It's become vogue in modern games to play with morality. The list of games with karma meters, reputation systems, honour gauges, bounty lists, and fame calculators stretches as long as my sleeve. The ability games have as an interactive medium to suck players in and ask them who they really are in the dark is unparallelled and intrepid developers have used the fictional world of their games to make players think about morality. The fact that games are starting to ask players these questions has been touted as a sign of the gaming industry “growing up.” Getting past the adolescent thrill of big explosions and jiggling bras and moving into something more serious and intellectual (while truthfully usually retaining most of the explosives and busts.)
I'm far from the first person to point out flaws in the way morality is handled in games has been done. There are legitimate complaints about the rather hamfisted ways many games display their moral choices as a dichotomy between comical extremes - “should I rescue a kitten out of this tree, or set fire to an orphanage?” And there are also problems with the way games interpret the intent of your actions. Should you really lose goodguy points if you accidentally clip a farmer on the horizon while you were shooting at a notorious bandit? These are valid points and they compound my problem with these games but are not specifically what I have trouble with. I don't like the way most of these games handle their karmatic balancing act.
The basic premise in most games with some kind of karma meter is that choosing the “badguy” route is more self-rewarding than choosing the “goodguy” option. Seems reasonable enough. Most people who do bad things don't do it out of some allegiance to the forces of evil like cartoon devils, they do it because it benefits themselves. Drug dealers don't deal drugs because they love to see people high, they do it to get paid. Hitmen are psychopathic murderers, but even they have the good sense to parlay their lack of humanity into a decent pay cheque.
On the flip side, being a good person often means self-sacrifice and the willingness to put your personal interests aside for the good of others. There are exceptions of course, assholes who do terrible things for the evlulz or because they are demonic forces of nature like something out of Lovecraft. There are even rare goodguys that find helping people to be a wonderful side effect of something they do naturally, or Paladins who specifically get stronger and more powerful the more they help others, etc. But all in all, its not a bad way of looking at least at a simplified view of morality, being good entails sacrifice. All the old slogans, goodguys finish last, evil tends to prevail, ect. Being bad nets you real gains, being good means real sacrifice.
Take Bioshock for example. Using the microcosm of Rapture, Bioshock tries to make players come to grips with ideas of idealism vs cynicism, of unpractical charity vs harsh social Darwinism in a setting replete with danger and excitement. I adored this game, I played through it multiple times and even years later I still get the urge to go back to it every now and then. But for all that I love the game, it is a chief culprit with what I find wrong with morality systems in games.
As everyone knows, the big thing in Bioshock is that you need a genetic compound called ADAM and the superpowers it enables to survive in Rapture. The only way you can procure this ADAM is from vulnerable innocent young girls called Little Sisters who are genetically altered to manufacture it within their bodies and are essentially brain-washed slaves. This is where the game presents you with its famous moral dilemma. You can choose to free the Little Sisters from their brain washing and genetic curse, a process that will net you only a modest amount of precious ADAM but it will save the girl. Or you can drain her dry like a vampire and take a larger amount of the super power granting ADAM, killing the girl and making you A VERY BAD PERSON.
It already seems a little hamfisted. I mean, I'd love to shoot fire from my hands as much as the next guy, but I don't think I'd ever want it badly enough to choke a 7 year old to death. But fine, so its a little black-and-white, who cares, it's a game, right? Lets take the goodguy option just to prove to the game that you can rise above selfishness and survive anything Rapture can throw at you even if you're a little weaker than you could have been. Perhaps that haughty self-righteousness will take a few bullets for you.
And for a bit it works. You spare those sisters and make modest genetic enhancements to yourself while the game starts to get tougher. You never seem to have enough slots to store your powers in, never enough EVE to cast them without shooting up syringes like an addict, and those damn spider freaks are ripping into your health bar with every superheated meat hook. Man, you are really suffering for the sake of those Little Sisters aren't you? It hurts to be the bigger man, to stand up for the little guy and stick to your convictions. You have to really want it and be a good person to stay with it in the face of all this adversity.
