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Morality in games.:

 1 Zennistrad, Tue, 8th Nov '11 7:51:18 PM from Inndikar Relationship Status: Star-crossed
Gatherer of Magic
I find it odd that we don't have a discussion about the Karma Meter systems you often see in video games. There have been many criticisms and discussions of such systems, and I'd like to know what tropers here think.

I personally think the best example I've seen of a Karma Meter is The Suffering. I haven't played the game, but from the information I've gathered, it handles morality much better than most games.

For one, you actually have three options for an ending/path instead of the usual two. Instead of pure good or pure evil, you can also be neutral. A bit more simplistic than reality, but I think it's pretty much perfect in video game terms. It's a bit complex for a video game, but not to a degree that makes it harder to understand or plan around.

Also, unlike most games, you aren't punished for being evil. Video games are a medium of escape, and while nobody wants to be evil in real life, they might want to be evil in a game just for shits and giggles, and since nobody is really hurt, there shouldn't be any consequences, right? Well, that's not what game designers seem to think. In Fallout games by Bethesda, for example, all the best options are available to good players, and the options for evil players are very limited.

In The Suffering, though, while there are both advantages and disadvantages to being good, and the same is true for evil. If you're good, you can recover health more easily, but you can't berserk as much. Likewise, if you're evil, you can berserk more, but you can't recover health as quickly or easily. Being neutral makes you a Jack of All Stats. So, depending on how you want to play, you can choose the alignment that suits you better, and it's much more balanced and fun than games that restrict you to one alignment (usually good) if you want to do well.

What do you guys think are good examples of morality systems done right, if there are any? And what can be done to make morality systems better?
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Actually a LOT of games have done that before. I remember a few years back that a ton of games were coming out with the exact same premise you had: depending on your morality, your character would level up in different ways, they just didn't focus on the neutral aspect that much. Just look at a ton of the fantasy/D&D clones released in the last few years and you'll see what I mean.

Even in Knights of the Old Republic coming from a franchise that strongly focuses being absolute light or dark, a dark side player could get some pretty devastating attacks such as force lighting or death field. Yet they were still allowed to use light-side powers such as force healing, with the downside of the ability costing much more force points to use. Hell, in KOTOR 2 my light-side Jedi was spamming force lighting like crazy due to the fact that I focused on leveling up my Jedi's total force points.

Finally uploaded myself an Avvie
Planescape: Torment has yet to be surpassed in my mind imo.

Though the Dragon Age systems of companion friendship/rivalry is a pretty interesting version thereof.

"You want to see how a human dies? At ramming speed." - Emily Wong.
 4 Shirow Shirow, Tue, 8th Nov '11 8:27:38 PM from Land of maple syrup Relationship Status: In Lesbians with you
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I don't like the idea of a morality System in the first place. It sorta defeats the purpose of being a good guy if being a good guy offers you +3 hero points, which let you equip the sword of incorruptible pure light. Plus you walk into some situations where the universe stating you committed a moral or immoral act feels a bit... Odd, like the Fallout 3 priest seduction quest.

Basically, games shouldn't have a big meter on the screen and instead just flow with your decisions. Requires plenty more effort, i know, but it's worth it in my book.

Balancing good and evil can be tricky. I'm actually moderately unnerved by the idea that so many gamers want the evil path to be just as viable as the good path, but here's an easy solution: Make Evil Easy. While taking the evil path in the game you get paid more for quests, get to get your hands on special weapons and equipment good guys can't get, unlock more powerful spells that cause destruction and all that. So evil players have the upper hand. At first.

But after awhile people stop doing business with the evil player, because he's a jackhole. His weapons eventually get outclassed because he's been using them too long and he can't find a replacement. And all his superpowered spells aren't Friendly Fireproof so he roasts anyone that does take his corner. Meanwhile the good player reconstructed the kingdom so there's a functioning economy he's at the center of, he's able to convince the Ultimate Blacksmith to forge him the Infinity+1 Sword and during the Final Battle there's an epic Gondor Calls for Aid montage.

There are plenty of games that do this on a small scale. I'm currently playing Dark Souls (Surprise!) and you actually have the option to kill just about anyone, including vendors who drop special unique and powerful loot that they won't sell you. So evil players that just slaughter their way through them will get a nice item that pulls them through the rest of the level, and then completely screws them over because they can't go back and buy that uncursing stone they really needed. The effects even go into player interaction: Players playing online can invade and kill other people to steal their resources, but the victim can essentially put a contract killing on their own murderer which forces them to fight uber-powerfull NP Cs. Short term gain for screwing someone else over, but harsh penalties down the line.

