Thursday, March 10, 2011

Save kitten/eat kitten: Collected thoughts on moral choices in games

There's been a good number of articles posted on Gamasutra lately dealing with moral choice in games. After writing a number of comments of my own in response, as well as some more discussion in other venues, and my own private consideration, I'd like to provide my thoughts on a number of dimensions in designing moral decisions. While what's written below isn't necessarily a framework for going about designing such decisions and systems, it can be seen as a checklist of things to do or not do when considering how to build moral decisions. I also apologise in advance for my critical attitude – I love many of the games I use as negative examples, and can only provide them because I myself have considered them and engaged with them at such lengths in the past.

Why am I doing this?”

When designing a moral decision in a game, the first question that should always be asked is, “why?” More specifically, why should the player care about the decision they're making, and why should they be given a decision in the first place? At first glance, sounds like a pretty simple question to ask, with an equally simple answer of “because we want the player to feel like he or she is in control of his or her destiny”, or thereabouts. “Either a game has moral decisions, or it doesn't” seems to be the current mode of thinking of many designers.

However, asking the question “why” is integral to designing good moral decisions for the player, because it leads to deeper and deeper questions, which, when answered, can help strengthen a given scenario. Would giving the player a choice in a particular scenario make the game better? Would the possible decisions be equally compelling from both a gameplay and a narrative perspective? Is it possible to actually provide meaningful consequences for the player's decisions, or are they going to be largely cosmetic? Is the player going to feel affirmed and rewarded by the decision they make, or will the game scold them for making the “wrong” choice? Is a player going to feel genuinely conflicted about the decisions presented, or simply choose “good” or “evil” because he/she has already decided to play that role? Moral decision-making is hollow and useless if one choice is obviously better than another, and if the game is going to make sure that the player receives an ideal outcome no matter what decision is made, then why should the player choose anything other than the “good” option?

Werewolves, huh?  Well, I selected "lawful good" so I guess today's your unlucky day...
To take an example, in Dragon Age: Origins, the player has the option of either liberating a pack of dangerous werewolves from their centuries-old curse and saving the nearby elven tribe, thus recruiting them to the player's cause, or the player may elect to side with the werewolves and slaughter the elves, gaining the favour of the werewolves in the process. While on the surface this seems compelling, the game gives very little reason for players to side with the werewolves, other than because it's an “evil” choice to kill the largely innocent elves. To solve the problem amicably requires no extra effort on the player's part, and the reward for siding with the werewolves is no better (and potentially even worse) than siding with the elves,. The only reason a player would ever conceivably want to favour the werewolves over the elves is if the player has already decided to play an “evil” character. In other words, throughout the game, the player has only really made one choice. While there's something to be said for always having the option to change one's mind or deviate from one's path, if the player is never truly tested by any choice, is there a real reason to include that choice in the first place? This is the real answer to the “why?” question.

Do I want telekinesis or electro shock?”

One method many games have elected to take in order to make their moral decisions more difficult and meaningful to the player is by providing different rewards for different choices. While sometimes offering up a greater reward if the player chooses to be evil can serve as sufficient temptation, the player can usually rest assured, via meta-game knowledge and genre familiarity, that any negative repercussions of their actions can be mitigated easily, if they aren't simply forgotten as soon as the given scenario is over. It is a rare game which truly reserves its best techniques, items, weapons, etc. for those who choose to go the “evil” route, which means that often anything missed can be simply found through alternate means.

One has to ask, why should the player care about giving up a reward if he or she chooses the moral high ground? Given that so many games equate being morally good with forgoing rewards and possessions, it seems odd that they are so eager to later reward the player for their efforts. At best, an “evil” player might end up with some extra money or a modestly useful item, but if it comes at the cost of an ideal outcome, no player would truly have to sit down and consider their actions. I can honestly say that there has only been one game which has ever managed to successfully tempt me to do something “evil” for the sake of the reward, and even then the decision was hardly irredeemable, only brutally pragmatic.

Jack froze up when he realised that he could have afforded his ice plasmid without killing all those children.
BioShock was one title which made a big deal of the player's ability to either rescue or “harvest” (kill) its sympathetic Little Sister characters, who were the key to providing the player with new powers and upgrades. The decision as envisioned by the developers at Irrational, I imagine, was that the player would have to rationalise killing a little girl if they wanted to have enough currency to purchase the game's best powers. In practice, however, the player ends up receiving additional rewards for taking the honourable route, including exclusive powers that an “evil” player could never receive. The difference by the end of the game is almost insignificant, considering by that point the player is practically rolling in money. Not only is the decision to do good morally superior, in the case of BioShock, it's also far more rewarding. Considering the player ends up with the “bad” ending after choosing the “evil” option only once or twice, there's very little reason to ever consider that road in the first place.

All good, all the time”

Another way that games attempt to make moral decisions more compelling is by providing increased rewards and abilities for staying consistent in their alignment. This sounds like a good idea on paper: the player who sticks by his or her ethics and morals throughout the course of the game will find him or herself in higher standing than the player who is “wishy washy” and changes his or her mind to suit the situation. Positive reinforcement, and all that.

But why is the ability to remain neutral and capitalise on a given scenario a bad quality? Why do games indirectly punish the player who decides that they want to take every situation as its own, and come up with the most advantageous options as they come? One would expect that, if anything, a game would choose to reward the player that's able to manipulate each and every situation for the best possible outcome. As a gamer, I tend to be highly driven by rewards and not by whether or not something is “good” or “evil” - I've never turned down a reward when it's offered because “the satisfaction of helping is enough”, and it takes a pretty negative outcome to make me consider giving up those valuable trinkets I worked hard to attain. I'll do good just as easily as I'll do wrong, so long as the decisions aren't reprehensible. To me, forcing myself to be strictly one alignment is limiting, feels artificial, and brings me out of the game because I know that I can't truly make decisions without losing out on better things.

