Press X to Be A Dick


Dante’s Inferno is out and plumbing the depths of mediocrity essentially as expected. I’m going to use Dante’s pointless redemption/damnation system as a jumping-off point/excuse to bring up an issue that’s been sloshing around in the back of my gamer consciousness for a while now: games are not depicting morality properly.

Moral choice in games seems to have devolved into either a  tedious form of stat allocation (a la Dante’s Inferno and Infamous), or a way to pad out playing time by offering two sort-of-but-not-really different versions of the story to play through (as perfected by Bioware). Morality is offered as a way to tailor the story to the player’s ideal – “play your way” etc. – but so what? There rarely seem to be any lasting effects as a result of the player’s “moral choices”, so where does morality come into things?

Without any consequences, you don’t have choices to decide between, you merely have selections to make. In which case, who gives a fuck? That’s just a skill tree, they’ve had that forever. Whether you put points into your “be a douchbag” skill by using a menu screen or by shooting 50 babies doesn’t really matter; you’re still using a resource (skill points or choices) to purchase an upgrade. When games like Infamous make you chose between acting bad or good, they aren’t creating a dynamic story with depth and replayability. They’re just creating a skill point allocation system with an incredibly tedious and burdensome UI.

Part of what I think I’m bumping up against here is that there’s a chasm between story and gameplay when it comes to consequences. The story consequences can be completely different from the gameplay consequences; if the story is telling you that doing something would be bad, but the actual rules of the game don’t punish you for being bad, or even treat you the same as if you had made the “good” choice, you get a disconnect between what these two sets of moral systems are telling you. If I were a pointy-headed movie lover who studied film for three years at the University of California, I might call these two sets diegetic morality and mechanical morality. But I won’t.

On the off chance that I’m not explaining myself well, here’s an example. In a Star Wars movie, staying true to the Force and not going over to the Dark Side is a constant struggle with temptation, the failure of which essentially risks both a poisonous addiction and eternal damnation. In a Star Wars game, you stay on the light side if you want telekinesis and you go over to the dark side if you want force lightning.

Choosing between two things you want isn’t a dilemma; either way you get something you want (Power! Or a different kind of power!) Neither is choosing between a thing you want and a thing you don’t (Power! Or power that doesn’t suit my playstyle and can be safely ignored!). The only choice I’m really going to wrestle with – the only choice where I feel like I made a choice at all – is the choice between two things I don’t want (Fuck! What if I… Fuck!).

Games aren’t merely read or watched, they are played. When good and evil are both just as valid in terms of how they affect the gameplay experience, that is to say if your story has moral consequences but your gameplay doesn’t, what you’re really telling the player is that there’s no actual morality at all, just a number of morally equivalent paths through the story. If that’s the sort of universe that you want to create, then designing a game around choices that have neither type of morality is one good way to go. If you want a strongly moral narrative that will actually affect your players, it would be a good idea to both write morality into the story and reinforce it with some form of mechanical morality as well. Having one kind of morality in your decisions but not the other is going to send mixed messages to the player, and that’s where I am with moral choice systems in games right now.

I suspect that what often happens in the course of development is that morality is added into the story by writers, who know that difficult choices are often a good source of conflict and drama. Then morally equivalent mechanics are put in by designers who are striving for balance in their design and don’t want to privilege one part of their content over another. This is a problem that would crop up less if people designed both their story and mechanics at the same meetings, and looked carefully at how the two can be integrated to create a coherent message. The fact that this is a lot of work actually makes me shy away from games that advertise a morality system as bandwagoneers and flavor-of-the-month peddlers.

And, of course, it would be nice to be offered choices with a little more shading than “I will kill the evil troll for you and also here is all my money” or “Oh, hello. I will murder you and your entire species today”.

While I’m rambling about changes, let’s all try really hard to give choices real consequences that are apparent at the time of the choice. One of my favorite games of all time, Front Mission 3, has two very different 40-hour campaigns that you can play, depending on which side of an international espionage action you find yourself on. The trigger for which side you wind up on? At the very start of the game, your douchebag best friend asks you if you want to hang out at the mall. Your answer determines the entire rest of the game. OK, sure, there are butterfly effect things like that do actually happen, but come the fuck on. If I hadn’t checked a guide I never would have figured out how to see an entire half of the goddamned game. Ryogo is that annoying.

Have any of you played any games that promised moral dilemmas – or even real choices – and actually delivered?


One thought on “Press X to Be A Dick”

  1. Well, shit. Here I thought I was being all original, and Jonathan “I’m the fancy-pantsy artist type that made Braid” blow has already invented special terminology for what I was getting at and given a goddamned talk on the subject. The term I was apparently looking for is “ludonarrative dissonance”.

    Read about it here:

    I’m gonna go slump off to the kitchen and eat ice cream until my body becomes as fat and useless as my brain seems to be ;P

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