Tuesday, February 1

On Morality

Since Fable III recently came out, and I’ve had a good chance to play through it, I thought I’d revisit that popular (now fortunately less so) idea of binary morality in games.  Many reviewers, critics, and analysts have gone over some of the problems with binary morality, and out of all of them, I suggest looking at Extra Credits, which is a fantastic series anyway, why aren’t you watching it? 
This issue has only really been present in the console gaming mainstream since the overhype of the original Fable, when it became really visible as a selling point for a new wave of choice-based games.  I’m going to take a look at the morality displayed throughout the Fable games and how it has (or hasn’t) evolved, and take a quick look at some other games that do variations on the theme.
Face it: Evil gets the more badass crown.
I don’t blame Peter Molyneux for his over-excitement at the release of Fable.  The man genuinely thought that he’d implemented morality as the main gameplay mechanic, and his excitement was so great he promised a lot of things Lionhead Studios was unable to deliver on.  The development process of games is harsh and unforgiving, and while it got him quite a bit of flack, it was great to see someone so starry-eyed and enamoured in an industry so commonly full of brown and gray slop.
That said, I think Molyneux has yet to identify the core flaw with the morality system he has in place.  He’s trying to create a feeling of real effectiveness and choice using a binary system.  Binary morality does not exist in the world at large.  A specific person may see things as only good or evil, but that person’s neighbor will see things very differently.
Still, the Fable series is getting better.  Though not yet fully implemented, the games can be seen trying to interpret the player’s actions more liberally.  Early in Fable III, you acquire a set of heroic weapons your ancestor left behind.  These weapons change in design every time you increase their power, and viewing the weapon’s description will tell you why and how.  For instance, my badass war hammer said, “Your weapon has adopted a bronze sheen in response to the large number of Guild Seals (Experience) you’ve collected.”  This actually gave me a more personal feeling than I thought it might.  The game was in fact paying attention to how I played, even ever so slightly.
The main problem of the binary morality system is that the game makes judgments on the player’s choices.  I tend to think that good and evil are devoid of any real meaning, that they’re subjective concepts unique to each person viewing them.  But playing Fable is like arguing with an infuriatingly opinionated deaf man, and produces similar results. 
A great example of this is found in the latter half of Fable III.  A spoiler warning is now in effect for anyone who cares. 
After becoming Albion’s new Monarch, you’re given a slew of good and evil choices regarding the state of your kingdom, and you also find out that a horrid creature from beyond time itself is coming to destroy the kingdom lest you raise six and a half million Gold.  Naturally the “Evil” options get you the money you need, and the “Good” options make everyone like you, at least until they’re murdered by the aforementioned monstrosity.  The “Evil” options range from “reinstate child labour” to “drain a lake to mine for valuable minerals,” and the “Good” counterparts are “open a school” or “leave the pretty lake alone.”  I don’t care if you put this game on the CryEngine, that lake is not pretty enough to die for.
See, games with binary morality have to make judgments that always fit simply into Good and Evil with no middle ground and no space for other ideals like the pervasiveness of government control or propaganda.  This is why everyone complained in the first Fable that everything was either sunshine and rainbows or Hitler and Ming the Merciless; those cartoonishly ”evil” and “good” decisions were the only things people would commonly agree on.
Morality systems in games should, I believe, do more than give the player a chance to role-play basic decisions.  Instead they should provide an opportunity to look at our own decisions, and deal with the consequences as they come.  But Fable imposes meaningless value judgments on those choices, not letting the player deal with the consequences, but instead simply assigning the player a pair of horns or a halo.
There are games that do it better, and that seek to get around the issue by renaming the Good/Evil bar.  Fallout has the Karma meter and Mass Effect its Paragon/Renegade gauge.  These are better, as the give a more focused scope of what the game is about, but the binary problem remains.
So how can we use a binary morality to make better experiences?  These are just a few of the steps we can look at, organized in no particular way:
Don’t show it.  Get rid of any meter or other gameplay-style indication that what the player’s done is considered negative or positive.  Not having an omnipotent meter makes the judgment seem more the cause of the NPCs’ personalities, rather than that of some Director.  Next:
Vary these responses.  People are not uniform, and their responses won’t be either.  The sound of boos in the streets is fine for some petty thief, but the mass-murderer should probably have more impact.  Maybe some people hate you because you helped another group, then the group you helped would obviously like you, and you’d be revered in one area and detested in another.  Third:
Use factions.  These responses don’t need to necessarily vary with every single NPC, but using groups under a common banner can do wonders.  Fallout: New Vegas does particular wonders with this.  There is no way to finish the game with everyone on your side, and it’s great to get to make a choice between the different factions or going entirely for yourself.
Binary systems are certainly easier to design, program, and write than a more complex morality system, such as one based on the design of a colour wheel or dual axis chart.  However, it’s crucial to recognize that decisions, important decisions, are not easily made.  And in a game that truly offers choice, those questions will be no less meaningful and no more easily answered.

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