Moral ambiguity is an increasingly ubiquitous part of modern computer game character mechanics – so why are the moral elements to gameplay increasingly less enjoyable?
I remember when having a game take into account the morality of your character was something of an innovation. I remember banging my head against the Eye of the Beholder Dungeons and Dragons games appalled at the fact that something as complex as tabletop role-playing had been reduced to throwing knives at spiders in someone’s basement. The Baldur’s Gate games changed this. Suddenly, if you played an evil character good characters refused to join up with you and if you played a good character then certain solutions to problems were denied you. It was a revelation. Now it all tastes like ashes.
The idea began to take root after it was popularised by RPGs such as Knights of the Old Republic (2003) and Fable (2004). Half a decade later practically every new sandbox game has a variation on the theme : Fallout 3 (2008) has its karma, Mass Effect (2007) has its paragons and renegades, even first person shooters such as BioShock (2007) pay lip service to the idea by allowing you to decide whether or not to sacrifice children in order to harvest their powers. And this is without mentioning all of the planned and released sequels these games have accumulated with the passage of time. The problem is that, as the mechanic has gained popularity, it has also lost its novelty and with each new game to use the mechanic, we are reminded of the fact that, actually, being given moral choices to make is not in the least bit fun.
That which was supposed to grant us the freedom to break the rules of the action/adventure genre by allowing us to play the bad guys has actually served only to deprive us of the fun of breaking those very same rules. In fact, I have recently noticed that my response to being given the permission to be uncontrolled (as the wonderful Rebecca Mayes puts it) is to cling to the rules of the genre like a limpet to a rock. I do not merely play the good guy, I play Action Jesus! The reason for this is what I like to call The Clarkson Effect :
In order to be fun, transgressive behaviour requires the existence of a strong moral code to transgress against. However, when the transgressive opinions and behaviour become an accepted and recognised way of being, the behaviour ceases to be transgressive and thereby ceases to be fun.
I named this phenomenon after the British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson, who takes great pleasure in declaiming against health and safety legislation, public transport and the environment. This posturing has made him hugely popular, hugely wealthy and an author whose books sell by the hundreds of thousands. And therein lies the problem. Far from being contrary to popular or received opinion, the views Clarkson trumpets are actually quite widely held and, in some cases, clearly underpin government policy. This means that, far from being brave and transgressive in his utterances, Clarkson is simply pandering to public opinion. Jeremy Clarkson is not some free-thinking rebel, he is a a pompous and ill-informed right-wing gas bag. According to The Clarkson Effect, if you are playing a game where you are supposed to be a noble Jedi/Knight/Warrior/Pimp/Pope then murdering people and setting fire to orphanages is fun. Because breaking the rules is fun. Once the game tells you that it is okay to be evil, the killing and burning instantly cease to be fun and become obnoxious and childish. This also explains why the destructive mini-games in Saints Row 2 (2008) are much less fun than the free-form mayhem you create in between missions.
Looking back at the beginnings of the trend in Baldur’s Gate (1998), it seems genuinely tragic that such an inspired and liberating mechanic should have become little more than an irritation – an irritation that serves to deprive you either of the joys of in-game destruction or of content you should have been able to enjoy by virtue of buying the game. Even the trail-blazing classic Deus Ex (2000) managed to shoot itself in the foot by attaching different endings to certain in-game outcomes. This meant that a lot of gamers were forced to replay sections of the game in order to see endings they had paid for.
So what exactly went wrong? How did moral choices become such a chore? I would argue that the problem stems from two basic errors made by game designers.
Firstly, many of the choices that present themselves as moral dilemmas are nothing of the sort.
I remember the long years of hype prior to the release of Fable. Fable sold itself as a game of consequences. What you did impacted the world and it impacted your character. I remember the concept art for evil characters who travelled only by night: pale creatures with red eyes, scars and masked faces. At a time when character customisation, even in RPGs was still minimal. Fable’s problem is that, despite one existing sequel (and a second one due next year), the concept of character individuation never progressed beyond those pieces of concept art. In Fable supposedly moral choices have aesthetic consequences. At the beginning of Fable II (2008), when you decide whether or not to cut corners in your missions, you are not making a moral choice but an aesthetic one. Do you want to return to a bustling happy town or a shadowy and sinister town where property is cheap and human life is doubly so? The same problem is present in Knights of the Old Republic. Whether you are good or evil is not a question of morality but of strategic character building. If you want to be a healer then do good things. If you want the cool force lightning power then do evil things. It is not a game that prods your conscience.
As well as aesthetic and strategic choices, tactical choices can also masquerade as moral ones. In many games, morality expresses itself as a simple choice between killing and talking. Early on in Mass Effect, you can either shoot your way into a bar or you can recruit some friends and talk your way in. You do not make this decision on the basis of your moral principles. You do so on the basis of what strikes you as more fun. In games where most of the game-play involves killing, the more roundabout challenges provided by ‘ethical’ means of problem solving offer up an interesting change of pace and are frequently more satisfying. This is also true of games without morality mechanics. For example, in the Metal Gear Solid games you can either sneak and tranquillise your way through the levels or strap on your assault rifle and gun down the enemy. The same is true of the Hitman series, in which you could either murder your way through the levels or engage with them as gigantic Rube Goldberg contraptions, carefully setting up the murder of your target with minimal bloodshed.
