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Bad Karma: A Critque of Morality Systems in Games

Morality systems have become a widely popular and accepted facet of game design over the last 10 years, with such successful titles as Fable, Fallout and Mass Effect employing them to great effect. However, as was pointed out well back in 2010 by Extra Credits, these binary ethical measures fall far short of the real thing. So what is going wrong? In this article I would like to address two key reasons why moral systems fail while contrasting them with the ways these issues can be overcome, in order to show that morality systems can and do have a legitimate role to play in game design.

The main way that morality in games is mishandled is brilliantly summed up by Extra Credits as entirely due to the quantification of moral choice. In most games with ethics systems, the players choices are weighed on a scale between good and one end and evil at the other. For example, In Fable, every choice that can be made will either make the character more good or more evil. The problem is that there is no middle ground, which belittles the choice in question. In real moral dilemmas the question is often not quite so black and white, there are choices but none of them are wholly the right or wrong option. If in games we label them with karma points and the like, we break this fundamental feature and change what was a moral choice into a mechanical one. We end up in a situation where a player thinks: ‘I am playing a good guy, so I will choose the good choice’ rather than what we should be aiming at: ‘I am trying to be good but which is the good choice?’.

Fallout III

The problem is further cemented when rewards are affixed to the system, as in games like Fallout, where only the most evil characters have access to certain perks, but there are no advantages to individual choices or neutrality. As TV Tropes remarks: “This has the annoying side effect of rewarding, if not forcing, the doing of completely pointless acts of malice, killing beggars and robbing empty houses just to be “more evil”, and punishing an evil player for doing good quests or deeds (depending on how harsh the meter is) and vice versa, stifling real choices altogether.”  Clearly this kind of approach further removes the morality from the equation and replaces it with a token material of ‘good points’ and ‘evil points’ to be maximised while the actual thought to the decision is pushed aside.

Fortunately these issues can be alleviated quite quickly with subtle alterations to the standard quantities ‘good and bad’. Extra Credits proposes replacing them with ‘rights of the few’ balanced against rights of the many, and an approach similar to this was tried in Jade Empire. In the game, your evil bar is ‘way of the closed fist’ and your good is ‘way of the open palm’. They are referred to as philosophies, and the game attempts to make good on this by describing them as ways of life, rather than arbitrary ‘evilness’ or ‘goodness’. Those who follow closed fist believe the strength of the individual and the morality of self-discipline. This is subtly different from blind evil,  as the game puts it: ‘An evil man ignores a plea for help because he does not care, but a man on the “low path” ignores the plea because that person will survive on their own if they are strong enough. The man on the “low path” may help if the odds are unreasonable, or if there is an incentive to give assistance.‘ The open palm view is similarly different to standard good. Though the game itself fails to live up to the ambiguity of the system it presents (often rewarding players closed fist affinity for simple cruelty) the point nevertheless remains the same: by making the bar about more than just points, but about values and the right way of dealing with situations certain views show, it creates far more meaningful choice while retaining the ease of a quantitative system.

dragon age approval

This can be further improved by changing the opinions of npcs base don palyer action, as found in companions in Bioware games, and factions in fallout. This results in ‘externalising the moral choice’ (Extra Credits), by showing its impact on those around you, making you acutely aware of the different perspectives possible on the issue rather than the binary this is good choice of weaker systems. In Dragon Age this is used as the basis for the morality system and the quantitative morality bar is removed altogether, resulting in a far more ambiguous moral maze, with only your opinion and those of your compatriots on which to gauge the right course of action. Certainly then there are many ways to rectify the standard binary system found in games.

The second issue with morality systems I would like to address is failing to find them a place in the story. This is by far the most common mistake made by morality systems and yet it almost always goes unnoticed. Moral choice, in its simplest form, is the way in which a person chooses to live. It is their very life philosophy, thus the different views on how to live necessarily effects everything they and every other character acts in the story. This means that the concepts of morality, the conflicting views on them must be central to the story for moral choices to have any meaningful impact. Case and point: Mass Effect. you can play paragon or renegade but either way the story is the same, Shepard saves humanity. He may choose to save it through extreme sacrifices and violence or careful diplomacy and strategy but either way the story is largely unaltered. The result is that the morality system feels irrelevant to the plot, and thus to the game itself, which would have functioned quite well on its own without it. More crucially the gameplay is exactly the same either way, shepard shoots people just as ruthlessly in combat whether he is paragon or renegade, seemingly discordantly with his views. Occasionally this even creates ludonarrative dissonance. Unfortunately this issue is not limited to Mass Effect, but is a widespread problem in game design.

