When they strap me to the chair, I won’t fight it.
The man was frail and frightened. All he could do was drop to the floor and beg for a quick death from his much more physically imposing enemy. And I gladly obliged. His name, when highlighted by my cursor, was red, after all. He was one of the bad guys, right? Right?
The above scenario occurred while I was playing through Fallout 3’s Broken Steel DLC, and would’ve been just another day in the Wasteland if not for a few key factors. First up, according to my Pip Boy, I’m Wasteland Jesus, doer of all things selfless and just, hands sparkly clean and free of innocent blood. Second, my enemy – a scientist – wasn’t the violent type. He ran without giving me any sort of trouble, yet I gave chase. I was the schoolyard bully, and he the undeserving nerd. Sure, his red name tag told me that perforating his fancy future lab coat wouldn’t yield any karmatic consequences, but I had no way of knowing if he was actually evil. But I still killed him and, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t the least bit sorry.
Really, what does such a scenario even say about the habits videogames foster in us? Sensationalists would, of course, say that this is just another example of the big, mean gaming industry’s trivialization of death, regarded by many as the de facto Serious Topic. To which I respectfully reply: You’re dumb.
If you take a few moments to sift through gaming’s ever-expanding walk of fame, you’ll quickly notice that many of our hobby’s biggest, most memorable stars and starlets are, well, dead. SPOILERS . Aeris (or Aerith, or whatever Square’s calling her these days) from Final Fantasy VII. The dog from Fable II. The baby metroid from Super Metroid. And my personal, though lesser known favorite: the random helicopter pilot from Resident Evil 4. In the cases of many of these deaths, players mourned for these characters, and even tried to – for the most part, unsuccessfully – bring them back to life. Gamers still experience death like everyone else. Game designers know that, and use it to make their games more emotionally affecting.
So why, then, are we still capable of callously capping “enemies” that can’t or won’t fight back? My guess? It’s that darn good vs. evil meter doodad so many new-fangled games present us with these days.
In today’s games, morality systems work like this: you do something that the game considers “good” or “evil,” and then the game tells you exactly how good or evil your action was. Whether you’re following in the footsteps of Gandhi or Steve Jobs, the game will give you an update every step of the way. As a result, the action you’re performing is deemphasized, while pleasing the whims of the almighty meter becomes your main goal. And really, that’s just disappointing, because games could be pulling this off so much better.
That’s not to say, however, that doing away with the meter would fix everything. The crux of most good vs. evil systems – that is, the risks and rewards inherent to them – is still fundamentally flawed, but also easily repairable. See, as of now, most good/evil dilemmas present you with a situation in which you could a) perform an evil action and receive some (usually) monetary reward or b) perform a good action and miss out on a reward or even lose a valuable item. Seems sound enough – until you realize that a good action still grants a pretty hefty reward in the form of a different kind of currency. In this case, a tangible influx of goodness “points” is, really, about on par with whatever reward an evil player might have received. Suddenly, that noble sacrifice your galaxy-saving Jedi just made doesn’t seem so selfless with a few more light side points jingling around in your morality purse. Again, just like your dark side counterpart, you’re still building toward a solely self-motivated goal.
So, here’s what I’m proposing: Remove the good vs. evil meter, and stop making good and evil options so transparent. How could this be done in a way that benefits a player’s experience? Well, to more forcefully sway my feelings, anyway, it’d just be a matter of attaching good and/or evil actions to other characters instead of tangible rewards for my character. Say, for instance, that I just tripped a small child because he wouldn’t stop screaming in the grocery store. Here, one of my companions – perhaps even a potential romantic interest – might pipe up, expressing his/her vehement disapproval.
Or, on the flipside, say that I have the opportunity to save thousands of lives – even better, off-screen people’s lives – in exchange for one familiar face. In both of these situations, there’s no monetary or tangible reward. Just well-constructed characters dealing with the consequences of your actions. Granted, in a very forward-thinking move, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II flirted with a system like this, but kept the meter. Still though, it certainly made players think about their actions a lot more than other morality based games.
As for transparency, that’d be as simple as applying your invisible good vs. evil system to every action conceivable, from “liberating” necessary vehicles and verbally abusing people to things like the scientist-killing scenario I mentioned at the start of this whole thing. In all likelihood, then, it’d be impossible to become fully good or evil, just as it is in real life, though a mostly good or bad reputation would still be obtainable, again measured by characters’ reactions to you. But really, that’d just be icing on the cake, with the point of it all being reflection upon your individual choices – as opposed to hoarding arbitrary points as one might in a meter-based system.
So, what’s your opinion on morality systems in games? Do you think they could use an overhaul, or are they a-okay just as they are? Or should we just do away with them altogether, and instead allow moral relativism to reign?
The Game Boy is the soapbox Nathan Grayson stands atop to pass down proclamations about the world of gaming. Installments are posted at least once per week. Also, Nathan promises he’ll start playing and discussing something that isn’t Fallout 3 soon. Well, soon-ish, anyway.