Moral Choice Games Offer Dozens of Choices, but Only Give One
Freedom of choice is something a lot of us are used to, it’s something we deal with everyday. Picking up coffee for your coworkers makes you a paragon of the office, a shining idol of warm and roasty beverages, while taking the last donut makes you a rebel with the greed to match your gluttony. For example, this week I chose to be a rebel and ended up not writing this very article until the last second (Editor Getch, Im sorry. Editor Brian, you know me well enough to expect this by now).
But life has a way of presenting potential. Everyday I can choose to take a different path. There is always a way back no matter how hard or how long the path may be. I’ve already developed a habit of procrastination, but that doesn’t mean I’m stuck with it. Maybe next week I’ll get a head of myself and write two articles at once (purely hypothetical), leaving plenty of time for my clouded writings to be shined by my intelligent and very forgiving editors (… and beautiful… and wise). But these wild character changes are much harder to achieve in video games where the narrative is often set in stone. Choosing to betray your comrades and live a life of evil is difficult unless the game is built around that concept from the start. Often times this moral code offers a decision that is simply two means to the same end, or two sides of the same coin. Which is a fair comparison, as you often can’t have both sides at the same time…
Some games boast a rich moral system, having each choice leave the lives of the innocent in the balance against personal gains. What’s worth more? The personal safety of your character, or of the citizens of the neighborhood. Well that’s on you to decide, but no matter the choice the game decrees your character as either good or evil in it’s own definitions. But each choice made puts you further to one side or the other, and there is very rarely a middle ground.
In 2009’s inFamous for the Playstation 3, allowed the main character Cole to sling lightning as a hero or an anti hero. The player is rewarded with new abilities for each decision you make. Not caring about the people around you, destroying parts of the city, and in one case saving your girlfriend credits Cole with evil Karma, causing your lightning to pulse red explode more. Stopping a riot, being honest and comparing yourself to the Greek god Zeus returned a Heroic Cole with Good Karma, which made your lighting blue and gave you… less explody lightning? Good Karma choices filled a Good Karma meter, and Bad Karma choices filled a Bad Karma meter. The more attention these individual meters were given, the more rewards they gave out, but due to the limited number of options the game had, you could only make so many choices that supported good karma before completely losing the ability to unlock bad karma powers. There is not way to go back, or make an exception without losing efficiency in your superhero potential. This presents an awkward situation, if you want that great, ultimate, end-all attack you have to devote yourself to one side or the other. And this removes the ability to choose who you are morally as a character. It presents the one choice of good or evil, limiting the amount of depth the character can have. Perhaps you want to save every citizen, but not necessarily let the villains live. Well you want to get your hands on that super special finishing move, then you are stuck letting every mugger and evil maniac go on their merry way.
A similar problem occurs in The Old Republic, a Star Wars MMO that allows you to walk the path of the Jedi or Sith, each with a Light and Dark side options. Fantastic! Sith aren’t all bad, except that there are some powerful items and weapons that are locked behind a dark or light side level. So if that item were obtained, that player is locked in to being a bad guy if they want to stay strong. Even worse if you had a high dark side rating but made a light side choice, you wouldn’t get a light side rating, your dark side rating would lower. So by the time any of these items were obtained, there is no going back and turn over a new leaf, not anymore. The game presents strength in choosing once, light or dark, at the beginning and never diverting from that choice.
The best game I’ve seen tackle this issue is the Mass Effect Trilogy… Trilogy… with only three games, n more. This game had the player roam the galaxy to find and destroy an alien race that was out to kill all life. In the place of a good and evil scale, there were Paragon and Renegade options. While a Paragon would talk things out, a Renegade would punch the reporter because she was asking loaded questions. Seems similar to the system presented by inFamous, but instead of rewarding players for how much a certain type of choice was made, the reward was in the choice itself. This is a small change but makes leagues of difference when it comes to what choices feel valid. The player isn’t stuck making evil decisions because it’s an evil run. With this the player can pick and choose exactly how evil he wants to be and still be rewarded. In Mass Effect 2 there is a moment where you pretend to be a mercenary in order to get close someone the mercenaries are hunting. It’s obvious that this will result in a huge fight in the end, and at one point you are left alone in a room with an engineer that is too busy repairing a helicopter to notice you. My personal run was Paragon, but by god did I shove that scifi space welder straight into that guy’s back. It didn’t make me evil, it made me a Renegade. And you can be both a Renegade and a Paragon at the same time.
Light and Dark side, Karma systems, and other mechanics like it need to do more than just offer that one choice. They need to offer that choice continually throughout the game, at no downside to the player. Utilizing a “How Evil Are You-ometer” makes a decision in the opposite direction detrimental to what you’ve worked for the entire game leading up to it. Having some grand reward given to how much of a good boy you’ve been the entire game makes choosing the bad boy route lose value. For game to give true moral choice, it has to allow the character to be played how the player wants. Heroes and villains are more than the title portrays, because they are people. My Mass Effect run I was a Paragon that helped the downtrodden and saved every life I could… Except those out to kill me, they died without a second thought. Does that make my character less heroic than someone who would spare the villains of the game? Possibly, but that was my choice, and it was made knowing that I wouldn’t miss out on a big reveal or way to make my character stronger. Other wise these “series of branching choices” that were advertised, end up being just one.
Do you want to be Good or Evil? Heads or Tails…
Written by Joe Turgeon