Video game morality needs to grow up

Blair Hanley Frank

Credit: Jung Song

Spoiler Warning: I’ll be discussing important plot points from “Mass Effect” and “Bioshock”. You have been warned.

Humans have always told stories. It’s in our nature. Up until recently, however, it’s been impossible to truly put yourself into a story. That’s why video games are cool: it’s finally possible to be the protagonist in a fictional universe. To that end, the developers who make games are always trying to make them more representative of the human experience.

Over the past several years, developers have begun including systems in their games to simulate making moral choices. Here’s how they generally work: in a given set of dialogue, or perhaps just through a few actions during the game itself, the player is offered opportunities to choose some phrase or action. It could be anything from punching out their conversation partner to saving a morally ambiguous character from a sniper’s round. After that, the player is given feedback through a system that rates them on the spectrum of good and evil.

Unfortunately, those systems do a bad job of accurately representing what it’s like to make moral choices. When I’m playing a game, I like to get lost in the world that has been created for me. Unfortunately, most of the systems that developers have come up with to simulate moral choices do the exact opposite. Their unrealistic portrayal of what it’s like to choose things as a human being makes for an unrealistic and less engaging experience. If developers put the time into improving these systems, it would be possible to create more enjoyable games. To that end, I have a few suggestions.

Developers need to ditch the system of consistently offering the player sets of easy, low-consequence choices. The original “Mass Effect” is an exemplar of both the problem and the solution. In the early stages of the game, the player encounters a scientist and her assistant, both holed up inside a dwelling. But there’s one problem: the assistant hasn’t taken his medications, and he’s rambling on and on about how they’re all going to die. If the player fiddles with the dialogue tree a bit, they’re given the chance to silence his fatalistic ramblings by pistol-whipping him. If they choose to do so, everyone around them is shocked at the brutality, and their character earns several “renegade points”. There is never another mention of it, and not a single consequence, aside from the momentary disapproval of the player’s peers.

Later in the game, “Mass Effect” includes several choices with real ramifications. The most dramatic of them forces the player to choose to sacrifice one of two non-player characters for the greater good. There is no good choice, only two bad choices, and the character in question stays dead. That’s an important, high-consequence choice that provides the player with a real dilemma and reminds them of what the stakes are. Granted, not every choice needs to be earth-shattering in its gravity, or equally important, but a good game should hold the player accountable for the choices that they make.

There also needs to be room for ambiguity. In our daily lives, we aren’t paragons of good or hateful vessels of evil. We’re generally complex, nuanced and ambiguous entities. That’s why I was so frustrated by the rigidity of “Bioshock” when it came to the moral choice system it used. Here’s the basic gist of it: several times during the course of the game, the player encounters “Little Sisters” and is given the opportunity to either kill them (and reap a massive reward) or “rescue” them (which, while leaving the sisters alive, provides the player with less of a reward). If, over the course of the game, the player only rescues the Little Sisters, they get one “good” ending (everyone lives happily ever after under their benevolent rule). On the other hand, if they kill just one Little Sister, they get a bad ending (their dictatorial tendencies threaten the entire planet). There’s no middle ground, and that’s disappointing.

Finally, the choices players are given in a game should present them with a true philosophical challenge. Sometimes doing the right thing means not getting a pat on the back or an acknowledgment from relevant parties. On the flip side, sometimes being less than upstanding is easy and even beneficial. In order to take the next step, games have to be willing and able to tackle the thorny realities that we face every single day.

It’s time for game developers to start making good choices when they make players choose. I’ve seen glimmers of hope across the industry, but nobody has gotten it right yet. It’s clear from what I’ve experienced, however, that there’s a lot of potential for good storytelling through allowing and forcing players to make hard choices. It’s now a matter of making those systems better to fulfill their potential.