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Morality: A Pandora's Box?

You go into the living room and have a seat on the couch, controller in your hand. It's been a rough day. At work you had to make a choice that affected several people. Try as you may to do the right thing, it ended up being the wrong thing, and now everyone's pissed off. Then you missed your daughter's play because you had to work over. You could have made up some excuse, but your job takes top priority and someday your daughter will understand that. But right now she's pissed at you too. On your way home from work you remembered to stop at the store. You thought your wife would be surprised by the fact you picked up grocery's on a list she left you this morning. You were trying to be a good husband, right? Wrong. You forgot the milk. You ended up having to endure 30 minutes of her complaining about your lack of responsibility. Now all you want to do is sit down in front of the TV and unwind with a game.

So you start up that RPG you recently purchased. You're still upset about the days events and you need to take all that anger and frustration out on something. You pillage a few towns. Kill a few innocent bystanders despite protests from your party members. You horde away the loot and good weapons. Why should you share? They don't need them. You go to the local pub instead of going home. You pick all the morally wrong choices when interacting with the patrons. Now you'll spend your coin on ale and when you're done drinking your fill, you're going to sleep with the barmaid. You're wife won't know. She drives you nuts anyway. You'll probably offer her up for sacrifice tomorrow, but that's no concern of yours right now. The screen goes black for a second and now it's morning.

But what is this? You wake only to find the barmaid ran off with the rest of your coin. Your party is nowhere to be found. Not only that, they've taken all your equipment and left you the damn low stat weapon you received at the beginning of the game. As you wander out onto the street, you decide to steal some coin from a passerby. Music begins to play. Your former party stands in front of you. You're in a boss fight. You are the boss! Your former allies hack and slash at you, taking you down with the very weapons you refused to equip them with through the entire game. The screen fades to black once more and you're greeted with this:

You throw the controller to the floor, sit with a blank look on your face as you try to grasp what just happened. Congratulations! Not only did you have a crappy day in real life, but your fantasy life just bit the big one. Sound like fun?

While relaxing the other day at our local coffee shop, I happened upon an article titled "Angels & Demons" in Games magazine. The article talked about ways in which developers have advanced the medium by introducing players moral choices in games. But how well have they handled it? How far do we want them to take it? I'll share for my example my last play through of Mass Effect 2. Normally, when faced with a game that offers me good or evil choices, I'll do my first run as a holy saint and follow with a second play as the complete opposite. But I wasn't entirely satisfied with the end results of my second run.

The problem was, that try as I may to be a complete ass at the beginning of the game, the majority of my crew still loved me. Oh sure, I lost some loyalty. Miranda was so upset with me for taking Jack's side that except for the brief, "I'm kind of busy right now, Shepard," she wouldn't have any interaction with me at all - up until the point she slept with me. And that's alright. My male Shepard was an egotistical, philandering bastard that would have had sex with every woman on the Normandy, if permitted. Towards the midpoint of the game I started to double guess my choices, sometimes going complete renegade, and sometimes taking a more paragon stand. I entered into a gray area that allowed me to justify my dark ways, yet also allowed me to complete the game and win against the collectors at the end. Sure, I lost a couple teammates. Everyone else still loved me. Satisfaction with end game.

Now Bioware has promised that our choices in the first two games will have great impact in their final game. But I ask how much? And would we feel content if we couldn't finish the game because of a choice we made back in the first Mass Effect? Here's another question - why did I feel the need to slip back into that gray area? Was it the reality of my actions, or was it simply because I was afraid it would affect the game in a way that would alter the ending and leave me unsatisfied? Just how much do we want to be punished for unmoral actions in a game?

The article in Games went on to mention game journalist John Walker's challenge to play through KOTOR while making nothing but morally depraved choices. If you'd like to read about his experience then it's easy to find by putting in a search for Bastard of the Old Republic. To put it in a short version, he purposely forced himself to do actions that, and I quote, "turned his stomach." But he did do it. And here's what he had to say about it:

"I decided to find out what happens if I click on the options that make me cringe just to read them, every single one, and it corrupted me. By the end I was positively enjoying being a bastard."

