Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Games With Morality

A while ago Sneeze wrote an article (When did right and wrong become so black and white?) where he discussed the choices held within certain games. I’ve been doing a lot of reading up about these sorts of games recently and the way in which a sense of morality has been created. I’ve actually got a bit of spare time before starting back at university and I have to think of an idea for my final project. Being a fan of Bioware games (such as Knights of the old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age) I’ve considered the idea of doing a project on alignment/choice systems in games.

I think the first time I really picked up on a game attempting to implement the choice system was Fable. I actually got very excited about this game because of its promise of freedom in developing your character and storyline. When I first played it I did enjoy it a lot, but I found myself playing the good side and wasn’t ever really fussed at replaying it for the evil side. That is because the choices in it didn’t seem to carry any huge implications and most were incredibly black and white. The most notable part of playing an evil character was the fact that they would change in appearance (i.e. sprout horns.) Changing the character is an interesting way to represent good and evil, and has also been done in Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 2. I personally quite like this method, for I enjoy playing evil characters and I like mine to look like what they are (I especially loved the pale skin and creepy eyes in Knights of the Old Republic.), but some people who put a lot of time and effort into designing their characters don’t appreciate the game then messing up their appearance. This can put people off even attempting the evil side. Fortunately Mass Effect 2 gave you the option to correct your appearance, so that if you didn’t like the scars you could correct them and still perform dark acts (like defenestrating people.)

It was John who told me to check out Knights of the Old Republic and that it would put Fable to shame. He was right. Despite still containing the same Black and White system, the game overall felt a lot deeper and contained better choices and paths. Unlike Fable it seemed to be a lot more re-playable because of the different endings and consequences to your actions. The only problem was that the idea of playing an evil sith lord was more exciting than taking on a noble Jedi Knight. Being good meant turning down rewards and being nice to people, being Evil allowed you to shoot lightning bolts, wear black robes, wield red light sabres and reap a lot of benefits. Evil characters are also better at force powers, where as good characters are better with light sabres, so the style of play you choose may also effect what path you take.

The main problem with black and white systems is that you are probably only making one choice in your entire game play experience, and that’s whether you want to be good or evil, then you just continue to select the corresponding options - not really as free as they make out. It is also strongly based on the opinions of the game developers. Some choices can be quite bad or grey and if for example you wanted to play a good character but accidently picked an option with good intention for which you received dark side points, you’d feel a bit cheated. You could fix this issue by omitting the scale – after all a single scale isn’t really a very good way to represent the complexities of certain life choices (kind of reminds me of the tantrum Donnie Darko threw when told to divide life’s dilemma ‘s between Fear and Love.) Dragon Age is such a game in that there is no way to find out where your character lies. In fact the characters all have their own opinions of you, and even when selecting between an obvious right and wrong answer you will find supporters in your party for both sides (kind of like different factions in Everquest.) Dragon age succeeds in places at getting you to stop and consider each choice you make. Some of the choices work along the lines of, ‘would you kill one person to save many.’ They’re black and white in a sense, but with extra layers of depth and emotion added on top, which may cause you to sway from the more correct path. The only problem with Dragon age is that your party members will leave you if they disagree too strongly with your actions. This and the effect it can have on the game play will at times cause you to pick a choice for its mechanics rather than its meaning. I still like this method, but I think it could have been pulled off in a slightly easier way. Perhaps in a similar way to Knights of the Old Republic 2,where you could influence a character to see your side of things if they trusted you enough (resulting in a changing alignment.)

Consequences to your actions are still necessary as they add to the weight of your decision, but they also can’t be so bad that the player will be put off the game due to unfairness. If a consequence to an action is received instantly, the player will just re-load a moment before and pick the other option. Save-points can fix the saving issue preventing players from taking this liberty and adding depth to the game, but a lot of people also frown on the idea of not being able to save freely – I personally find it a relief as I can be a bit of a save addict at times. Having more drawn out consequences that impact the game in the long run are probably a better way of dealing with this issue.

