Zero Shades of Grey – Morality & Games

Morality. Its a very complex social idea. How do we know we’re doing the right thing, and how will people view us for doing what we think is right? Very few of us ever take a difficult decision without thinking that its the right thing to do from our perspective and situation. Very few of us actively set out to be the bad guy or an evil person or anything like that, and we all think ourselves as good people for the most part. Its hardly a common thing for humans to look at their actions, then maniacally laugh at the malevolance of their movements; generally, the differences we see in what we do and what other people do are subtle, and certainly, everything is just positions on a grey scale.

So why the hell don’t games understand this, by and large? What is it about morality that loses any sense of subtlety and complexity within games, and turns into black and white systems of “Good guy/bad guy”. When playing games, it feels more like you make a conscious decision to play down the hero route or the villain route, than you stumble down whichever path based on your proactive decisions at any time, which kind of destroys the entire point of having a morality system really.

Consider a game like Fable, or Mass Effect. When you’re confronted with the options of what to do in a particular situation, its generally pretty obvious to any spectator which option is the “good” option and which one is the “bad” one. Often because the two actions will be something like “Save the townspeople, and be a hero” or “Let the townspeople die, because you don’t really care”. Or, one of my favourite examples from the Mass Effect series, “Let this species live in peace now they are passive and pacifist” or “Kill the last queen of the species, and let them be extinct, because they were trouble once according to the lore”. Sure, there’s an element of pragmatism there, but its pretty clear which side each decision lies on, and with these games, its very rarely the player’s pragmatism that makes the decision.

More often than not, the player will have a preconceived idea of where they’re going to lie throughout the whole game. Its very much a followthrough of the Dungeons and Dragons idea of morality; as a DnD player, you define who the protagonist is from the beginning on the lawful/chaotic and good/evil scales, and then make your decisions as part of that. Except most video games remove the lawful/chaotic scale, and just weirdly incorporate that into good/evil. In Mass Effect, the evil choices are often far more chaotic such as pulling a gun on someone to get them to confess; in inFamous, being good often means helping to keep the order while being evil means you cause chaos as you solve issues. But back to the point at hand, the idea of playing to a particular idea instead of playing pragmatically is a hand-me-down from tabletop games, and it informs a lot of the way players play, and also the way systems are designed in these games.

Even ignoring how many games incentivise going fully good or fully evil with trophies, which can be fairly avoidable by not caring, there are still plenty of games that actually lock off your abilities and full strength if you don’t go in knowing exactly which way you’re going to swing for the whole game. inFamous holds back some of the strongest abilities and ability progression behind a ‘morality wall’, meaning you must either choose to go fully good or fully evil, or risk being colossally underpowered towards the end of the game. That means pragmatism is pretty much impossible, unless you’re trying to make it even more difficult for yourself (not recommended).

Another limitation these games self-impose on player choice and morality is the fact that they clearly identify it as “this is the good path” and “this is the bad path”. Even when its hidden behind a thesaurus, like Mass Effect tries to do. If you say to a player “are you going to be good, or bad?”, it is inevitably going to produce a different result to making decisions on a situation by situation basis. It just further lets the player play it with the intention of their character being something by the end, rather than letting them play it in the present and make decisions by feel. I mean, you may be feeling like these townspeople have been idiots and they deserve to die, but you’re trying to play a hero and know the hero path is going to include saving them, so that’s that, your decision is made.

Also, by framing it as good and bad, you inevitably take away any subtlety to the decisions. Obviously, if the situations in these games were real, there would be more agonising and trying to justify it to yourself that you were picking right, but in these games, with the choices so clear and the lack of any shades of grey, you have no reason to consider and justify. Without a sense of scale and without any reason to consider and justify your actions, the decisions lose meaning and weight; sure, you let a species go extinct, but you had to because you needed those renegade points to make sure Shepard was fully evil, and its not like its going to stick with you much. It all becomes very impersonal, which kind of defies the point of having a morality system at all; if your decisions are supposed to mean something, and be a personal choice, having meaningless decisions that aren’t necessarily based on personal choice and may quite possibly mean nothing to the player kind of defies the point surely.