It has some parallels to Real Life too: jerks tend to get promoted more often, but they get stuck in that position easily too. Meanwhile the Nice Guy will eventually sail past him and keep climbing the corporate ladder. They've done studies! I read them on Cracked!

edited 8th Nov '11 8:45:54 PM by ShirowShirow

"Well, of course they'd be "colorful" - they're male battle-whores." - Nomuru2d
 5 Spirit, Tue, 8th Nov '11 8:31:24 PM from America Relationship Status: Gay for Big Boss
Eh, The Suffering handling of the karma system wasn't that spectacular. Sure, being evil got you different bonuses, but being good also did that and usually lets that NPC you didn't kill help you out in a firefight/reveal a hidden stash. And being neutral actually nerfed you, you didn't get bonuses and your monster form didn't power up.

The problem with a "neutral path" is that, while a sufficiently black and white story can allow for a clear good and evil option, its much harder to make defined "neutral" options that work well. Trying to have one singular neutral option ends up really forced, since the whole point of being neutral is that you are somewhere in between. If the only possible "neutral" choice is defined as the exact halfway between the obvious saintly decision and the obvious monster decision. . .

Personally, I don't mind a moral system that is very black and white. I also don't mind a moral system that is all complex decisions and shades of grey. What I don't like is when a game establishes a given moral tone, and then radically breaks it with the game mechanics. Example: the Tenpenny Tower quest in Fallout 3. The apparent-good path ending in massacre? Its a gutpunch, but a setting appropriate one. However, when the game then gives you evil points for killing the guy who *just committed said massacre*? That's the point where I complain.
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 7 Nicknacks, Tue, 8th Nov '11 8:36:07 PM from Land Down Under
Ding-ding! Going down...
I think my biggest problem with any karma meters — and I probably should say that I don't like them at all — is how terribly specific they are.

Morality varies from person to person, yes? What someone else may consider perfectly moral (like walking away from someone who's about to kill themselves) is completely immoral to me. But if the game designers want to implement a morality meter and the above sneario, or some other similarly morally ambiguous situation, then they run into problems. They have to decide whether the players available actions are evil or good, which places the player at some tension to the one of the game's central devices. (For a real example, check out the way Bioshock 2 treats its morality challenges in the last half of the game).

A lot of developers don't want to get into these kinds of tangled moral problems (partially from fears of bad press, partially from fears of bad fan reaction, partially from a desire to not want to offend people, or whatever. The reasons I've read vary from interview to interview). But they still want to implement morality systems. This means we end up getting flawed systems where moral choices are really damn obvious, such as the infamous "kill a puppy, save a puppy" moral dichotomy argument that gets used a lot. The evil option has to be ubiquitously understood as evil, and the good has to be universally understood as good, leading to crappy or inexplicable choices. (This is something games like Knights of the Old Republic suffers from a lot of.)

In other cases, developers feel the need to step back from moral quandaries because, either in play testing or development, or whatever, far too many people are picking the options the karma system has labelled as evil. Infamously, the original Bioshcok, had players always pick the option to harvest the Little Sisters, killing possessed girls for the significant game play bonuses they offered instead of saving them for positive moral option, but with less of a bonus. So the developers made saving the sisters grant you better perks and even special free abilities, along with more ADAM (the game play bonus I alluded to) than the evil path). There is almost no incentive to being evil. I'm not sure why this option was taken (perhaps fear over moral backlash, that's my theory anyway), but it limits the point of the moral choice gameplay to some degree.

I prefer non-judgemental systems like those implemented in Alpha Protocol or the Dragon Age games. They don't carry the same level of thorny political issues and don't force me to struggle with a game design team's morality, and are less of a struggle to manoeuvre. Sure you have to account for the onions of others when you take certain actions, but it means struggling with people in the game itself, instead of fighting the designers.
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Left Eye
Are we also including games that use ethical alignment/philosophy? Or is this purely Good vs Evil?

Because I almost always prefer the former.
 9 Recon 5, Tue, 8th Nov '11 10:44:30 PM from Southeast Asia
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I do prefer games where player decisions only lead to outcomes and events rather than offering bonuses for any side. The 'goodness' and 'evilness' is almost guaranteed to come naturally from that.

