Morality/Choice Systems In Games
With stories becoming more in-depth and technology allowing for drastic changes to the setting of a game world, the issue of “choices” has become a key element in many games. However, while there are a great number of games that say they offer an intense morality/choice system there is a great difference in those that live up to that promise and those that don’t. I looked at some of these games and came up with what I felt were the best and worst examples of realistic morality/choice systems in recent games. Now by best I don’t mean perfect, games are still improving on this. And by worst I don’t mean that I disliked the games, but rather was just disappointed by that aspect of it.
Fable 2 and Fable 3
Before Fable 2 came out there were many discussions about what new and wonderful things this game was going to bring to not only the Fable universe but action RPGs period. A lot of focus was on the morality system in the game and how they wanted to challenge gamers to truly play as they wanted, and not just become heroes because that was what was expected. This was a hefty promise and one that many gamers were excited for. However, when you sit down to play Fable 2 it’s very clear that this promised system is not there at all.
First it’s worth mentioning in the actual story there are only a few choices. Not only that but the promise was to let gamers play as they truly want to, that’s not really the case. With most of the choices you are punished for choosing the “good” option. You can’t really say that you want to give gamers freedom and then try to force them to play anti-heroes by punishing them for being more traditional heroes. This isn’t freedom, nor is it proving that most people would rather be an anti-heroes. This is forcing them to make bad choices, or forcing them to suffer for not doing so. It’s not fun, and it’s not a good morality system. A good morality system gives you pros and cons for going either way, and really allowing you to choose what is best for you.
Aside from these few moments though there really isn’t any other choices that people can make in this game at all. It basically comes down to whether or not you want to kill people around town, and how you want rent prices to be when you start buying up property. On the reverse, of the story choices there are punishments to being bad. When you kill an NPC they stay gone which can lock people out of certain stalls to own (and shop from) as well as the chance to actually rent out all the property. People will also move out which once again adds to the punishment of being a bad landlord. Once again there is just no actual freedom, if you want to make money off the cities you better be a good guy.
Red Dead Redemption
The morality system in RDR is so minor that most people can forget that it’s even there. Throughout the game you’ll be given random choices, very few actually related to the overall story. Depending on how you behave you will either gain or lose honor points. For instance when you hear about a thief while riding through towns, you will gain more honor for capturing him/her alive then bringing them in dead. Shooting innocent people results in loss of honor, while many missions will help you regain honor. The thing is, there is really nothing to be gained or lost depending on what your honor rating is. There are a few random moments in the game that can change ever so slightly, and a few minor rewards for your honor level, but they simply don’t stand out in the grand scheme of things. You can ride on the more neutral level for most of the game without actually noticing a difference.
Unlike with the above mentioned Fable this isn’t very disappointing because it’s not something that most gamers expected or really needed in this game. It does however beg the question of – if it’s so unimportant why include it at all?
Grand Theft Auto 4
This one is hard to put on the list because there is no actual tracking of morality. However a few times in the game you are given a choice whether to kill a person or do a certain thing. The problem with this is there is only one instance with any sort of consequence and it’s a pretty big one. Other than that, no choice you make at any point matters. The game will still unfold in a similar way and the people you let live never make another appearance nor is there anything negative from killing them. So in an already short list of choices set up, there is only one that matters. Even with that one choice though, after you see the impact of it, the game still unfolds in the same way. Once again, Rockstar includes a few choices but then never fleshes it out, so why bother at all?
Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas
A lot of people complain that the karma system in Fallout games is flawed because you lose karma even when your crimes aren’t witnessed, and I agree with that. However it’s one flaw in an otherwise pretty solid system. Throughout the story and side missions your character is faced with a number of choices, and as your karma raises or lowers the way the rest of the people react to you. Various locations and followers will be closed off to people with a karma rating that is too high or too low. Even having a neutral rating is important to some successes, but this does happen less often.
In the case of Fallout 3 there are certain ways around this. You can go up and down in karma in order to try to gain access to certain things that you couldn’t before, or at higher levels pass speech checks. However, Fallout 3 does not simply allow players to skip all consequences for their choices. Certain choices will have to be made at particular points in the game and they can not be taken back or undone. The side effects of which will have to be dealt with for the rest of the game. This is something I consider very important in games that offer the “choice” system. There has to be real and lasting consequences to the actions you take. While there may not be many of these choices it’s wonderful to see them.
Fallout New Vegas manages to apply this same karma system with the added faction system. There are multiple factions, and as you progress through the story, you start to make enemies of many of them. It’s nice to see the karma system make an appearance and get an upgrade with the faction system. However, there aren’t as many major plot points where the world is actually changed because of the choices the gamer makes. It’s also important to note that the gamer can avoid actually upsetting the factions until the very last moment. However once the gamer starts progressing the main story it’s impossible to avoid the consequences of whatever path you choose.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
From the start of this game the player is presented with many choices. Even playing for the Republic, the gamer must still choose to go towards the light or dark side (the same for Empire players). Trying to remain neutral is a possibility however it makes the game very difficult. To get the most out of this MMO players really do need to try to choose a light or dark path, and for the most part stick to it. This can be tricky because there may be “light” choices that the player will disagree with so ultimately they will have to weigh whether or not they think they can still reach a higher level in light side while choosing a few dark options, or vice-versa.
In addition to the players own light and dark side, how the player behaves will affect their relationship with their companions. Certain side missions can only be opened by gaining a certain level of affection from companions. You also need to to keep companions affection high to determine how well they do when you send them out on crew skill missions. Companions with low affection will often come back empty handed. Constantly being watched by the companions in your party means that you will have to be careful about what choices you make in dialogue.
MMOs can be sort of difficult to compare to other games with this sort of system. Since they are already so large a lot of them leave out many choices that change the way the game is played. TOR is a step back when compared to many single player games, but a huge leap forward when compared to it’s MMO counterparts.
Mass Effect Series
What the Mass Effect series manages to do that makes it part of the best is, it creates a continuous world that in turn has continuous consequences. Choices made in the first game might not seem that important until suddenly in the third game important elements are changed. Also the party available to the gamer will change as their story progresses. Each player is responsible for keeping their party alive, and will have to make choices with a few as to who lives and who dies. It’s not impossible to get a group together with entirely different remaining characters. In addition to just changing who is still around for each game, it will change certain story missions as well. Sadly there are few of these moments across all three games, but to see all three games interconnected is a pretty impressive feat and gives me hope that many more games will learn from this and apply it to their own games.
As far as the rest of the morality choices go it is pretty basic. Shepard is still basically Shepard, but how he/she behaves will change based on the choices the gamer makes. In comparison to the few major moments this can feel pretty small. However Shepard is written so dynamically that it is very enjoyable to see how he/she develops based on how the gamer chooses to behave while going through the story. The very mean anti-hero Shepard may have the same basic intentions as good Shepard, but the dialogue will change a rather significant amount making the story compelling enough to play through more than once.