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Published April 26, 2015

Morality has become a big concept as video games have evolved. What began as a simple directive from A to B has become a complex machine effected by preference, curiosity, and context. Think The Walking Dead. Think Infamous: Second Son. Think Far Cry 4. All of these games share something in common: they each contain a morality system that strives to reduce the gap between the gamer and the character he plays.

The issue arises, however, when you start to compare video game morals to real-world morals. And usually, the two moral systems aren’t aligned. Actually, video game morals are pretty much terrible, save for a few gems.

Obviously, the moral system governing real life is too complex for a world occupying space on a disc. So, in its place, companies have created four distinct (and rather restricted) versions of morality: locked, split, half, and open moralities.

Locked morality occurs in any game that drives you in a single direction, regardless of player preference. The game tells you where to go, how to get there, and takes no direct input from the player besides punch, kick, hit, shoot, et cetera. In these games, you’re just going for a ride. Call of DutyArmy of TwoLimboBulletstorm, pretty much 60% of games in the industry carry this morality: its fast, streamlined, and can drop you right into the game without you having to think too much.

But, just because locked morality seems limiting doesn’t mean it can’t be effective: the original Bioshock, which restricted your choices, explained—in one of the best plot twist of my young gaming history—how this morality can be super effective in some cases. But, most of the time, forced morality exists in games that are developed for mainstream use, lacking in good storytelling, or for games that are just, well, lazy.

Split morality occurs in any games that offer two distinct paths: the Good, and the Bad (or Evil). Some sort of visual cue almost always follows decisions in split morality games: your screen turns blue or red, your meter shifts a little bit left or right, your angel icon or devil icon gets a little more prominent, and so on. For companies who do try to add morality in games, this is usually where they stop.

The problem with these types of games is that they separate morality into two distinct areas—good and bad—and don’t consider the large grey area between them. They then feed you with rewards on both sides that render the actual choice system arbitrary. Why avoid the evil actions if I’m not going to be punished? If you’re going to give me cool upgrades on either side, what’s the point of having the choice in the first place? In short, split morality seems complex, but it’s just a façade.

Take Infamous, for example. (A game which I still can’t figure out how it won any awards). Infamous clearly divided good versus evil, and, regardless of what action you chose, rewarded you with upgrades, new abilities, and other nonessential trophies and such. Sure, some things could only be unlocked on one side of the spectrum, but in no way did that game leave me needing to go back and be evil, nor did it really affect story progression. What it did do, however, is remind me that games like that fail because they assume that people “exist” as good or evil. But, people don’t know whether their choices are good or bad, and they don’t immediately know their consequences. So, flashing those blue and red lights in my face or changing my character’s powers reduces your story to something made for children, and, frankly, insults my intelligence as a gamer, and my ability to discern right from wrong.

Half morality systems extend the split morality system into more open, flexible realms. It takes into account that your actions, whether good or bad, right or wrong, don’t have just one set effect; they vary based on past experience. These games branch, evolve, take all actions into account and produce an outcome that truly is your own (well, in the context of what the game allows.) The Walking Dead is the most recent example I can give of this particular type of system, and it’s one of the few games that implements it remarkably well.

I call these systems “half” moralities, by the way, because the range of what you can do are still basically locked into the confines of the game. You can do a lot, but you can’t do everything, obviously.

And finally, open morality systems are based on an action-consequence sequence that repeats ad infinitum; that is, the structure expands in the same way the real world does. I have yet to play a game that has mastered this system, nor do I think it’s possible (though The Stanley ParableThe Sims, and Grand Theft Auto are somewhat close examples). Open moralities suggest a world where you can disobey the game itself. Don’t want to save the damsel in distress? Fuck it, go hijack a car and get a burger instead. Don’t like your story? Fine, don’t follow it. Turn the little white arrow above your head. Erase your HUD. Do whatever, man.

Personally, I believe that any game with a moral system needs to be half morality. Here are three things you can do to assure this system will exist:

  1. First, you need to give me choice. And not those shitty choices like in Far Cry 3 (you expect me to kill all my friends after all that shit I went through to save them? Please.) and make sure those choices resonate.
  2. Second, when I do choose, don’t make it painfully clear that my choice is the “good” or “bad” one. No person on this earth goes through their day making clear-cut decisions. Context won’t allow it. Most major choices fall along the lines of, “I can save my business, but I have to lay off hundreds of jobs in the process”—you know, things that really stick to the soul. Basically, if your choices haven’t made my gut churn, try again.
  3. Finally, the game needs to react to my choices, not just the characters, not just the screen, the entire game. Did I make the wrong choice? Did I kill the wrong person? Then the next mission should be at night instead of during the day. Did I choose the practical solution, but not the moral one? Then have my group lose their trust in me. Or better yet, in a level where it would be easier to go with a group, force me to go alone. The world should react, not my HUD.

It’s incredible to see how far games have come, and just how far they’re quickly going. And as moral systems begin to become more organic, it’s nice to know that there are companies out there who use these systems to show how much a player can interact with a game, and how much a game can react to a player.

To this effect, I offer this post as a plea to developers. Give me control. Scare me. Entice me. Make me regret. Hell, make me feel terrible. But give me the greatest thing any developer can give: the power to choose.

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