I don’t know about the rest of you, but I take some pride in the fact that my video game morality seems to be, on average, slightly higher than my regular people morality. It shows in an ideal world, I’d probably be a decent person, although I’m almost certain my collective Saints Row series playtime is probably pushing that morality number down a fair amount.
In light of the fact that Bioware’s latest entry into the Dragon Age series is coming out this year, I thought it a good time to talk about something that’s always bothered me about one of the staple elements of RPG games. That is the eternal battle between good and evil, or rather, the morality system present in most RPGs these days.
If you’ve played a Bioware game like Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect or Dragon Age, you’ll have encountered this system in some shape or form, with it being present in other big name games like the Fallout series as well. Sometimes it’s called the Karma meter, and it represents how you as a person are viewed in the universe you inhabit. Do good deeds, and people will recognize you as a generally trustworthy individual. They might give you freebies, for example, or more righteous companions might decide to join your cause. Be an asshole, and everyone will recognize your asshole-ish potential and react accordingly, usually violently, and often only the seediest of the wretched hive of scum and villainy will associate with you.
Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work anyway. But unfortunately, it seems that a game is a pretty poor medium to implement as complex a system as morality, which is fair enough; we don’t have a pretty good grasp on it ourselves. However, sometimes it can be downright infuriating, and that is where today’s article comes in.
I’ve already heavily referenced Bioware, mostly because they use these systems fairly regularly and aren’t afraid to play about with them a bit, but also because their systems are regarded as selling points, and I sometimes take that as a bit of a challenge. Of course, when you think of binary morality systems, and you’re as massive a nerd as I am, the first thing that might come to mind is the Star Wars system of the Force, which is neatly split into two different sides, the creatively termed Light Side and Dark Side.
Let’s ignore the massive existential crisis that should come from realizing that the bad guys and good guys are being powered by the same omnipotent energy source that doesn’t seem to care that it’s perpetuating a millennia long conflict between superpowered samurai wizards. No, we’re going to focus instead on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, or as it’s commonly known, the prequel we can all agree on. Your character eventually unlocks access to the Force, and over the course of the game can modify his or her karma to gain more access to the Light and Dark side powers the Force grants. The game can be completed with either morality, and it does add some flavour to repeated playthroughs.
The problem arises when you link gameplay rewards and mechanics to the karma system, like KOTOR does. By maxing out your Light Side or Dark Side points, you gain access to increasingly powerful abilities, and attempting to access the other side’s abilities comes at a penalty. Therefore, there’s no reason for you to vary your approach to a solution. From start to finish, you will either be a saint who would put Fred Rogers to shame, or a puppy-kicking space facist who hates joy in all its forms. In this, however, you could probably put it down to being true to the source material. After all, if the Sith weren’t portrayed as the most dedicated jackasses to the detriment of all reason and benefit to themselves, they wouldn’t really be in character now, would they?
KOTOR is an old game; let’s jump forward a bit into our own spacefuture, and a series which posits that we will one day have flying cars and that they’ll be as unwieldy as a rampaging rhino, an excellent combination we’re sure. Mass Effect dispenses with the terms ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’. The binary choice is now between ‘Paragon’ and ‘Renegade’, and before you think that Bioware just managed to find their thesaurus, think again. While a Paragon is essentially a boy scout, with at one point a genuine ‘hug’ option, Renegade doesn’t necessarily mean ‘evil’, it’s more geared towards pragmatism and more ‘ruthless’ options. In addition, there are no longer exclusive abilities linked to either end of the spectrum, the degree to which you hold to one creed or the other simply being a measure of how charming or intimidating respectively you can be. But ultimately, your Shepard is still fighting against a massive threat to the entire galaxy, so you can’t exactly call a ‘Renegade’ evil.
Except for when you CAN, because a pure ‘Renegade’ playthrough involves nothing short of being an absolute ass to every single person you ever encounter, a bold strategy to take when one is trying to amass forces to take on a genocidal race of Space Lovecraftian Horrors. A Renegade Shepard will start fights, punch reporters, shoot fanboys, frame people and accuse them of hating freedom, and generally spend their free time being as much of a dick as he or she can possibly be at any given moment of the space day. At the most extreme, a Renegade Shepard has the option to cause the genocide of half the species encountered in the game. Which must make the Reapers exceptionally confused when they turn up and half the work is done for them in the name of stopping them. And though karma-related abilities are gone, your karma is important in enabling certain powerful dialogue options, which can severely impact your game if you don’t have the charm or intimidation factor to activate them.
And we can’t talk about morality without considering the series that inspired this article, namely the Dragon Age series. The straightforward morality system is replaced in this series, instead choosing to focus on individual character interaction instead. Each character has their own set of beliefs, morals, goals, likes and dislikes, and they will change their approval towards you in accordance with your deeds. Now this is more like it! Surely with this, if you’re good constantly, the more unscrupulous characters will be unhappy, and if you’re evil, the good guys will hate you. That should be simple enough, hmm?