Sometimes, moral choices are effectively meaningless. For example, in BioShock, a lot is made of the dilemma of whether to sacrifice captured children or set them free. Initially, the choice appears to be between power and principle but even if you choose to set the children free, someone turns up and gives you everything you would have gained by killing the children. The only difference between the two paths is some animation and when you get the powers.
Secondly, the moralities of many games do not resemble real world morality in the slightest.
Real world moral dilemmas are characterised by a degree of uncertainty. People without a clear religious or political belief system will frequently struggle to make real decisions as they can see all different sides. Even people who do subscribe to a clear set of external moral principles will still be assailed by doubts. Moral commandments are never so fine-grained as to eliminate individual choice and ethical wiggle-room. For example, it is all very well declaring Thou Shalt Not Kill and Never Tell A Lie, but what happens when a murderer knocks at your door asking whether your neighbour is in because he plans to murder them and their family? All of a sudden killing the murderer in order to protect your neighbour’s family or telling him that your neighbour moved to another country start to look like surprisingly moral courses of action. Even religions acknowledge the limitations of moral codes by continually re-working and re-interpreting their moral precepts to suit the needs of the times. If Christianity actually made sense then there would be no need for priests. By contrast, moral decisions in games are always obvious.
Most of the moral dilemmas offered to us in games are simplistic to the point of absurdity. Do you save the children or rape and eat them? There is no uncertainty there. There is no taxing of the conscience or room for guilt and self-doubt. Even assuming that these kinds of decisions actually exist, they are not the standard moral decision that people face every day. Furthermore, most games give you immediate feedback as to the morality of your actions when the game flashes up your gains and losses of karma points. Real world moral judgements are never so obvious.
Despite tending towards the simplistic morality of Saturday morning cartoons, video games can sometimes display astonishing lapses in moral judgement. For example, in Fable II, you can swing towards the dark side if you eat the wrong thing. However, if you are waylaid by bandits whilst travelling, the game allows you to mutilate them with a gigantic sword without a stain on your conscience. It is one thing to sanction capital punishment for petty theft but it is quite another to suggest that that kind of justice should be meted out by private citizens armed with machetes.
This strange zigzagging between obvious choices and an obvious lack of choices results in a set of mechanics that simply do not feel like moral judgements. They are completely at odds with moral psychology, and because they feel so artificial, they are not only no fun to make, they also invite us to make the decisions on non-moral grounds. If a game wants to give us the chance to play someone who frightens people or who shoots force lightening then it should give us those options immediately. Embedding them in an utterly misguided morality mini-game is just annoying.
But is there a way in which moral choices could be made fun?
The game designer James Portnow wrote a piece in July 2009 presenting some of the conceptual framework for a game based upon ambiguous moral decision-making. Portnow suggests that, rather than transparently embedding morality in the framework of the world in a way that allows players to track their morality by looking at their karma score, it would be more interesting to embed the morality of the characters’ actions in the perceptions of non-player characters. This would mean that, were you to burn down an orphanage, you would not get 200 points of negative karma or grow horns, you would instead find it harder to do business with the people who disapprove of orphan burning. Because there would be no obvious feedback to your actions, their consequences would come as a surprise. This mechanic actually exists in games such as Everquest (1999) and Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999).
What Portnow is talking about is replacing morality mechanics with a set of political mechanics. But this is a slightly different kettle of fish that invites its own kind of system gaming. For example, in Grand Theft Auto 2 you began each level with equal standing in the eyes of a number of gangs. As you carried out missions for one gang, your standing rose with them but fell with the others. The problem was that, if you did a drive-by shooting on the gang you worked for, your standing with the other gangs immediately leapt up. So you progressed through the game by taking on missions and then going on killing sprees, playing the different gangs against each other until you made enough money to move to the next level. Now, in some respects, this is pleasingly reminiscent of the plot to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and its unofficial ‘remake’ by Sergio Leone A Fistful of Dollars (1964) but as in the Fable II example above, the player’s tendency to periodically murder the people he works with in no way counts against him. Nor does his tendency to flip sides whenever he gets stuck or bored. I would argue that any political or moral decision that can be reversed by a mass killing is in fact not a political or moral decision at all.
Another failure of reputation mechanics can be found in the otherwise excellent Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion (2006). In Oblivion, your relationships with factions and individuals are affected by your reputation and your actions. However, the characters in Oblivion were all entirely lacking in principle. You could murder someone’s family and steal from their shop and then give them a load of cash and they would treat you as a long-lost friend. Again, real people do not behave in this way.
The real challenge facing morality mechanics is realism. Because in-game moral decisions have no real-world consequences, it is all too easy for moral choices to become tactical or aesthetic ones. It is precisely because these decisions are not real that it is vital to make them feel real. They must be based not only in a real understanding of the psychology of moral decision making but also a grasp of how people react to the people they disagree with and disapprove of. It is not until gamers feel as though they are making real moral choices that moral choices will become fun again and no amount of force lightning can change that.
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]