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Opinion: Mother Theresa Or Hitler? Designing for Ambiguous Moral Choice

Opinion: Mother Theresa Or Hitler? Designing for Ambiguous Moral Choice

July 9, 2009 | By James Portnow

July 9, 2009 | By James Portnow
More: Console/PC

[What are the real challenges behind providing meaningful moral choices in games? In a fresh look at one of the industry's biggest obstacles, Divide By Zero's James Portnow takes a pragmatic look from the designer's perspective.]

Moral choices in videogames... not really our finest hour. There seems to be a nagging issue, namely that we tend to deliver to our players all the exciting possibilities of either being Mother Theresa or being Hitler.

We see it all the time, even in the best of games. Infamous, Fable, BioShock, Mass Effect, even Fallout 3 (though Fallout did a better job and really upped the ante by letting you choose between being Mother Theresa, Hitler, and A Guy). The list goes on...

So why does it matter? Well, when faced with the question 'Do I kill this little girl and eat her soul to grow my unholy power or do I restore her lost innocence and return to her the childhood that was stolen from her by despicable men?', it’s just not something you’re going to spend all day pondering - which is a problem. Why? Because it’s not fun. What’s interesting about moral questions is how fuzzy they are, how utterly debatable they can be.

If you can ever get two players to actually debate a moral point in a game as vigorously they might debate a StarCraft build, you’ve won at life. You’ve built a great game complete with deep, meaningful, choices and exciting extrinsic social opportunities; moreover you’ve given your player an opportunity for introspection, which is something our medium should excel at and which, in my book, can only be seen as good.

So why is it so hard?

The Real Problem

How come we’ve failed at delivering on the promise of moral choices in games for so long? Well, that’s the question that got me writing this article in the first place. I’ve seen many people decry the state of writing in games and blame bad writing for the shallow choices we see in games, but I don’t think that’s it at all. I think comes down to something much simpler: money.

When most people think of deep moral choice, they think about a breadth of options. A broad set of options for a storyline decision usually means a divergent story, which means more content. More content of course means more development dollars... and those dollars are almost never there.

Let’s look at one of the more successful attempts at providing meaningful moral choice in a game that has been presented recently: Fallout 3 (yes, I gave it a hard time earlier, but honestly compared to the norm it’s pretty fantastic).

Why does Fallout 3 succeed? Because, given the vast, open world type of game they were making, the developers had the luxury of assuming a player would never see all of the game’s content, which meant that they were ok with developing content that a player might never encounter. This made delivering meaningful moral choices easier from an internal perspective as having the "I want to make area X that 75 percent of the players will never see" conversation must have been much easier than it is on most projects.

Think about BioShock for a moment. Consider how much more impact they could have given the moral decision in that game if they had built four more levels, two exclusively for people who saved the little sisters and two exclusively for people who didn’t…but of course that would never fly when the money could be spent to spruce up levels everyone would see.

So Are We Screwed?

So does this mean achieving the player debate described above is impossible without having the internal corporate fortitude to spend massive development dollars in this area? No. Remember, ambiguous moral choice is different than free moral choice, and ambiguous moral choice is all we have to be able to present in order to provide the player with the satisfying introspective moment we’re trying to deliver (this is something that’s often overlooked or muddled when talking about developing moral choices in games).

First let’s take a look at the game we just touted as having all the advantages required to deliver moral choice: Fallout 3. Why did Fallout fail even though it had excellent writing and a huge open world with effectively unlimited content? They tied choice to a progress bar. The Righteousometer (Karmometer?) kills any possibility for moral choice to be ambiguous. It forces all moral choices and all of their answers to share one plane…and then quantizes them.

Unfortunately almost every game that aspires to moral choice uses this mechanic. In order to get away from this paradigm we have to shift our thinking a bit. The first step is to back away from thinking of moral choice as a system and start considering individual moral choices. This mindset makes it easier to craft ambiguous moral choices because it lets us build scenarios that have no clear “good”. Ambiguity comes from tradeoffs; it comes from having to decide what is the most good in a situation that is mostly bad.

I’ll turn to Fallout one last time (thanks Levi Fleming for reminding me about this one) to illustrate this. In The Pitt expansion, you’re given the choice of kidnapping a child in order to help a group of slaves find a cure for a disease they are afflicted with or kill the leader of the slave revolt to protect the child from being taken from her parents. Neither of these are wholly righteous choices -- the player is forced to weigh the good of the many against the fate of an individual child.

It is this sort of choice that we must deliver. Now how do we give such choices meaning without creating a development burden?

Making it Meaningful and Cheap

It is easy to pepper a game with these types of choices without giving them any real impact on the game world and leave it up to the mind of the player to wonder what effect their choices had. But let’s assume this isn’t enough. What can we do to allow ambiguous moral choices to have real impact on a game without forcing us to create a great deal of new content?

The first and most obvious answer is “repurpose”, i.e. reconfigure old content to present it in new ways which better suit the player’s possible answers. There are a million different ways to do this (reuse locations while changing what spawns in them, alter non-voice acted dialogue, et cetera.)

