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The Good the Bad and the One on the Fence
by Marc Vousden on 03/05/11 03:10:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Coming from a developer who's motto is "playstyle matters" it is no surprise that Epic Mickey lists player choice as a prime marketing feature. It joins a bevy of titles in recent years that have offered the same. Epic Mickey engrains its choices into its central mechanic, the ability to create or destroy the cartoon world around you with paint and thinner.

By the time I sat down with the game I was well aware of what to expect. The ability to befriend or obliterate enemies, the power to reveal platforms or destroy obstacles and the fact that these decisions would impact NPC's interaction with you. In light of this I readied myself for the string of tough decisions to come, picked up my Wii remote and started a new game wondering whether I would be a heroic or delinquent Mickey.

After the obligatory tutorial sequence I was faced with my first enemy and thus first decision... smite or befriend? After wrestling with indecision I gritted my teeth and did what anyone would do when faced with a difficult choice, put it off till later. Avoiding their gaze I snuck my way past them to find an NPC caged and placed on a catapult and a nearby chest. The proposition, open the chest and send the NPC flying or sacrifice the chest to uncage the NPC. Fighting the compulsion to take the socially acceptable route I shunned my responsibility and left the situation as I'd found it.

And so my journey through the Wasteland continued in the same vein. I found that broken paths begging to be painted back in could be negotiated with a deft double-jump, groups of enemies were avoidable and the player able to fix broken machines without saving NPC's to do it for them. Throughout the game there are instances where my laissez-faire attitude could not be upheld but by and large I found that, unlike a great deal of games championing "moral choice", progression wasn't halted until I'd made up my mind.

Why did I feel strongly enough this experience to write a blog post?

The player isn't responsible for everything that happens in the world. When the player doesn't carry the fate of the world on his shoulders, the story can be about choices of a WORLD  rather than the protagonist's actions. An autonomous world feels a great deal more believable than an egocentric one where all action is instigated by the player. 

By introducing the possibility of ambivalence you change the question players ask of themselves. "Am I good or evil" becomes "am I qualified to make this decision". The first asks for a reaction, the second leads to gameplay as the player finds more information in order to answer the question.

So to try to get a cohesive message from all of this? The possibility for self reflection in games excites me. Introducing an ambivalence option into moral choice systems widens the range fo questions the player asks themselves. This excites me, more please!  

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Eric Schwarz
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Really good observations. I've been thinking a lot about moral choice in games and one of the problems that's always struck me is that, for some reason or other, extremely important decisions with potentially earth-shattering consequences are always dropped upon the player's shoulders, as if for some reason the player should be qualified to make them. The player should have full autonomy over his or her actions, and those actions should have real consequences, which in turn have more consequences, and so on, and the player should be judged both based on actions and intentions, all this is true. A game should not, however, force the player into making momentous decisions simply because, well, he/she's the player. Not only is it unrealistic and immersion-breaking, it's also wholly predictable: when the game asks me "what does our friend here think?", it's a sure-fire cue that my opinion is going to tip the scales no matter how dubious its credibility may be.

Then there's the whole problem of neutrality in games. Why should the game treat the player as taking the neutral path through the game as the player being scared to make a decision, and thus not reward the player for the risk? That's unfair and insulting to the player's intelligence. Of course, it's even worse in situations when the player is judged to be good or evil for a certain action which he or she thought was the opposite, since then you're getting into the whole problem of designers forcing their morality onto the player. In a game about choice, the worst thing you can do is impose upon the player what they should think or why they should do something.

I'd also like to clarify that ambivalence doesn't mean the same thing as neutrality. To be neutral is to simply avoid taking sides strongly, or acting in one's own favour without leaving major effects on the world in one's wake. It's less a case of "I don't care about what's going on so I'm not going to involve myself", and more "I see the merits in what both sides are presenting, and understand that balance needs to be achieved in order to have an orderly and productive world." The whole "there's no good without evil" thing is just as insightful as blind hatred or kitten-hugging, and just as active. Considering this, it may even be necessary to think of games as offering up four different branches of moral decisions, rather than just two or three.

Jonathan Lawn
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I like this article a lot too, but I think I disagree somewhat with Eric here.

Then there's the whole problem of neutrality in games. Why should the game treat the player as taking the neutral path through the game as the player being scared to make a decision, and thus not reward the player for the risk?

I think most games do want to apply pressure to the player to make difficult decisions. "I see the merits in both sides" isn't an excuse to leave an NPC to die. I think think it's more that avoiding issues should be a tempting decision, but one that may bite later. Acting should be brave, and liable to immediate consequences.

I'm not saying that the decisions should be world-shattering/saving. Just that they should be interesting, and though deferring the decision or trying to hedge may be valid, it should also sometimes be the worst option.

So when the mafia boss says to the player's undercover cop "What does our friend here think?" I'd love to see the options "Best kill him to be safe" (callous, perhaps leading you down a dark road, but also should get you trusted more), "I can check out his story for you" (ducking it, which may or may not help your conscience, but probably not a strong enough opinion to change the boss' mind and save the man) or "He doesn't need to die - he's too scared to oppose you now, guilty or not" (probably the best you can do to save the man, but might jar with the boss, losing you trust, possibly catastrophically, for both of you).

Eric Schwarz
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I don't think there should be no pressure in a decision. The consequences of neutrality, as well as apathy/inaction, should be just as visible, interesting, logical and important as if the player had picked the "good" or "evil" option. The difference is that in neutrality, the player isn't all for one side and against another, and the player generally wishes that both sides get their way, i.e. compromise is better than outright extinguishing of one ideology, goal, etc.

Neutrality is also different in that it's made up of the sum of a character's actions. Lawful neutral alignment in D&D, for instance, doesn't suggest the player should outright avoid making decisions or always take the middle ground, but rather that the player should strive for balance, which could mean acts of great good being offset by acts of great evil. This is actually one of the (very few) situations were a genuine moral alignment meter actually makes sense, since otherwise it'd be very hard for the game to keep track. However, if a game treats neutrality as simply apathy, then that's no better either. Having the player scolded as a villain in one breath and praised as a hero in another isn't very good, but then, neither is simply treating the player as if he or she is wholly ambiguous.

This is actually where reputation systems come in really handy, and typically they make more sense than morality systems. As it stands, most moral compasses serve less to affect how the player is treated in the game world, and more to simply affirm the player's own fantasy of being a hero or bad guy. Fable takes real advantage of this idea, with the player's appearance changing depending on alignment. Reputation helps mitigate the issue of being judged as good or evil by replacing such abstract concepts with more concrete ones ("good" is what's best for the community/city/faction/etc.), and also by removing the issue of the player being known as Jerkass McJerk across the land because he/she kicked a kitten in a secluded hovel somewhere.

Jonathan Lawn
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I think we agree, and I just misunderstood you.

In fact I've posted before on how much I liked the way Mount&Blade Warband handles reputation, with your actions affecting how individual nobles, factions and villages (peasants) feel about you, which may restrict future options or open doors.