[How do moral choices interweave with game design and player expectation? In this article, Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center graduate student Brandon Perdue examines how games like The Witcher, Mass Effect, Heavy Rain and more struggle to offer players meaningful choice.]
As video games have become an increasingly narrative medium, it has become popular to pose moral choices to the player. The possibilities here are promising: since games allow designers to build choices that a player must make, and consequences for those choices, video games can arguably offer profound experiences in which players must consider the implications of their (virtual) actions. However, compelling moral decisions seldom survive contact with the mechanical elements of many games, resulting in a sort of "dominant moral strategy."
I am not asserting that games have never managed to contain a moral element. Video games are a narrative medium, and in the right hands can tell strong stories. There are video games out there that tell highly moral stories without involving the player in a moral choice of any kind.
It is those that do give the player moral choices, especially role playing games, which have yet to hit on an ideal solution. This article aims to address such games that present players with explicit moral choices: many games have implicit choices, not to mention other sources of morality altogether, but to tackle the entire topic would be the work of more than a single article.
The problem is not a trivial one. The idea of a moral choice often runs directly counter to the tendency of many players to make optimal moves in the game.
The model that rewards certain choices over others, or different choices in different ways, tends to functionally make the choices for the players; the player will be more successful at the game if he picks the optimal choice for his strategy.
Often, the result is that only extreme moralities -- flawless good or evil -- are substantially rewarded. Playing any sort of middle-ground is a poor decision, from a gameplay perspective. (The so-called "Han Solo problem" which titles such as Fallout 3 and Fable II have tried to overcome.)
Take Sucker Punch's open world superhero title Infamous. A key feature of the game is the good/evil continuum and the various choices that affect the player's position on that continuum. At certain milestones the main character, Cole, unlocks new powers and abilities, and these differ depending on whether he is trending good or evil. The decisions do change the nature of gameplay a little, and each alignment has a set of unique missions that the other does not get. Neither direction is objectively better than the other, though one might appeal to an individual's play style more than the other.
However, if the player does not become either extremely good or extremely evil, the highest-tier powers remain locked; Cole cannot utilize a mix of good and evil abilities at once. The only choice that really matters, then, is the initial one: to build a good Cole or an evil Cole. Straying from that path later results in far more limited options, weaker gameplay, and an early end to character progression. In essence, the game punishes the player for being inconsistent.
You can only gain new abilities in Infamous based on your alignment.
It is worth contrasting Infamous with the well-known examples set by years' worth of Star Wars games that track the player's stance between the Light and Dark Side of the Force. Beginning, perhaps, from 1997's Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II and continuing in several successive titles, including Jedi Knight's direct sequels and the popular Knights of the Old Republic franchise, this approach works within the fairly polar morality of the Star Wars mythos.
Unlike Infamous, the mechanical impact is not on what powers the player can acquire, but how powerful they are; a player with a heavily Light Side tendency can still learn Dark Side Force powers, but they will be weaker than if a Dark Side character used them. The choices themselves, however, still fall along a discrete continuum, and often only contain clearly good and clearly evil options.
Removing the continuum adds a degree of freedom, but such solutions often track the player's morality and score it somehow. A prominent example of this is BioWare's Mass Effect, where the player character, Commander Shepard, has both a Paragon and Renegade score. These two categories are a little more abstract than simple good or evil; they might be described as "diplomatic" and "aggressive", respectively. But taking a Paragon action does not reduce Shepard's Renegade score and vice versa. Players accrue scores in each separately.
This might work reasonably well if not for the abilities they bestow: "Charm" options appear in conversation if Shepard's Paragon score is high enough, and likewise "Intimidate" options appear if his Renegade is high. Some situations do not require a very high score to offer these options, while others require an extremely high score. Further, these options are always visible to the player even if his score is too low to use them; he knows what he's missing out on, and whether he needs to be more good or more evil to get to it.
Charm and Intimidate options are categorically better than the standard dialogue options, but if the player splits his focus between Paragon and Renegade choices, there will be many instances when neither score is high enough for this options to be available. Once again, there is a mechanically optimal way to make these choices: saintly Shepard (or unpredictable loose cannon Shepard) will always be more successful than a more balanced character. Mass Effect has a dominant moral strategy.
There is plenty of reason to try to quantify a player's moral choices somehow in the game system. It allows rewards for certain kinds of activity. Non-player characters can react according to a player's reputation. Certainly this can be tracked "under the hood", and has been in some games, but there is a level of satisfaction -- not to mention indirect control -- in giving the player a clear measure of their moral standing.