Jade Empire 3

So how do you successfully wrap up your morality system with your plot? Well, we have already seen an earnest effort in Jade Empire’s philosophies, but their lack of implementation prevents them from working. Certainly key characters follow one or other path, but not enough is made of the contrasts between their views and the protagonists as would be necessary to properly tie it to the story. this is a shame, because if they had pulled it off it would’ve made an already excellent game even better.Ironically it I Jade Empire’s predecessor, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, which best succeeds in wrapping up the morality, story and gameplay while still leaving moral decisions ambiguous.

In  KOTOR II, the karma meter exists between the dark side and the light side of the force. Initially this may sound very black and white, but as the story and gameplay slowly reveal, it is far from it. As with normal meters, doing certain actions will reward the player with either light or dark side points, which will lead the player more towards one end of the spectrum. however the issue with quantification is got around in many excellent ways. First of all, your dark or light side affinity affects your attack capabliiteis in a unique way. All players can gain access to all abilities, however those who are strongly dark side will drain less force points (mana) when using dark side powers. The cost is that they will also expend more force points when using light side powers. For light side users the revers is true. This ingenious system, subtly lends a noticeable weight to moral choice in terms of battle effectiveness, while simultaneously casing a dark side player to fight more like a dark sid user, with the more offensive dark side powers and a light side user to fight more in line with the jedi believes by having greater access to defensive powers and buffs. this allows for the moral system to be constantly in use, affecting every facet of choice, from individual dilemmas to how to fight a particular boss. This system even has the benefit of rewarding the neutral players, as they have access to a balanced array of abilities matching their balanced views on the world, all at decent effectiveness, but sacrificing the benefits of being able to use some abilities with fewer force points.

All this was true of KOTOR I, but what sets KOTOR II apart is its handling of morality outside of combat. AS previously mentioned, the common moral choices are there. However a particular character who is central to the story, Kreia is always there to comment on the decision who have made. Here is an example (go to 11:00):

As you can see, Kreia forces the player to think about what affects the choices they make have, both short term and long term. This provides a truly balanced perspective on morality, as Kreia weighs the problems with both Light and Dark side choices, so regardless of what you eventually consider the correct choice, Kreia will make you keep in mind that it was not a perfect solution – that there is no perfect solution. Thus we are driven further to moral ambiguity and a more realistic kind of moral choice system.

However the brilliance of Kreia does not end there, WARNING: Spoilers for KOTOR II. Kreia’s ambition is eventually revealed to be the destruction of the force, and the Exile’s quest to find the lost jedi masters that eventually leads her to the force wound on Malachor V turns out to be part fo her plan also. Kreia has been subtly manipulating events with her words the entire time. The reason for her plot is what makes this game’s morality near perfect however: she wants to destroy the force. Kreia has realised that the force determines all choices in the universe and thus she is determined to destroy it. This is brilliant because it adds another layer onto her judgments of your actions thus far, when she tells you about ripples in the force she is not merely warning that long term effects may result in moral choices being partially bad, but is also at the same time drawing attention to the interconnected causality of the force. The ripples connect all things, and determine them in kind. The reason she objects to both light and dark side choices is because neither is truly a choice: her neutrality exists because she can appreciate that the choices she may make are going to be manipulated by the force regardless of her intent. Thus she wishes to destroy it so she can finally be free.

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II 2

So essentially, Kreia both argues for and against various moral choices throughout the game, but at the same time is arguing for an overall neutral approach, because even the act of choosing itself is not possible in this world – the morality is fake as it is controlled by the force. This brilliant and philosophical take on the problems of ethical determinism has the added benefit of making the story completely about the moral system, if you choose light side, you not only handle conflicts differently, you not only fight differently but in the end your answer to the main conflict of the entire story, the force, will be different too. The same is true also of neutral and dark paths in a way few other games can claim to be. It is for these reasons that KOTOR II presents one of the best ways of creating a moral systems in games, and is something every designer can learn from.

The problems, then, with moral systems in games are numerous and widespread. Quantifying good points often leads to a mechanical process wherein the player ignores the choice altogether. This is further weakened by the introduction of light or dark only bonuses which encourage the accrual of points not for the state of ethics, but rather for said bonuses. Worse still, many ethics systems are completely irrelevant to the plot and/or gameplay and thus have little or no real impact in the game. However, these issues can be rectified with more appropriate scales, featuring life philosophies rather than the black and white ‘good and evil bar’, as well as by making bonuses appropriate and reflective of the paths chosen, including neutrality, just as in KOTOR II. Finally, by making morality a central premise in the main plot or central enough to drastically change how your character approaches the main plot’s conflict, along with all the other considerations named, you can create a truly realistic feeling morality system.

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Hi all! I am the newest member of the Palace of Wisdom team. I have a strong background in Philosophy, English Literature and, of course, Games. As a result my favourite games combine all three of these interests. Some examples include: Bioshock, Mass Effect and Deus Ex.