Since the review of Skyrim I wrote two weeks ago, I have been thinking more about the difference between the Western and Eastern RPGs and games in general in terms of mechanics and trends. And to be perfectly honest, there is one realization that has really been bugging me. That being: Western games have no idea how to handle morality.
Perhaps this assertion requires some explanation. One evening while playing Skyrim, I came upon a quest that eventually lead to my character unwittingly free an ancient demon pirate; why he happened to be a pirate, I did not know. Instead of just trying to disintegrate my character like every other demon I had encountered, it instead offered a bargain: if I would break his seal and unleash him back onto the world, he would promise access to his treasure, located elsewhere. Despite my better judgement, I freed him and he went about doing whatever it is demon pirates do, and I found my share of evil booty shortly after.
But once the deal was done, a peculiar thought was had: what had I done? I had freed an ancient, untold evil onto a world already under attack by dragons and stolen from a friend to do it, and for what? Was the loot worth it? Would people know what I had done? Would it affect how people viewed their so-called hero?
To answer the first question: yes. To answer the second and third question: no. Back in Oblivion, player behavior was tracked in two statistics, called Fame and Infamy. As one can imagine, Fame is gained by doing good deeds and handling situations in an honorable, while Infamy is gained by stealing, killing innocent people, and choosing dishonorable means to solve problems. I had figured that Skyrim would have a similar system to keep score of such things, but I found nothing of the sort in the Statistic screen. Skyrim, it seems, did not care about my decision to free the demon, nor did it seem to care about anything else I did in the game; aside from town guards being snippy about some petty theft I had done or townfolk attacking me for making a chicken go berserk, player actions and moral choices in Skyrim are simply a novelty. And I actually liked it. Skyrim did not, at any point, chastise me for making a certain choice over another, nor does it shoehorn in unnecessary and superficial choices.
But is this the way all Western games should handle alignment? The aforementioned method of tracking reputation works well in Skyrim because of its open-ended, sandbox-style setting. The game is simply too big to be actively affected by the character’s moral choices, and instead opts to make any moral choices small, entertaining, or difficult. Compare instead the ill-advised method many other Western games take: making a player choose between a only a few, often drastically diametric choices, making them do it often for no reason other than to reinforce the player’s “goodness” or “evilness”, only to have none of the choices matter when the ending rears it head. One series that we at LusiCom love to pick apart due to this is, of course, the Fable series, not only because it popularized the feature of moral choices as gameplay features in Western games, but because of how ineptly it handles these mechanics. Despite the potential I have touted the series as having, Fable and its sequels have continuously fumbled over themselves trying to make player choices increasingly pivotal to gameplay, and yet simultaneously have somehow made these same mechanics inconsequential. Players in Fable may kill as many or as few people they desire, give or take possessions from villagers, and fart on as many people as they wish, but no choice in any of the Fables are especially deep or thought-provoking, nor do any of the endings change with a player’s choices. All this serves to do is make an already-jaded fanbase increasingly cynical, and drive away new players. And although it is a given that Peter Molyneux would never, ever change this aspect of his beloved franchise, this nonsensical trend in game design truly needs to stop. In lieu of this demand, I should perhaps offer some constructive criticism to the industry as to how to approach moral choices in gaming. For this, I offer a two primary design philosophies.
The first method would be to make moral decisions small, but not trivial. As mentioned before, this method is ideal for huge, sprawling game environments that would otherwise be a hassle to change based on the whim of a players choices. Players will still have the same experience regardless of how they tackle a situation while playing, but still be surprised then they hear or see small reminders from the environment that their deeds (or misdeeds) have not gone unnoticed. It is also important to remember to make moral decisions scarce when implementing this method, as to preserve the novelty of one’s choice.
Alternatively, if character morality is to be a central facet of a game, then second method I suggest would be go all-out and fully expand on morality in the game. The central complaint many gamers have with games that feature moral choices are the stringent and jarring separation of choices to a given situation; good choices tend to be naive and overly-saintly, while evil choices opt to evoke the most sociopathic options possible at possible. Neutral (read: sane) paths are often boring or and short, and force a player to revert back to a choice between reckless do-gooding and baby-eating malice. Much like normal people are not neatly separated into bad and good camps, games that feature moral dilemmas should do just that: make choosing one alignment over the other difficult, worthwhile, and fun. Catering the game’s environment and elements to change with character is also essentail, as it hammers home to the player that their choices matter. As such, crafting a number of separate endings to encompass not only good and evil, but neutral decisions, helps to maintain the significance the player’s choices have. It is more work to develop this sort of style, but it definitely has when used correctly to craft a memorable experience.
Of course, there are plenty more philosophies that can work when considering how to go about implementing choices in an interactive storytelling medium, but in my experience, the best have followed one of these formulas. Developers, regardless of their methods, need to know that their audience is not as immature as they may believe. Once they realize that gamers appreciate meaningful and mature storytelling, perhaps gaming itself can become better as a result.