Editorial: A Matter of Morals

Fable II Screenshot Man and Dog

Should I play catch with the dog or eat it?

In previous articles I have written about how video games have experienced an exponential increase in popularity in America and Europe and how that popularity has given birth to a multitude of evils in the industry. This week, I am going to attempt to look past the evils that have spawned from the shift in power and instead look at something that many Western-developed games had, morality choices. Morality choices went though a period in the middle of the 360/PS3 era where is seemed every game that could have them did. As with every development fad, there are times that morality choices were used expertly and times where they were horrendous.

Western developed games, especially RPGs, have an infatuation with including a morality system that is ingrained with the story. The two entities with the biggest boners for morality systems are Bioware and Peter Molyneux. Neither of them seem capable to make a game without including a morality system. Morality systems were absent from most console games until Peter Molyneux’s Fable was released for the Xbox. Fable was notoriously over hyped by Molyneux and ended up being a big disappointment for anybody that believed all of Peter’s hype. The morality choices that Fable presented to its audience were extremely black and white in nature, leaving little doubt in the player’s mind as to which was decision was good and which was evil. Despite Molyneux’s claims, the morality choices have little to no effect on the player’s experience as the biggest difference between good and evil is how the citizens react to the hero.

To Bioware’s credit, they have tried to push the boundaries a bit more with morality choices. In the case of the massively popular Mass Effect, the player’s good (Paragon) and evil (Renegade) actions were measured on two different scales. Players going for a Renegade path could still do a couple of Paragon actions without harming their progress as a Renegade and vice versa. Where the Mass Effect series fails is that it still treats good and evil in a black and white manner, much the same as Fable. Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins presented choices that fell into the gray area of morality. Choices that seemed to lean towards good could have consequences later on that would make people question their initial decision. By not including a morality meter in Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware encouraged players to make the choices that they wanted to without focusing on a good/evil scale. Unfortunately, Dragon Age: Origins morality choices are the exception to rule. The PlayStation 3 game, Infamous, became infamous (See what I did there?) for its hilariously bad moral choices.

Dragon Age: Origins Screenshot

Dragon Age: Origins featured choices that were not the simple good vs. evil that Fable loves.

Molyneux has said that he enjoys giving players a choice because it helps the player make a connection with the story of the game. In Peter’s mind, every game that does not offer players good and evil choices fails to connect with its audience. While allowing players to choose their character’s path through the story can add levels of immersion, it only works when it is done right. Games like Infamous and Fable feel extremely shallow because their so-called “morality choices” could easily be replaced by the game asking if the player wanted to be evil or good. The choices these games offer hurt the story because they often do not allow the player to take the middle ground, I either have to feed the orphans a five-course meal or decapitate them, I can not just slap them and give them a slice of cheese. The developers behind these games like to think a gamer will play through a second time to follow the other path, but with the choices having such clear outcomes, most do not even bother.

Of course, when done right, as is the case is with Dragon Age: Origins, moral choices can have a profound effect on how the player makes his decisions. Offering players reasonable choices that do not seem to fall to either side of morality gives them an actual reason to replay a game to see how different choices would affect the story’s outcome. Since creating good morality choices is such a difficult task, developers would make better use of the time writing a single storyline and not splitting their resources up. A good storyline can draw people in even if it does not allow the player to make choices along the way.

Unfortunately, linear storytelling is now seen as the old method. This change in mindset led American developers to consistently try to include stories that are written in the simplest of ways so that the masses can relate to the characters. The developers hope that by having relatable characters, players will put themselves in the characters shoes when making choices in the game. This mindset fails because in order to have a character that anybody can relate to, it has to be as simple and bland as possible, two adjectives that most people would not use to describe themselves. For now, it looks like morality choices have taken a bit of a backseat as they are not nearly as prevalent as they were a few years ago. That all could change with Mass Effect 4 and Fallout 4 likely being released sometime in the current generation.

What are your thoughts on morality choices in games? Have you ever felt a game draw you in more because of the choices you were offered for you character? Or do you prefer the linear storytelling method of old? Leave your opinions below and do not forget that you can now follow comments! As Ethos said, let us infect every minute of your day!

5 comments on “Editorial: A Matter of Morals”

  1. I have yet to play The Witcher, although it is one of the hundreds of games that I own on Steam. What’s your opinion of it?

  2. I haven’t played it yet either, but from what I hear it has decent choices such as “Bang a Witch” and “Shag a Sorceress”.

  3. Those sound like horrible choices! Why do I have to choose between the two? No “Fuck it, have a three way” or the option to choose who gets sloppy seconds? What a failure of design.

  4. Initially, when I first played a Bioware game (Kotor), I was impressed with the ability to make decisions. But as we’ve gone on, it feels less like choices and more like minor diversions to a narrative that arrives at the same conclusion regardless of the details along the way. I know, I know, the devil’s in the details, but still. I’m playing Shin Megami Tensei IV now and there’s some pretty superficial choices in there, some of which fall into the whole “Why ask me yes or no if I just have to click yes to proceed?”, but I find the more direct, structured story more enjoyable as a result. So I guess… maybe morality systems in gaming is more of a narration tweaking gimmick than actual choice? And probably it has a lot do with the resources it’d require to create a game with actual meaningful decisions? Or maybe I’m just rambling aimlessly again. Thanks for the article Gyme, it was a fun read.

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