In remembering my own play through of KOTOR, I had also choose the dark side. However, I still recall wandering into that gray area of playing it safe more than a couple times. My character did indeed end up evil by the end of the game, but my path there wasn't pure and it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Completing the game was still an obtainable goal. Considering this second revelation, I tried to recall if playing in the gray area was something I had always inclined to do when given a morality choice, and the answer is no. In Fable II I was pure evil. I murdered whole towns. I did offer my husband up for sacrifice. Both of them. But there was a limit in Fable. You couldn't kill children. What punishment did I receive for being a hideous monster? My appearance changed as such. There were a couple towns I could no longer wander into without being chased by residents. In no way did my morally wrong choices hinder the enjoyment of the game, nor did it prevent me from finishing the game in such a way that left me unhappy.

Here's one more thing for us to consider. The article "Angels & Demons" brought up the question of controversy with morality choices in games. How far can developers push the envelope before it's completely unacceptable? Oh, there have been some backlashes already, yes. Take for example the airport scene in Modern Warfare 2, or the deletion of being able to play as the Taliban in Medal of Honor. What about being able to commit murder in your RPG and not have it like Fable, but instead a realistic horrifying experience?

I believe this paragraph of the article in Games paints a good picture. It reads, "....as games become sufficiently realistic and sophisticated, developers will have an ethical obligation to include comprehensive morality systems, in order to offset the capacity for players to use violence as one of the principle forms of expression. Before you laugh off a notion as ridiculous as 'virtual murder', consider it for a moment. It's not a huge leap to see how disturbing it would be if just one game showed one scene of the realistic effects of stabbing someone. The victim screaming in shock and pain as the knife punctures the skin, the vain attempts to stem the flow of blood that bleeds through hands clamped to the wound, the look of terror and agony on a digitally rendered face and, finally, the crumpling to the floor, whimpering, as blood forms a sticky red reminder of the last vestiges of a life that stood in front of you just moments before. Now consider how that might feel to participate in that; to cause it. The effect is unsettling to say the least, and that's just one potential moment in one potential game."

Unsettling? I'd say so. Would Mr. Walker have done it to complete his goal and still enjoy being a bastard? Would you do it? I'm all for our industry growing up, making leaps and bounds in delivering more mature content, getting us talking and debating instead of sitting in the same stagnant water all the time, but as we wish for this, are we really opening up a Pandora's Box full of problems? And perhaps the bigger question is, as developers push morality at us, and when the world you go in to escape the harshness of everyday life mirrors that same everyday life, is the game even fun anymore? How far do you want the industry to go? How accountable do you want to be for your moral choices in a game, or should we keep that gray area to fall back into?
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About Jadedone of us since 4:35 PM on 01.11.2011

I've never enjoyed writing a bio. It's equivalent to trying to sell yourself to a potential employer, but with a higher chance of not having anything to offer that will benefit the current community you're interested in joining. In an online community you throw your arms up in the air and yell "Here I am!", and then sit back hoping someone takes notice in the good you do, while on the same note, you hope you don't get ridiculed for a stupid action. I suppose at least there's the anonymity of being on the web, so with that I'll throw my arms up and attempt an introduction blog.

Lost Kitty by Adam Hughes

I am a collector of fantasy, video game, and comic book art. In fact, if you were to walk into my office you'd probably believe you stepped into a game shop of some sort. You know the little shops where you can go to get miniatures, dice, game cards, and comics. They closed ours down not long ago. Sad days. I love the work of the artists that have done pieces for Dungeons & Dragons, such as William O'Connor, Larry Elmore, and Todd Lockwood. Adam Hughes, Melanie Delon, Brian Froud, and Luis Royo are a few other artists that I enjoy. I could probably list 20 more names here, but I won't.

Art by Ghostfire on Deviantart



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