Decisions, Decisions.

Disclosure: This post has nothing to do with gender, sexism, or the like. 

I picked up a used copy of inFamous a few days ago. I'll let Brad's review do most of the talking on that, since I feel it's pretty accurate. However, inFamous isn't what I'm here to discuss, not in and of itself anyway. What got me thinking was the moral choice system in inFamous—perhaps one of the worst I have ever seen. Playing inFamous made me think of other games that I've played where I have the ability to make choices that effect the story or other parts of the game—to be "good" or "evil" so to speak. And after some thought on the subject, I discovered I was hungry and made a sandwich. After that, games such as Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, BioShock, Morrowind/Oblivion, and Fallout 3 came to mind. The question that I pose is this—what makes a good way to allow the player to "choose" their path while not pandering to ideological extremes and still providing an engrossing experience? Ideally I would be able to chose virtually any action I wanted, and have the game respond accordingly regardless of what I chose. Is this even possible? Or has it been done already?

inFamous and BioShock are prime examples of what not to do. inFamous's system takes away all the moral self-examination and questioning from the choice and turns it into a simple decision of what powers I want. The choice is meaningless in terms of the game universe. BioShock certainly isn't hampered by its choice system, but it just didn't seem necessary. I never felt any particular emotion one way or the other regardless of what I did with the little sisters, and given BioShock's gameplay type I didn't understand why it was needed. The outcome of my choices barely changes the game at all, so what's the point? In these two games the choices I make are either inconsequential or so watered down and blatantly exposed that all the fun of making them is taken away. So how about we do a better job of weaving the choices into the game's story?

The original Knights of the Old Republic is, as of the time of this writing, my favorite product of the Star Wars franchise. And its choice system generally serves the game well, but even a well-done implementation of choices such as this still leaves a somewhat odd aftertaste. To go down the evil path I have to make many choices throughout the game that lead me to the dark side, eventually leading to me becoming a cold, cruel, and calculating Sith Lord. But here's the thing—would such an intelligent Sith Lord (as dictated by the game) really waste his/her time with senseless acts of brutality such as common mugging? I would imagine that an up-and-coming Sith Lord would try to use his victims to their fullest extent, then dispose of them when they no longer had value. Instead I found myself being a run-of-the-mill asshole, and that somehow led to me conquering the galaxy. The moral extremes of sainthood and belligerent sadism were extremely stark and awkward despite the quality of the story, leaving me to wonder how the ideal choice system would actually work.

Mass Effect (which has been getting lots of discussion time on this site lately) does a better job here, but the problem of moral extremes is still evident. Most of the time the evil choice is represented by a simple act of aggression instead of a more subtle cruelty or self-serving action. Now to be fair, such acts are more believably associated with the character of Commander Shepard rather than my character in Knights of the Old Republic. However, the basic problem still exists—I can't be the scoundrel with a golden heart, only a universally loved hero. I can't be the insidious mastermind, only an arrogant bully. While Mass Effect does present a better moral middle ground than many of its ilk, that path is largely dull and uninteresting. In order to access more conversation options I have to go towards one extreme or the other, meaning I have no real reason to toe the line in the middle. So now that we have an area between the two extremes, what next?

Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games and their fairly recent Fallout 3 have a much more open-ended structure around the choices I make. Say I am tasked with saving a certain town. The town's leader asks me to do so out of the goodness of me heart, while another man asks me to destroy said town for unknown reasons. I have a bounty of choices here that wouldn't be present in Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic. I can save the town and expose the evil man. I can destroy the town and collect my unknown reward. I can report the evil man to the town leader, then kill them both and take their valuables. I can destroy the town then kill the evil man, take his belongings and survey the devastation. Or I can do nothing. Or I can kill everyone in town and loot it provided I'm powerful enough. The scenarios presented in these games presented me with more of what I was looking for—I could be the low-key do-gooder or the ruthless pragmatist if I wanted under certain circumstances. However, the game still didn't really reward me for doing things outside the extremes in most cases. Usually all I had to show for it was just what I could pick up of the dead bodies or in empty hideouts, getting nothing from that particular quest. So now we have a scenario where I can go outside the proposed choices at will, but I just don't get a whole lot out of it.

