Moral Choices in Gaming

Having recently completed the 5th episode of Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead, I’ve spent  a lot of time thinking about the use of moral choices in the industry. In case you’re in the dark, the Walking Dead is a five-part episodic point-and-click adventure game that was released throughout this year. The player’s choices help shape the narrative and the game adapts to their decisions. It recently won the Game of the Year award at the VGAs and has been critically acclaimed for its quality writing. The Walking Dead fascinates me because it is both a triumphant example of morality in video games yet it fails to avoid the biggest pitfall that these type of games can make.

Almost every single game that features “moral choices” presents the player with a soul-crushing binary, presented in a system that provides feedback on your own actions. Games like Fable, Mass Effect and Infamous quantify morality by giving you Good or Evil points. This system is supposed to reinforce a player’s decisions yet it completely undermines them. Games that have a Good or Evil meter have already decided what is good and what is evil.  There is a moment in Mass Effect 2 where you have to decide between rewriting a race of rogue AIs or destroying them outright. Which of these options is good, which of them is evil? One of them removes free will while the other is a smaller form of ethnic cleansing. In situations like this, the words paragon, renegade, good or evil do not belong.

Red lightning or blue lightning? Damn, this is a tough one.

No right-minded person ever sees themselves as evil (Did Hitler think he was evil?). Asking a player to do the same is utter nonsense. This is where the Walking Dead shines. It never tells the Player directly that they are good or evil. You’re no longer worried about which choice is “Paragon”, you instead focus on the consequences of your decisions and who your actions affect. This changes the relationship between the game and the player. The player is longer actively “shaping” their experience, but instead the game is “reacting” to their decisions.

Video games like Fable and Infamous will always exist, but their concepts of morality are nothing more than gimmicks that bloat a game’s content and tempt you to the play the game a second time. The player either plays as a complete saint, or a complete jackass for the entire game because these types of games do not reward the player for being neutral. The game may as well ask the Player before they start the game if they are good or evil.

But as good as the Walking Dead is at presenting moral choices, it still has room for improvement. The problem with the Walking Dead, and almost every other game that promotes choice, is that it presents choice outside of the gameplay. The classic example of this is Mass Effect’s famous dialogue wheel. The game is effectively telling the player to choose. If writing is good enough it won’t matter, but high quality writing is something that very few video games have.

A good game reacts to the player’s decisions, which is much more powerful than letting the Player choose what happens. To go even further, a game should react to the player’s decisions without making them aware of it. This means that if the Player makes a mistake,they won’t know until the consequences come up, which may prevent them from loading back a previous save. The best example of this is Silent Hill 2. Silent Hill 2 has multiple endings, all of which are dependent on how you play the game. For example, if the player takes damage and does not heal right away the game interprets that as recklessness. This factors in what ending the player gets.

This is truly powerful because the game is getting inside the player’s head. Imagine if more games did this. Think of Grand Theft Auto IV’s two endings. This game presents the player with one of two choices both of them result in a notable character dying. What if the main character made the choice for the player? This is the storytelling that only video games can tell, yet that kind of quality still feels far away. Video games that try to challenge the player’s morality and beliefs need to do more than try harder, they need to evolve. The industry doesn’t just need more games like the Walking Dead, it needs games that are even better.

About Sam Hale

Autistic, young adult and lots on my mind.

Posted on December 12, 2012, in Game Design and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The very next time I read a blog, I hope that it won’t disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, nonetheless I actually believed you’d have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of complaining about something you can fix if you weren’t too busy looking for attention.

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