Binary Morality and Choice in Games


It is hardly uncommon to hear discussions about choice in games today. From The Walking Dead to Mass Effect, the idea of games adapting themselves, even in preset ways, to your choices has become quite a prolific one. And why not? Nothing says immersion like being given the ability (or at least an illusion) of freedom in an otherwise static narrative. So why is it that the most commonly implemented “moral choice” system is still that of binary moral choices?

It’s a system that ultimately does little to enhance the core game in any meaningful way. Sure, in the moment of deciding whether to choose a path of absolute good or evil, there’s generally a bit of a thrill in choosing a side. But there is also an issue of making these choices altogether too extreme to the point of hilarity, with many evil choices in particular way too over-the-top and unsympathetic to take seriously. This has a negative effect on the development of the player character; since games tend to reinforce continually picking the same side of the moral spectrum, the player character generally boils down to a boring, 2-dimensional paragon or an unsympathetic, 2-dimensional spawn of evil. There’s also the whole issue of the “good-evil slider”, which is a rather poor display of a character’s moral standing. It seems to imply that you could, in theory, become a mass-murdering maniac before switching to a saintly level of moral compunction in a matter of hours.

Sorry, I couldn't resist the joke

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the joke

In fact, that’s where a lot of my issues with the good/evil dichotomy come from; there’s rarely any sense of consequence. Many games, like Fallout 3 or Fable, present the player with choices that, while perhaps interesting on a surface level, provide very little in terms of consequence immediately after the choice is performed. Take for example, the classic moment in Fallout 3 where the player is given the option to destroy the town of Megaton. Presuming the evil option is selected, the player is treated to the destruction of Megaton, a moment that definitely instills a sense of “did I really just do that?” into the player.

And yet, nothing about the rest of the game is really altered in any meaningful way afterwards. You destroyed a town, sure, but plenty of other places provide the exact same uses in terms of gameplay that Megaton did. Perhaps most oddly, it hardly factors into the narrative at all; nobody has any misgivings about allowing someone who caused the deaths of dozens to assist them in healing the wasteland. When the choice comes up at all, the reactions from characters seem to be little more than verbal finger-wags. I found the realization that my choice had very little consequence to rob the moment of the choice a good chunk of its power.

And really, this is as much an issue with all games that utilize narrative as it is those that rely on a binary moral scale. Outside of the odd exception (Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together had dramatically different outcomes to key choices throughout its narrative), very little on either a gameplay or narrative level is rarely affected by any decisions in choice based games. It’s a conundrum, and it also presents a bit of an interesting topic: are false choices still impactful after they have been revealed to be false? Or rather, does the Wizard of Oz still command our attention after he has been revealed to be a meek, small man?

It’s difficult to say, and it’s also important that the lack of consequence can have as much to do with budgeting as anything else; the effort it would take to produce unique content for a combination of different outcomes from choices is likely daunting. For right now, I’ve been encouraged by the shift to a more gray, subtle sort of morality system, exemplified in the aforementioned The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain. It’s a good sign for video game narratives that the childish purely good/purely bad options are dying out in favor of  hopefully more nuanced ones. It’ll be interesting to see how far this form of role-playing is able to develop, though.

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  1. This blog was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something which helped
    me. Appreciate it!

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Error! Not Found has many articles of opinion. Every editor has different tastes and beliefs, and one point of view does not necessarily reflect the group as a whole.

(c) Evan Tognotti, Editor-In-Chief. 2011


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