So now what? Where does the evolution of player choices go from here? Someday I'd like to see a game where I can make virtually any choice in any situation within the bounds of the game world's reason, and be rewarded or punished appropriately for it. Am I being too greedy? Is this impossible with currently existing technology? Is there a game that already does this that I'm overlooking? Can I possibly fit more questions into this paragraph? Sound off at your leisure. Or don't—your choice.

Richard Naik

Richard Naik

Born and raised in St. Louis, MO, Richard received his first console (the NES) at the age of six, and from that point on games have been an integral part of his life, whether it's been frittering summers away with the likes of Mario, Mega Man, and the Zerg or partaking in marathon sessions of Halo, Team Fortress 2 or Left 4 Dead. After being a longtime reader of GameCritics, Richard joined the staff in March of 2009, and over the years Richard grew into the more prominent role of part-time podcast host.

In 2016, he spearheaded a complete rebuild of the GameCritics.com website, earning him the title of Chief Engineer.

His gaming interests are fairly eclectic, ranging from 2D platformers to old-school-style adventure games to RPGs to first-person shooters. So in other words, he’ll play pretty much anything.
Richard Naik

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18 Comments on "Decisions, Decisions"

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Dale Weir
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[quote=Anonymous]So, is the ‘disclosure’ at the beginning of your post put there so you can be sure boys will read it? … hmmm.[/quote]You got it! 🙂

Actually, at the time that Richard posted this there was a heated exchange between users over a couple of articles posted at the same time that tackled sexism and gender in gaming.

All Richard wanted was for people to know that his post had nothing to do with that and for them to read his article with an open mind.

Anonymous
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So, is the ‘disclosure’ at the beginning of your post put there so you can be sure boys will read it? … hmmm.

Anonymous
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I’d say what the best thing about The Witcher’s treatment of “moral choice” is that it’s actually rather amoral. It doesn’t rely on explicit in-game rewards or transactional morality in the way that most games do. It simply shows you the consequences of your actions and lets you judge them for yourself.

Richard Naik
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The fact that choices don’t really effect the story is what I felt was the problem. The game just threw some leveling choices at me and tried to portray it as some kind of moral choice, rather than what it was-a decision between what powers I wanted.

FlashMedallion
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I think you missed the point a little on inFamous; the moral choice doesn’t really come into it in terms of the story. Cole is looking out for number one either way, and your choices are about gameplay, not narrative: You are choosing to experience what it’s like to play as a good guy or a bad guy, in the context of a comic-book superhero. The Kharma meter isn’t keeping track of your morality, it’s used to punish or reward you for how well you follow your alignment.

Richard Naik
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Enough people have told me about The Witcher that I’ve moved it to the top of my to-play list. I’ll post my thoughts in the near future.

Decoy
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I remember sometime ago when I first got Bioshock that I came to the realization that morality needed some fixing. I had heard of the unique choice system so I wanted to see both sides. The first little sister I met I decided I would harvest her, and then I would save the rest after realizing the error of my ways. So I harvested her and planned to save the rest of them. Now by the time I got to the finale of the game I had forgotten the harvesting and was only saving them. So when the big final… Read more »
The Irrelevant Gamer
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Richard, the Witcher does morality a bit differently than the games you mentioned, and you should definitely check it out. The decisions you make have more to do with what seems the best course for you personally than filling a karma meter, and they have unforeseen consequences on how the story progresses.