And if those decisions are as obviously affecting as they are in these games, it takes away any sense of surprise or shock you may have. The decisions that make the most notable impacts on the way your character’s ‘morality’ goes are often so narratively signposted that there’s no way you can go in without knowing that its a major decision. In fact, some games even make it patently obvious what’s happening by outright stating or showing it; inFamous had a small icon that appeared to indicate when a decision was going to have an effect on your moral standing, which was just beyond ridiculous. Though I suppose if you’ve already made the decisions meaningless and based on character plans and not player choice, then hey ho, who cares if they can see the decisions coming.

So there’s a lot of games now that use morality systems to try to lend weight to their narrative and to their characterisation, while also giving the player choice in how things go, and that then kind of fail to do any of those things particularly well. Which is probably as much to do with the position of writers in the development of many of these games, as it is to do with morality systems being inherently flawed or their deployment being done wrong. But just to try and bring it back around from all my negative examples, its probably pretty useful to discuss games that actually handle morality systems and ways of judging the player’s decisions a lot better than many do.

Catherine, the bizarre super-Japanese puzzle game from Atlus, has a system based on polar opposites and a scale between the two that gives you one ending or another, and all the progress along that scale one way or the other that you control is clearly done through questions between puzzles. But, despite the fact that those are things I’ve said hugely dampen what effect morality systems can have, its handled very well within the game. First of all, the opposites you’re sliding between are never stated all that clearly in the game; what the scale means is implied more and more the further you get into the game, and it is, on some level, cleared up by whichever ending you get, but its never really stated. The questions also don’t really give it away, as you’re asked hypothetical questions on relationships and your personal life with no true right or wrong, rather than given life-saving and world-changing decisions with obvious implications

Secondly, despite the fact that the narrative so clearly defines who Vincent is as a character, you don’t know Vincent enough to really be able to answer the questions you’re given from his perspective, which means they do require some thought from the player, and have meaning from that. Whatever way you fall on the scale is more down to who you are as a player, than how you’re trying to play Vincent, which makes it actually feel like an informative and meaningful experience. The questions are also relatable; unlike making decisions on whether to save an insect species in space, you’re asked questions on what you’d prefer from a relationship or similar, that you probably actually have some thoughts on anyway. All in all, Catherine’s morality system, if its possible to call it such once you get a feel for what the scale stands for, ends up feeling quite memorable and personal because you’ve considered your answers and the game has done its behind-the-scenes bits to try and sort of line you up with the ending it thinks befits you.

The other game that I think handles the idea of morality well is Alpha Protocol, mostly because it has a morality system without any real morality to it. The way the game handles it is more of a system where you have a reputation going into conversations with people based on the actions you take, though if you consider how any Bioware game handles morality systems, its basically the same, but without the poorly done hero/anti-hero scale to it. And when you take that scale away, it basically frees up the player to choose whatever course of action they feel is most suited to their situation. Because that’s how spies work: pragmatically.

From there, the game just remembers what choices you make, and feeds into it how other characters perceive you; do they see you as cold and calculating but professional, or a suave spy capable of avoiding unnecessary combat and defusing a situation, or a guns blazing crazy person? It makes more sense than having you be judged because you behaved like a good guy or a bad guy in a particular situation. As if someone like Wrex is going to talk to Shepard and be like “Hmm, you’re acting a bit evil, Shepard”. Nah, Wrex, the hardcore old school Krogan mercenary, would be like “Shepard, I understand why you made that choice, I like your professionalism, but I think you need to think a bit less about what your teammates will say” or something like that. The Alpha Protocol system just makes it feel more realistic and well handled, so the way that your actions influence people’s views of you becomes more meaningful and has more impact within the game than just “You are a bad man, how could you be so bad”. Which is dumb. So dumb.

And of course, there are obviously more games out there, I’m sure, that handle morality systems in a way that isn’t just stupidly blunt and heavy-handed. But I just hope that eventually, all games manage to do that, and that it feels less like a nice surprise when I find a game that handles it in a meaningful and reasonable way. Because what’s the point in implementing a morality system, if it doesn’t reflect real human morality at all, huh game developers?


Joe Trail is the editor-in-chief of Don’t Be A Pixel. Mostly because he says he is, not because he has other writers to edit over. But such is the life of a busy editor-in-chief, obviously. He’s also an avid writer for the site. Of course.

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