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The Morality System in Games Has Outlived Its Usefulness

Chris Rio | 17 Apr 2014 09:00
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Morality in Games infamous

Editor's Note: The following contains slight spoilers for BioShock, Mass Effect, Fallout, inFamous, and Fable, but honestly those games are pretty old by now.

One day, I was playing inFamous for the PS3, hunting down one of the main baddies whose evil plan basically boiled down to collecting garbage. As I approached him, loudly reciting Empire City's bylaws about littering, I came upon a mob scene: an innocent civilian was being hung by a lamppost, screaming for help. I was faced with a choice. "Hm," I said in Cole's stupid gravelly voice (seriously what's up with that?), "I could save her, but Trashman might get away if I stop to help."

I saved her. It took two seconds. And far as I know, nothing in the mission changed. I found the guy fine, and if combat was ramped up or something because of my good deed, I didn't notice. Ding! Instant good karma!

If there's one thing I can't stand in games it's a morality system. It's almost never done right. The mechanic is shoehorned into games that don't need it to give an illusion of choice where none is present. And these aren't indie titles: the biggest games in the business all suffer from the same plight. And for the most part, they are done poorly. So why bother?

As in the inFamous example above, most game morality systems include a curious lack of consequence or sacrifice. If you choose the "bad" option, it doesn't affect the game beyond knocking some of your karma and/or changing the ending. The "good" choice, on the other hand, often requires nothing extra of you. In most games with a morality system, it's just way too easy to be good just by playing the game as you normally would.

Morality in Games Fallout

Fallout 3's mechanic was simple enough - good deeds beget good karma, stealin' and murderin' not so much - but the game suffered from many of the same issues. Even though you could do whatever you wanted in the game, you had to try really hard to be bad. The vast majority of the enemies in the game give you good karma just for killing them. Even if you are playing as a bad guy, some of the enemies, like feral ghouls, are unavoidable positive karma, and you can accidentally become the hero of the world even though two seconds ago you sold a family of five into slavery. It's almost like the game is trying to guide you in the "good" direction, which undermines the whole point of having choice in the first place. Also, how does having an external morality system even make sense in the context of the game? It's a freakin' apocalypse. All of civilization has fallen. Ok, so I'm the "messiah" of the wasteland? To whom? It's completely out of place.

Sometimes the choices will seem tough, but are ultimately pointless. Here's another from Infamous: in the beginning of the game, you locate a food drop, and are given the choice of either allowing the hungry civilians to enjoy it, or scaring them away so that you and your fat friend can take it all for yourselves. By itself, it seems ambiguous. But there is no consequence for either choice other than a small change in karma. If you let them have it, you don't lose out on anything. If you take it all for yourself, you don't get any extra food-based powers, you just look like an asshole.

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