“It seems as though the floodgates are beginning to creak open on inFamous, including the revelation of “Karma Moments” – a tracked morality system with effects on player progression. It wasn’t meant to be funny, but for some reason we found it very funny, because like many mechanisms of this kind your choices tend to come down to being an omnibenevolent supercherub or the Goddamned devil.”
–Tycho Brahe, on inFamous.
Well, that pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? What more can be said? When no less a luminary than Tycho himself derides the moral choice mechanic as a cheap, hackneyed, and two-dimensional trope, who am I to deny him?
Disdain for such moral choice mechanics has become almost as omnipresent a fandom meme in certain circles as hatred for Japanese RPGs. Critics decry their moral extremism, forcing players to play a saint or a Saturday morning cartoon villain. Another common criticism paints them as cheap ways introduce fake content into a title, squeezing out a few more repetitive hours of game time for 100% completion. And even in cases where the moral choice seems significant, some critics claim their practical effect on the storyline is almost nil, bar the ending cutscene. Can the mechanic be defended, against the weight of such animosity?
I think so.
Moral choice systems are imperfect mechanisms, but then again so is the hit point system most games employ, or the various ways in which “realism” is sacrificed for plot convenience or gameplay practicality. A game can only have so many branching paths, so many possible personality choices for its protagonists, and so many conclusions. And not all moral choice systems are done well. Some are hackneyed, some are more nuanced. With this in mind, let’s take an honest look at some of the advantages the mechanic provides, and try to answer some of the critiques.
Moral choice systems take advantage of a unique storytelling trait present in games: the immersion of the player into the storyline. You are the force that determines whether or not the protagonist’s story continues. Tying plot-significant events or character development to the gamer’s decisions are really just the natural evolution of that principle, even if it’s something as simple as whether to kill or save. The principle is no more “fake content” than any other form of plot-based sidequest or character-building choice, although in execution this varies greatly.
The second and far more common criticism, that games with moral choice systems invariably break down into binary extremes, deserves a bit more thought. Not all choices are binary; many moral dilemmas have shades of gray beyond “selfish/jerk” and “selfless/nice guy.” It’s definitely true that many games leave little room for these shades of gray in their moral choice systems, tending towards either heroism or supervillainy. However, at the same time many moral crises leave relatively little room for neutrality. In the Bioshock franchise, the moral choice centers on the murder of a helpless, innocent child for personal gain. There is no neutral response to such a choice except to avoid the situation entirely.
The Mass Effect series takes an interesting approach to the classic “karma meter” form of moral choice. Here the decision is not truly between good and evil, but rather idealism against cynicism. Idealistic Paragon Shephard acts in accordance with classic sci-fi heroism, demonstrating compassion, a desire for diplomacy over violence, and optimism. By contrast, Renegade Shephard is a violent, cynical antihero, flirting with pro-human bigotry and prone to shoot first and ask questions never. Both are entirely valid approachs, each heroic despite their foibles, and each is a realized personality. Moreover, nothing in Mass Effect prevents a more nuanced approach by mixing and matching approaches according to the player’s desire or the circumstance. This treatment avoids the classic pitfalls of black and white moral decisions, focusing instead on how others see Shephard.
Dragon Age, by contrast, explodes the black and white moral decision for a nuanced, multifaceted set of consequences. Each of your companions and each of the powerful factions you must win over have their own likes and dislikes, although some are certainly more close to one alignment or another. Furthermore, in keeping with the gritty feel of the setting, the many different decisions often result in circumstances that might not necessarily seem apparent at first glance. Playing a white-as-snow hero or a black-as-soot villain is just as possible as playing a flawed, biased individual trying to do their best.
“But why does the game world extrapolate my character’s entire personality from moral choice moments?” runs the reply. The reasons are simple: Most game protagonists have to be reliable narrators. Unlike literature, we do not see into the inner workings of their thoughts save in brief snapshots. What we see is more or less what we get. Actions define most game protagonists, not necessarily their reasons for doing so- for the player and the characters inhabiting the game world, most of which are no more telepathic than we are ourselves. If we want nuance, we have to inject it with nuanced actions- rather reasonable. It doesn’t matter if someone wrings their hands while committing acts of evil, they would still be viewed as evil.
And even in Bioshock‘s much-derided case, the inclusion of at least a binary choice vastly improves the game. It draws the player into the action, allowing them even a limited ability to influence the reactions and impressions of other characters. Yes, the ending’s contrast between monstrosity and saintly behavior is drastic, but it also makes sense within the game’s narrative when the choice was whether to risk personal safety to protect an innocent or to murder an innocent for your own self-interest.
Ultimately, the use of a moral choice system is like any other storytelling tool: effective if used well, annoying if used badly. It opens possibilities to the player that were not previously available. Complaining because those possibilities were not far-reaching enough seems somewhat hypocritical.