Then it all breaks down with a teddy bear and bow.
Daww, what a cute way to break the premise of the game
Save enough Little Sisters and Dr. Tennebaum, the co-creator turned defacto care taker of the girls will start sending you gift packages at specific places. These gift bags have cash, ammo, and ADAM. Big honking gobs of ADAM. Enough for all your telepathic pyromaniac needs. Once you start getting these gifts all the morality of the situation goes out the window because you realize you no longer have to sacrifice anything to be the goodguy, and there is never anything enticing you towards the darkness.
All told, the difference in the amount of ADAM you can get in the game by being a merciless killer or a saint is all but negligible. Those gift baskets make up just about the difference from what you would have received if you harvested, leaving only a piddly few hundred point gap. This is made doubly meaningless since you will obtain all the necessary and most useful powers by the mid-point of the game, everything over that is just gilding the Lilly anyway. I've played it both ways and in the end the white knight of Rapture is just as badass a splicer slayer as the pragmatic predator.
Rather than a moral stance, it becomes a game of instant vs delayed gratification. This is the common problem with most games morality systems.
In my experience, it's rare to come across a game where being a rotten scoundrel will actually profit you in any meaningful way more than being selfless(GTA games don't count). Maybe this is somewhat true, there are consequences to breaking the law and acting like a jerk after all, but that isn't the way most games play it. It's not like you get thrown into jail or anything, it's more like the rewards for being bad are weak and paltry, or if they are substantial then the rewards for being good are eventually equivalent if not better.
Lots of games do this. Awesome Ex Machina's recent No Clip about Red Dead Redemption is what got me thinking about this in the first place. Playing John Marston as a cut throat selfish bastard who never lifted a finger to help anyone unless he got something out of it was certainly a unique way of going through the game, but it wasn't overly profitable. You would think for all that cheating and murdering John would at least have some money to show for it, but it turns out the rewards you get for helping others are just as good as cheating a poker table and killing anyone who calls you out on that ace up your sleeve.
The Dark Side is a pathway to many powers some consider to be... Gimped.
In Star Wars KOTOR signing up with the Dark Side lets you pull out all your favourite Vader and Emperor moves. The force choke, the lightning hands, all that terrible stuff. Just like the movies, switching to the Dark Side is supposed to empower you at the cost of your soul. Except those flashy moves don't work on the tougher enemies, the other Jedi and Sith and bosses. Sure you can fry mooks really good, but let's face it, HK-47 and his blaster could have done that just as easy. On the flip side, the Jedi get access to force speed and saber tricks that are invaluable in the tougher encounters. Rather than sacrificing anything, the goodguys are arguably more powerful!
The Fallout series had traditionally been pretty good at creating intriguing moral dilemmas and raising interesting ethical questions. In its depressing and morally ambiguous post-apoctalyptic world, the player is asked to make some pretty tough decisions and the demands of survival and harshness of the world make bending the rules sometimes the only sensible thing to do. However, even it falls victim to this problem occasionally. In Fallout 3 a morally dubious player can take missions for the slavers of Paradise Falls, lashing helpless wastelanders, mothers, and doctors with explosive collars and sending them to their doom at the slave camp for the princely boon of about 250 caps per head. 250 lousy caps for what is by far the most vile thing you can do in the game (the game agrees, you get more negative karma for enslaving even a raider than you do for a cold blooded murder of an innocent), a sum you can easily make swiping a shop's shelves or by killing some mutants and selling their gear.
Even taking the mission where you kidnap a four year old girl and sell her off to the slavers, in my opinion probably the darkest and most morally condemnable mission in the game (which is saying something for a game that lets you nuke a entire city) only gives the player a useless hat. There is no reason to do those Paradise Falls missions other than to be an evil git. The slavers don't offer you any bonuses, their shops are stocked with crummy items, and being their friend doesn't open up access to any unique gear or missions or story content or anything. Being the badguy here is just scummy and nasty with no real motivation to do it outside of role playing a scummy and nasty git.
