Choice is an interesting thing in this industry; developers encourage us to make our own decisions and find solutions to our problems in all sorts of #VideoGames. This game mechanic is made use of in numerous RPGs and a staple of the #TelltaleGames, for instance, which are full of difficult choices.
However, there's a problem. Choice can also be an arbitrary construct in games; one stolen by the strict guidelines of a rigid morality system where everything needs to be simplified into black or white, rather than seeking any shade of gray.
How Morality Works In The World Of Video Games
Moral choice became a gaming staple in Knights of the Old Republic, a Star Wars RPG that tied player actions to either the Dark or Light side of the Force. It made sense at the time, fit comfortably into the mythos and gave gamers a way to further develop their desired character.
BioWare would later fine tune this into the paragon / renegade system in the Mass Effect franchise and its broad appeal quickly became industry standard. But that doesn't mean it isn't flawed.
- Red Vs Blue, why are we here?
Morality decisions are supposed to be about choice. When content is locked away as a reward for being 'good' or 'bad' then decisions are made to please the system, rather than being the actions you want to take.
Levelling up in inFAMOUS is a clear example of this, as skill advancements require you have enough points on one side or the other. If you wanted to play a character in the middle, neither good nor evil, then you'd be much weaker for it. These actions also served as a feedback loop to the system, altering how characters react to you and ultimately driving you toward a predestined ending.
- Making concessions when your heart is in the right place
Reacting to this system, BioShock tried to shake things up a bit when asking players to harvest or save the little sisters. By offering larger rewards for those willing to commit an evil deed, the goal was to encourage people to weigh up the life of another against their own.
However, the abundance of little sisters and the way the game rewarded such deeds meant that players were never put into that situation. But there's some semblance of hope on the horizon.
I Sense A Disturbance In Morality
In #StarWars, there's something known as a 'gray Jedi'—Force users who walk the line between the Dark and Light side of the Force—and they make their own decisions instead of strictly adhering to the Jedi code.
Right now there aren't many gray Jedi's in #VideoGames, but some developers are attempting to rupture the system.
- So close but yet so far (Major spoilers for the original Dishonored)
Dishonored has its moments of brilliance, only to fall short at the finish line. 'Lady Boyle's Last Party' is a masterclass in game design in how it offers the player a decision that doesn't sit right no matter how you play the level.
You're tasked with infiltrating the Boyle estate, identifying the correct sister at a masquerade and 'disposing' of her. Corvo has numerous tools to achieve this, but if you're not feeling bloodthirsty, your alternative is to hand her over to Lord Brisby—a masked gentlemen with muddied motives who asks you to deliver an unconscious lady unto him in the cellar. Creep.
It would be a tough decision in your hands, but the overarching system called 'chaos' decides this for you. The question of whether a life spent trapped with someone you're terrified of is better than no life at all, boils down to 'are you good or bad?'
It's a prevailing logic that plagues the series—and many others—to this day. Instead of weighing up whether killing gangsters would benefit or hinder the city, your playstyle becomes a means to an end.
Considering the game offers players so many options when asking them how they wish to progress through a level, it's a shame they fall short on letting them take this final bit of control in their playthrough.
- Tough Decisions (Minor spoilers for the Witcher 3)
However, The Witcher 3 is a fantastic example of a game that wants to change the system while ultimately making player decisions matter. There are no options to tell you if something is the right or wrong choice, and oftentimes you won't find out the result of your actions until it's too late.
Things become even more muddled when you consider people's motivations: you'll be lied to, set up for ambushes and even decisions that seem morally good may come at a cost.
Early on there's a quest that asks you whether you'd like to use a Witcher potion to save the life of a woman—the inherently good option would be to try—but you can't predict the effect of the potion on humans.
"Though the wounds on Lena's body healed, the toxins in the witcher's brew had melted her mind. This was not the first time a cure had proven worse than the disease." - An excerpt from the 'On Death's Bed' quest log
It's Time For A Morality Change!
Despite Dishonored's and other franchise's failings, the iron grip of the tried and tested morality system appears to be weakening. BioWare have stated they're removing the renegade / paragon options from Mass Effect Andromeda, therefore encouraging players to make their own decisions instead of letting the system make those decisions for them.
Our decision making future looks bright, friends.