For example, watching yourself so that as few people die as possible is obviously 'good' in a common morals sense even if you don't get 'Goodness Points' for it and it can obviously help the player later even if you don't get a taser gun upgrade for it.

On the flipside, the game doesn't need to give 'Evulz Points' or an additional reward for killing an innocent guard for his cool gun as there are already benefits (obstacle removed, new weapon obtained) and potential drawbacks (he can't help you later if you need it).

 10 Some Name, Tue, 8th Nov '11 10:57:41 PM Relationship Status: Don't hug me; I'm scared
Person
Here's an additional problem: Even when a game is giving you nuanced decisions to make, they only very occasionally have the ability to judge intent, and will generally end up taking any action by the player at face value. I'm not sure I've ever seen a game with morality values that would be capable of acknowledging the player as a Villain with Good Publicity, for example.

Random idea: What if you had a game that had you gradually define the thoughts and opinions of the characters, and then picked their actions within the story automatically based on those decisions? You could potentially even try to integrate it into gameplay, where your stats are what control the character's behavior. Or you could start the player out as a specific kind of character, but have them make decisions on how or whether certain events cause Character Development.

Unrelated: I also think that more games need to attach major Hero Antagonists to evil options. The idea of playing an evil character seems kind of hollow when you keep getting pitted against even worse bad guys.

edited 8th Nov '11 11:15:37 PM by SomeName

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 11 Nicknacks, Tue, 8th Nov '11 11:42:42 PM from Land Down Under
Ding-ding! Going down...
I'm not sure I've ever seen a game with morality values that would be capable of acknowledging the player as a Villain with Good Publicity, for example.

Alpha Protocol is pretty good at this. It not only makes leeway for the player to be lying each time they respond, it basically expects them to be. There are several very strong villainous endings to the game, where you can side with or take over several villainous factions. The generic good ending is possibly the least satisfying.
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 12 thefran, Tue, 8th Nov '11 11:44:48 PM from a microwave oven
The largest issue with the alignment scale for me is not where the Good vs. Evil balance lies, but what's the Neutral position is.

Not only neutral people usually get a unique companion called Corporal Jack F. Shit for their neutrality, but neutrality is almost always boring. Neutrality is usually written as non-interference.

  1. Isn't that defeating the whole point of a videogame? Interactivity? Making choices? Being able to affect the world you see?

  2. There are some situations where a lack of action equals doing an evil action. Asimov once showed perfectly why thinking about negiligence is important. A robot cannot do harm to a human as a result of his own actions. So he lifts a ten-ton box over a human's head and drops it - that's not doing harm because he knows he can catch it, but then once he releases his hands it's the gravity going to do the harm and, as such, he does not proceed to catch it.

The whole karma meter system and D&D alignment square too) is really silly indeed, but simple to implement. Dragon Age did it marvelously: you can go around with people, doing whatever, including saving orphans from lack of candy, but near the end there's a What You Are in the Dark moment with choosing what to do to kill the archdemon which shows who you really are, are you really willing to sacrifice yourself for other people. It's meta but it's wonderful. Although Morgan's affection scale is an obvious example of all the issues with neutrality.

Frankly I've yet to see an alignment system that can differentiate between good and evil *intentions* and *actions*. You can kill an innocent to save some other people, or you can feed orphans to pose as a good guy and plan a coup better, or you can fuck the police to enforce justice. Yet when people actually try roleplaying that, their alignment shifts further from LG if they're doing C/E things, but not vice versa. There needs to be a "perceived" alignment and a "true" alignment, the former affecting what people think of you, the latter giving you some alignment related powers or whatever. This sort of thing would be much easier to pull off on paper, though, since the former's usually done with videogames as reputation with the whole faction - and when you steal from one merchant and the whole continent of their kind hates you, that's implying clairvoyance.

edited 8th Nov '11 11:59:04 PM by thefran

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Random idea: What if you had a game that had you gradually define the thoughts and opinions of the characters, and then picked their actions within the story automatically based on those decisions? You could potentially even try to integrate it into gameplay, where your stats are what control the character's behavior. Or you could start the player out as a specific kind of character, but have them make decisions on how or whether certain events cause Character Development.

This is exactly what Planescape: Torment does. Although it does have to do within the bounds of the DnD system, if you just ignore that and consider how it plays out in the game...

