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You’ve come to a moral crossroad, one leads to the path of virtuous, self-righteous glory. The other, a dismal path of thievery, death and destruction. Only one may be chosen, which do you follow? A superb concept for nearly any genre of video game.

A concept, however, that has never truly been accomplished. Morality is not as simple as good or evil, an aspect that seems to have been lost over the past 10 years since the release of BioWare masterpiece, the original Baldur’s Gate (and subsequent sequels). Even though there were more specifics tied to your choices in BG, a true “moral compass” feature has yet to be done correctly.

When I had heard Peter Molyneux flaunt his original visions for Fable, I couldn’t help but get excited. An entire game where the moral decisions you make will completely impact how your journey unfolds? Sign me the **** up! Yet, false promises and hyped game mechanics have slowly been becoming almost somewhat of a norm, whether the game “lacks” certain content and then makes you pay for it (ahem…Resident Evil) or it just simply doesn’t live up to its name. Yet, these heartbreaks are flagrant among games that focus around one’s decisions and moral capacities. And its about damn time we get a game that can keep ALL its promises, not just some (or one).

As cliche as it seems to have become to nitpick Fable’s shortcomings, it still stands as the prime example of both morality driven gaming and failure to meet expectations. As much as I’d like to bash both Molyneux and his company’s inability to follow through with ideas, I’m more concerned with playing a game where my choices aren’t simply seen as good or as evil. In the first Fable, your decisions were very simple; kill the thieves and protect the innocent, you gain points for your “good side.”

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Murder the helpless and steal from the poor, tally some points on that “evil side.” Furthermore, your appearances affected your moral compass as well, for if you adorn certain clothing you’ll be perceived as noble or scary, keeping that good and evil, black and white comparison continuous. Fable II generally did much of the same, tweaking certain aspects and adding the concepts of Purity and Corruption. Admittedly, Lionhead Studios did make slight progress in veering away from such stark contrasts, as one could be evil yet still be pure, and vice versa.

However, what’s not considered into your alignment as you progress through either game is the concept of a “situational deed.” Lets set a stage: you’re well underway on your journey, and you’ve decided to take a wife. Now, in Fable II, when you decide to get down with the horizontal shuffle, you’re given the option to have protected or unprotected sex. You’ve decided to be unsafe, and wouldn’t you know it? Your wifes’ pregnant. Now here is where my problem surfaces concerning the art of the moral compass. Who says that you want this child? What if you chose to not wear a condom not because you wanted to create life, but just wanted the sex to be better? Now you’re left with a pregnant wife. And this may sound awful and may create many vocal complaints, but why can’t you have the option to abort (*gasp*) the fetus?

Or to lessen controversy, orphan the child? Or why not the option for more discreet sexual favors where a child can’t be created? To put it in another, more simple way: if you steal to feed the hungry, is it wrong? I do realize matrimony and subsequent actions are only one part of the game. Yet, it serves as a superb exemplifier of the moral gray area that remains absent in nearly every aspect of the Fable series. I guess Molyneux doesn’t believe in Machiavellian philosophy of “the ends justify the means.” Yet with codename: ProjectEgo (aka Fable) failing to address this sense of morality, BioWare seems to be heading in the right direction, as witnessed in Mass Effect and the upcoming Dragon Age: Origins.

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A shining example of a well done moral compass

In Mass Effect, you’re morality is scaled not by “good” and “evil;” rather, you are given either Paragon or Renegade points. Points for either are gained through dialogue options and are on separate scales, meaning your Paragon points will not cancel out whats been gained for your Renegade side. This allows for further exploration of that moral gray area throughout the game, but really takes a more pronounced form in the final decision of the game. Do you continue with a proven, alien organization watching over known space? Or do you allow the human race to patrol the universe, enabling mankind to take reigns in an unknown future, where history (in the eyes of humans) inevitably repeats itself? BioWare’s foray into a deeper morality system continues as this final decision will be the backbone of Mass Effect 2′s plot and their new original IP, Dragon Age: Origins, which will pursue this gray area like none before.

The object of DA:O, as in most fantasy, sci-fi, or RPG-esque games, is to save the world. The root of this goal remains generally unchanged, whether you are either “good” or “evil.” And because of the “low fantasy” setting (a much darker fantasy, where character factions of “good” and “evil” may not first appear so), you’ll be met with many choices that don’t fall on either end of the morality spectrum. Yet, your decisions will impact not just your companions and NPC reactions, but the entire world. For example, choosing a King to rule over the land will have adverse affects for the nations and races he will be ruling over. You may crown a benevolent King for certain races, but others will be maltreated and forgotten. Other world rendering choices will make themselves apparent as your progress the story that will not appear as stark contrasts. Hopefully, we’ll be provided with an almost ever changing environment that revolves around the decisions you make, rather than tracking your alignment that has been made popular over the last two generations of gaming.

Not all the details have been completely revealed concerning Dragon Age: Origins and its morality system, but from what I’ve found, it definitely sounds the most realistic. However, to truly incorporate a moral compass into a game, circumstance needs to be utilized to the utmost extent. I don’t want to receive points towards an evil alignment just because I killed a villager. What if this villager planned to murder his wife? Or plan a rebellion against the King you serve? Or was going to become a serial rapist? I truly don’t know, and neither should the game itself.

  1. avatar ME

    That Mass Effect scene was intnse!!! Great game.

  2. for some reason I always end up being the good guy when given the opportunity. I would love a game to truly make the choice challenging more, perhaps hinting that going good doesn’t necessarily mean the best ending/ coolest friends/ most income, etc.

  3. avatar Essjeevee

    I think the best implementation of morality in a game has so far been seen in The Witcher. Choices, right from the very beginning of the game, were hard to make.

  4. avatar ryan

    i’m glad the witcher is coming to the 360 b.c. i’m excited to play it.

  5. avatar Anon

    Morality is barely defined in real life. It’s a social disaster because everyone wants it to be defined subjectively. It’s a waste of time to even think about how “inaccurate” a moral compass is in a video game. This article is pointless and a waste of time.

    • avatar Ngan

      Man, anyone else feel rlaely awkward watching Josh interview Peter? Josh clearly isn’t the best live interviewer around, but I’m usually fairly entertained by his alternatively good and so-bad-it’s-good jokes Peter just wasn’t very receptive to either. Not to mention Peter does that strange thing of verbally humming confirmation at almost every word Josh utters, which kind of made me cringe.

  6. avatar eadwin

    True that, Essjeevee.

  7. avatar Chase

    @Anon

    You make a good point but calling this wasn’t a waste of time at all. Games have the capabilities to deliver impact, sometimes more than a movie or a book, and this article is searching for that by looking at the “moral compass”

  8. avatar Silva

    Fallout 3 Karma system was very infulental on my descions throughout the game. i think they have the best morality code

  9. @Anon

    If you think morality is barely defined in real life, then I suppose you either have a very loose code of morals, or no sense of a moral compass. I believe there is a sense of morality within the culture we live in today. Whether you choose to abide by this or not is a completely different story.

  10. Zeitgeist can hardly be called a moral code.

    The problem is, anything other than a subjective morality forces you to place some people/actions in the immoral category. Our spineless society doesn’t have the backbone to do this, so many people simply claim that morality is subjective or water down their own moral convictions so they’re compatible with everyone else’s. Nobody is willing to step up and define “moral” and “immoral”, except in extreme circumstance, and that line is constantly changing. Morality is a moving target. No wonder we have moral confusion that reigns in society today.

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