Moral Choice Systems and Their Problems

Moral choice systems are popular, and I do believe there are some fairly reasonable reasons for using them. However, there are also numerous problems with using moral choice systems, sometimes with implementation but often with the very concept itself. The main issue I find is that, for various reasons, the use of moral choice systems winds up creating a state of affairs where, because of the very nature of how moral choice systems and games work a) the players are no longer actually thinking about how moral an act is in any given “instant” of a moral choice system and b) the game essentially forces players to become either cartoonishly evil or good. Both problems serve to destroy a game’s ability to present truly complex moral choices and force players to consider the morality of their actions, an ability that is unique to video games of all media.  In addition, the moral choice systems often create a clash between the narrative and gameplay mechanics.

Inconsistent morality: I’m picking on Knights of the Old Republic a bit here because I’ve played it recently (and I really do like the game!), but, just as an example, why am I getting dark side points for forcing someone to tell the truth but not for stealing $100 from that same person? It kind of defeats the purpose of having such a “system” that’s supposed to monitor the player character’s actions and decide the correct alignment if some obviously good or evil actions don’t count.

Progress bar: There’s an issue wherein many games, such as Mass Effect, will actually inform you when you are receiving good or evil points for an action, how many points you are getting, and tying those points to a little scale that informs you how good or evil you are. I find this the most obnoxious implementation because it destroys any chance for a truly complex, ambiguous choice because the game is always happy to tell you that what you did is either good or evil. At least with tying external consequences to the choices (whether in the form of changes to your character’s appearance or how other characters treat the player character), the consequences for actions seem a bit more organic. For example, I mentioned the household looting in Knights of the Old Republic not having any consequences. However, I did actually get in trouble for that. Once. It wasn’t a little window popping up to tell me that I was doing something “dark” though; it was the actual residents responding with great hostility to my actions, which seems a much more logical and realistic consequence than a little floating number.

There’s also a problem with the bar being so two-dimensional. This measurement doesn’t reflect reality particularly well since many actions aren’t defined as simply “good” or “evil”. For example, lying is immoral, but so is hurting someone, so should you still tell the truth if the other person might find it painful? Such a problem can be easily answered by a game with a moral choice system, which will helpfully inform you which is the right choice. There’s something very irritating about being told whether a character or your own actions are good or evil rather than the game letting you figure that out for yourself.

In addition, and I believe it’s Miguel Sicart I’m paraphrasing when I say that if you tie moral choices to a statistic, the player stops thinking morally and starts thinking statistically. It no longer matters to the player which action in a given situation is right or wrong except to try to figure out how to “level up” in either good or evil along the progress bar.

Sluggish gradient:  Another issue with progress bar is that the player character can act very good or very evil in any given situation, but this action might only make the character slightly more moral or slightly less moral overall, which doesn’t really reflect reality particularly well. This may be one of the few occasions that I stick up for Bioshock’s moral choice “system”, but I like that killing a child leads automatically to the “bad” ending. I’ve seen some complaints about this, and I realize why it might seem counter-intuitive to let one action in the entire game decide the ultimate ending even if you don’t repeat that action given how familiar the progress bar morality mechanic has become. However, you can’t pretend the character is a good person because, well, gee, he only killed one small child in cold blood.

Just for another example, in Knights of the Old Republic I’ve killed at least a half dozen innocent people by this point, but the character is only slightly in the red:

And again, this oddity occurs because of the nature of the video game being a video game. If a player could rocket back and forth along the scale, or if one deed sets a player’s alignment for the entire game, this could break the game’s balance in the former case and anger the player in the latter. However, at the same time, now there’s a situation where a character can kill a half dozen people for fun and profit and still be mostly neutral.

Equal options: In most cases, the player receives essentially the same reward (more points up and down a morality bar, usually) for essentially the same amount of effort/sacrifice (none, usually); basically there’s no reason not to be a good person, so the only reason to pick an evil choice is because it’s an evil choice. Again, this equality is not reflective of reality. It removes an excellent opportunity for allowing players to consider, for instance, how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to do the right thing or whether they would rather make the easier, but perhaps more selfish or callous, choice.

Of course, making the player sacrifice anything in order to be a good person might inhibit his or her ability to complete the game, so this situation is almost unavoidable in video games, once again because of their very nature. Similarly, the player is rarely punished for taking the evil option in any meaningful way. Off the top of my head, there’s only one series I can think of that will punish players for unnecessary cruelty in ways that can actually prevent them from finishing the game, and those games don’t really use a “morality system” anything like the ones I’ve previously discussed.

Bioshock is another interesting case. Lars Konzack argues that the ending of Bioshock is a statement that “greed is not good” (40), with the good ending resulting from saving all the Little Sisters (and requires reducing the amount of ADAM the player character earns) whereas the player character achieves the bad ending by killing at least one Little Sister (but getting a lot more ADAM). However, savvy players will realize that a) they get small rewards for saving the Little Sisters throughout the game and b) the amount of ADAM that they sacrifice is pretty much negligible, which means that the player is actually learning a different lesson along the lines of “greed is good if you’re smart about it”. Once again, an interesting attempt at a moral choice, one in which the choice is actually quite clear but doing the right thing requires a sacrifice, is hobbled by the fact that it occurs in a video game, as Bioshock must balance itself to allow the moral player to actually complete the game.

Simple choices: If I may pick on the Wired article and Bioshock again, to kill or not to kill a helpless child is not a “moral conundrum”. Additionally, even if the choices manage to be less extreme, they’re still frequently very simple and shallow; to quote James Portnow, “If you peg morality in your mechanics to a 2d bar, your moral choices will be 2 dimensional. No writer can write around this, no level of voice acting is going to save you.”

Extreme ends: In many games, moral choice is often tied to particular powers, and often the best powers for either the good or evil alignment require being the best or worst possible person. As a result, the player will no longer be making some good and some evil choices, but just decide to be either extremely moral or extremely immoral in order to earn the better prizes.

Anthony Burch, former features editor for Destructoid, rants briefly on a few other problems that occur as a result of moral choice systems forcing players to opt for moral extremes.

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