Morality Systems in Role-Playing Games
One of the more interesting trends in story-driven games to have happened over the course of this generation is the proliferation of “morality systems”. Certain story-driven games allow players a level of agency over the direction of the narrative and the characterization of their avatar, often forcing the player to make certain ethical choices at certain points of a game: who to save, which faction to fight for, what to do with the hostages. Games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, inFamous, and Fallout make this sense of player agency crucial to their emergent design.
In many contemporary role-playing games, player decisions are monitored and judged by an overarching system, rewarding the choices that it deems “good” while punishing those it deems “evil”. In Fallout 3, this amounts to a points-based system called “Karma”, dividing all possible actions a player can take into a binary dichotomy of good and evil. Giving water to a thirsty beggar rewards the player with Karma points, while nuking the town of Megaton takes them away, and a player’s Karma score determines the player’s overall difficulty of life in the gameworld, with NPC behavior ranging from friendly and welcoming to hostile and confrontational because of it.
Fallout 3’s Moral “Freedom”
Using a points-based system to judge player behavior incentivizes certain actions over others, as behaving in a certain way confers the greatest in-game advantages, making the “optimal” way to play obvious. Fallout’s binary morality system privileges players with high Karma, as doing so confers discounts at shops and powerful allies like Fawkes. Even the semiotics that are used to describe choices privileges certain ones over others, dividing actions between “good” and “evil” provokes an aversion to the “evil” choices while encouraging “good” ones. Designed morality systems like Fallout’s infer the imposition of a designer’s absolutist morality onto a gameworld. Dissent from moral norms is punished by Karma loss, incentivizing only certain kinds of behavior in a story-driven game by quantifying and weighing that behavior on a progress bar.
Given that the central aesthetic core to the role-playing game is player expression within a highly emergent narrative, the imposition of a designer’s moral absolutes into a game system is ludically contradictory and dissonant. While the player may technically free to do as he or she pleases in Fallout’s world, that freedom is challenged by the fact that Bethesda’s game designers retain the ultimate moral judgment on everything the player does, and decide how they are punished or rewarded in the end. To this extent, Fallout 3’s vision of freedom and morality comes intriguingly reminiscent of the philosophies explored in Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, where a character posits that by granting humanity the freedom to sin and be unfaithful by rejecting the Devil’s third temptation of power, Christ has damned much of it under the burden of a freedom it is unfit to handle. Thus, Fallout 3′s morality system becomes an elegant expression of its author’s ethical ideologies, even if such a system can work against certain kinds of players.
Mass Effect’s Deontology and Consequentialism
One series that does the morality mechanic particularly well is Mass Effect. Rather than providing players with a morality meter that can be filled or drained with good or evil choices, Mass Effect provides the player with two disparate meters that fill up according to how a player accomplishes her duties as Commander Shepard. Commander Shepard will always be a “good” character independent of player choice, but the specific kind of good that Shepard represents is player-determinant. Shepard’s actions are divided into two categories, “Paragon” and “Renegade”, Paragon actions amount to behaving in accordance to heroic archetypes, while Renegade ones represent a more aggressive, “the-ends-justify-the-means” vision of heroism. To this extent, Mass Effect’s morality system represents less a choice between good and evil, and but rather a choice between “lawful good” and “chaotic good”, (in philosophy terms, ethical deontology and consequentialism) making for much more engaging ethical dilemmas.
While some fans argue against it, Bioware’s choice to disconnect the Paragon/Renegade system from the narrative outcome of each installment allows its designers to prevent themselves from inferring judgment upon player actions in the gameworld. A fully Renegade character can still get roughly the same ending cutscene as a fully Paragon one, and the survival of one’s squad through Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission and Mass Effect 3’s Battle for Earth is totally unaffected by the game’s morality system, instead introducing entirely new mechanics revolving around loyalty and effective military strength. This design decision allows Mass Effect’s creators to prevent the game from privileging either style of play, allowing for the game to stray from moral absolutism without entering the problematic realm of moral relativism.
Moving Beyond Binary
Perhaps designing decisions on a dichotomy of good and evil is perhaps the wrong design decision. Choices between good and evil are uninteresting because the optimal choice is always clear given the ethical worldviews we take into these games from the real world. Sucker Punch’s 2009 open-world superhero game inFamous uses this diametric opposition to a fault, implementing binary decision points such as “give food to the hungry or take it all for yourself” and “free the trapped man or murder him”. Decision points like these aren’t interesting because they don’t necessarily confer legitimate penalties on the game’s mechanics. Leaning in either moral direction in inFamous confers different superpowers onto players, making either choice beneficial to the player in different ways. If choosing to give away your food to the hungry resulted in your own hunger, thereby giving you a permanent 10% health penalty, inFamous would be a substantially more interesting game. inFamous’s radically binary division between good and evil reflects a version of morality disconnected from the difficult moral decisions we make in our own lives.
Morality in our globalized, post-industrialized, post-modern world doesn’t work by static ethical standards per se, while universal moral principles exist, they are myriad, and sometimes contradictory. Rather than quantifying decisions on a one-dimensional bar of good and evil, life’s moral quandaries exist in more of a multi-dimensional hyperspace. A single decision may bring us more into a Kantian deontological view of ethics, another might reflect Judeo-Christian morality, another could reflect Randian Objectivism, or even radical Queer politics. Single decisions could align us with multiple ethical theories while distancing us from others. Questions of morality are not questions of “do I want to be good or evil today?” but rather “what ethical systems inform my life?” Perhaps moral decision moments can be made much more interesting if players were provided a multiplicity of progress bars to fill, each one reflecting a different theological/philosophical theory. A system like that would permit players to explore and express their own moral compass without having to abide by the ethical absolutes that designers impose upon their worlds.
Point is, morality is a tough concept to deal with in games as in life, and is central to the human experience. As an interactive medium, video games are in a unique position to explore moral questions by asking players to bring their own lives into the gameworld. The interactivity of the form and the agency that players have in these fictional contexts is suited for self-reflection and introspection, asking players to study and comprehend what exactly informs their own understanding of right and wrong. If morality systems were to be done well, then these games could become some of the most life-enriching experiences that could be offered by the medium.
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