Ubisoft's Richard Rouse once made a splash at GDC talking -- albeit with a bit of humor -- about video games that can make people cry as a measure of their emotional potential, but this year he says the better indicator of whether a game is meaningful or mature is the way they deal with morality.
What can games learn from other media when it comes to presenting moral quandaries? Video games often deal with morality by dividing into dark and light, or into factions. "They're making their intentions very clear from the beginning," says Rouse.
But offering clear divisions often creates conflict, he notes. One way to invest a game with morality is to offer a broad palette of choices and concepts. An example of this in the video game world is the Blade Runner game, which allowed players a wise range of choices that could lead to over 40 different endings based on how the player dealt with enemies. "Most players got to the end and felt that this was just the way the story went," he says.
The game's EP Louis Castle had intended, as quoted by Rouse, to "drive the narrative to adapt to what the player did naturally. To have a meter would invariably guide players to push to one extreme or the other when the very point of the story was to let everyone feel they were doing the 'correct' thing."
Another way to employ morality in games is to show multiple points of view. For example, the crew of the original Star Trek often differs in viewpoint or in the way they approach new civilizations and situations, and letting viewers observe the ensuing discussions and debate can guide them to take their own moral stance about the show's events.
The Star Trek reboot film trended more toward action elements and removed all the discussion and debate prominent in the TV shows, which in Rouse's view removed its ability to deal with moral situations.
Giving players lots of feedback is another approach. When a strategy game has numerous factions, the way that they react off of one another helps players think about the shape of their world and arrive at ideas of right and wrong in the context of a greater ecosystem.
The idea of redemption is also common in moral storytelling. Likeable characters have opportunities to grow and learn, and unlikable ones are doomed by their decision-making. The Twilight Zone showed viewers that some characters -- ones Serling "liked", in Rouse's words -- had the opportunity to be redeemed, while others didn't.
Recent RPGs Mass Effect 2 and Fallout 3 had strong, visible morality systems. In the former, renegade points and paragon point systems helped players establish their moral perspective through small decisions each of which affected point scales in different ways. But players were rewarded with perks for filling up various point scales, which made it impossible for them to be indecisive or to fail to choose a position or idea behind which to stand.
Fallout 3's karma system worked similarly, but it allowed players to redeem their decisions through the way the points are allocated, Rouse points out. Players could destroy the city of Megaton by detonating a nuclear bomb -- a tempting prospect few players wanted to resist-- but later would have opportunity to redeem their decision and undergo a personal narrative arc should they choose.
John Ford Western films were standouts in their genre because of the texture they allowed in their character portrayals. BioShock was able to deal with morality because the characters were drawn in nuanced shades and were portrayed in certain degrees of complexity.
For example, says Rouse, villain Andrew Ryan was not necessarily an evil person, simply an ambitious one, while ally Dr. Tenenbaum, who is portrayed as a good character helpful to the player throughout the game, was the one who actually created the biological systems that destroyed the city of Rapture.
Although BioShock's morality system is commonly identified most closely with the harvest-or-save choice surrounding the world's Little Sisters, it was the motivations and identities of the game's heroes and enemies that made it a narrative that can be described as moral.
Designers should be careful, however, when they arbitrarily accord players achievements for decisions -- particularly in open-world titles like Red Dead Redemption -- as doing so can disassociate the player from the wider narrative or from whatever personal identity they have established for their hero.
When you can play a game as a heroic individual, but also be immediately able to achieve reinforcement from the game for a random act of evil, the moral spectrum within the game can become ungrounded.
"If people give us their time and their money... we owe them more than just an entertaining way to pass the time," he concludes. "The techniques are the easy part; the hard part is committing to it, and thinking of your game as something that has a meaning."
"It's the hardest thing to do, but I think it can be totally worth it," he concludes.