What do the following titles have in common?
- Red Dead Redemption
- Mass Effect
- Fallout 3
That’s right - a morality system.
Moral choices have become rather popular in the games industry lately. Many popular titles will vary depending on the choices you make in-game. Unfortunately, they’re not being used to their full potential. Essentially, these systems are an easy way for developers to cram replay value into titles and to give the player the illusion of character development and customisation.
Instant character development: just add angst!
I’ve been getting stuck into inFamous 2 lately, which features a typical system - throughout the game you are presented with situations where you can either help the downtrodden or laugh as you hurl them into the stratosphere. This means that in order to experience the whole game you need to play twice. But here’s the thing: that’s it. It’s very rare to find someone who’s moral compass is completely black and white. When you do, you soon realise that their judgement is often way off. Morality defines a person and being the highly complex thing that it is, should not be represented by two clear cut choices. If the choices are to be this simple, then I would rather make one choice at the very start of the game, and have it act accordingly throughout, rather than giving me the impression that I can choose. Sure, I can kick pedestrians in the face whenever I want, but what’s the point if it’s going to hamper my progress? Fallout 3 nearly broke the “right vs. wrong” mould by adding a “neutral” option. This usually meant avoiding these choices or simply alternating between good and evil. Once again, this is not morality - this is lazy design.
This is what a “Good vs. Evil” moral system looks like.
Whenever faced with a tough choice I want to have my very being challenged. I want to spend time weighing up the pros and cons of each choice. I want to balance the sacrifice against the reward, and I want to carry the weight of every choice I make, whether it be a sacrifice or guilt. I found myself faced with this scenario in Mass Effect 2; during one mission I was faced with two options, both of which were inherently wrong. I genuinely sat and pondered my choice for the duration of the mission until I reached the end and the time came to make my decision. However the choice was presented to me in Mass Effect’s usual way, with one being the “good” choice and the other being the “bad”.
In the Mass Effect series, your decisions have consequences, and these will often come back to haunt you. It has the potential to break free from the two-tone morality that plagues video games but still falls short. If instead of tracking your karma via the Paragon/Renegade scale, the game simply presented the consequences of each action, then not only would I think carefully about each choice, but I’d be left with a character with infinitely more depth and complexity than the two stock characters that we’re left with nowadays.