The Illusion of the Moral Choice

For quite a while now, game designers have been working moral choices into video games. Gamers find themselves having to make decisions that will shape their characters, making them the ultimate hero or the diabolical villain. Many games have been praised for forcing people to actually think about what they want to do in a given situation, and some gamers, myself included, have found it next to impossible to take actions in game that would go against their moral codes.

When I look beyond the surface of these choices, however, I begin to wonder if they are not just a facade. Do the choices you make in the game really affect the outcome? Does choosing to be a jerk really mean anything if you can just erase the stain by being a saint come the next moral choice? Are we, as gamers, really being given a moral choice that will truly affect the game itself, or are we just being given something that looks that way so the designer can list that as a bullet point for selling the game?

In order to answer this question, I am going to look at just what makes up a moral choice in real life and then look at how companies have tried to introduce that into gaming. I will be examining many of the games which have been heralded as providing gamers with moral dilemmas to see if the choices really made that much of a difference. Basically, I am going to attempt to see if the games we play have really done a good job of integrating moral choices or if it is all just an illusion.

More than just Black and White

When I ask you about making a moral choice in a game, what comes to mind? Whether to help someone or kill them? Whether to serve the interest of a large entity, be it a corporation, government or otherwise, or help innocent people? Whether to help someone defend something valuable in hopes of a reward or kill them and take what you want?

Moral choices in real life are rarely this simple.

Let’s face it; moral choices in video games normally boil down to two things: Good or Evil. The choice is so obviously black and white it tends to lack any real punch. Jordan put it best in his article “Mass Ineffective;” the extent of most of the moral choices in games boils down to “Throw the puppy in the furnace” or “Turn off the furnace.” There is a slight problem with that: moral choices in real life are rarely so cut and dry.

When was the last time you faced a moral dilemma that was that obvious? Granted, they do exist, but I am much more likely to be facing questions like whether I should follow up on something at work that as not handled correctly and therefore serve the customer or throw it back in the lap of the person who made the mistake. Sure, the person who made the mistake needs to learn, but there are times where the right thing to do would be to just get the job done, and yet I balk at it because I feel entitled to making the other person fix it. Meanwhile, the customer is the one who suffers.

It’s choices like that one that truly define our morality. We live in a world full of shades of gray. We also have seen our games start to reflect our world more and more, whether in storyline, graphics or physics. So why have they not found ways to really integrate the moral struggles we actually deal with?

Maybe you think I am being a bit too harsh in saying that. Maybe I am. The only way to know for certain is to take a look at some of the games which have presented us with “moral choices” and see if they fit this pattern. Just as a word of warning: these next sections will contain spoilers; there really is no way of avoiding them.

You’re doing it wrong

Any of you remember what one of the major selling points of Fable was? You were going to be given the opportunity to create the ultimate hero or villain, and the choices you made were going to shape the world around you. While I liked the original Fable and really enjoyed its sequel, this was one of the many promises Peter Molyneux failed to deliver. The “Moral Choices” you make in that game are ridiculous. When a new quest is available in the Hero Academy, you are actually given two different versions of the quest: one good (protect the innocent travelers on the road) and one evil (join the bandits in robbing the travelers). Even the choice you make at the end of the game, whether to kill your sister in order to keep this ultimate weapon or destroy the weapon to save your sister, really does not have a major affect on the outcome. You can be the devil and kill your own flesh and blood, and yet you are still the “hero” because you took down the main villain of the game.

This choice should have meant more than it did.

Bioshock is another great example of a game which presented you with what appeared to be a moral choice with real consequences. Throughout the game, whenever you finished off a Big Daddy, you had to decide what to do about the Little Sister it was guarding. You could choose to cure her, gaining some Adam and knowing you have done the good thing, or you could harvest her, killing her cruelly yet gaining much more Adam for your troubles. Only two major problems with this perceived moral dilemma: every time you free three little sisters, you are given a gift pack containing extra Adam among other goodies which kind of offsets the positive bonus you get from harvesting, and other than the ending cut scene, the choice you make has no real effect on the game itself. The designers really had a chance to change things up based on the choices you made; they could have had Doctor Tenenbaum refuse to assist you if you harvested the girls, making you find another way to take out Fontaine. What could have been a monumental choice ends up really not mattering in the end.

What is even worse than the black and white moral choices are the ones which end up becoming more about the game mechanic than the choice itself. A great example of this is inFAMOUS. Most of the choices you make in the game are so completely black and white they make the choices in Mass Effect look gray. Then there is the “Do I save the woman I love or the doctors,” which ends up not really being a moral choice since Trish dies either way, one way professing how proud she is of Cole, the other cursing his name. Those pale in comparison to the last karmic moment of the game: do you choose to activate or destroy the Ray Sphere. Destroy it and you game some experience and some good karma. Activate it and you gain a ton of experience, three new battery cores to help you stay charged and your karmic rating is forever branded as evil/infamous. Now you know going into this decision that activating it will give you great power at the cost of many lives, but by putting that kind of a weight on it, the choice is now moot. After all, what kind of a moral dilemma is it if one choice ruins what you have been doing the entire game?