Do you really want this to be you?
Knights of the Old Republic, for instance, grants the player more and more powerful abilities for moving towards moral extremes, and the game goes so far as to grant stat bonuses based on alignment, meaning that there is very little incentive to play a morally neutral character. Worse still is that the story does not sufficiently adapt to anything but extreme alignments: the ending will either be “good” or “evil”, with nothing in between for the player who wants to conduct themselves in a more restrained, conservative or mediating fashion throughout the game. This is all in spite of the fact that in many, many situations, the player may elect to pick a morally neutral or less extreme side. Why bother if all the game pays attention to is extremes?

Save the world, or save that puppy?

It's quite common in moral decision-making to present the player with either tiny, largely irrelevant choices, or huge, world-shattering decisions – both, to me, usually strike me as both uninteresting and a major cop-out in designing interesting scenarios. The best decisions are those that stem out of the player being emotionally involved with the world and the characters.

Crafting something the player cares about is hard work. It requires good writing, interesting characters, a world the player needs to feel involved in and personally attached to for some reason or other, etc. Calling on the player to make a choice isn't enough – that choice has to be genuinely meaningful in order to be difficult in any way. If the player doesn't care and the dilemma proposed is either too black and white, or too ambiguous, then the player is going to either pick the best or worst option with no reservations or consideration, or they'll consider themselves unqualified, confused, etc. and the decision to ask the player to decide the outcome will seem arbitrary.

Never mind that you have amnesia and rolled a 2 on wisdom, we need you to decide for us right now!
This is why I so often cringe when I see a typical “save the world/doom the world” scenario presented: usually, the designers have neglected to emotionally involve me in the situation, and instead they have attempted to win me over on the sheer size of the decision alone. To me, offering the player a momentous decision smacks of laziness – it substitutes substance with size, or quantity with quality if you will. It's the same sort of lazy shorthand in writing one might see in expecting the player to care more if a character is referred to as “sister” or “cousin” before being killed off – the designer expects me to care not because he or she has provided a compelling scenario, but by making reference to vague ideals. It's almost as if I'm supposed to care by default.

It's no better when a small decision is offered as well, because often I can rest assured that my actions in that situation are totally disconnected from the game as a whole. When faced with your typical “save kitten/eat kitten” scenario, I don't feel as if I need to consider my actions beyond that scenario in the least, because I can almost tell, through my experience in games, that it's not going to matter one bit. In Dragon Age: Origins, I rarely paid more money to anyone than I had to, and most of my decisions weren't fuelled by their implications on the story, but my companions' approval rating. When a player spends more time thinking about how the small-scale decisions will affect a slider than they do thinking about what is right in that situation, and whether or not it will have consequences down the road, I think that's a pretty clear indication that the designer has failed.

I didn't mean it that way!”

Far and away, the biggest problem I have with the construction of player decision-making in games is that games tend to focus on actions, rather than thinking of the player's motivations. While the choice of one action over another indicates a certain intent by the player, usually designers are overly presumptuous in assuming why players have made a decision, and put all the weight on the action rather than the intent. Too often, games treat decision-making as binary, but almost never give players an opportunity to justify themselves.

The best choices are those which have pros and cons the player has to weigh, and preferably, they won't be clear-cut in their benefits and downsides. Most of these take on the form of “the ends vs. means” or “the needs of many vs. a few”, and these are the decisions which are most interesting to us because there are no easy answers in them. Furthermore, these decisions are often complex enough that it's not easy to divine why the player made a decision simply on whether or not the decision was “good” or “evil”. Killing a kitten may be rather unquestionably bad outside a few very particular circumstances, but what about endorsing slavery (or child labour, etc.) because it will lead to more rapid economic development? What about animal testing in order to ensure proper medical treatment for humans? These are questions that we consider on a frequent basis, and they're ones which often don't have easy answers for us. We'd all like to say that animal testing is wrong, but most of us value our own lives over the lives of animals, and it's quite conceivable that child labour would be tolerable in a society different from our own.

The worst example of a moral choice is one where a game provides a morally ambiguous situation and then forces the designer's morality down the player's throat, or refuses to allow the player to justify him or herself, and assigns a default motivation to the player based on the designer's anticipation. This sort of practice isn't as commonplace as simply staying away from the hard decisions altogether, but when it happens, it can be jarring, and even unintentionally insulting and alienating to the player.

Games are an amazing venue for considering moral questions because they are able to make us consider them from different points of view than what we would normally have access to. They introduce the hypothetical, the “X factor” by modifying what we are familiar with. To avoid these sorts of questions in favour of binary good/evil decisions isn't just rote and lazy from a design perspective, it's also damaging to games as an art form, and denies their potential to be a medium where players can find meaning through intellectual development and philosophising.

["save world" image credit]


  1. I agree with most of what you say, but I will say that I enjoyed the KotOR universe so much, and found the game so easy, I often sacrificed skill bonuses for the sake of role playing a neutral "gray" character.

  2. To the example of KotOR:
    The whole world is based around the polarity of good and bad, Jedi and Sith. There is no middle ground by design so for the game it must be enforced unless you want it to break with the Star Wars universe.
    Playing a "gray" character is more challenging and makes your character an outsider, like Jolee Bindu in KotOR.

    I am working on a mod for Dragon Age: Origins that is not combat focused, so moral decisions a kind of a game mechanic I'm focussing on. I totally agree with your assesments about the game and the topic as a whole.