I've been thinking a lot about games that advertise moral choice systems like Fable, Bioware titles, Fallout 3, and Bioshock and have come to the conclusion that it is all a pretty crappy illusion. When I look back at the choices in these games and the reasons we make the decisions we do I see that our morals don't come into play. The morals systems in games almost never get gamers to make actual moral decisions but instead let us choose a style of play or which section of the game we want to see. Don't get me wrong giving players options is never a bad thing and most of the games I'll talk about are great games, but the things they call moral choices are bullshit.
Mass Effect is a perfect example of how bad moral choices are in games, because of how few times you actually use your morals to make decisions. Lets look at one of the main choices in the game, the part where you have to choose whether Kaiden lives or Ashely. Did you use your moral judgment to try to chose which one of these characters was more deserving of life? Did you think about what the other characters would think of you if you saved one over the other? I didn't. Most of the people I know didn't. Our decision boiled down to, "Biotics powers are useless and they suck and if Ashley dies i can't bang her" It's more like the developers came to you and told you one of the games features needed to be removed from the rest of the game and it was your job to decide which one it was.
It gets even worst in Mass Effect 2 because there is zero reward for actually making decisions based on morals. Majorty of the people who played Mass Effect 2 made only two decisions. The first was to either go fully paragon and try to save everyone or go fully renegade and save everyone, and the second was which character did they want to explore romantic options with. The worst part is that the reward for people who did try to play the game answering questions as they would in real life was they wouldn't have enough paragon or regegade points for anything.
The same goes for most games that clam to have a moral choice system. Did you choice to harvest or save little sisters based on which one was more right or wrong or did you choice because one gave you an easy time and the other gave you a good ending? Did you make choices in fable based on morals or powers?
Fallout 3 is about as close to a good example as i can think of because of it's side quests. Many of the side quests had two stories to them. Many times it was you meet a group of people who want something that another group has and you can choice to help take it or help defend it. The great thing about it was it felt like you were free to change your mind. Your dialog choices didn't lock you into, or dictate you decision, you in game actions did. You could side with one group in dialog but when it came down the mission just sabotage them and turn the quest into the other group. The only problem was many of those decisions didn't feel as real as could because the lacked lasting impact.
I think the first problem with the moral decsions in games is that their all black and white. There is a good choice and their is a bad choice, paragon or renegade, save or harvest. There are only 2 sometimes 3 endings. One where you succeed at one, one where you succeed at the other, and one where you fail at both. There is no reward for walking the line, there is no reward for being the anti hero, and there is no reward for doing what you would do. Since the good bad scale is so prevalent it also messes with the characters in the game. Major character's shouldn't respond different to you based on your overall position on the good bad scale but on the individual decisions you make. It would add a lot of depth to a game if the entire cast had an opinion that lasted through most of the game about some key decisions i made instead of making their judgments based on if i am overall a good or bad.
Another problem i have with moral decisions is the outcome is known to the player. I don't know whats going to happen when i make major decisions in my life and that is what makes them tough and that is what makes them meaningful. No one would talk about the Rex decision in Mass Effect if there your options were, "Kill Rex" and, "Don't kill Rex". Not knowing the outcome let people choice what they were more naturally inclined to and then felt the sting of consequence
Finally the problem that i think is the hardest to address but finding a solution would give wonderful depth to games, finding a way to get players to live with their choices. You put moral choices in games to give player freedoms, you put consequences in games to give the choices meaning, but in order for the choices and consequences to have lasting impact you can't have the freedom to change the choices. In order for developers to really dive into moral choices that have to insure we stick by the choice. The option to kill Rex in Mass Effect is meaningless if you go back and change it. Andrew Ryan's death would have been meaningless if you were given the choice to save or kill him like a little sister. Would portal have been greatly improved if you could chose to save the companion cube on the spot. I some things just shouldn't be left in direct control of the player, but still should change based on their actions.