Sunday, 18 November 2012

Morality and Player Choice

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend Dig London, a gaming and technology conference (in Ontario, not England). One of the biggest highlights of the day was, without a doubt, listening to two back-to-back talks by Bioware story slingers Ken Thain and Mike Laidlaw. They addressed the matters of narrative, when and where to inject it into gameplay, player freedom, player perspective, etc. It was a very interesting hour, and got me thinking a lot about a topic that has been on a lot of peoples' minds in recent years; morality systems. Of course a lot of the reason my brain went there is simply because they are Bioware guys. While Bioware didn't invent game morality systems, they are certainly a big proponent of them. Regardless, now that morality systems are on my mind, I figure I should do what I do on this blog, and try to translate my random thoughts into a somewhat coherent analysis of the matter at hand.

So for the uninitiated, let's take a look at what "morality system" typically means in the video games we have seen to date. Or at least the games that I personally know fairly well / have played. Basically a morality system can be summed up as presenting the player with a choice, judging the morality of their response, and then reacting to the player's decision. Typically this is achieved through some form of dialogue tree, though it can be accomplished directly through gameplay. Perhaps the player finds a man trapped under an object and is given the option to free him, or steal his wallet. Taking the wallet obviously gives the player the immediate reward of money, whereas freeing the man may open up future rewards. Heck, not freeing the man may make him vindictive and also shape future scenarios. This type of interaction on it's own is great. Offering the player choices is at the very core of what makes video games such a fantastic medium.

Having a wide range of choices that can potentially shape the world and it's inhabitants, as well as offering the player a way to carve a path that's different from their friends (or even their last playthrough), can be nothing short of magical.Where the issues arise is when we try to assign labels to or quantify the morality of the player's actions. When we first started to see games doing this it was ok, cool even. It's kind of neat to become as good or evil as you can, especially if the game has a visceral reaction to that choice. However as the years march on, games get more complex, and we see this mechanic more and more, it becomes less and less interesting. This is especially true when we start rewarding the player for achieving a certain level of good/evil. The conclusion that I have come to, and it seems a pretty common opinion these days, is that such systems are simply too binary.

Essentially the problem that ends up rearing it's head in most morality systems, is that the player is either good or bad. The grey area in between is not only lacking in rewards, but is in fact punished. Players are rewarded for reaching a certain level of good or evil. A "good" player who makes an "evil" choice is only distancing themselves from that next reward. What's more, I find that I tend to simply choose good/evil at the beginning of the game, and that single choice determines what choices I will make for the rest of the game. It simply doesn't make any sense to pick a good option if I'm playing an evil character, and there aren't any rewards for staying neutral. At that point, choices stop being interesting. I'm not making choices based on what I would do, what my character would do, or anything in between. My choices are being driven entirely by what will create the strongest character. I doubt I'm alone in this, gamers tend to be very goal oriented.

The question then is how should morality be handled instead? Well, one option is to forget morality all together. Choices can still be both present and impactful without being labeled as good or bad. I believe the Witcher series goes this route, and people seem to approve for the most part. The obvious answer would be to reward neutrality, but that's a tricky business. If not done well it can feel a lot like rewarding inaction, which is somewhat counter-intuitive. For example, what would be a "neutral" action in the previously mentioned example? The only thing that comes to mind is seeing the trapped man and simply walking on. Another approach that could be taken is rewarding the player for keeping their good and evil equal. Perhaps getting 100 evil points earns you the first "evil" reward, whereas getting 50 evil and 50 good earns you the first "neutral" reward. I think the issue then is that your character can start to feel schizophrenic  The logic just doesn't work, it feels obtuse. It doesn't make sense to say a character is neutral just because all their loot from pillaging that orphanage was donated to the church.

So this all leads back to the matter of things being too binary. Besides the fact that it's boring if your only choices are "kill all the hobos" and "give the hobos all of your worldly possessions". Those aren't interesting, compelling choices. I think the issue is that finding where the grey area lies is not easy from a writing perspective. What's more, I think to a lot of people the grey options would just be more interesting by default than a blatantly good or evil choice. A character doing the right thing through shady means is almost always going to be more interesting than the steadfast paragon of virtue.

Regardless, I think it's pretty apparent that your choices are more interesting if their gameplay repercussions aren't so immediately apparent. If I think about a game like Planescape: Torment, the options are much less glaringly "this is good, this is evil, this is lawful, this is chaotic", though some of that is unavoidable. I found myself always doing what I felt my character would do, not what would lead me towards a particular alignment. When you do manage to achieve that, it also means that making those tantalizing choices that would benefit you but fly in the face of what your character stands for, a whole lot more interesting. However if you do have a system with less easily identifiable good / evil choices, it can also be frustrating. Perhaps you are targeting a certain alignment but inadvertently choose an option that goes against that. The natural reaction is to feel like the game was not clear enough and screwed you out of those precious alignment points.

I think that to me at least, the best approach to take to player morality is to offer the player choices based on their standing, but not to reward them quite so directly. This way the player doesn't feel like they aren't necessarily obliged to head in a certain direction. They worry more about the choice and the repercussions of said choices within the world, than what it means for their alignment. You can still reward the player by opening up avenues that wouldn't otherwise be open, and these rewards don't have to be exclusive to alignment. An evil character would not be eligible for good guy stuff and vice versa, but perhaps a neutral character can stick their finger in several pies. I imagine a system where there are say 3 tiers of evil, good and grey, and the player's options are determined by looking at 2 tiers to either side of their current standing. This can be extended to the full gambit of lawful and chaotic as well.

In the end I think the issue all comes down to the level of complexity we are implying. Writing for a game with a large possibility space is incredibly time consuming, and just plain hard. Sticking to a simpler binary system is still a good way to inject that element of choice without adding an unmanageable amount of complexity. It also comes down to the fact that, when you are looking at a morality system, it's especially apparent that different people are different. Different players are going to approach a game differently, and want different things out of their game. I'm positive that there are plenty of people out there who are perfectly content with a totally binary system, and that's ok. In my opinion morality systems need a facelift though. There is no clear answer, and much like different players will want different things, different developers will want their game to be different things for different reasons.

This is a topic that could be discussed every day for years and no single shining answer will rear it's head. I'm sure the guys over at Bioware have been over all of this and significantly more several times, internally. Needless to say they have significantly more experience and expertise than I do, I'm sure they fully realize Paragon and Renegade is not a super deep system, and that was probably done for a good reason. I feel like in a lot of ways I'm just scratching the surface here. I find it interesting and informative to look at the topic none the less. Maybe I'll revisit it again at a later date, but for now I bid you adieu.

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