If any images are buggered up in this, I apologize. First blog and whatnot. A word of warning, I don't have too many pretty pictures in this post.
For a number of years now, games have come out that have asked the player to make moral choices within the game. Fable, Bioshock (to a degree), Fallout III and so on. I wholeheartedly applaud game developers who make this choice. Allowing players to make moral choices in hypothetical situations is one of the unique advantages games as a medium can provide. With that in mind however, there are a number of pitfalls I've seen that somewhat detract from the experience (for me, at least). Addressing these pitfalls will, hopefully, allow those developers seriously pursuing moral choices within their game to make them relevant to the experience as a whole, or at the very least be more effective. So what are the five, you may be wondering. Well read on!
Abolish the moral compass
This one isn't up first by accident, and it plays into most of the other four. I think in any game that wants the player to make moral decisions, then that game shouldn't provide feedback as to whether a given action was 'bad' or 'good'. Let's take Fable 2 as an example. I'll give you five guesses to guess where on the sliding scale of morality this character falls on:
That's the sort of thing I'm talking about (though Fable has always been on the lighter side, the ability to choose your path has always been one of its core concepts so that's why I'm including it here). Other games use different systems (A slider for Fallout III, a colored box for I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,etc), but the end result is the same: the player is given an objective way to measure the value of his or her actions. If a game is asking the player to make the choices, then the feedback should not be so blatant and obvious. The choices they make need to be guided by the player's internal compass, not the game's. That's why they were given the choice in the first place. Providing this sort of feedback can put the player into a sort of roleplay. Being the good guy or the bad guy, simply for being the good guy or the bad guy, irrespective of what they may have actually wanted to choose.
Additionally, morals are very diverse and rich, and can vary widely between individuals. What I might see as acceptable, you may see as deplorable and so putting an objective way to measure them is doomed to failure. The player was given the chance to make the choice, so the player should be able to make it without the game arbitrarily measuring the value of that choice. Actions are just actions, they don't have an intrinsic value.
Try to make the choices less blatant
This one stems from the moral compass I think, but it still needs to be addressed. In too many games that let the player make moral decisions, the decisions are very black/white in their nature. Do I steal that man's cheese, or do I not steal it (the game's compass would likely rate those as bad/good, respectively). But what if I were to steal that cheese and give it to the starving children in City Z's slums? Where does that fall on our objective scale of goodness? Is breaking the law to help children good?
Though I only presented two choices in that example, it was merely to illustrate my point. In a game where you're called to make tough choices, then the choices should be tough. Get the player to ask themselves where the limits are. Introduce them to those starving orphans, then show them that they could alleviate their hunger with some well-intentioned law breaking. Scenarios like that one aren't clear-cut as to which way a player should choose, and that's how it should be. Not every scenario will be a tough one for every person, but it could be a tough one for someone else. And though that's still present in games, they aren't as frequent as they should be. Those sort of scenarios will make the moral choices matter more (title tie-in, hah!), and ideally force the player to consider their choice carefully, not just pick whichever one that looks like it's the 'good' or 'evil' choice.
Ideally, the player would be able to resolve a situation as they saw fit but since our technology isn't omnipotent, my suggestion is that scenarios just need to have a careful attention given to making them, or at least the player's choices, more 'grey'. Fallout III had some good examples of this, such as the cyborg who wasn't aware of his robotic nature and the game asking the player whether he would turn the robot in for money or not (though it still has a clear cut set of good/evil choices, it does start to grey out a bit, mostly in asking the player, assuming they're emotionally involved, if they really want to destroy the cyborg's life)
Give the choices more impact on the world
The choices that a player makes in games like Fallout III or Fable often only have a big impact if they're tied into a chain. On the world as a whole, and in particular the NPCs, you can roam around like an unnoticed blip on the moral radar. If you habitually steal in Oblivion, in broad daylight in the town square, the townsfolk won't care too much the first time (after you get out of prison, of course) and they won't care too much the hundredth time. Despite being a kleptomaniac, no one cares! Impacts are the way a 'moral compass' should be included into a game in my opinion. The impacts can be any number of things. NPC comments and shifts in their reaction to you are the easiest way to show that your actions have consequences (murders in Oblivion apparently go unnoticed among the rest of the city, if I remember correctly). But there are other ways too. Maybe when you robbed that stagecoach, you'll notice later that a house a family previously occupied is now boarded up. If you can track them down (they're now on the streets), you might learn that their paycheck never came, the stagecoach having been hijacked. Unable to pay the bank, their home was foreclosed on. That may be a sappy example, but it's the sort of thing I'm talking about.
Assuming such measures were implemented into a game, it's unlikely a player would ever learn the full extent their actions have, but that just means that it truly will be up to them to decide what to do, with the knowledge that there ARE consequences more far-reaching than 'Jailed for X days. You now have Y stat penalty' or 'Karma lost!', even if they won't be able to see how far the ripples spread.
We can't get completely objective moral systems into a game of course, but through the impacts of their actions, players will be able to decide for themselves whether or not what they did was justified or right. Or perhaps more importantly, whether they are prepared for the consequences of their actions. And while my vision here far exceeds many developers' reach I'm sure, some variation of it could likely be included in a game.
The morals of violence
I'll try to keep this one brief, since this demands an entry all of its own. In short, violence is too often a black/white affair. Killing monsters/bandits/thieves/etc is all ok, but heaven forbid you touch a civilian. This plays a bit into my impacts suggestion. Whether the violence is justified or not is left entirely up to the player, but while there are penalties and punishments for killing civilians, there are often none at all for killing all those bad people, and there should be. The goblins just sit neatly in their caves and passively wait for the hero to show up and liberate them of their ill-gotten gains (which, of course, are sold unless it's a quest-specific item in which case it's turned in for reward). If there's consequences on one side of the mighty sliding scale of morals, there should be for the other, lest that side lose any value or meaning in the player's moral calculations.
Make it a secret!
This one is pretty much a pipe dream. In any game that really wants the player to make moral decisions, I think that it should be a secret function. That is, it shouldn't be advertised in the previews or on the back of the box that there will be, say, 'tough moral decisions'. In this way, a player can simply play and hopefully get to see the consequences, both good and bad, of his choices without feeling pressured to play one way or another.
Well, that's it. If you read this far, congratulations! And I do want to note that these are mostly for games that want to have the moral dilemmas and choices they present the player taken seriously, or have them as a core mechanic. Moral decisions can be included without being a focus, and for those types of games, this list is less helpful. And while the degree of impact I'm looking for probably isn't going to be technically feasible for awhile, I do think there's more that could be done. read