To whit:

Planescape: Torment has a two-dimensional meter based on the Dungeons & Dragons alignment concept (the familiar Good-Evil scale and the Lawful-Chaotic scale). The hero begins as a True Neutral and adjusts depending on your actions. The most notable feature in Torment was perhaps that dialog options had such diverse elements as "Truth: Tell me, or I'll kill you!" and "Bluff: Tell me, or I'll kill you!" which would affect alignment differently, but NP Cs similarly. The next-most notable feature was how evil you could actually be.

edited 9th Nov '11 12:41:12 AM by Falco

"You want to see how a human dies? At ramming speed." - Emily Wong.
 14 Recon 5, Wed, 9th Nov '11 12:54:03 AM from Southeast Asia
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The issue with allowing players to separate intent from action is that barring some kind of metaphysical weirdness like that in Planescape, the action is what affects the world. The result of killing a would-be murderer is the same regardless of whether you did it to foil his plans or because his face irritated you.

That's why we have Alternate Character Interpretation.

 15 thefran, Wed, 9th Nov '11 1:01:36 AM from a microwave oven
>> the action is what affects the world.

If there's any alignment-dependent magic system, your own alignment affects your character, and these things pop up pretty often. That, and some characters can simply see through your ruse.

It is a bit hard to implement, but there could be any amount of factions, each of them thinking something about your alignment, as well as algorithms for spreading information about you. Human brain can do these calculations effeciently, PC not that much

edited 9th Nov '11 1:03:12 AM by thefran

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 16 feotakahari, Wed, 9th Nov '11 1:26:13 AM from Looking out at the city
Fuzzy Orange Doomsayer
Pretty much the only games I've played where I actually liked the alignment system were the above-mentioned The Suffering (save-a-puppy / kill-a-puppy, but never restricts your actions, and has a surprisingly affecting ending for good), and Overlord (Pragmatic Villainy / For the Evulz, and again, really builds on this in the ending.)

The fastest way for me to dislike a morality system is if it forces me onto a certain path, particularly a path I have no way of predicting—"Oh, you've been greeting people in a friendly manner and completing missions dutifully? Of course you want to help enslave humanity!" (I swear that is not an exaggeration of how Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey handles morality, although I gave up on the game for unrelated reasons before I got to the ending.) I can understand a reputation system preventing me from doing or not doing certain things, but a player stand-in who's denied free will due to previous actions ceases to feel like a stand-in, instead becoming a main character who happens to have an incredibly dull personality. (In other words, it sounds like I would really, really, really hate the above-described morality system for Planescape: Torment, although I've never actually played the game.)

All in all, I dislike the idea of morality systems in games. I prefer games in which you play as a character with his or her own distinct and interesting personality, and things go well or badly based on his or her moral failings rather than your own (if only because it doesn't create the false expectation of being able to roleplay yourself when the designers haven't programmed in options that would correspond to what you'd actually do.)

edited 9th Nov '11 1:31:49 AM by feotakahari

That's Feo . . . He's a disgusting, mysoginistic, paedophilic asshat who moonlights as a shitty writer—Something Awful
[up]

See I'm the opposite- it makes no sense to me that at every turn, every option for an action should be open to you. That makes me lose immersion in a game. For me the best thing about a system would be one where only taking certain actions/talking to people a certain way opens up further options for you. Now I don't like it being a binary good/evil choice, but more like a tree where the branches keep flowing onwards, maybe mixing back and forth.
"You want to see how a human dies? At ramming speed." - Emily Wong.
 18 feotakahari, Wed, 9th Nov '11 1:48:15 AM from Looking out at the city
Fuzzy Orange Doomsayer
^ I guess that makes sense, if you trust the game designers to not force you into something you couldn't predict. (Though I might as well mention a non-morality example of how that went bad for me—I kept talking with the potential love interests in the first Mass Effect in order to gain experience from them, so the game forced me to choose one of them as a lover, despite my repeatedly telling them that I wasn't attracted to either of them. I wound up just choosing the one who could get Killed Off for Real.)
That's Feo . . . He's a disgusting, mysoginistic, paedophilic asshat who moonlights as a shitty writer—Something Awful
 19 Recon 5, Wed, 9th Nov '11 1:54:53 AM from Southeast Asia
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there could be any amount of factions, each of them thinking something about your alignment

Impressions are determined by things like "He holds to high principles" or "He doesn't kick puppies" or "I heard he sold his mother for a new pair of shoes", i.e. what your character does or says. Short of having supposedly clairvoyant factions I can't see any way that intent can be determined without seeing (or hearing reports of) actions.

