[Gamasutra interviews Bethesda's Emil Pagliarulo and 2K Marin's Jordan Thomas to discuss the importance of building challenging, satisfying ethical gameplay -- both in games the duo created such as Oblivion, Fallout 3 and BioShock 2, and in the work of others.]
To a certain degree, all games are about choice. The player chooses how and when to react to a given situation, whether that situation is as simple as fight or flight or as complex as determining the future of an entire species. Given the role that choice holds in gameplay, it's no surprise that morality systems have become more and more common as games have increased in complexity.
Oftentimes these morality systems offer up only basic black and white choices: should I help this character or harm them? Should I defeat the evil wizard or accept his offer of power? Various types of moral choice systems appear in complex RPGs like Mass Effect 2, adventure games like Heavy Rain, and even straightforward action titles like Dante's Inferno.
Compelling moral choices can encourage players to experiment with different ethical stances over multiple playthroughs, while underdeveloped morality systems can seem like little more than an additional bullet point on the back of the box.
To examine how to make in-game moral choices that are both intellectually engaging and stimulating from a gameplay perspective, we spoke with key developers from two studios with very different specialties: Bethesda's Emil Pagliarulo explained how he and the rest of the team approached morality in RPGS like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3, while 2K Marin's Jordan Thomas discussed branching moral outcomes in the shooter BioShock 2.
The results of the conversations with the developers pointed to two aspects that need to be present in order to make in-game moral choices compelling: a virtual world that somehow connects with the player, and a set of choices that offer outcomes of significant moral weight.
The two required elements may seem obvious, but more often than not a game with a moral choice system is missing one or the other. Choosing to punish or absolve tormented souls in Dante's Inferno carries no weight because it has no connection to the narrative -- it's all about maximizing what kind of experience points you want to earn. InFAMOUS features a likeable protagonist and a recognizable world, but the choice to give food to hungry citizens or keep it for yourself is no choice at all in a game that doesn't require you to eat.
So how do developers tackle the issue? The first step is to create some element that players can create an emotional bond with. "It all comes back to the characters you've created," says Bethesda's Pagliarulo. "I think Heavy Rain has proven this better than any game in recent memory. In order for a developer to provide moral choices that matter, the player has to be convinced that those choices are going to have some kind of effect on the characters in the game, and the more believable those characters, the stronger the emotional impact.
"At the end of Heavy Rain, if there's one thing you feel it's that Ethan loves his son and is completely invested in finding him, and this really challenges the player's willingness to go as far as it takes.
"As it turns out, when I played Heavy Rain, I wasn't willing to do carry out one of the sequences, and I actually sat there yelling at my TV, saying, 'No! I won't do it! This isn't my fault! I will not be made the bad guy! You stole my son -- it's your fault! Not mine!' I was pissed off. Not at the developers, but at the Origami Killer. And you know what? The game didn't exactly have a happy ending."
Few games have managed to create the same kind of believable characters as Heavy Rain, but fortunately there are other ways to draw a player into a game. One of the strongest elements of the original BioShock was the city of Rapture, a game world that was so solidly drawn that it felt real. It had a history, a set of rules that it adhered to, and an internal ecosystem that made it feel like a real place.
"A lot of people told us that in their version of the world, they decided not to kill Big Daddies," says 2K Marin's Thomas. "This is not an outcome we support with any special content. This is a simulated moral decision that they chose to make based on their own level of empathy for these enslaved former humans."
The world of Rapture in both BioShock games is a place founded on debatable concepts, and both games use a clash of ideals as the basis for the narratives. Rapture is both physically and ethically murky, and as such clear-cut "good and evil" choices seem out of place. In Rapture, the choices should be every bit as unclear as the rest of the world, something which Thomas believes the original game failed to achieve:
"It chose a very binary set out outputs at the far end," he says. "The players who enjoyed that were those who kind of were those who felt that they were embodying a moral extreme anyway -- there was a sort of cogency between what they chose and the outcomes they received. The ones who were less satisfied felt that they were morally more grey, or granular, and as such neither of the endings of that game reflected them well."
In other words, the players who felt as if they were playing a purely good or purely evil character were satisfied with the two possible outcomes, but those players (arguably the majority) who viewed the BioShock experience as more morally ambiguous were less than satisfied with the simple either/or choices.