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Some Written Word on Game Design: Morality


There are very few games with morality systems, in spite of the fact that almost everything done in a videogame will have ethical consequences. My running into Riften and slaughtering the inhabitants is most definitely a moral action, killing a lot of NPCs and a few quest givers. But at no point is that modeled in any sort of morality system. The reason is fantastically simple: morality is hard. It’s grey. It’s complicated. To some, it’s a lie. So most developers don’t bother with ethical systems because they’ll probably mess it up. A fair assessment, but that doesn’t deter some developers.

So Bioware – I’m talking to you. Your morality system sucks.

Actually, that’s unfair. How Bioware’s morality system is presented in character screens, on a scale of good to evil, works very well and is representative of how morality exists, namely on a scale of optimal good to optimal evil and a whole lot of shades of grey in between. If only that made it into dialogue. Bioware’s dialogue options tend to put morality into 3 largely arbitrary groups: the good, the neutral and the evil. But morality is not simply 3 categories. There’s good, but there might also be a slightly gooder good that you could have chosen, but players are restricted to the less-good-but-still-rather-good ‘good’ option. It’s not good.

This lumping morality into 3 categories creates a dissonance between the player’s morality and the morality the game demands. To take an example from SWTOR’s Jedi Knight story, there is a point where you fight a rogue Jedi Master and defeat them. The game then offers you the choices of:

  • Let them go (good)
  • Let a Republic officer kill them (neutral)
  • Kill them yourself (evil)

The problem here is that the player is a Jedi, and Jedi do not kill their prisoners. As a Jedi Knight it is the player’s moral obligation to see that prisoners are treated in accordance with the Jedi Code, especially if said prisoner is a Jedi themselves. So that ‘neutral’ option would, by most accounts, be bad. No moral Jedi would let their prisoners die, much less be executed by a particularly angry soldier. The problem here is that the writer did not get into the head of either the Jedi or the players. To those roleplaying as a Jedi that option should have been evil. To players in the shoes of a Jedi falling to the dark side, that should have been a slightly evil option as it would be part of the player’s fall from good. For those already in the shoes of a wannabe Sith, it should have been neutral. Such systems were the staple of the Sith Warrior class, where chopping of someone’s hand is considered ‘good’ because in the context of the Sith that’s about as nice as you can be, morality systems should take account of cultural relativism and then allow the player to have a little argument about it for the sake of character development. Simply put: all dialogue wheels on morality should look more like this:

For morality systems to work properly there has to be context. Mass Effect tries so very hard there, but fails horribly. Renegade Shephard is just a dick, no two ways about it – he’s a complete asshole for no reason whatsoever. Which is not what the overall morality system of Mass Effect is about. It’s a representation of war ethics on a scale of Realism – the notion that in times of war, morality can let slip for the sake of victory. In the grand scheme of the game, if the player goes for victory over ethics then they should be renegade, those that maintain the moral high ground throughout should be paragon. The space racism doesn’t need to come into it. That is a separate moral scale, and throwing basic good and evil into the same model used for war ethics creates this weird soup containing one type of good but two types of evil, and it is something that players must detach themselves from the game to understand properly. Then you end up with players that cannot get to grips with the morality system, resulting in a poorer and more confusing experience - a feeling that something about it just doesn’t add up. The moral scale must always match the nature of the moral dilemmas.

There is also often a failure to reflect a change of ethics in the player or companions. KotOR 2, as much as I adore it for its philosophy, is a prime example of this. Throughout the game your own morality influences that of your companions. You could help Bao-Dur overcome his anger through being a role model for him, or you could lead him to the Dark Side by letting him think it’s ok to give in to emotions. That’s brilliant, but such reflection does not extend to non-force sensitive characters like Mandalore, who the palyer nevertheless influences. He starts the game with the idea that the weak exist to serve the strong, and in spite of me being as nice as possible (except to General Vaklu) and his position on the morality meter going from kinda evil to kinda good he maintains that attitude in spite of how he should no longer believe it given his newfound goodness. Dialogue should be written to reflect changes in the attitudes of characters as their morality also changes – or you end up with those contradictions overshadowing the quality of the writing.