Another problem with these games is also the fact that no matter whether you’re good or evil you still can’t seem to get out of the main story line which tends to involve saving the world or something. I admit, it’d be boring to play a game where you just refuse to help anybody and sit back with your legs up, but even on a smaller scale an ability to defy the flow of things somewhat would be better than nothing at all. I find the biggest problem is being evil because on a lot of occasions games have the illusion of choice such as refusing to help people, only to find that you can’t progress without doing so anyway. You then have to go back to the person you refused looking like a right jerk. (I was actually quite pleasantly surprised in Dragon Age when I refused to help Redcliffe as when I came back it had been destroyed.) The other problem is of course, refusing means less game play for you. Knights of the Old Republic is quite good in that the storyline kind of fits in a way that you can still end the game on a negative, become the evil sith lord and take over (unfortunately for me the game ended too suddenly. I wanted to continue having fun over my new empire.) I can’t think of many games, however, that allow you to strongly influence the main storyline. The problem is time and money, as you would need more assets for each possible branch within the game.

To make the game feel more free and open like it promises the best way would be to keep the main story a lot more simplistic. An example of this would be Princess Maker, an old life simulation game released in 1993. The game had a weak plot in which you were landed with a little girl that you are then placed in charge of. From then on there isn’t really any story but the way the game pans out each time is very different making it feel quite free and unrestrictive. You had to send your child to school, on jobs or out for adventures where she would earn skills that would affect her development (she doesn’t necessarily have to fight and kill people.) The game would then end when she reached a certain age and would tell you what she thought of your upbringing and what career she ended up following. There are a fair few endings considering the age of the game. Although some of the endings are quite obviously light or dark, it wasn’t really the only focus within the game. In fact a fair few endings were pretty neutral, such as becoming a soldier and marrying a dragon. Despite the incredibly simplistic game play it did actually feel quite free to me in terms of the choices I had to influence her development. The sense of morality in the game was that of needing to raise your daughter well. If she grew up to become a princess of darkness or a bondage queen (yeah it was a bit controversial) for example, you would probably get a telling off from the gods. The problem is, a lot of games dealing with choice and morality are RPG’s, and people expect big stories from these game. However the bigger the story the harder it probably is to make the game feel free and unrestrictive due to expenses.

Games with choices and morality have definitely picked up a lot in popularity and versions of the system can be found in many places such as the good/evil witch options in The Sims 2 which also affect your skills. Unfortunately, a lot of games also state that they are free and open by simply tacking on an alignment bar (for example Infamous), to make it look as if the game contains extra features. The ones that do try to focus on it often succeed in some areas but fail in others. Some of them like Dragon Age will present great choices that will get you emotionally involved, but can also cause you to pick your options based on the mechanics of the game over the implications of the dilemma in place. Getting the balance between consequence and reward seems to be a difficult one. I’m personally a fan of the Faction system, taking the sense of right and wrong away from the developers which is a matter of opinion and perspective. There needs to be a way to do this however without feeling a need to do something just so that you can make friends with people. Using terms like in Mass Effect ‘Paragon’ and ‘Renegade’ is also a good way to get away from the typical light/dark scenario. Even when I’m playing a good character I don’t feel upset when receiving renegade points as this is a part of building up their personality (my version of Sheppard for example wants the greater good, but is willing to take violent rebellious means to get there. She was always loyal to her crew, but hated the council.)

Unfortunately the games industry is run mostly on money, which means that takes precedence over the art and passion of games creation. Chances are most great morality games will get cut back because of the costs. It's a real shame, because each time a bad version of one of these games gets released it alienates people against the idea of creating games that focus on choice. When it is done right, however, it’s awesome to feel like your decisions are actually making an impact on the characters and the game world in which they derive.

Related links (random stuff I found interesting):
1) BITMOB - Spotlight: Deadly Premonition, ScreenBurn, and Alignment Systems
2) GAMASUTRA - Opinion: Mother Theresa Or Hitler? Designing for Ambiguous Moral Choice
3) FUTURISMIC - The Mechanics of Morality: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun

"It's better to be good than evil, but one achieves goodness at a terrific cost." - Stephen King

No comments: