Morality in video games used to be pre defined (after Pong anyway). The Space Invaders were evil (so shoot them all!), the ghosts in Pacman were evil (so weaken and ingest them!), and Donkey Kong was in the wrong when he captured the princess (smack ‘em with a hammer). As the stories behind video games became more complex, and plot lines started to take twists and turns, morality in games evolved. Sure, you still couldn’t make any decisions, but at least you got to watch some sort of inner struggle between a faction and its members as they dealt with more complex issues. Games like Ogre Battle 64 began to set the stage for real decision making. While the plot of the game remained the same regardless of the player’s choices, certain items or characters were only available after making a “good” or “bad” set of dialogue choices and in-mission decisions.
Nowadays RPG’s often advertise a sophisticated morality engine as one of their selling points. Even sand box games like “Infamous” gave the player at least two paths to take while adventuring around a broken city. However, in most titles, this “good” or “bad” decision making concept has become more of a gimmick than anything else. The “choices” that the player is allowed to make essentially boil down to two options:
Problem: The people standing in the room around you are unhappy because the air conditioner isn’t working, causing them to sweat and be uncomfortable. Your choices of action include…
A) Read a book, find parts, locate the switch or take some other action leading to the lowering of the temperature in the room, making everyone happy.
B) Kill everyone in the room. Now that there is no one left to complain, you can go about your day.
Oh, great. I can either fix a problem or become a psychopath. Some players just like killing things in video games, and I file them under “missing the point.” Real gamers want to finish an epic adventure after making a series of choices that feel realistic to them, regardless (or because) of the moral impacts involved. Now I won’t lie, I’ve never played a Fable game, but I’ve heard that your choices include whether or not to sacrifice your family to daemons to gain power/favor. Why does the immoral path always require the killing of innocents? Or at the very least inappropriate violence. Well the good news is that another stage of moral decision making is on its way.
Bethesda has broken in to the FPS/RPG market in large ways, from the Elder Scrolls series to Fallout. Fallout especially shines like a beacon in the fog of games with a faux moral decision-making aspect. Bethesda included Karma in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas also saw the addition of factions, groups of folks who (immediately) know what you do to/with others in the group. These elements help to create depth, and go above and beyond the “good guys don’t kill” and “bad guys won’t find your lost dog” options. Because there weren’t factions in FO3, Karma played a larger role in determining your fate, and even effected the things people would say to your character. Some companions would only join an “evil” character, whereas others would part ways with someone who they found to be morally corrupt. The best part of the Karma system lied in the fact that someone who had to kill a few civilians here and there could still be considered a “good” person if they helped out whenever they could, and chose not to rob people blind. On the other hand, a pacifist would still feel awkward walking into a town after robbing the surrounding countryside and refusing to lift a finger when it came time to repair the water pipes or service robots.
In New Vegas, factions are more important than the “rob or not to rob” choices you make. Working with one group will lead an opposing gang to shun you, and many times seemingly innocent actions will have a large negative/positive effect on the major politicos. As a bonus for the bloodthirsty: killing certain baddies that have been marked as war criminals/monsters/enemies of humankind by every person in the Mojave does provide a Karmic boost. For a time it is possible for the player’s character to avoid choosing a side, wandering the wastes as an individual instead. However as conflict looms, a decision must be made to progress through the rest of the game. Much like in real life, when war threatens to involve multiple cities and cultures within an area, groups who would have remained isolated must join the effort for moral, economic or other reasons. While it’s obvious that a certain faction or two is meant to be “evil,” the game can progress while the player supports them over the supposedly “good” factions. While Caesar’s Legion sees women as property and upholds slavery, they do wish to abolish addictive drugs and the sex trade in their territories. It’s this kind of decision making that causes FONV to stand out.
It’s true that I have yet to play through any Mass Effect game, but just to be thorough in my research I might break and just run through ME2 (I don’t plan on loving it, but who knows?) I’m more excited to play Skyrim, the next title in the Elder Scrolls saga. Hopefully it will improve on the elements found in Oblivion with ample updates from FO3. Until then, I’m sure I’ll find something else to report on, and hopefully at least some of you will find it interesting.
What do you think? Are moral choices a requirement for advanced RPG’s these days, or is it on its way out the door already? Should there have been player decisions in HALO, or Gears of War?