Let’s Think Deep: The Moral of The Story

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Will games ever give us a true moral decision?

You know what I haven’t done in a long time? I haven’t Thought Deep. But what to talk about? If I pick something wrong to talk about, what sort of consequences will I endure? Hey, this reminds me, I just finished playing through Mass Effect 1 and 2 and wouldn’t you know it, there are constantly instances where you have to make a moral decision that ultimately affects how your character turns out. Sort of. I have played many a game where the dreaded Morality System comes into play, so why don’t we just talk about that, huh? Let’s Think Deep.

These Decisions Have That Effect On Me

The Mass Effect series (a series you should just go ahead and play right now) will serve as a good starting point with this discussion since the game revolves around two gameplay mechanics. The first is cover-based gunfights. The second are dialogue trees intended to make the character choose one thing over another. The latter has an effect on your character (not a Mass Effect, but an effect nonetheless) that decides whether they will receive Paragon points for being a good guy or Renegade points for being a bad ass. Visually, at least in the first game, there is no difference (the second game will give you more scars if you’re being a renegade though you can get rid of these quite easily if you choose), though there are times within the plot where you’re given the option to say something either profoundly good or profoundly abrasive other than the typical dialogue options. Does it really change much? Here’s where I get all “Yes and no” on you.

Wow, I really feel like I'm becoming a Renegade. Thanks Mass Effect!

While the nice or “blue” options in dialogue allow you to help characters and calm them down, the red renegade options involve you just killing the character or intimidating them to shut up and sit down. The first option will typically stop a character from being killed, meaning they will appear in the next game, while the second option is better at ensuring you just eliminate them now. But does it change much? After playing through the first game as a good guy, I continued down the righteous (boring) path as always. I had the magical ability to say, “You don’t want to do this” and suddenly have the other character, seconds ago intent on killing all life as we know it, say, “Yeah, you’re probably right” and back down. And I did see characters I spared from the first game in the second. But these were side characters, pretty much uninteresting to me, with names and backstories I didn’t have any interest in since a lot of the time they didn’t have a backstory to begin with.

So what were the really big decisions that change the outcome of the game? At one point you have the option of killing off one of your party members in the first game or talking them down. I talked them down and saw them in the second game, though not as a party member, just an NPC I can talk to, albeit a cool one. The other major decision was which party member was going to live or die near the end of the game. I made my choice, hoping my surviving member would join me in the sequel. Nope, just a quick encounter where they tell me they’ve got better things to do now. Essentially, my decision was just an alternate costume for that dialogue exchange.

What I’m trying to get at is how little I felt my decisions actually carried weight in the game. I pursued a romantic interest in the first game that seemed pretty uninterested in staying romantic into the second game, simply “just because,” more or less. So what was the point? The romance in the first game was done fairly well and felt justified, like the characters had at least some connection. In the sequel, nope, didn’t matter, back to work bedding someone new. Oh well.

"I just had a really great idea guys: Let's go home and forget we ever thought about doing this stupid mission."

Given The Option,Evil Is Always More Rewarding

Another series famous for this discontent with the morality system is Fable. I played the first Fable game and enjoyed it for what it was worth. I was curious to see how cool my character would be after being the ultimate good guy, and low and behold, I was some scrawny bald dude with butterflies fluttering about his head. Cool? Not really. Half the time the choices would come down to “Help this person” or “Murder this person.” Not much wiggle room, is there? After my hours of play the only difference I noticed was everyone seemed to like me, whereas my friend who played as the “evil” character told me that people feared him but still talked to him just as if he was the good guy. Apparently it doesn’t matter if you’re worse than the ultimate evil in the game as long as you’re “supposed” to be the good guy.