But this is old hat to most of you (and really should be the subject of its own article) so I’ll leave off here because repurposing really answers the question, “How do we create more content cheaply” which helps here but is in no way specific to the question at hand.

Another answer is to limit ourselves to a singular question. An entire game can be made out of the questions “What makes a war just?” or “How do you balance the good of the many against the rights of the few?” A game centered around these questions need to be no more divergent than our current “Do you want to be good or evil” games but contain a great deal more depth in the decision making. Without even any divergence, Shadow of the Colossus was just such a game.

Next we can simply de-systematize these choices by rewarding each one on a case by case basis, providing ambiguous moral problems only in situations where there resolution doesn’t cost us much development.

Finally we can just present ambiguous moral choices using the same system that we use right now for unambiguous choice, but hide the statistical effects. That is to say: simply don’t show “+2 to paragon” every time the player does something nice. This lack of direct quantification may go against many of the things ingrained in us as game designers, but almost all of our training has been in presenting logical puzzles.

Ambiguous moral choices are non-logical, so we can’t simply reduce them to a logic puzzle. We must present these challenges as they are presented in life, without a right answer and without definitive metric to tell you how you did.

Possible Way to Execute Ambiguous Moral Choice as a Unified Mechanic:

But if you’re really dead set on working in a clear, overarching, player facing, metric for moral choice here are some brief thoughts:

We often talk about moral dilemmas in terms of shades and colors, which is why it seems so odd to me that we have chosen a very linear and numeric metaphor to represent a character’s moral state. Even something as simple as a wheel or a graph, where a character’s choices are weighed on independent axis, would give a much greater diversity to the moral dimensions of a character.

For example if a player’s moral characteristics were plotted with Discipline/Freedom on one axis and Good of the Many/Rights of the Individual on another axis, you could design choices which would force the player to balance the things they valued. Choices would no longer be black and white as a choice might raise a player’s Freedom but lower their Rights of the Individual or lower their Discipline but increase their Good of the Many.

More importantly, a player might be willing to trample on individual rights a little in order to follow the dictates of discipline, but just when they cross the line into rebellion is, in and of itself, an important, meaningful and ambiguous choice.

Perhaps the concept of factions is only explorable in the context of an MMO (I’m honestly not sure about this one), but I’ve been surprised at how little use has been made of this mechanic to explore moral systems and moral choice.

For a decade – since the 1999 launch of Everquest – ‘faction’ has been a firmly established game mechanic. For those of you unfamiliar the concept, faction is simply the idea of giving the player a numerical rating for how much they are liked by each of the different NPC groups in the game (for example you could have a faction of +20 with Wood Elves or -10 with Paladins) and how much any given NPC likes the player is determined by an aggregate of how much the groups it belong to likes the player’s character.

This does something amazing: it externalizes the morality of the game. Instead of being told that any given action is good or evil, the player is instead informed of how that action is perceived by different groups in the game.

This system can be used to explore many different moral schema - as any particular action might be seen as good by one group and evil by another - further removing us from the realm of absolute and allowing for truly debatable moral questions to be raised.


The only thing that makes absolute moral choices interesting is how difficult it often is to do the right thing. For example, I’d like to give each homeless person I see a dollar but at some point this becomes a hardship for me. Only when a homeless man comes up to me and I look in my wallet and see that all I have left is four dollars, exactly enough to pay for the burger I went out for in the first place, does the moral question become interesting to me.

At this juncture I have to overcome my own desires in order to do the right thing… and yet I often say to myself, “But if I don’t get something to eat I will not be able to work as hard and thus won’t earn as much money, meaning that I won’t have as much to distribute in the future.” This could be a rational argument towards the greater good, or it could simply be a justification, but as you can see, at this point we’ve gotten ourselves into an interesting moral quandary.

Doing good in games almost never brings us to this moral precipice. Doing good is usually no more difficult than doing ill, moreover when we do ask players to sacrifice the sacrifice is usually illusory (giving up a clip of ammo out of their stock of ten thousand). If we choose to deal with unambiguous moral choices we owe the player the enjoyment of having to choose when they get to do good rather than allowing them to mindlessly choose the option that gives them +1 to sanctimony.

By making it prohibitively expensive to do good all the time you make the choice to do unmitigated good interesting again.

Our Own Values

Rarely in life do we choose between good and evil, more often we simply must muddle through, choosing the options that we believe to be the best. Even then, when we at last come to believe that we have ascertained what is right, we are beset with different conceptions of the good. And then, in those rare cases that we can choose unmitigated good, it usually comes at great cost to us.

Morality is a complicated issue and deserves to be treated as such. Not only because doing so will create more compelling game experiences but also because it lets us stretch the medium and, dare I say, do some good. But in treating morality more seriously we face a great danger and we must be aware of the influence we have. So I will leave you with this simple thought about our medium…

It is our job to raise moral questions, not impose our own moral judgments. If we fail here we may well do worse than we would in never having tried at all.

[James Portnow is a game designer, formerly of Activision, and now at Divide by Zero Games, where he is also the founder and CCO. He received his master's degree in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon University. He can be contacted at or JamesPortnow on Twitter for comments on this article.]

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