Today’s topic will be something a bit less likely to give me a chance of flamed ass, mainly because it’s about game mechanics and not business practices or feminism. Plus hey, I’ll actually see both sides of an argument for once! Bet none of you expected that! That’s mainly because today’s topic is something I both like but think could be far greater – that being the modern game morality system.
While we had a lot of PC games pioneer into this concept and mechanic (and I’d argue that visual novels did a lot in moving this mechanic forward), it wasn’t until Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic did we have a console example of a game with a morality system, or at least a popular hit example if I’m missing any before it. The game would allow you to be as good or evil as you want by giving points to a good or evil pool that would add or subtract depending on how you handled a situation or what choice you made. Stuff like this was unheard of on consoles since JRPGs were still king and focused almost entirely on linear storytelling, not any sort of massive branching paths on quite this level. It caught on and now every other game has some sort of morality system in it based around the Bioware version.
Which is a bit of a bad thing. Why? Well, let’s look at this via pros and cons.
A morality system of this time that divides itself into good and evil offers two games for the price of one in a sense. After you play through the game once, there’s an encouraged itch to go back and see what could have been. On top of that, you may want to go back and check out the quests you may have passed up because they would have added points towards the wrong goal. Bioware’s Mass Effect is a great example of building replay into the game, such as trying to get as many of your squad mates to safety in the ending and finding the paths that will allow it. Even non-RPGs have managed to use this to great effect, like Infamous.
Another plus is that it’s easier to place yourself in the world and make choices that you would want to make instead of being forced into a situation and doing as the story dictates. There are tons of ways to tackle each situation and could possibly lead to different rewards and consequences and all based by your actions. You’re a living, breathing character in this world that drives things forward and into any direction you want. If someone dies, it affects you because it was your choice that brought it about. This is a level of involvement linear games can never hope to truly match.
With this said, there are a few thorny problems with this system.
Before I describe why the modern morality system bugs me, let’s talk about an older morality system in a game that pioneered the idea, Ultima IV’s virtues.
The first three Ultima games were crazy because they were made in DOS but the forth game stepped things up. After defeating the source of all evil three times, you’re tasked to go on a pilgrimage and spread a set of eight virtues to the world and bring peace to the land while trying to enlighten yourself. As a result, you have to place certain limits on yourself but ultimately be a proper role model that the people can unite under and help each other for the good of everyone. If you managed to remake this game into the modern age, the eight virtues could lead to one of the deepest and most complex narratives ever written.
But not with the Bioware system.
See, the Bioware system doesn’t allow depth, which is where the biggest issue with the system comes in. What the Bioware system offers with its black and white style is extremes of different levels. This worked for Knights of the Old Republic because the game was simply taking the morality system of the source material, but it seems out of place in a lot of games nowadays. While the best version of this system can allow some form of middle ground, the choices are often laughably silly. Seriously, the evil choice almost always comes down to deciding between rescuing a bus of children near an acid bath or dipping them in and laughing while pissing in the pit. The actions are rarely in line with the end result, which is pretty distracting.
Another problem is that there’s always a choice towards the other side, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you think about it. After you’ve committed a ton of random murders, would it make sense for your character to suddenly help a bunch of people? Games don’t really leave a lot of wiggle room in the narrative to allow anything as complex as redemption or a change in player motivations without it feeling out of place and strange because the narrative rarely leaves room to allow a scene showing some sort of major change. This is where I think Visual Novels figured things out better in the terms of choice. Take 9 Persons, 9 Hours, 9 Doors.
This is a visual novel about nine people in a death trap who are simply trying to find a way out and finding who did all of this. What makes this game brilliant is that all the choices and situations are better thought out and written so every choice you make is believable. Junpei is given a basic but plain personality at the start and it’s easy to absorb yourself in his shoes and his struggles, and he’s always divided on each decision he’s given. Nothing you can make him do ever feels out of place because he weighs all of the possibilities. With each different path you take, you can piece together a way to the true end by what happens in each path and using simple logic.
This is effectively what games like Mass Effect do, but with the major difference of not having nearly as tight a narrative. The reason 999 works is because the choices are not based on what is good or evil but simply your character’s choices at the moment with a basic goal in his mind. Ironically, where morality systems tend to fail is that they focus too much on a very basic idea of morality. 999′s choice system I would actually call stronger simply because it’s still very involving and each choice can make you feel successful or regretful but it doesn’t have you thinking in game terms of what you do is good or bad but by your own personal morality.
See, morality is a tricky subject filled with different perspectives. You can’t simply divide everything between good and evil; there are endless shades of gray in the middle. Your focus shouldn’t be on good or evil but focusing on a set of morals or simply setting up natural choices to let the player move a story and get them thinking about their own morality. What is good and bad to them? Is there ever a time where ends justify the means? By just having a broken morality system divided between colossal asshole and the next messiah, you’re doing a major disservice to videogames as a medium. There’s far more we could do than the most basic, and it may just improve your game’s narrative.