This is where I’d like to see a game really shift when you make these choices. Instead of just the inevitable “good guy ending” and “bad guy ending” like we got in Bioshock, why not something where the entire game actually changes when you start to become worse? Here’s an idea for a game: You start off as a hero on a quest to save some kingdom. If you save people and typically do good things, the game plays out as you’d expect with you recruiting a band of side characters and eventually attack the Big Bad, defeating him and rescuing the land. However, if you consistently do bad things, people stop trusting you. If a shopkeeper hears you’ve been evil, he won’t trade with you, period. Party members leave your side. Towns refuse to grant you access. Eventually, the world realizes you’re a worse threat than the Big Bad and decide that you’re really the Big Bad in need of destroying. The final confrontation could be between you, the original Big Bad, and all the party members that have defected from your side since you’re just THAT evil. Then I’d really get the sense of my actions meaning something. Is that too much to ask?

One Example Where It Worked

Why does this fictional girl hold so much power over my conscience?

I’d like to think not. Even the Zelda series has dabbled with this a little. In Link’s Awakening for the Game Boy, Link is able to enter the shop, grab an item, and sneak out with it when the shopkeeper isn’t looking, effectively giving him the item for free. The shopkeeper instantly kills you if you walk back into the store, but you still keep the item. However, for the rest of the game everyone calls you THIEF rather than whatever your name originally was. It’s not huge, but as a kid, having Marin call me a thief whenever she talked to me carried some strange weight that I hadn’t experienced in a game before.

One Example Where It Absolutely Didn’t

Also, I’d like to see morality choices be better than “help” or “kill,” and especially better than “kill these people rather than those.” Shadow the Hedgehog, a supremely awful game for the GameCube, Xbox and PS2, had a supposed “morality system” based on which objective you completed in a level to finish it. The choices were usually along the lines of “Kill the evil aliens,” “Kill the good humans,” or “Just race through the level.” You could even kill all the humans but one and then all the aliens and it counts as you doing something good. That didn’t make much sense there.

I think everyone made the correct morality decision by not buying this crappy game.

Do I Really Get To Choose?

But more specifically, there’s a choice you have to make in Mass Effect 2 where two characters are having a pretty sweet duel while trying to kill one another. I just expected it to play out with one winning the battle but it falls on me to choose the outcome since I literally just make one character stop trying and die already. I hated this instance because I had another option in my head: Stop them both. Why couldn’t I? I was extremely powerful, plus I had the magic gift of telling a lion to stop eating a sheep just by using the blue dialogue option. Why no option for MY version of “good?” Or alternatively, why couldn’t I kill both the characters? Assuming I’m playing as a truly evil person, why wouldn’t I want to do something that extreme?

Instances like the former remind me that I’m not making morality choices based on what I believe to be proper options but rather what the developers feel are acceptable good and evil choices. I was really sad to find out that the first Red Steel game on the Wii was so terrible because I thought the morality system was really cool. You would get more points to spend on upgrading your character if you played as a good character by shooting guns out of enemies’ hands rather than killing them. I liked this for two reasons: First, I wasn’t punished for playing the game as a good guy, and secondly, it actually sounded cooler to play as a good guy rather than a bad guy because it required more skill. It is really difficult to find games that make the good guy seem like a cooler option than playing as a jerk.

"You chose to be a good guy? Ooh, this is awkward, I decided to be a bad guy in this game."

Why is that? Why is it cooler to play as a bad guy? I suppose in real life the answer is obvious since to be the good guy in an argument you just walk away but the jerk knocks the other guy out. One way totally looks cooler, but it isn’t necessarily “good.” Games seem to fall into this by habit, though I don’t think they have to. Games are by nature fantastical, meaning normal rules don’t need to apply. Given the option in a fight, maybe I’d prefer not to fight the guy but throw his car into a lake instead, thus terrifying him in lieu of inflicting pain. Is asking for cooler “good guy” options unreasonable? I don’t think so.

I’ve had my turn to speak; now it’s yours. Are there games where you feel the Morality System was perfect or even a single option really had huge consequences for the rest of the game? I know that Fallout 3 has a moment that’s pretty big, but was it enough? Do you ever really feel in control in any game you’ve played? And what would you do different if you could design a game? I want to know. So leave a comment now.

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About Author

Chris was the former Head Writer/Editor of Toy-TMA. He did a great job overseeing the site and getting new content published regularly. Always more than willing to respond to a comment or two, but pitiless with trolls! He has since moved on from TMA, and we wish him the best.

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