Thursday, August 4, 2011

Making a Better Morality System

I'm sick of morality meters ruining games. They promise a lot of depth, choice, and replay value, but once your back is turned they steal your wallet and run off with your girlfriend. I find myself wary whenever I'm presented with a morality meter, because the pitfalls are too great for it to turn into a shallow, boring affair. As far as I'm concerned, only one game has ever delivered a truly remarkable morality system; the rest have all been kind of "meh." So what's so hard about making a karma system that actually adds depth and significance to a game experience, and why do they often turn out so shallow? What does it take to make morality actually matter in a game? More after the jump.

The main problem with morality in video games is that the decisions are simply too binary. Players are left with "good" and "evil" options, often with nothing in-between. An NPC comes to you asking for help; your options are to kill them and steal their belongings, or help them out and even donate some money to their well-being. We're basically stuck being Adolf Hitler or Mother Theresa, two extreme ends of the spectrum that don't always feel practical in the context of the game environment.

The evil options, in particular, are kind of weird when you think about them, because they usually amount to you being a murderous psychopath or just kind of a jerk. You have to go on a killing spree to become "evil," or you just have to be rude and selfish at every possible opportunity, even if it's not in your best interests. I can't speak from experience, but it seems like there'd be more fiendish, more manipulative ways to be evil than this.

Meanwhile, I've noticed that a lot of games tend to place more weight on good options than bad options. For example, doing one good deed sometimes requires five cold-blooded murders just to offset the good points you earned from completing the earlier quest. Often times the player ends up with a ton of good points just by default of playing the game, whereas being evil requires the player to go out of his way, actively searching for opportunities to be evil. The two ends of the spectrum don't seem balanced very well.

In cases where a "neutral" response exists, there's rarely any incentive to use it because games only reward you for being good or bad. You get points on your good/evil scale if you act good/evil, which leads to unlocking extra game content or certain bonuses; picking a neutral option grants zero points in either direction on the scale, causing you to lose opportunities to reach those extra bonuses. In many cases, once you've established a character alignment, the player is actually punished for acting out-of-character.

The ultimate effect of this is that players end up feeling forced to arbitrarily pick one side and to stick with it. Instead of giving players more options, they feel shoe-horned into always picking a pre-determined option, thereby limiting their sense of available options. Players know that there's a meter keeping track of these morality points, so they make decisions with the ulterior motive of boosting their stats instead of just focusing on the content of the decision itself.

Light Side and Dark Side, as seen in Knights of the Old Republic.
It therefore seems like one easy way to improve morality systems is to get rid of the meters. If players can't see their decisions being scored and quantified, then they'll be less likely to make decisions in terms of their morality points. They'll be more likely to just decide based on what feels right for the given moment. The game can still keep track of these things and have different consequences for different decisions, but if it all happens "under the hood" then the system won't interfere with the actual gameplay.

Another way to make moral decisions feel deeper is to make the effects of decisions not readily apparent, and to delay the effects until later. If you make a decision and the outcome is immediately apparent, then you have the option to load up your last save and do it differently if you didn't like the outcome. By delaying the effects, the outcomes will have more impact because the player can't easily go back and change things; they have to live with the decisions they make. Players will internalize their decisions; if it was a good decision they'll feel proud and content with it, and if it was a bad decision they'll try to justify it to themselves or feel remorse about it.

Another perhaps-obvious solution is to blur the lines between "good" and "evil." With shades of gray, the decisions seem less clear-cut and would require the player to give serious thought to them. Without a clear "right" or "wrong" choice, the player has to weigh the pros and cons of each decision and decide for themselves what they feel is "right," instead of just arbitrarily going what what the game obviously suggests is the right one.

As I mentioned at the top of the article, only one game that I know of has managed to implement a morality system in a deep, stimulating sort of way that adds to the experience instead of detracting from it. That game is CDProjekt's The Witcher from 2007. For all practical purposes, The Witcher doesn't have a morality system---it has a decision system. Almost everything you do is recorded and affects some aspect of the story later on, but it avoids all of the major pitfalls while getting the rest of the system right.

