Making Morality Matter

Making Morality Matter
First Kisses (And Deaths-By-Molester)

Chuck Wendig | 31 May 2011 09:01
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A man drives up and would like directions.

He tells me that his nephew goes to school with me, but he doesn't know how to get to the school. Would I be willing to show him? Sure, I think. I'm a friendly kid, eager to please. (And, by God, I have important stats on the line: my Expressiveness and Thoughtfulness could use a boost.)


I go to the car, I tell him sure, and I hop in.

I am then informed:

"Once you are in the car he turns away from the school and heads for the highway. This man is very sick. You are tortured, killed and buried in a landfill. Your body is never recovered. This game is over."

Blink, blink.

Holy crap.

* * *

I'm playing a PC game from 1986: Activision's Alter Ego. Depending on who you ask, it's either a role-playing game, a morality engine, or, according to creator Dr. Peter Favaro, a "a life sim, written in a tongue-in-cheek style which permitted people to explore the consequences of their decision-making."

The game offers no fancy genre trappings; in it, you are born, you go through the many stages of life, and then you die. What happens along the way is up to you. Outside a handful of icons and images, Alter Ego remains a text adventure driven not by what you type but rather by what life choices you select across an array of multiple choice menus.

Role-playing games, from Baldur's Gate through the Fallout series to recent releases like Dragon Age II and Fable III make quite a lot of hay out of tracking more than just a character's Strength score or Archery skill by tracking the protagonist's morality as well. Unfortunately, morality in such games is frequently reduced to the outcome of two very opposite choices. The evil wizard offers you the chance to become the most powerful conjurer in the land, if only you'll throw this bag of kittens into a growling wood chipper. Or, you may destroy the evil wizard by high-fiving a barefoot orphan and giving him your boots. The choices are often both comically black-and-white and bind their consequences to obvious story progression or ascendancy of one morality: do the evil thing, gain evil magic, do the good thing, gain the powers of light. The game tracks some manner of karma metric, determining whether you're the one-eyed bad-ass feared across the land or the angelic force for good who slays evil with his winning smile.

Real moral choices are rarely so simple and do not present obvious outcomes. The Fed-Ex guy doesn't show up and offer to give you an extra package if you'd be willing to kick a puppy.

No, the dilemmas we face are rarely that forthright: Do you lie to your boss to get a day off? If you catch a friend cheating on a test, do you tell the teacher? Same question but, this time, it's not your friend you catch but a bully who kicks your ass every day after school - now do you tell the teacher? In our day-to-day lives we encounter questions that challenge our social norms and mores, choices whose answers are uncertain and whose consequences are equally indeterminate. Some moral quandaries present situations where one must imagine and then choose the lesser of two evils (your pregnant wife is having a troubled labor and they can save the baby or they can save your wife, but not both).

Those are the kinds of questions that Alter Ego lays in front of you. It's not about your willingness to burn down an orphanage for forbidden lore or rescue a koala bear from a speeding locomotive. It's about the life choices you make and their often unpredicted results.

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