Mechanical Morality

I like video games, it’s why I have a blog dedicated to reviewing them. I also like the idea of having an impact on the plot of the game, rather than just hitting the preset criteria for the next cutscene to unfold.

But all too often, this isn’t done with moral choices. Regardless of whether you’re so evil Lucifer himself blushes at the amount of orphans you’ve made for no reason other than amusement, or so saintly you make Mother Theresa look like a baby eater, you’ll still kill the villain and your party will still follow you, because you’re the protagonist.

Fable is a prime example, being good or evil is almost purely aesthetic. There are a few differences to gameplay, but regardless of what you do, you still kill Jack of Blades at the end. Sure, you get a last minute choice to carry out his plan anyway or to avert it, but even if you’re playing the Lost Chapters where the game does continue after this choice, the only difference is in which sword you get.

This isn’t the right way to ask me to make a choice, because it’s only really a triviality, and while individual choices may not be irreversible, my overall evilness is. I’d often go between good and evil on a whim, not caring about the consequences my actions had.

The other system is typically to make morality a mechanic. It has more obvious benefits, and in order to gain the full benefits, you’ll need to fully commit to one over the other. That’s not right either, then I’m just strung into pre-determined responses of another choice, selecting options for the most points rather than roleplaying this character as I would respond, or my perception of this character I’ve created would respond. Maybe even locking myself out of choices I want to make, because then I can’t get something else later down the road.

So where have I seen the aspect of choice done right? Well first of all the above approaches aren’t always wrong. The whole ‘commit to one or the other’ works well if you’ve got two diametrically opposed ideologies of factions like The Force from Star Wars. It makes sense, a Jedi can have moments of weakness, or a Sith a moment of compassion. So breaking the trend every once in a while still allows you to roleplay, and the default good/evil all the time feels like it’s actually a role within itself, rather than a restriction.

Likewise, making good and evil a cosmetic choice isn’t wrong either, but it more suits a game that isn’t trying to make you the hero, like Overlord or Black and White.

But yes, better choice. Mass Effect didn’t have good and evil, it was Paragon (diplomatic, tolerant and calm) versus Renegade (ruthless, pragmatic and aggressive). In the first game, you increased your ability to use Paragon or Renegade conversation options was increased like any other stat. Sure, you’d miss out on some chances because you wanted to beef up your combat skills, but playing that character through a second time means you can pretty much fully upgrade those stats from the get-go, and choose to approach any situation you want any way you want. I loved being able to do this. In fact, it was my favourite part of the game.

But in number two, your ability to unlock these options was dependent on the number of Paragon or Renegade ‘points’ you had, which didn’t carry over when you replayed the character. And seeing as you needed full points in one or the other to prevent the death of your team members and there were finite points in the game, you pretty much had to have one bar full at the complete expense of the other if you cared about your characters (and this is a Bioware game, so you do).

That was the wrong direction. Nice Shepard can sound just as stupid and nasty Shepard, and sometimes I’d want to indulge in a bit of cold-hearted pragmatism or shout down some bastard, but if I did, maybe Mordin would die. And I love Mordin. And Tali. And Jack. And Garrus. And Thane. And Grunt. You get the idea. Sometimes, I’d have to disagree with things I do agree with, or upset characters I liked, so I could be stupid, thoughtless Shepard who wanted everything to be made of puppy dogs and roses. While the gameplay was mostly improved for the better since the first game, this was a huge step back.

I preferred how it was handled in Dragon Age: Origins, where there literally wasn’t a morality system. Instead, different characters would approve or disapprove of your actions, and as such it was your conscience and value of their opinions that would affect your judgement. Though I had my problems with the rest of the game, this was by far and away the best iteration of this I’d seen.

Sure, I was still the good guy more often than not, but that’s because I wanted to be good. And I was free to be horrible to people who disparaged me for being an elf, or to treat my enemies with scorn and malice if I felt like it. If Lelianna didn’t agree with my choice, I’d pick her a flower and we’d be back to a state of sickeningly loved up. And I’d occasionally pick things just to annoy Morrigan.

It’s been used well in other places, like The Stanley Parable (again, I want to talk about that game all day but doing so would utterly ruin it). Or Bastion, where the choices do have an impact on the plot, but it’s so rare and only occurs at the end. In effect, you build everything to the tipping point and then decide its conclusion.

So what do I want in future? I want to be a Paragon or Renegade, not Saint or Devil. And I want my choices to be dictated by my conscience, by what I feel is right and what I want to happen. Bioware, you’ve got the two perfect halves of the whole from what I can see. Now put them in the same game.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mitch Allan
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 19:35:33

    I absolutely agree – Bioware have got this pretty much sorted – though both systems could do with a tweak.
    I liked to be the good guy, but throw a hissy when humans started getting all ‘lol elf’ at me; and similarly I liked that my Shepard was mostly nice, but flipped a lid when Ashley started reminding me that she doesn’t like aliens that much.
    The choices all felt more realistic than ‘save the kitty/eat the kitty’ which we’ve seen in so many older ‘moral choice’ titles.

    Although, I did once hear that a moral choice isn’t between good and evil – everyone wants to pick good. It’s between Evil1 and Evil2, and you have to decide which is better/easier/whatever (and that’s what I’d call the moment in ME2 where you decide the fate of the geth – if only they didn’t attach Paragon to one and Renegade to the other, and made them both Renegade).


  2. jackcalico
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 19:41:28

    Confession time: I re-programmed them. Cause I was trying to orchestrate peace between the Geth & the Quarians, and rogue Geth would just get in everyone’s way. I hope that in 3 helping to save the Rachni, Krogan, Quarians and Geth mean they all help me.

    In the context of the game, I felt that the needs of the galaxy outweighed the rights of the Heretic Geth. As a minimum, I felt I’d be leaving the Quarians & Geth to almost guaranteed extinction to do otherwise. At the most, it might doom all life in the galaxy to extinction, and I’m *really* fond of Mordin & Tali.


    • Mitch Allan
      Sep 02, 2011 @ 17:12:00

      Well, yeah – that’s what makes it such a clever device – that you have to think that hard about the repurcussions for the rest of the galaxy, and what you find most important in it.
      I’m pretty sure when I get there, I’ll wimp out and reprogram them too. Probably because seeing Renegade points pop up on my screen does to make me go D= D= D=
      Also, I would wipe out the galaxy before I let anyone hurt Tali. Which is probably not a great trait in a starship commander >_>


  3. jackcalico
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 18:22:33

    If Bioware really want to put in a great choice for 3, they’ll make the player choose between Tali & Garrus. I would just cry and breakdown.


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