The Witcher does all three of the things that I mentioned help to improve morality systems (in fact, TW is how I came to realize these aspects); it doesn't have any kind of displayed good/evil meter, the effects of your decisions are not readily apparent and only come up later in the story, and the decisions are shades of gray that blur the lines between good and bad. These features by themselves are enough to make TW a deep, engaging, and compelling experience.

One of my most memorable gaming experiences comes from the first chapter of TW in the outskirts of Vizima. As Geralt of Rivia, you're faced with a choice early on: condemn a witch to die, or save her from the violent protests of the townsfolk. You might already be thinking that saving her is the "good" choice, and that leaving her to die is the "evil" choice, but it's not that simple.

As you explore and complete quests, you learn things about each of the townsfolk until it becomes apparent that everyone is guilty of something. There's never any irrefutable, damning evidence for you to base your decisions on; they're all circumstantial and could possibly go either way depending on how you want to interpret the situation. The decision then comes down to two possibilities: "Do I condemn a potentially-innocent person in order to spare the lives of many, who themselves may be corrupt" or "Do I kill an entire town of potentially-corrupt citizens in order to spare the life of one potentially-innocent person?" 

It was a decision that I had to struggle with. The scene of me being confronted by angry townsfolk in the middle of the night, and subsequently slaughtering them all, once they attacked me, left a distinct memory in my mind and set the stage for all future decisions to come. That was the moment when I realized how powerful moral decisions can be in video games when they're implemented properly. 

But as it stands, The Witcher is the only example I can think of. Most other games either use morality in a superficial way that diminishes the effects of morality, or their morality is just a sideshow that doesn't have much of an effect on the gameplay. I really wish more games took the approach that TW used. 


  1. This has actually bothered me greatly. With the exception of ME2, I've yet to find a morality system in a game that wasn't heavily counter-intuitive. Of course, I've never played The Witcher (...wonder if it's cheap on Steam) looks like a complex decision/effect system with gray morality elements mixed in. It's a morality system but it's not quite quantifiable in ways that others are.

    I think that is one of the most important limitations that designers encounter and thus creates most of the BS. The necessity of creating a numerically chartable system forces too many designers into thinking about moral decisions in a stark black and white manner. By simplifying good and evil into a strict linear idea, it becomes incredibly easy to attach numbers to it and thus properly chart a character's morality.

    I've long believed that using a morality system similar to D&D's alignment system (Good/Neutral/Evil, Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic) gives you the quantifiability (It's a word, damnit) that you need to program while also allowing for the flexibility to create real moral depth.

    Also, I could FINALLY play the Chaotic Good character I've always wanted to be.

  2. Jon, you're right about TW; it doesn't quantify the decisions in the same ways as other games, hence why I was hesitant to even call it a "morality" system. But I think it's for this reason that TW is able to avoid the problems and tendencies that you mentioned.

    In terms of more quantifiable morality systems, I think Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura might be one of the best examples of one that isn't completely shallow. It's more of a karma system (a la Fallout 2) and has different effects on the gameplay, but it also avoids feeling too binary and shallow.

    In terms of the D&D alignment system, I've heard that some of the earlier Ultima games went into similar territory, particularly Ultima IV. I've not yet played it (it's been on my to-do list for a while), but it might also be worth checking out. Perhaps just reading about it or watching a Let's Play, if one exists.

  3. It may be better to call it a "morality through causality" system, even if the effect isn't always clear.

    Personally, if no one is able to create a 3x3 morality system (the D&D one) in a game, then I would just prefer more things like ME2's Paragon/Renegade system. The game accepts the fact that you're "good" but that it has a wide variety of interpretation. Good cop/bad cop essentially. While some of the actions felt a bit over the top, it still felt natural.