Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reckoning: Breaking the Moral Choice Mold

Last week I gave my thoughts on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Big Huge Games' just-released open-world action-RPG.  In that article, I examined how the game struggled with its sheer size and MMO-style design considerations, and how they ultimately resulted in a weaker single-player experience.  However, there's another side to Amalur that I think it pulls off excellently - the way in which it handles the moral decisions it gives to players.

Most RPG fans are big fans of being able to sculpt their own destinies in games, and there have been plenty of developers that have taken advantage of that to create more personal experiences.  Oftentimes, it's a key selling point, and not having some sort of morality system built into a game can leave it looking dated.  Kingdoms of Amalur, though, despite having no formalized morality mechanic, actually has some of the best moral decision-making I've seen in a game in some time.  It breaks and surpasses the standards set by most other games and produces choices that are genuinely intriguing and effective.  Though this article is partially about Reckoning, more broadly it is an articulation and demonstration of a framework for developing interesting and effective moral decisions.

Why Moral Choice?

I suppose it's best to start at the beginning for this one.  While many developers integrate moral choice into their games, often it's considered a virtue in and of itself to include.  Players want options, they want to role-play, so why not give them to them?  The reality is that it's a little bit more complicated than simply giving the player choice or not giving the player choice, and I'm not even talking about the obvious increase in development time and complexity.

Generally, moral choices and morality systems exist in games not for their own sake, but in order to give the player a feeling of authorship over the world, and, more importantly, to create a power fantasy.  This is especially true in Western games.  The story of just about every Western game (and most other media) can be summed up as: hero rises from low status and fights against all odds to defeat a bad guy.  The Western world is built upon this idea of self-actualization, of taking advantage of your skills, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and claiming victory through your own strength of will and abilities, and this carries over into almost all of our stories.
Dragon Age: Origins offers a variety of shades of grey between the yes and no - these options are often cosmetic, but often enough are neither simple, or the outcomes predictable.
Moral choice is a big part of this in modern games.  It's not about being told a story, as in many Japanese games, but rather, about making a story.  Players want to feel like they have control over their experiences, which is why just about every shooter these days has leveling up built in, or why open-world games were all the rage a couple of years back.  It often doesn't even matter so much what the choices are or their consequences are - the mere act of choice-making is often enough to give players a sense of ownership over their stories, to make them feel like it's them calling the shots rather than a writer or a designer.

Many games often come under fire for stupid, illogical, or unrealistic moral choices.  The Fable series has been oft-criticized because it provides ridiculous scenarios and responses to them, either because they are cartoonish and pointless, or because sometimes the "good" and "evil" options are ambiguous enough that they could be interpreted either way if it wasn't for the devil horns or halo your character springs.  Fallout 3 is another game I've railed against in the past for its juvenile and simplistic approach to morality in what is ostensibly a realistic and serious world.

However, it's also important to recognize that, in a sense, the actual details of moral choices are incidental.  The purpose of them isn't just to give the player a brain teaser to mull over - sometimes it's the act of choice and not he consequences that lend power to an experience.  Just as purely cosmetic decisions, like an avatar's hairstyle, can have lots of appeal, the cosmetic value of choices can't be understated.  It's why, as much as I protest, Shepard in Mass Effect has no arc, or Fallout 3's karma system can be so easily gamed - it's about the player projecting themselves onto a world and being given a sense of mastery over it.

What's in a Moral Choice

That out of the way, it's worth stating: if you make sloppy, pointless, or stupid moral decisions for the player, and the players notice, then they will probably feel cheated or insulted.  This is still bad design, and building moral choices only on the cosmetic value, or only to achieve the end power fantasy is a quick way to leave your players feeling disillusioned, or to have them stop taking your game seriously.  Creating moral choices that are interesting and difficult is challenging.  While it's easy to tug on the player's heartstrings by giving them a cute kitten to kick around or play with, or to play Emperor Palpatine and do counter-intuitive, stupid-evil things for the fun of it, to do anything beyond that involves a good deal more work.

There are several steps I have identified to ensure a moral decision doesn't fall flat.  Admittedly, these are a bit rough, and not incredibly specific, but I do think they stand up under scrutiny.
  1. Build the context.  Most good moral decisions have a background to them.  In Mass Effect 2, for example, the Krogan-Salarian conflict is something bubbling under the surface of many scenarios in both the story and gameplay, and it occasionally rises to the top.  This is impossible to do without solid universe design and background lore to accompany the choice.  When you're getting the player to care about two factions, or a bunch of strange-looking alien creatures, you need to inform them what's at stake and why they should care.
  2. Set up the choice.  A good moral decision is something the player should be able to anticipate - not necessarily the specific details, but the nature of that choice being made.  Much like setting up the context, the player needs to be given an understanding that a certain decision is coming up, before being called upon to actually make the decision.  This gives the time for a player to contemplate and prepare for when the choice finally comes, and can help avoid the whole "sitting in front of the screen for 15 minutes trying to make up my mind" problem.
  3. Foreshadow the outcome.  This isn't so much about telling the player exactly what's going to happen if he/she presses that big red button - a failing in a few games, especially in their endings - but rather in giving the player a hint of what to expect.  A good moral choice is not a choose-your-own-adventure where the player is allowed to flip the page ahead and see what happens; likewise, it is not about springing the outcome of an action on the player out of nowhere ten hours into the story.  The Witcher largely got this right by hinting at future events, such as the stolen Witchers' secrets and supplies leading to tougher mutated enemies earlier in the game - it's a surprise otucome, but a logical one.
  4. Provide a gameplay consequence to match.  This doesn't have to be a 1:1 ratio - if the player makes a universe-altering decision, it's unrealistic to give the player a whole other game to play.  At the same time, games speak through mechanics just as much (if not more) than cutscenes and dialogue, so it's a good idea to give the player an outcome that is expressed in those mechanics.  This can be something as simple as money or new items to play with, but it's generally best when it leads to new content, or a different type of challenge to overcome.
Many games get a couple of these steps right - Mass Effect's choice to sacrifice a squad member late in the game, for instance, gets the context and gameplay consequences right, but it springs the decision on the player out of nowhere, and there are no real effects on the plot later on, save for which character model appears in a background scene.  These sorts of choices can have emotional weight to them, but unless the decision hits all of these points, there's going to be an imbalance - a decision driven entirely by pragmatism, or by shallow emotional appeals.  There are always going to be players who min-max and game the system, but if your complex game systems are being reduced to "do I want +1 reputation with X or Y?", or "do I like NPC A or B more?" then that choice has been cheapened significantly.

