Morality in games (part 2: theories)

[Games,General] (12.29.07, 9:29 pm)

So, in an earlier post I described some of the morality systems that games have when they present the player with choices of a supposedly moral nature. The primary issue that I am criticizing is the “karmic” system where choices serve to advance the player on some Cartesian axis or grid where each point represents a moral position. Here I’ll make an overview of a variety of systems, and hopefully describe a few ways to get around this quandary and have meaningful choices that are still playable.

Method 1: Multiple Axes

Rather than having a single good-evil axis, there is one or more additional axes that denote various types of moral positions. Usually, this follows in the tradition of Dungeons and Dragons and provides two axes: Good-Evil and Lawful-Chaotic. Together, including a neutral ground between the axes, it creates a grid of nine moral positions. My complaints with the existing good-evil axis do not need to be repeated, but the introduction of the neutral category is rather disturbing.

What does it mean to be neutral on a scale of good to evil? The way that it is posed in D&D is that neutral characters do not “feel strongly” towards the greater good or evil or order or chaos in the grand scheme of things. In the Planescape world setting, neutral characters seek balance between the two poles. So, as a result, a neutral character might do one good or lawful thing and then one evil or chaotic thing to restore the balance. It may be just me, but this take on neutrality seems highly contrived. While it may be viable in a world where good and evil are merely forces vying for domination, but this is not really interesting in a more humanistic sense. Who on earth would act like that?

Another issue is the lawful pole on the grid. Having law as an end point or value undermines the nature of law itself, which is its variability. Different societies and cultures have varying laws, and in many examples, these are in direct conflict with each other. Good and evil are also cultural perceptions, and what is lawful in one culture may be considered evil in another. What would a lawful character do when posed with such a contradiction?

The problem with multiple axes (at least in the good-evil law-chaos plane) is that absolutes are meaningless in a larger cultural system. Choices that would move a character on one axis in one culture may have an opposite or perpendicular meaning in another culture. Were the technique employed in a situation where the axes were different, this approach may have a different effect.

Method 2: Context Sensitive Decisions

A decision made by a player in a moral space where decisions are made relevant according to what the player’s current or moral position is. This is generally employed on a traditional single axis, but it empowers the axis to have more weight as the decisions may change the player’s moral position unexpectedly.

At the heart of this matter is relevance: in a traditional axis where certain decisions are given fixed increments that advance the player’s karma in one direction or another, no matter what value the player’s karma has, it will be affected in the same way (except if it has a maximum or minimum value or something).

So, suppose I am in a game and I find someone’s wallet lying around. If my character is already a terrible person, stealing the wallet is not really all that bad compared to my character’s ordinarily despicable behavior. That action probably would not change the karma meter at all, because it is consistent with his actions. On the other hand, if he returns it, then that is a significant moral change in behavior and warrants an adjustment. Similarly, if an ordinarily good character steals the wallet, that is a significantly immoral thing to do given his good standing, and would dock the morality meter significantly. Interestingly, leaving the wallet alone (normally a pass in most game settings) would, in reality, vary someone’s morality depending on their current standing. If a bad character leaves it alone, then the owner may find it, and the bad character has passed up an opportunity for stealing, so this is more moral than his current behavior. Consequently, if a good behavior leaves it alone, then someone else could steal it, which is less moral than his behavior.

I am told by reliable sources that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic does something similar to this, where good actions are less meaningful when the player is already good, and bad actions will change the player’s karma by a large degree. If it were pushed further, designers could create very interesting situations where bad characters can do one significant selfless thing that serves as a redemption, or a good character can do one terrible thing that serves as a fall. This would be a step up from the sort of Fable mechanic wherein the player’s random murder of a civilian is otherwise overlooked given his past history of good deeds, running errands, and fighting monsters.

Method 3: Change the Axis

One of the least costly (both in terms of technical consideration and in writing and design) is to use the axis system, but tilt it slightly. Karma axis systems are popular because they are easy to write and easy to understand. Most of the problems with the axis system, though, lie in its application to a flawed moral system. If the axis is tilted so that it does not lie on a plane of convoluted extremes, it can be deployed very effectively. My favorite example of this comes in the Geneforge games put out by Spiderweb Software. In the fourth game in the series, the player is confronted with questions about control, authority, and independence, letting the player side between one of two, admittedly flawed, factions in the game. Neither of these sides is good nor evil, both have strong virtues and serious flaws. Either extreme, seems crazy, but a neutral and balanced position is extremely hard to find and support within the game.

This combination of things means that the player must think and decide on what position she wishes to take in the crazy moral universe that the game provides. Each decision is a tricky point because of the questions that are asked, even if the answers only serve to adjust a number by some incremental value. As a result, the series is sometimes seen as hard to play by players who wish to take the moral high ground with their characters. The most recent installment allows a morally justifiable ending, but attaining it requires a great deal of struggle, which is perhaps as it should be.

Experimental Methods:

There is another approach, which I will cover in part 3, which is an experimental idea that synthesizes the above to form a complex and interesting moral playing field that would allow characters to make complex decisions and interact in meaningful ways, that is much more robust than a single axis would allow. This idea also would involve some conceptual work, but would not be very hard to implement.

In many stories villains are not overtly evil, but rather they operate according to their own moral code, which may not be all that different from that of the player or reader. The idea I propose would allow a representation of this in procedural form.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.