Illusion of choice: morality systems in gaming

With the release of the Witcher 3, I’ve gone back and started to play the second game of the series. I originally bought the game during the Steam Summer Sale back in 2014 but lack of free time and the difficulty curb conspired to have me put the game aside. Admittedly, I only went through one play through, but what leaped to mind were the choices the player must make. Now, Yahtzee broke down why Geralt is a “Mary Sue“, so I won’t retread that discussion here. Instead, I wish to discuss choices when it comes to morality systems in games.

In my lifetime, I’ve played a good deal of computer role-playing games and the like. Although I don’t consider myself to be a full-fledged member of the gaming community. I dislike a lot of things within the community such as the rampant misogyny, terrible discourse, and many of the consumer and designer trends. In my experience, morality systems are usually very poorly implemented. Players are pigeon-holed into a binary choice between pure altruism or acting like utter sociopaths.

Red lasers, blue lasers; modern gaming morality descends from G.I.Joe.

The systems give incentive for players to go “all-in” to one or another ends of the spectrum. Thus, being a moderate or “shades of gray” character is either discouraged or punished by denying the player gameplay options. I can’t be ruthless towards a horrible person and altruistic towards someone who I feel might be sympathetic. Even D&D, where the idea of moral alignments in a game took root, there were more than 2 choices (3 to 10 depending on the edition).

Among the binary choices, I felt only the Paragon/Renegade choices in Mass Effect 2 and 3 were well written. Of course, the case of evil facial rash was distracting in the 2nd game of the series. Dragon Age 2 gave a third option of sarcastic dialogue which added some levity but was otherwise more a companion reaction driven mechanic and for flavour. I was glad to see the dual morality system seemingly disappear during Dragon Age: Inquisition. Sure, I can understand the game should track your past decisions and how these would affect the world and the people within it. But shouldn’t this simply affect the reactions and effects around you indirectly and not something which rewards you directly?

The illusion of choice is that besides maybe the final cutscene, the narrative is totally unaffected by your moral decisions. Whether you murdered the guy the previous stage and took a dump down his throat or sent him off to prison, this doesn’t have any bearing on the story going forward. Star Wars is great and all, but Light vs Dark is a very simplistic narrative. Gaming is no longer dominated by kids but teens and young adults. TV has adapted by giving us layered and interesting characters. It’s time gaming grows up if it wants to be taken seriously as an art form. Also, treat women like human beings.

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