Well, no. In fact it’s worse this time, because now instead of holding to a creed such as ‘Good’ or ‘Evil’, you’re encouraged to tailor your dialogue to each person individually. While before, being a senseless asshole might have gotten you personally better abilities, here there is absolutely no benefit to encouraging a person to hate you. In fact, the opposite is true; become friends with your party members and they’ll get massive stat boosts, piss them off and they’ll leave with all your expensive DLC armour never to return (until you reload your save). The concept is perhaps best represented by the in-game character Morrigan, who encourages you to backstab, betray or otherwise ignore the plight of everyone you encounter, which once again rather goes against the idea of raising an army. You’d imagine morality would come into play here, with such a stupidly evil character being impossible for a good aligned Warden to befriend, but no, that’s not so. Unsurprisingly, despite her approval bonuses for senseless stupidity in favour of kicking dogs, it’s even easier just to say nice things about her and give her stuff.
Dragon Age II by contrast has a fleshed out system, where you can be an asshole to your party members and it’s called ‘Rivalry’ instead. It’s touted as a clash of ideologies as opposed to you and your party member outright hating each other. A rival will banter and hang around with you as much as a friend would. Except here we have a new problem, and that is specifics. See, when you’re someone’s friend in DAII, you support their decisions entirely, even though some of them are really freakin’ stupid. Looking at you, Anders. Otherwise, you’re their rival, which means you’re opposed to their central creed and everything related to it. Companion Merill, for example, is an Elven Mage who likes mages (good), elves (good), elven history (good)… and conferring with demons in pursuit of knowledge (unsurprisingly bad). Be her friend, and you support her on all of these things, be her rival and you oppose her on all of these things, but if you want to cherry pick which things you support or discourage… well, too bad, there’s only one axis of friendship vs. rivalry, so you have to pick one. This is so deeply ingrained in the system that it’s the central theme of the entire game (choosing between one of two sides that is, not that demons are bad and mostly assholes. That’s kind of a given.)
Ultimately, there are three main problems in a video game morality system. The first is that it’s very hard to be evil, or rather, to be anything but incredibly stupid evil. There’s always going to be a bad guy out there doing weird, evil demony things, and as long as you’re working towards beating that guy, you are probably doing some good in the world, which means that to counterbalance that good, you must be the worst human being imaginable in order to maintain your flawless malevolence. Like, throw a puppy at an orphan or something similarly evil. Or the other way around. Fallout New Vegas is a good example of this, where you can be the heartless bastard who fired an orbital sun laser at a soup kitchen for the homeless, but the moment you defend yourself against nuclear zombies or drugged up Mad Max rejects, everyone will treat you as the second coming of the Messiah.
The second, and linked to the first, is neutrality. If there’s one thing a game hates more than a quitter, it’s a person sitting on the fence. Neutrality by definition in a game takes far more work than it really should. Sometimes you just have to do nothing, sometimes you’ll have to counterbalance your deeds by saving orphans from the orphanage fire you started. But the most impressive has to be the Shin Megami Tensei series which approaches neutrality like Switzerland, in which the only way to be neutral is to declare Law and Chaos to be equal assholes and destroy them all! Either way, sitting on the fence means much more work for the player.
But the ultimate problem is intent, which is a problem in a binary system that takes a player’s decision at face value. In Dragon Age II, for example, the player has the option to make their character a Mage. In this world, Mages are required to be incarcerated in a tower to stop them from accidentally bringing demons into the world (and because racism and all sorts of fun). The people in charge of this are Templars, knights who specialize in killing Mages. Naturally, you’ll want to draw attention away from the fact that you, an illegal Mage, are an illegal Mage, and maybe you’ll agree with a Templar that Mages are dangerous, because otherwise he’ll introduce a longsword into your anatomy in a way that is neither comfortable or sanitary. Mage in your party? Rivalry points. Because regardless of the circumstances, everything a player says will be taken as said, checked against the companion’s set of values, and the companion will come to the conclusion that you are a tremendous asshole. Which is, y’know, not so much wrong as imprecise.
So what am I getting at here? Ultimately, the moral choice system in games has sort of stagnated to choosing between one of two polarizing extremes and holding that position until the end of the game. There’s a lot of potential in a morality system, and I admit the context style morality that my rant here vaguely hints at would be hell to implement. But it’s important to start considering moralities beyond righteous saint or unending asshole, or for many games you might as well say at the start what morality you’re going to be choosing and lock that in until the end times.
Or don’t, because then how would I Renegade Interrupt Kai Leng in his smug, smug face?