I’ll start off by saying that storytelling in videogames has come a long way. In the earliest days of videogames, you either got a small preface in the form of some vague artwork, or, if you were lucky, a short paragraph in a manual. Other than that, a videogame’s narrative was whatever you made it out to be. As the technology has improved, so has the ability to really say something, and many games have used that to tell some pretty compelling stories. That being said, have developers actually figured out how to portray morality in their games?
My short answer to that question is, no. While a number of games have tried to introduce aspects of morality into games, for the most part, they’ve failed. In most cases, the entire concept of morality runs counter to the escapism that videogames provide. In other games, the concept is too limited, or so poorly implemented that it just becomes another gameplay element to be mastered, in order to complete the game. Of course everything in videogames is run off of a program, and any morality system is just a series of “If/Then” commands coded into that particular game.
For a large number of games, morality is totally off of the table. I mean just about any shooter game, is all about violence. For many gamers, it gives them a sense of empowerment that allows them to release frustration by killing things and blowing stuff up. Driving games serve much the same purpose, albeit in less violent way, typically. I mean, there aren’t any games about being a courteous driver, and allowing other drivers to merge into traffic ahead of you. Likewise, Call of Duty, Halo, Gears of War, and Battlefield aren’t about individually assessing the threat of enemy combatants, and don’t offer the ability to capture them.
When I think of morality in videogames, two of the games that come to mind first are the Mass Effect and Fable role playing games. Both games try, but ultimately fail, in my opinion, to implement a morality system. The Fable games do the worse job of the two, because while your appearance can change and NPCs will react differently to you, there is actually no permanent impact to the narrative based on how you play the game. While Mass Effect’s morality is, for the most part, too limited, at least in the first game, your overall morality actually determines a crew member’s fate.
Another game that tries to introduce a morality system is Dishonored. For me this is one of the most convoluted attempts that I’ve ever seen in a videogame. On one hand, the game does give you all of the tools to play the game nonviolently. It also creates a tangible effect for the level of violence you implement throughout the game, and even has different endings based on how you play the game. The problem is, that the morality makes no sense in the context of the overall narrative, particularly when it comes to the main bad guys. Considering their level of power and influence, the nonviolent choice of turning them over to “the authorities” is just silly. Imagine that the President of the United States wanted to kill you and your family, do you really think that calling 911 would solve that problem? I hope that the system in Dishonored 2 is a little more plausible.
What I would have liked to have seen, in all of these games is a more tangible, nuanced, and at the same time less visible effect of your moral choices. Morality isn’t a meter, and we all make moral decisions every day. Some of those choices have an immediate effect, some play out down the road, and others have no discernable impact in our lives, ever. As Game of Thrones has taught us, being the good guy also doesn’t always benefit you. There is also a significant difference between a perceived public morality, and a more personal one.
The Dragon Age games address this, but what I would also like to see, is more of an impact on relationships in games, based on your choices. If you’re too pious of a person, there are some that will shun you, and not only that, but try to take advantage of you. At the other extreme, if you’re too aggressive, you’re likely to turn others off. In most of the games that try to tackle this, it’s fairly easy to overcome, for the sake of the game’s scope. This is what the real issue of morality in videogames boils down to.
Unfortunately, just like with most videogames’ narratives, the morality systems lean towards being cartoony. However, with limited resources, and time and budget constraints, often game makers just aren’t afforded the luxury of implementing a realistic morality system into gaming. Like enemy AI, it’s a complex system with a lot of variables. Unlike AI though, a morality system also requires a strong narrative that supports it. It’s a daunting task, and not something that’s easily summarized in bullet point on a press release. Even if it was, a complex, nuanced morality isn’t quite as sexy as Ultra HD, or 60fps anyway. That doesn’t mean we can’t expect more, and ask for it.
The opinions in this editorial are the author’s and do not represent OnlySP as an organization.
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