But one thing that I will praise Bioware for is how these little interactions add up to form an overall picture of the character’s moral standing. In a lot of games your points for evil and good would cancel out, leading to the idea that the player totally isn’t at all a smidge evil for killing those orphans because after that, they helped 200 old ladies cross the street. Better games like Mass Effect and SWTOR keep its good and evil points around for all to see. My Agent has a very simple rule: be very nice until someone crosses you. So for every Sith to cross me, for every Corellian officer to be racist to my non-human face, there are dark side points accrued (along with a surprisingly high body count), but also light side points for the Jedi I let go, for the soldiers I spare, for the people I help. But it’s all there to see. My Agent may be good, but he carries the weight of his decisions with him both in the morality meter and in his dialogue, because Alexander Freed understood that morality needs to be reflected in dialogue. Why Bioware don’t keep him around I have no idea.

Then there are the truly awful, woeful systems that just break the game. Amazing Spiderman 2 I am looking squarely at you. What in the Uncle Ben were they thinking with this Hero to Menace idea? I mean, it had potential, but it could have been implemented by a gibbon for all I know. Basically, if you don’t do side-missions like fetch balloons and stop the 20th mugging this half hour then that counts toward the ‘menace’ score. Even if you are on your way to a main story mission, you HAVE to stop at every single crime along the way to stop being a ‘menace’ and when you are a menace the city sends drones to try and kill you, which slow you down, so you can’t do side missions, so your menace score grows, so more drones come after you. It’s a complete mess, and the most botched attempt at a morality system I’ve ever seen. The consequences should be reflected in story, in dialogue, in how NPCs respond to the player. Not in having something come along that only serves to show how badly designed the game is.

It’s interesting that I cannot discuss great examples, because even the companies like Obsidian that try to weave philosophy into their games just cannot get it all right. It comes back to why the Dragonborn can kill 1000 guards without it reflecting on him – morality is hard. So developers don’t bother with it. I think that’s a shame though, characters are most convincingly built on their ethics. Characters like Garrus wouldn’t be the same without his grappling with wanting to be both good and a realist. My Agent just wouldn’t be a character I care about if he had just blankly let everyone go like some bland automaton – I like that he has limits and that he will snap if those limits are broken, leading to his doing evil. I just wish the dialogue slotted with that morality better than it does. I wouldn’t care about Bao-Dur if I couldn’t help him find his own moral code, but that option is not extended to other similarly confused characters like Visas Marr.

On many occasions games have come close to a deep, meaningful and complete system of morality – but none have actually done it. Inquisition has the reactionary dialogue but not the depth. KotOR 2 has depth but not reactionary dialogue. Watch_Dogs's system seemed arbitrary. They all have flaws, some severe some minor, that must be overcome to create what these systems aspire to. So Bioware – your talk about Knights of the Fallen Empire being a story of moral temptation better live up to it. No more of this unimaginative ‘good, evil, neutral’ stuff.

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About James Internet Egoone of us since 2:56 PM on 04.21.2015

Howdy! Welcome to the little corner of the internet that a part of me calls home. Here's some stuff about me.

Occupation: Student

Hobbies: Videogames, Chess, Philosophy

Interests: Law, Philosophy, Gaming

Chores: PC maintenance, Uni prep

Current Thought: Damn you Witcher 3! Damn you Crones to hell!

Favorite Game: KotOR 2 for reasons, but Witcher 3 is now joint first, bloody marvelous game.

Current Game: The Witcher 3

I am a fan of the written word as well as the spoken variety, so you'll find me doing a lot of written stuff. Every couple of days hopefully.

Here is a nifty list of what I think is my best stuff.

Destructoid C-Blogs
How Cities: Skylines Almost Screwed Up My Exam
Why the PR Man Can Lie
On Mods and Money
How Mass Effect Made Me Like Music
Questing For Immersion
An Afternoon With the SWG Emulator
How to Buy a game in 2015
Some Upbeat Thoughts on Bioware
The Pain of Playing Old Games
Why Citybuilders Are Not ABout Building Cities
On Valve's Inability to Follow The Law
Band of Bloggers: KotOR

Some Written Word on Game Design
Ambivalence and Not Caring

Front Paged Things
Bloggers Wanted: KotOR 2

Kotaku UK
The Best Zombie Game Out There

That covers the bio, right?

Oh, right - name. I'm James, in case you couldn't guess.