Breaking Step

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is one of the few games that manages to, in most cases, hit every one of these points.  The reason for this is largely because it offers up relatively few moral decisions that are expressly presented in expensive cutscenes and plot lines, and instead offers them up in proportion to the size of the scenario, whether that's a small in-game bonus or a world-altering moment.  You might not be making a moral decision in every single situation, or an important one at that, but when you do, chances are you'll think about it more than in many other games.  In order to do this, I'm going to use one of the shortest and most insignificant parts of the game to demonstrate this.

An early quest sees the player hunting antelopes and retrieving their heads in order to recreate a folk tale - placing the heads in the right place summons a troll to kill, who guards a magic ring, which is then presented to a damsel.  The player is able to follow the quest forward without any dialogue options or cosmetic choices.  The decision made available at the end is a simple one, but has more depth than your typical good/evil or saint/jerk response: do you give the ring back to the person who asked you to retrieve it, or do you keep it for yourself?

Right off the bat, we have context.  The player has been given a quest that not only has a definite end goal behind it and a set of steps to complete, but there's also a larger world that it fits into.  In the Amalur universe, Fate dictates that the events of stories play out time and time again over the ages - the recreation of this story is something that is logical within the game world, and has been established at the point the player receives the quest.  This is important, because the universe of Amalur is fairly alien, and the regular concepts of good and evil don't really apply - they are embodied as Summer and Winter in natural, symbiotic magic and creatures, and questions are less about good and evil and more about change and constancy (which in itself makes most choices about five times more interesting).

The way the quest is set up here is a bit more subtle.  As a Fateless One, the player's character is not bound by Fate in the same way that everyone else in the universe is - unlike others, he or she has the power to change destiny and, perhaps more importantly, change the story being retold.  The player's status as Fateless is important, because it gives the choice weight and meaning,   The foreshadowing in this case is fairly simple, and admittedly a bit weak, but it does what it needs to, specifically: the player gets the ring as a reward rather than keeping it.  Similarly, the consequence is the magic ring the player gets - probably one of the first and best rings the player will have access to (I used it for several hours afterwards).
In Amalur, even a simple quest can have interesting decisions, and demonstrates consequences don't always have to be huge or dramatic in order to be effective.
Sure, this is a small choice, but in providing a morally ambiguous decision - is it okay to defy an agreement when you stand to gain at the expense of another? - and combining it with a proper setup that fits into the universe the player inhabits, the decision becomes far more compelling and interesting.  Granted, it could be improved - keeping the magic ring yields a more valuable reward than surrendering it, so players who don't take the selfish route are going to find themselves lacking a little bit in comparison.  Additionally, the quest giver is a member of the Travelers faction - backstabbing her could have had an influence on the player's attempt to join the group.

Still, all this done for a simple side-quest the player will finish in five minutes?  It likely wasn't any more work to include in the game, but it's a far more satisfying decision than choosing to, say, shoot or not shoot a faceless NPC without good reason.

Closing Thoughts

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has more of these decisions - dozens more, in fact, and just about every quest that revolves around obtaining an item gives the player the option of keeping it, either through a skill check or some other means.  This extends from the big decisions to the small ones - while the example I gave was mostly spoiler-free and fairly unimportant in the grand scheme, it applies even more effectively when hunting down and killing former Red Legion bandits to save another man, or when the player is asked to save the Fae's Summer Court and maintain the rigid adherence to tradition, or to let the Winter Court's Maid of Windemere establish a new paradigm and change the very nature of an entire race.

The power fantasy is not harmed, but enhanced by these proportionate and meaningful decisions - the small ones are necessary for the big ones to matter, to build up expectations, introduce the moral codes and systems of the world, and provide a sense of growing authority and mastery over the game.  While games like Mass Effect will often throw life-or-death decisions at you in their earliest hours (or minutes) and take it as a given that a death in and of itself is dramatic, Kingdoms of Amalur creates strong foundations for all of its choices, so when they do come along, the player will feel comfortable, confident, and rewarded, but not without difficulty in the choice-making itself.

I think that a lot of game developers can learn from the decisions Reckoning provides the player.  They very often play to the player's power fantasy, yes, but they do so without being cheap, pandering, easy, uninteresting or lazy.  All it takes is a little thought about what you're asking the player, a desire to go beyond simply providing the ends, and crafting an interesting means.  While Reckoning doesn't always follow the framework I've established here, it does so more than any other game I've played in a while, and it's all the better for it.  Writing and logic are cheap - not every player will notice the effort put in, true, but those that do will be rewarded with a far more rewarding narrative experience.

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