that awards a massive bonus to Speech for maintaining a neutral moral alignment, but this is an exception to the rule.

For morality systems to become more sophisticated, additional variables need to be explored to match the complexity of morality: (just to name a few) reputation (which will return in Fallout New Vegas), Jungian personality traits, different forms of justice (utilitarian, retributive, restorative), and the common exception of unconditional love. In this way, relationships between the player and in-game characters can become richer. Strangers that the player meets in the game might not know the player’s moral alignment beforehand. Giving the player the ability to hide their alignment through disguises or lies would create tension. Communities can have different laws, beliefs, and restrictions, compelling players to adopt, reject, ignore, or change the rules of those societies.

A Final Note

It’s easy to look at morality systems as that new hip trend, that gimmicky buzzword pervading games that are hot on the market. But despite their relative immaturity, they are the face of modern game design and indicate that the future of the industry is personal – whether through morality systems, motion-sensing technology, interactive stories, or exhaustive avatar customization creators. It reminds us that games have the unique potential to let its audience explore ideas without linear dictation and develop their ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations that challenge their preconceptions. Morality systems mark the advancement of video game storytelling and of the medium as an artform with unique, undeniable insights on the choices that make us human.


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