In which I present my theories on why I think developers have such an interest in adding moral choice systems to their video games:
A. Why moral choice systems?
While moral choice systems make a nice feature to mention on the back of the box, and can net you some glowing reviews, but they’re probably quite expensive and time consuming to create, and goodness knows I’m hardly the first to complain about them, so why do developers consider them a good idea? Here are my thoughts:
It can be very hard mix the usual power fantasy narrative that most games present, in which the player character is always an unstoppable one-man-army badass, with actual character development, and it can be especially difficult to manage this as part of gameplay. Having a moral choice system where the player’s actions change the character creates a sense of progression for the character, and allows the player to maintain control over this process.
Linear, narrative-focused games tend to have low replay value, and there are different methods for avoiding this issue. Creating a fairly linear game with different endings depending on your in-game actions occurs fairly frequently, and making getting all the different endings depend on different actions that the player takes throughout the game, and framing those actions around morality, makes as much sense as giving you a different ending to a narrative because you happened to pick up some red goo at one point for no real reason.
Games provide players with opportunities to behave in ways they normally wouldn’t in real life, and so an option to be extremely evil if you so choose, and have the game assure you that you’re evil, and even provide aesthetic upgrades to show how evil you are, can certainly enhance the experience. In addition, for developers, it can provide a way to add RPG elements to an otherwise unRPG-like game, increasing cross-genre audience appeal.
There are games in which you play as the “hero”, and are often treated as a person of pure, unsullied virtue all while breaking into people’s homes, stealing their life savings, and destroying their furniture. This oddity, in which doing something bad is never commented on and has no effect on how the player character is perceived by the non-player characters as well as never seeming significant to the character, has been noticeable enough, and strange enough, to become something of a running gag. Implementing a system that actually tracks your activities and lets you know that what the player character does is wrong may be a way to address this issue.
The moral choice system also takes advantage of the interactive nature of the video game: While in other media, the audience can only watch a character develop and has no effect on that development, in a video game the player can make choices for the character, decide the character’s behavior, attitude, and personality, and influence that development over time.
This combines well with the other merits I brought up to give the player the feeling that they have meaningful control over not just the gameplay portions of the game, but also the narrative sections; instead of just watching the plot, the player has the potential to affect how that plot unfolds.
B. Why moral choice systems that are so black & white?
If you are going to implement a moral choice system, if you’re really thinking that they will improve gameplay and deepen the player’s experience, why so frequently make the choices so frequently cartoonish?
If you’re going to have a moral choice system in which there are actual meaningful consequences for either the player character or the narrative, I imagine this can get expensive fast, especially if you want a grid (a la Dungeons & Dragons). In D&D, you can have good/bad and lawful/chaotic. For every “moral choice” a player character makes, there would need to be four options. Add “neutral” in there and you have nine. That’s probably tough, so it’s easy to see why developers would want to stick to just
If there is a particular idea of morality that the developers want to advocate, the moral choice system allows said developers to make a definite point about what behaviours they believe are good or bad, leaving no ambiguity. In addition, the extreme nature of some choices is useful because a) players won’t select one option thinking that it’s the other and b) the difference between the good and evil choice is so obvious and commonly held that players won’t feel they’re being forced to adhere to what the designers think are “good” or “evil” rather than what the player thinks is good or evil. After all, pretty sure most people would agree that “shall I murder this small child or set her free” isn’t actually a “moral conundrum”.