Planescape Torment doesn't force you down a set path based on your actions at all actually. You solve quests differently based on the dialogue options you make and your alignment changes either based on your choices or based on whether you were lying or telling the truth.

The overarching storyline doesn't have that much choice in it (aside from a few slightly different endings) it's mainly in its quest design that you have the freedom to do things and say douchey things. So you aren't going to be forced evil for lying basically.

[up][up][up] Ha yes, true and the Mass Effect games are much worse than older BioWare offerings because of the voiced protagonist in some ways- worse examples including sleeping with an asari prostitute if you expressed mild disappointment with her reward for a quest or yelling at a VI that it was arrogant if you followed up its statement with what looked like a query. But 2 is better than 1 in that regard, and the romances at least I found enough stopping off points...

The system definitely has it flaws (not a huge fan, again, of the Paragon/Renegade duality, though at least the karma meters aren't mutually exclusive), and Dragon Age systems are OK, but again I'm looking for impact beyond just (mostly) companion NPC types, hence the preference for what PT did.

edited 9th Nov '11 1:56:52 AM by Falco

"You want to see how a human dies? At ramming speed." - Emily Wong.
 22 thefran, Wed, 9th Nov '11 2:12:03 AM from a microwave oven
I can't see any way that intent can be determined
I'm talking about being aware of your actions and trying to find out your intents.

Assume that you've pissed off faction A, which is allied with faction B, then acting like a saint towards action B won't likely be as effective of a ruse. That, and people like inquisitors and oracles can read through your actions to find out your true intentions.
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 23 Madass Alex, Wed, 9th Nov '11 2:38:05 AM from the Middle Ages.
I am vexed!
I dislike the idea of morality being a measured mechanic. There being "good" options and "evil" options and "neutral" options implies all the wrong things about the nature of morality. Instead, I want to see more individually trying moral questions in games where all the answers are equally "good". This pretty much necessitates the player choosing from a list of evils and deciding which one they think will work out the best.

One game that did this really well was The Witcher 2. There's no morality bar, and the choices you make aren't tracked except for when they alter the plot. Instead, each individual situation that involves a moral choice is just that — individual. One of the great things about the game is how the main character, Geralt, is completely aware that he's constantly choosing between lesser evils.

For instance, there's one sidequest where you have to lift the curse on an old, abandoned hospital. It's populated by minor ghosts and one very powerful wronged spirit. It turns out that a couple of men you saved were key to the hospital's downfall and the suffering caused therein, all for the chance to locate treasure. At the end of the quest, you can choose between turning the men over to the spirit, fighting the spirit, or trying to trick the spirit. If you side with the men, Geralt doesn't treat them like friends at all.

Essentially, this becomes a question of the lesser evil between vengeance (the spirit) or greed (the men). Will you make those men suffer at the hands of the spirit for what they've done, or will you deny the spirit's authority over life? For some, that's an easy choice, but it wasn't for me. And it was made all the more difficult by the lack of systemised morality. When morality is tracked and rewarded, I can use my personal preference as a fallback to gain points in that direction and unlock more benefits, but that defeats the purpose of morality in the first place.
 24 Trigger Loaded, Wed, 9th Nov '11 6:52:19 AM from Canada, eh? Relationship Status: Healthy, deeply-felt respect for this here Shotgun
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I'm not sure how it holds up to other games, but the freeware game Iji had an interesting sort of morality.

The morality was simply violent or non-violent, but nothing forces you to be nonviolent. Heck, it's a lot tougher to be pacifistic. You barely get any nano (XP in this game) and they're likely to shoot at you anyway. Only if you're a PURE pacifist can you get some benefits, namely the aliens making a peace treaty with you and one boss killed so you won't have to.

Either way, the plot progresses much the same way, but some of the dialogue is different. The pacifistic side is seen as idealistic, but you're not outright demonized for being violent. After all, these alien bastards DID invade Earth and killed everyone they met.

One noteworthy change is in Iji's dialogue. For her first few kills, she chokes out an apology. She's not a solider, she's just a girl, and isn't used to taking a life. But after you've racked up a kill count, she starts to... enjoy it a bit too much.
Don't take life too seriously. It's only a temporary situation.
 25 Fluid, Wed, 9th Nov '11 7:27:07 AM from The Netherlands
I wonder if it would be possible to make a game where you have to juggle multiple virtue meters instead of one overall morality meter, kinda like Ultima IV but allowing more than one possible story branch, based on which of your virtues dominates at any given point.

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