There are many other examples I can bring to up to show how little the moral choices really affect the games we play. No matter how noble you are when you meet Marle in Chrono Trigger, you will still end up having to fight your way out of jail. In the original Mass Effect, saving Wrex was more about getting charm or intimidation leveled up than it was about the choices you made. Modern Warfare 2 tried to force gamers into making a moral decision in the “No Russian” level, but since you cannot change the fact you are going to be shot and killed at the end of the level no matter how many innocent people you gun down, it kind of loses its teeth and becomes something many gamers, myself included, feel has no business being in the game. The list of games which just do not seem to get it goes on and on, but there have been a few which seem to be catching on.

Not all Moral Dilemmas fail

As easy as it is to rag on games where your moral choices just do not matter, there have been a few examples recently where designers seemed to have started to make them count. Fable II is one of these examples. While many of the moral choices are pretty obvious, a few do have more far reaching consequences. In the beginning of the game, you have to earn enough money to buy the music box. You go to Oldtown Bowerstone to try and find ways of making money and are presented with different quests where you can either help the honest people of that district or help the local crime lords. If you choose the former, Oldtown Bowerstone will become a thriving community later in the game. If you choose the latter, the area will be overrun with crime. Add to this the loss of experience when you choose to not be cruel in the Spire and the ultimate choice at the end, and you have a game which tries to make more out of its dilemmas than most others.

As much as Jordan ragged on it in his article, Mass Effect 2 actually does a decent job with some of its moral choices. There are a couple of times in particular where this comes into play. The first is during the loyalty mission for Samara. When Samara and Morinth are facing off, you get the opportunity to sway the outcome of the battle. Choose Samara and Morinth dies, while the Justicar pledges her loyalty fully to you. Choose Morinth and Samara is killed, with Morinth coming with you pretending to be her. This does make a difference as Morith’s powers are not the same as Samara’s, and if you do take the Ardat-Yakshi onto the ship, there is a chance you can lose Shepard. Then there is what happens after the Collectors kidnap the crew. While Jordan may not have known there was a danger to the crew if you did not go after them immediately, I figured there must be based on the comments about keeping your crew alive through the final mission. The problem is that event will be triggered a certain amount of time after trying to integrate the Friend or Foe tech into the Normandy. So what do you do if you have not fully gained the loyalty of your teammates before your crew is captured? Sure, you can go after the Collectors and try to rescue your crew, but without the loyalty of your team, your chances of making it back in one piece or at least with all the members of the team in tact are greatly reduced. What makes this work as a moral dilemma is it is not about being Paragon or Renegade; it is about how you played the game up to that point and whether you are willing to risk your teammates to save your crew.

Whether or not you choose to leave Sis alive can have a dramatic impact in Alpha Protocol.

Of all the games I have played where the moral choices have truly made a difference, the one which stands out is one which has been blasted by the critics. Alpha Protocol has many flaws, but one thing the developers did with this game has set it apart from any of the others on the list: they made your moral choices matter. At the end of the first chapter, you are given the choice t0 kill the terrorist who was responsible for shooting down the commercial airliner, arrest him for his crimes or set him free himĀ  to help you get the information on the corporation that set you up to die. From that point on, every decision you make matters. Choosing to only disable the CIA agents in the infiltration mission will raise your reputation with Mina, which benefits you. Madison Saint James can be a great help in Rome, but getting her involved could get her killed, which could help you deal with a major enemy later if you play your cards right. If you choose to kill Brayko in Russia, you will not learn who really smuggled in the weapons and will miss out on an entire mission. You are even faced with some real moral dilemmas, including one where you must either decide to rescue the Taiwanese president or allow him to be assassinated but stop the riots designed to let his assassins escape. Unlike most moral choices in games, this one forces you to decide which you think is the lesser of two evils: letting a good man who has worked to help his people die or saving him at the cost of the lives of many of the people he has chosen to protect. Oh, and thanks to the time limit you face when making most decisions in game, you do not really have the time weigh the pros and cons of both sides. It is choices like these that set Alpha Protocol apart. While the game may have several frustrating bugs that make it difficult to play at times, it more than any game I have played shows how moral choices can be integrated into video games properly.

Where do we go from here?

While a few game designers seem to understand that morality involves more than just black and white, it appears many have not realized adding true moral dilemmas into their games is going to take work. Of the three examples I listed of games where the choices mattered, it can be argued only Alpha Protocol truly demonstrates how morality can affect the game in more than just subtle ways. If game developers really want to add a level of realistic moral choices to their games, they will need to realize the choices need to involve more than the standard options of hero or villain.

Of course, there could very well be a downside to this. Adding moral choices which change the game can upset gamers who want to experience everything about the game in one sitting. That, however, is a discussion for another time.

One thought on “The Illusion of the Moral Choice

  1. Good read. It's true that there is somewhat of a facade that comes with these moral choices in games. I was actually thinking about this the other day, the idea of moral choices is so that the player can become unique, what they want to be, but ultimately you're on a pre-determined path in most games. I believe Mass Effect 2 did this right, and not just with morality. The choices made, the upgrades you bought, gaining crew mate's loyalty, all affected the outcome. An example of making a hard moral choice is on the loyalty mission for Zaeed, where you can either let other's (innocents) die, or save them letting Zaeed's target get away and risk him never being loyal. Not too mention choices you made in the first game can come to haunt you in the second, such as letting the council die.

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