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7 practical tips for making a moral game
7 practical tips for making a moral game
March 25, 2013 | By Kris Graft

March 25, 2013 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, GDC

Video game writers and narrative designers have long had a strong desire to instill a moral component in their games. But how exactly should writers do that?

At GDC's Narrative Summit on Monday, Richard Rouse III, senior game designer at Microsoft, offered seven practical ways for writing moral games:

1. You don't need player-driven choices to have a moral game

This might seem counterintuitive, as the interactivity of video games offer opportunities for player choice, but if you want to add some morality to a game, you don't need to entertain player-driven choices, says Rouse. He used thatgamecompany's Journey as a game that didn't really offer overt player-driven choices, but still presents a moral (that not all people on the internet are complete jerks, if you put them in the right situation).

2. Put beloved characters in conflict

Bring players along for the ride as characters explore internal and external conflicts. Conflict shouldn't just happen between the "good guys" and "bad guys," but also among characters who might be on the same side.

3. If there are choices, there must be repercussions, and not just at the end

While moral games don't need player-driven choices, it's probably a good idea to leverage the medium to offer players meaningful choices. Rouse used the original Deus Ex as a good example of a game that constantly offers feedback for player choice.

Rouse explained how last year's Dishonored gave the seemingly straightforward choice of stealth vs. lethal, but wove it throughout the entirety of the game. That simple choice effects narrative, gameplay and systems throughout the game.

4. Keep the budget in mind

Making a moral game full of choices, different endings and branching paths can get expensive if you go to crazy on cut-scenes and huge changes to a game's backstory. Some inexpensive ways to give players feedback on the choices they've made may include varying textures on a character, or dialog and and voiceovers that change depending on the choices a player has made.

5. Don't provide easy answers. (But I don't mean impossible [choices])

Create moral quandaries -- there should be a good argument for each choice, says Rouse, who used The Walking Dead as an example of the game that offered tough decisions.

6. No more than three stakeholders

When writing for a game or crafting a narrative, it's not a good idea to write by committee. Having many stakeholders can work well with game design, but having too many cooks in the kitchen on the writing side can muddle the moral message.

"When you have too many people involved with that, it can really drag it down," says Rouse.

7. Make sure your story and your gameplay have the same moral

There is sometimes a disconnect between the gameplay and the moral message. Rouse used BioShock and Far Cry 3 as examples of games that convey a clear message at the end, but also chastise the player for playing the game as it was designed to be played. "Don't set up the game and sell it to me and then blame me for playing it," said Rouse.

"The best games think about what the gameplay and the story say together, and if you don't think about that you'll be behind the curve," he added.

For Gamasutra's full GDC 2013 event coverage this week, check out the official GDC 2013 event page.

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Michael Ball
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"The best games think about what the gameplay and the story say together, and if you don't think about that you'll be behind the curve"

Hits the nail on the head. A great example is the DS version of The World Ends With You; the combat system revolved around controlling both characters simultaneously as two parts of a whole, forming the backbone of the running themes throughout the game.

I think the reason a lot of people were angry when the iOS version was announced is that in getting rid of the second screen and making the 2nd character computer-controlled, it practically defeated the entire point the story was supposed to make. Yes, the DS version had a setting to make the 2nd character comp-controlled, but it was just that: an option. The dynamics the partner and dual screens facilitated were still there.

Patrick Khuu
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Thank you for this short and sweet article. As a hatchling student aspiring to become a game designer, I will keep these seven points in mind, especially the first few.

Jacob Alvarez
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Number 7 especially. Far too often in games there are no significant moral repercussions for your actions. You can practically murder everyone, yet the protagonist has no shred of remorse for what he has done; he is painted as an honorable hero in the end.

Carlo Delallana
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DayZ ends up being a game about morals and societal norms by abandoning any heavy-handed system that would impose it.