Anonymous
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I think an important argument in favor of Mass Effect is thus: The “morality” system is less about morality and more a measure of demeanor. It’s less a matter of good and bad as it is good cop and bad cop. I mean, sure, Wolverine might just stab you pretty much out of blue, it doesn’t mean he and Captain America are diametrically opposed. I tend to see Mass Effect as the first real success in depicting variable morality in a narrative; as opposed to clumsily handling two very different narratives (Star Wars Guy saves universe, happily ever after; or,… Read more »
Mechman
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To me the weakest part of role playing games has always been the principles. Very few people are genuinely pure evil, and most use principles, however illogical, to distinguish themselves from those who are “really” bad guys. However, trying to play as an evil character with some moral principles, however insignificant they may be, results in watering down your evil and making you both less powerful and more limited in what you can do. To me, playing a lawful evil character means trying to manipulate others, sometimes even seeming to be lawful go, so that you can further your ends,… Read more »
Richard Naik
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[quote=Closet Superhero]Richard, I think you are wanting two things out of this kind of mechanic which are incompatible. The paradox is most clear when you yourself say, ‘Someday I’d like to see a game where I can make virtually any choice in any situation within the bounds of the game world’s reason, and be rewarded or punished appropriately for it’. As soon as a game starts using a ‘reward or punishment’ system with major in-game implications, some gamers will rightfully take issue with the feeling of being rail-roaded down a particular avenue of ‘choice’. The game starts to dictate how… Read more »
Mathew
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I think the problem stems from the fact that the main good/evil choices are dialog ones. The are only ever made in a conversation when you are put in a certain situation. The games differ, I believe, by the following, KOTOR – Good / Evil Mass Effect – Idealist / Consequentialist In KOTOR you can do things either entirely selfless or horribly sadistic, which I think is perfect for light/dark side Motif. And if you are good, you can save the galaxy, if you are evil, you can attempt to rule it. In order to achieve believability, in Mass effect… Read more »
Closet Superhero
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Richard, I think you are wanting two things out of this kind of mechanic which are incompatible. The paradox is most clear when you yourself say, ‘Someday I’d like to see a game where I can make virtually any choice in any situation within the bounds of the game world’s reason, and be rewarded or punished appropriately for it’. As soon as a game starts using a ‘reward or punishment’ system with major in-game implications, some gamers will rightfully take issue with the feeling of being rail-roaded down a particular avenue of ‘choice’. The game starts to dictate how player… Read more »
Richard Naik
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The slider comment is true to a point, but in most games like this there are a finite number of things you can do, and many of the choices do close off some paths to the player. I do like the idea of crossing a line i.e., I murder someone early in the game and that closes off a host of choices down the road. Having a totally different relationship with certain NPCs based on things you did early in the game instead rather that the cookie-cutter characters that allow you to forge that relationship regardless of your past choices… Read more »
TheGameCritique
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I think the problem that came with entering a relationship being the way to unlock story progression is that it becomes a key and ignores the relationship part of the situation in the end. I wont even go into items. But I think what would be even a better representation of choice and mollify any problems is to have such big choices open new story pathss but close others. It gives it a more organic feel. It also would fix the main problem with the dicotomy of RPGs, the slider. You can murder entire villages and then save neough puppies… Read more »
Richard Naik
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The system mentioned by MrPendent is intriguing, but yes, something like that would be a *massive* undertaking, and maybe not one that a studio is willing to invest in given currently existing technology. I’m also not sure that it would alleviate the lack of choice freedom in a way that Fallout 3 does. I haven’t played The Witcher either, but it is on my to-play list, which seems to grow every day. Boy, one of things I talked about in my comments on Alex’s first post is just that-games are based on rewards, be it items, story progression, or whatever.… Read more »
Boy
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But I heard The Witcher is a good example of moral ambiguity in games. The Romancing Saga remake for PS2 dabbled with this in some interesting ways, but the game can be quite player-unfriendly. And I think realistic moral choice in games is a difficult goal to achieve in games for a lot of the same reasons Alex mentioned in her Sex as Commodity post, chiefly that games are designed around rewards. Sure, making a sort-of friendship with someone who you could later manipulate to heighten your standing among influential groups and thus move yourself toward a better position for… Read more »
MrPendent
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I have felt the same thing for a long time. I think it is a function of mass-market appeal. They are trying to target these games at both older gamers with a refined sense of drama and morality and younger/less thoughtful gamers with less-sharp ideas about these things. So, in an effort to make the game “accessible” to all, they must make the choices rather blunt and obvious. You don’t want 9 year-olds being told they are evil by their video games. Personally, however, I think this could be solved fairly easily. Let’s take Gears of War as an example.… Read more »
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