Why every game with a morality system has lied to you

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Enter BioShock, a game where your hand is held and you’re guided through a city whose physical decay is matched only by the decay of its Objectivist morality. You have no choice in what you do – you’re pushed forward through some innate desire to ‘help’ those that claim to be ‘the good guys’. But as with anything in gaming, it’s never really that simple – the morality at first appears black and white: Ryan is ‘bad’ – he’s a megalomaniacal dictator that’s piloted the wondrous city of Rapture into a complete nosedive. Fontaine is ‘good’: he’s fighting on behalf of the people, vying for a better tomorrow, breaking the chains of selfishness and elitism that have been choking Rapture since its inception.

 The hardest choice in gaming, right?

This is indicative of the majority of games – morality, or the illusion of it, is binary. You are stuck between two immovable absolutes: good and evil, with incentives being granted for hitting the extremities of either side. Mass Effect, for all its winding narratives and forays into philosophical morality, ultimately comes down to the Paragon/Renegade choice. InFamous: Second Son asks you whether you’d rather work towards being a True Hero or being Infamous.

The Fallout series – while certainly operating on a more flexible scale – still ushers you towards Good or Evil.There’s rarely an incentive to travel the neutral path – to sit back and be the silent protagonist of times gone by, observing the chaos unfurl around you. And when you do decide to rebel against the moral majority, most games’ incarnation of ‘evil’ treads the worn path of cartoon villainy – uber violence or bust. You can’t be a more cerebral kind of evil; you can’t be Iago, you have to be Macbeth.

It’s because, really, games offer the illusion of choice. No matter what you do – save those villagers, kill that innocent guy, rescue that kitten from that tree – everything has tangible (and scripted) consequences. The Mass Effect ending fiasco is a prime example of this – throughout the trilogy, you play through assuming every choice you make is being stored somewhere, saved up for an impactful payoff at the climax. But no – you’re reward is one of three endings.

Even RPGs with multiple world states and endings filter down into a selection of absolutes. In RPGs, you assume the role of your selected protagonist – but what if you, as a person, don’t want to ‘kill’ or ‘save’? What if you’d rather imprison? What if you’d rather recruit? Like the illusion of freedom we’re given in BioShock, we aren’t really playing a game that tests our morality – we’re operating exactly as the writers and games designers want us to: they may as well be saying ‘Would you kindly save or kill these people?’.

 

Why every game with a morality system has lied to you
Mass Effect extended choice beyond the binary… but was still restrictive

Games like the upcoming Watch Dogs are taking intentional steps to move the morality paradigm forward, and surprisingly enough, they’re doing this by not measuring the decisions you make. When we got some hands-on with the game, we could have potentially drained a single mother’s bank account as she struggled with looking after her sick child. We decided not to, because even though there weren’t any tangible repercussions, we just felt bad about it.

Had there been a meter in place, saying ‘Oh, you stole from this innocent woman. -25 karma’, we probably would have tapped the account – if we were working towards Chaotic Evil or some other final rank, we’d be motivated to wreak havoc on everyone and everything, because there’d be an end-game in mind. Left to our own devices, not being measured, we felt far more in the ‘role’ of our protagonist: we felt like we actually had more of a free, unscripted choice.

Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dante’s Inferno received negative feedback for the transparent and tacked-on morality systems they incorporated – instead of a writer taking an active role and deciding they’ll develop their protagonist in a certain way, they leave the choice down to the player. Chances are, the next 300 lines of the game will remain the same, no matter which dialogue option you chose back on level 1. How many times have you booted up a conversation wheel again, selected a different option and been disappointed by the repeated, generic response?

Why every game with a morality system has lied to you
Some titles are more ethically engaging than others…

All games, to some degree, offer the illusion of choice – uninhibited games simply wouldn’t work, because there would be no goal, no end-game, no motivation. But with morality systems, games tend to stick with what Knights of the Old Republic was doing decades ago – this mechanic has seen little innovation since its inception, and it’s a shame, because our interactive medium is one of the only past-times that lets you revel in the anarchy of complete, unethical fantasy. Hopefully upcoming titles like Watch Dogs, The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition play with our perceptions of morality, and breathe some new life into a system that may be beginning to stagnate, just a little.