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Ethics 101: Designing Morality in Games
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Ethics 101: Designing Morality in Games

May 26, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

In the case of BioShock 2, the solution was to strive for moral choices that were a bit harder to read as obviously good or evil. "BioShock 2 is, at best, a modest stride forward in the shooter space in the introduction of some RPG-like branching moral choices through the filter of parenthood," says Thomas.

"Our choice there was to refract rather than reflect. Your choices have a strong effect on your legacy, but your sense of powerlessness over that legacy once it kind of decouples from you was in many ways the point. We felt that there is no actual way to know the player's mind utterly, and so to instead use his or her behavior as a set of guidances was more attractive and more honest, particularly because we wanted the choices to be very readable even to a player who may have been in a firefight when all the seed choices took place.

"You're always kind of competing for the player's attention in the shooter space, so the inputs and the outputs had to be obvious," says Thomas. "So we chose this alternate vehicle to refract the outcome of your choices as a response to the relatively feeling of dishonesty that moral branching narrative can invoke elsewhere.

"We've been successful in some ways -- some critics seem to have bought into that sense of their moral legacy rather than exact reflection. Then you've got other folks who felt more like 'Hey, I wanted Lamb to die at the end and it didn't work out that way! This game is silly.'

"I think of it very brutally as baby steps in the sense that in the first game, your moral choice was cognitively quite juvenile: are you going to mistreat the innocent for your own gain, or are you going to redeem that innocent, even though you sacrifice something for it?" continues Thomas. "In BioShock 2, we said, let's introduce a set of points which are couched more in the adult world and about context rather than action.

"The moral choices in BioShock 2 remain interactively very simple - we debated whether we were going to go with a complex quest which had a very different outcome depending on which set of widgets you flipped, and we realized that the result wouldn't be very visceral - the player's inputs in a first-person shooter are largely different ways to deal misery. And having to flip a bunch of different switches, in order to achieve a kind of dissociated, broad world-spanning moral result would feel kind of dry, kind of academic.

"So instead we tried very hard to follow our own set of rules, which are quite narrow in the shooter space, and to preload you with as much context as possible before you had to make that decision. Each one was meant to be ethically murkier as you move towards the conclusion.

"So early on, Grace has clearly misunderstood your intent; at the end she has many sympathetic attributes. When dealing with Dr. Alexander, you're in a space where one version of this character is asking you to execute his final will and put him out of his misery, but the actual living being in front of you is begging for his life and has obviously shown enmity towards you. Showing traditional mercy in that case is quite debatable."

Choices that are deliberately harder to read as simply the "good choice" or the "evil choice" were a goal for Pagliarulo in both of Bethesda's most recent RPGs as well. Of course, successfully creating tricky choices doesn't always come easily. "That was a real challenge for us during development of Fallout 3," says Pagliarulo. "We actually started out much more comfortable with having just those black and white, good and evil choices.

Fallout 3

"You have to remember that we weren't just trying to make a great game, we were trying to make a great Fallout game, and we struggled sometimes with the best way to pull that off. The previous Fallout games used a karma system to keep track of the player's level of good or evil, so we knew that's something we wanted to replicate. It was a good place for us to start. But then, as we got deeper and deeper into development, and really started to find our comfort zone, we realized we were missing that grayness, that moral ambiguity that is so important to the Fallout universe.

"I think, when all was said and done, we were happy with the mix Fallout 3 offered. There were some clear good/evil paths, and the player could make those easy moral decisions, and sort of try to get those karma-specific level titles, or achievements, or be treated a certain way by the various factions. But there are also plenty of situations where it's much more morally nebulous, and the player is left wondering, 'Is this the right thing, or the wrong thing?' I think the ending of The Pitt DLC sort of exemplifies that."

Unlike most games with a morality system, Fallout 3 had the extra challenge of creating a neutral moral path, which had its own unique set of challenges. "This was the subject of much debate during Fallout 3's development," says Pagliarulo. "Really, the biggest issue for us was deciding, internally, whether something was right or wrong! The designers ended up debating certain issues, and we came to realize just how differently we all viewed them.

"For example, a couple of us would come up with a situation that wouldn't give the player any positive or negative karma. We felt it was pretty morally ambiguous, a good 'gray' neutral point. And then we'd bring it up in a meeting, and another designer would say we're crazy, and it's clearly good, or clearly evil. And we'd disagree. It was great... and so completely unexpected.

"So for us, because we had a system to track activities that are supposed to be clearly good or evil, the real challenge was in us coming to a consensus on this stuff. Is making a kid cry evil, or just funny? Some of the conversations we had bordered on the ridiculous, in retrospect."

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