If you’ve ever played an RPG chances are probably good that it happened to you. You’ve completed the quest, recovered a lost relic, and defeated the boss. But now you face a choice… You could return the relic to its rightful place, or sell it and pocket the abundance of cash. They’re called moral choice systems, and they are becoming increasingly popular in mainstream games.
Moral choice systems were made to give players a “real” sense of their actions. They are designed to give use pause when deciding what to do. The thing is, are they what we need in our games? After all, games are a form of escapism for us, and part of the reason we love them is the ability to murder NPC after NPC guilt-free. In many ways, we can view moral choice systems as a positive force for the gaming industry. If you believe that games are a form of art, then moral choice systems are a step in the right direction, as they can often show the complexities of a seemingly simple situation. But sometimes, when all we want to do is blow off some steam by decapitating hordes of suburban moms and their lawyer-husband counterparts, they only serve as giant, veiny, throbbing walls to our fun. And warning, there may be spoilers ahead.
One of the biggest examples of moral choice system failures is Dishonored. Now before I start let me say that I enjoyed the game. The stealth was well designed and fun, if a little over-easy. The story however, was one of the most colossal failures I have seen in recent memory for one simple reason. For every life you took, your ending got a little darker. On the surface, this sounds reasonable; the less you kill, the brighter the world is. But this all has a little bit too much of a Disney stiffy attached to it.
From the start of the game, Corvo is given a mask that resembles a steampunk skull. When you play as a bodyguard turned assassin, you want to slit throats first and ask questions second. This is all turned upside-down when, after each life you take, your rebel friends start hating you. But the biggest travesty of all, is that by all other possible means, the game encourages you to kill. Every single upgrade, every single weapon, and every single rune gives you the power to kill with more ease. And it all works extremely well, which makes it even more painful when you find out that Corvo has ruined the kingdom by being a death dealer.
But Dishonored is mostly a singular case. There are some games that work well with moral choice. The problem I noticed however, is that many times the choices are too polarized. Take commander Shepard for instance. Sometimes it’s impossible to distinguish whether he is a scathing psychopath, or a kind-spirited pacifist. On one occasion, I had the choice to turn in a refugee that had been accused of stealing. But I only had two options; call the refugee a liar and proclaim her guilty, or scold the accuser of being a bad person. Where were the other options?
Often times, even in Skyrim, the choices run on one side of the spectrum. You must either join the dark brotherhood, or destroy it. Obey the Daedra, or turn away from them. Now I’m not saying that these choices are bad. But even when offered two choices, there is one that is usually the better option. Joining the Dark Brotherhood offers loads of gold, better equipment, and more companions, whereas destroying it offers a minimal gold reward. And that’s it. No further story, no rebuilding, no finding out what they were really up to, just done. Now I love both games. And even with these things considered, they are still great. But too often, I find that I only am given two options. If I find a missing boy for instance, I can return him to his family and claim my reward, or I could use the boy to find his family and sell them all into slavery.
Okay that last part was mostly made up. But the fact remains that sometimes, when all one wants to do is kill, moral choice systems get in the way. They kill the fun that is the mindless slaughtering of innocents.
Even after my rant, they aren’t all bad. They can be done well in some cases, but It’s important not to forget why we play games. We want to escape, and sometimes that means we need to murder some demons, aliens, or people without thinking about the existential consequences for a change.
The spirit of moral choice systems are praiseworthy. Some games, like the Mass Effect series even go so far as to give us consequences for our actions. But they don’t need to crop up everywhere. Sometimes they ruin a good story by making us feel guilty for killing a person that was in our way. When it comes to choices in games, the trouble is that when we choose to do good on some occasions, and be evil on others, we are left with a bland, generic ending. Even Mass Effect 3 reduces that middle road, and forces you to be either Mother Theresa, or Gary Busey on a bad hair day.
So, are moral choice systems bad? No. They are okay. In some games, they are even great. But the gaming industry needs to keep in mind that sometimes, we just want to shoot some people consequence free.