And lets not even get into how every sin in Fallout 3 can be washed clean by repeatedly handing a hobo a bottle of water.
These are just a few examples of games that make a big deal about the moral choices you can make but offer little reward to distinguish between them. It seems like the more a game flaps about its karma meters and options, the less sacrifice being a goodguy actually requires, and the more taking the bad route dips into kick the dog territory.
Of course, there are other games that subvert this. Metro has a karma system in it. An unspoken, un-hinted at, utterly convoluted karma system. The game has two endings, but I would guess most players would never honestly stumble on the “good” ending just playing naturally. The game places you in utter despair and need and then punishes you if you steal. It places Nazis wannabes trying to kill you in your path and expects you to have mercy on them. Of course it never says any of this, you only find out at the end. There is no black and white in Metro, just a few shades of dull grey that I lacked the moral fidelity to distinguish between.
The soundtrack for this game is so good its silly. Pick it up!
The indy game darling Iji does a good job of subtly working in morality. At the beginning of the game Iji is downright apologetic to the aliens she blasts. She says sorry when she shoots them and her reactions are filled with fear. But as you go through the game, as you kill alien after alien, that changes. Iji becomes more aggressive. No more apologies, just snarls and battle cries. Iji becomes a force of nature, dreaded by the alien invaders who see her as some kind of vengeful grim reaper. But if you go out of your way and avoid killing any aliens (a difficult proposition), odd things happen. It changes the way Iji is perceived by the invaders. She can enter into a truce with one of the alien factions, and sparring a particular character will get you out of a boss fight later. Iji makes a bold statement, taking the harder path, avoiding bloodshed and chaos makes Iji a better person, she retains more of her humanity. Approaching the game like a typical gamer would turns her into a monster. You are not given much of a pragmatic reward for being a goodguy, but you receive a bit of enlightenment.
Oddly enough Iji and Metro are both games that I would probably never find the goodguy path on if I wasn't told it existed. Both have you fighting against otherworldly horrors and fascists, the kind of enemy I would tear apart in a game without a second thought. These games don't just ask you to be a decent person to be considered good, they ask you to be a saint, they want real sacrifice. Getting through those games without killing everything you see is exponentially harder than blasting your way through, and only mother Teresa could feel some kind of sympathy for Nazis and genocidal aliens.
So the big question. Would Bioshock be a better game if they added some teeth to the moral dilemma? What if you really didn't get much ADAM from those Little Sisters? What if you had to stalk those leaking hallways and deco nightmares with no extra health or EVE? What if every time you spared a Little Sister you knew you just made yourself weaker, more vulnerable, more ill-equiped to deal with the underwater hell you found yourself in? Would we see more players actually struggling with the moral dilemma? Would there be a frustration, a temptation to harvest just one Little Sister, just for enough power to survive Just once... until the next time it gets too tough anyway.
Or would it just be a big colossal bummer? Who wants to pay $60 for a game that is too hard to play through unless you subvert your morals and then have the game wag its finger at you for doing it? I understand why Bioshock made the choice between rescuing and harvesting ultimately painless. I know why the games that actually deal with morality in a more subversive way are free-ware indie-games and obscure European middle-tier games. For all their expressive ability, games are still games. They are products purchased for entertainment. As much as I like musing on these ideas, I would probably have been pretty pissed if I bought Bioshock and then it really did make me choose between suffering for the sake of a moral point or enjoying the game and becoming a monster.
I wonder how developers could do it. How could they make a game that offered up really hard moral choices, ones that really pushed the player and made him or her really pause and think about their options, but was still fun to play regardless of the choice? I want to see it. I really think games have the capacity to make us examine ourselves and our world more than any other medium, but we have to get over these cartoonish dichotomies and harmless choices.