Yes, that’s right, the ambling mind-dumps that are my articles on game design are back! As ever, I’m just sitting down to write on a topic and see what comes out at the end of it. This time, we’re focusing on morality within games, and how I believe that the ‘forced’ morality found in games is detrimental to the effect the developer is trying to create.
Morality in games is something of a recent innovation – while games throughout the ages have asked you to fight for a cause presented to you as ‘good’, you were never asked to stop and think about whether or not what you’re being asked to do is really the right thing to do. Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not about to try to persuade you that fighting against the Nazis in WWII wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Rather, I’m asking you whether morality without choice is really morality at all.
Take the countless WWII games available, for example. How many of them even present the faintest inkling that the Nazis might be human too? How many give you anything other than countless cloned uniform-wearing corpses-to-be to aim at down the sights of your superbly realised M1 Garand? While these questions might not seem directly related to morality, they do play an important part. Without fleshing out the other side of the equation, i.e. giving the enemy their humanity, any ‘difficult choices’ that the game pretends to present you with are meaningless. I have played games for the vast majority of my life, and I have never ever come across that moment, described by thousands of those present in WWII, where you aim your gun at a uniform and see the person underneath, the person who is fighting just as bravely as you, but happens to be wearing the other team’s colours.
However, the recent trend of including a “morality-o-meter” in games is perhaps even worse than giving the player no choice. There was a great deal of fuss made about Lionhead Studio’s RPG Fable before it was released, claiming that ‘every action has a reaction’ and that depending on your actions, you player would physically change to reflect the choices you made throughout the game. What this ended up boiling down to was either you would finish the game with a halo and butterflies flying around you, or giant demon horns and flies. In some ways this could be argued to be even less representative of morality than the games which give you no choice – in those at least you could argue that you were playing a character who made his own moral choices and let you deal with the consequences. These newer games ask you, more often than not, to simply choose between two options which might as well be branded GOOD and BAD when you’re making them. Then, once the decision is made, you would be attributed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ points accordingly.
While this might sound like a step forwards for including morality in games, what it does include is a perverted and incredibly simplified version of morality, and one that really bears no meaning outside of the specific encounter you make the decision within. Then, once the decision is made, you are awarded points depending on what the developer thinks is a ‘good’ or ‘evil’ decision. Morality is all about the decisions, and even those decisions in life that appear to be the ‘good’ choice can often turn out to have bad consequences. Awarding points to a certain decision is basically guiding the player towards another person’s version of morality, and therefore detaches the decisions from the emotions and conscience of the player. Once this happens, any pretense of morality within a game could be be dropped. Morality is an intensely personal process, and one that would be completely undermined by any reaction from the game other than consequences.
The majority of these games which claim a capacity for morality currently adhere to an almost Christian style of good and evil, with only the two extremes and everything originating, to a certain extent, from one or the other. There are, however, a few games that buck the trend and attempt to actually include some semblance of morality within their moral systems. The Knights Of The Old Republic is, I believe one of them. While I have not played the game past a couple of hours on a friend’s computer, from what I have read in reviews as well as in John Walker’s Bastard Of The Old Republic article, there seems to be a complexity in the moral decisions that is not found elsewhere. John Walker describes such a decision below:
Later, when exploring the surrounding area, I spotted a droid encircled by Kath Hounds, looking in trouble. Not out of kindness, but simply because the game enters combat mode when you get too close to the hounds, I defeated all the attackers. Beasts destroyed, the droid explains his situation. He had run away quite deliberately, as a result of his mistress taking that title a little too literally. Rather than grieving for her husband, she had transferred her feelings onto the droid, and was attempting to have a relationship that was clearly inappropriate with a robot. Deciding that this was the best thing he could do for her, the droid had tried to get himself killed to force Elise to move on. Noble, brave. I remember making the difficult decision to help the droid fulfil his wishes, and killing him, then going back to Elise to tell her he was dead. It was a terrible moment – she was distraught, destroyed, and I was sure I had done the wrong thing. Until later in the game when I met her again, and she seemed to have finally moved on in her life. I had made a real difference.
While this still isn’t the most sophisticated problem in the world, it’s still miles ahead of the likes of Fable’s “Save or Kill this person” missions, and most importantly it doesn’t immediately tell you “Congratulations, you’ve done a good deed!”, and as a result left the player unsure that they had made a good move until they see the consequences later. KOTOR is not without the faults of the other games, however. It still adjusts the appearance of you and your allies depending on how evil the game thinks you are, but as far as I can tell it stop short of assigning a number to your morality the way Fable does.
I am currently of the opinion that the games closest to nailing a true sense of morality are those emerging now with a free-roaming environment where you are free to choose to do as you wish within that area. These games don’t have a morality system in the same way that Fallout 3 does, and without the focus of the game being solely on such decisions you’ll likely never get the satisfaction of finding far-reaching consequences to a small decision long ago. That said, I would argue that Far Cry 2 is possibly the most realistic game, in terms of morality, to have come out in the last year or so. Its’ complete lack of any kind of mention of morality is the only real situation where a player’s true decisions could come into play, and its’ open world structure means that it has the perfect set up for a player to exactly what they please without fear of a game saying “We Don’t Kill Civilians Here, Game Over.” Unfortunately, the missions within the game rarely call for that kind of action, and instead choose the generic “Attack that truck” approach, rather than asking you to do anything more meaningful.
For morality to prosper in video games, I believe that the video game industry must not pick it out as a feature in their games. As soon as they start gauging morality, it is not morality that they are gauging, rather their own conscience. However, complete disregard for the matter is also not going to bring morality into games in any mreaningful way, because there has to be consequences to actions for the player to feel like their decisions are worth making in the first place. As a result, a game with a true moral system would have to be a large, free-form game which has a consequence to each action the player takes, but never tells them whether it is a good consequence or a bad one. The whole point of morality is that the player decides for himself whether they made the right choice, and to make them choose in a difficult decision only to take away their consequence and feed them a “Well Done” line would remove their personal investment in the choices’ morality.