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The structure of morality and the paths that we choose to take are increasingly becoming more of a central plot and gameplay element. As gamers age, so do the concepts of our games, as we struggle with our futures and our growing responsibilities. But how complex should these elements become? Should they have the ability to shape the entire experience from an unchangeable in-game action?

Paul and James tackle the subject in the first of our Great Debates. Paul feels that the grey area of moral representation is an important part of the way humans react, while James thinks that going the black and white route of exacts makes for a better game.

Paul: When you look at great moments in movies, the hard choices people have to make, these aren’t usually boiled down to simple black and white moments, they are areas where both sides can be seen as morally right, or morally wrong respectively. In life these situations exist, and are the cause of great debate and importance to many people’s lives. Topics such as abortion and euthanasia are examples of these hot topics where both sides see themselves as the right choice to make, but the topic is that of a gigantic grey area. Games are rapidly improving their storytelling mechanisms, and if you look at recent trailers they are emulating the style of movies more and more.

Yet games that currently offer choices, offer such an obvious and bland array of choices, making it blaringly obvious which side is the “good” option and which side is the “evil” option. To progress further than a medium seen as the play things of kids and jocks, games need to go deeper, they need the decisions that makes a player sit back and actually think, rather than the cliched “Save or kill” style seen in current games that claim to offer a “moral choice.”

James: You make a good point. Gamers and games are becoming more intuitive to deeper and grittier themes, thus providing more choices and consequences is a logical expansion. But the issue for me is providing accessible gaming experiences. No-one wants to make a decision they regret, which changes the entire structure of the title, then has to spend ages making it “right” or re-loading to fix the problems they made. Adding a grey area makes the whole thing subjective, since some gamers may think a choice they’ve made sends them down a “good” path but is interpreted by the game as edging towards “fucking evil” and thus provides confusion.

Making the choices glaringly obvious may seem like a false economy, but players rarely want to have to sit there and ponder a moral quandry before they make a decision. It’s more fun to be provided with a reasonably ambiguous choice that pushes you down a pretty obvious path, then constantly thrown more moral standpoints then a christian at Jesus camp.

Paul: The problem with sentiments like “no-one wants to make a decision they regret” is to me that enforces the ideal that “no-one wants a decision that has any real repurcussions” or even that they don’t want a decision that isn’t spelled out for them right there and then as “this is the choice that will lead to event A.” I can’t speak for the community as a whole, only myself personally, but those kind of decisions are what makes me dislike the alignments and such in most current RPGs.

Adding a grey area would most likely negate the systems you see in the Fable series or Mass Effect, in that you can’t have a good/evil meter, due to the fact, as you say, right and wrong becomes subjective. This isn’t a model every RPG should live by, just like every film doesn’t go for the ideal of making the viewer think and ponder the complexities of life, there is still room for the Die Hards or the Fallouts, but there should also be room for games that push the boundaries a little, for games that make you think, and for games that offer choices that actually make you sit up and take notice.


James: The good/evil meter, I agree, is a bit ridiculous in the scheme of things, but it gives the player a pretty good understanding of their character’s stance in relation to other characters. I will also agree that a choice shouldn’t be so obvious in which path you are going to take… to a degree. The game should hide predictable plot points, or in fact, not have them at all, but I don’t think that goes hand in hand with a moral compass.

Playability is important, as not all games would consider moral choice an intensive part of gameplay. The lack of a grey area allows players who don’t really care about their avatar’s motives to quickly choose a static path and play the meat of the game. Fallout 3 and Infamous take morality choice seriously, but also make it easy for players who have stuffed up or simply don’t give a crap about “right or wrong” to fix mistakes, for the sake of the gameplay, rather then some personal life-to-game vendetta.

Games with a more hardcore, moral bent can take some more liberties, but they need to be careful not to be game breakers either.

Paul: From my impressions of the games you mention, and admittedly neither of them I have spent a large amount of time with, they don’t take morality choice seriously, it seems that they are trying to blur the lines between a problem and a choice by tacking cliched morality puzzles in, in the same way Bioshock did before it. What on the surface may appear to be a moral dilemma instead boils down to the puzzle element of “Do I want this much Adam or that much?” It ceases to be a choice, and immediately begins to lose credence as something that sparks a question of morality.

Games need to leave choices as just that, a choice, and not boil them down to problem solving. If you are unaware of the paths that will lead from making a choice, you are more likely to make that choice as an accurate response of a human, rather than the humanity boiled down to pure logic. I’m not going to get all “Games are art!” preachy here, but the progression games need to make is more accurately portraying the human experience. To do this it is my opinion that games need to explore the grey area, and in doing so make more compelling games.

James: Games, to me, boil down to fun. I do enjoy complex experiences, which stem to my RPG roots, but as a journalist I feel that games should also try to find a happy medium. I think that a grey area, such as the one Paul has detailed, would be a fine addition to a game as long as it didn’t impact on how it played. You shouldn’t have to memorize your decisions, nor humanize every decision you make for the sake of what the designer intentioned, as opposed to your fun factor.

If a developer finds a way to implement a grey-area friendly morality system, then they have my full support. Games need to evolve with the demands and intelligence of the gamers who play them. But at the same time, the idea behind a game should never be sacrificed in the sake of design or story. Once a game ceases to be fun, it becomes a chore, thus compelling or not, no-one wants to invest time in something that becomes a Kojima style morality wank for the sake of it.

So, dear reader, what do you think?

  1. It seems to me that the moral grey area style of presentation is now the more cliched style than when things are presented as black and white. In films and games nowadays, the protagonist is a bent cop with a dark past, with tonnes of character flaws. We no longer seem to be presented with an all round nice guy/girl who is just doing the right thing.

    In terms of what makes for a better game? I think absolutes make it easier to have chacters seem different and to make play throughs more worthwhile.

  2. avatar William

    People seem to be comparing games with movies, and lets face it – games rely on alot of cliched cinematic storytelling devices reducing games to a cinematic cousin. – But games offer interactivity that films and other media don’t have.
    – The ‘grey area’, non linear world has alot of potential, I think Grand Theft Auto offered a great model (though nevertheless still pretty linear) and even Shenmue on the dreamcast wasnt a bad stab, you were involved (although somewhat mundanly) in his basic life.
    - It depends on what you want to do as a developer, create the addictive classics like pacman with its simplicity or strive to develop gamings main institution. Which is their interactivity. But a virtual world will always be virtual. Developers need to ask themselves what they want to do, if they want to create true non linear experiances, that allow players to activiley explore a non pre – determined path, this would be great for the gaming experience itself also. It would also allow games to elevate somewhat from being the weaker cousin for storytelling on the media front giving them an original feature. Interestingly storytelling and great gameplay are a connected feature.

  3. avatar Rainfly_X

    I think the optimal way to do it is to structure the choices, so that the game learns whether you like black and white, or shades of grey. Games already do a pretty good job of figuring out whether you want to be good or evil, and giving you choices that reflect your past decisions. That’s the “easy” part… but until we have an ambiguity axis, we will forever have discussions like this. In my opinion, it’s personal preference, and something you should be able to decide *within* a game, as opposed to your *choice* of games to purchase.

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