Sunday, 27 May 2012

Choices and Morality in RPGs

Have you ever been playing an RPG and accidentally had sex?
Have you made a decision for a certain reason, only for the game to think you did it for a completely different one?
Have you ever yearned for morality options more complex than “second coming of Christ” vs “Satan incarnate”?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you've witnessed firsthand some of the main weaknesses of modern roleplaying video games: lack of clarity and lack of depth. All these RPGs boast about their “deep, mature worlds and experiences with rich, meaningful choices”... and then go on to tell you that you can pick between “the good choice” and “the evil choice”.

The lack of clarity is most evident when you think you're just having a friendly conversation or joking around, and then BAM, sex. This happened to me in Mass Effect 2 with Jack, and an embarrassingly large number of times in The Witcher. As mentioned in my review, I'd have times where, for example, I've got Geralt talking to the Lady of the Lake, who's just finished telling me that she really hates knights who abandon their duties and run off in search of the Holy Grail. So I turn to her and tell her I'm going on a mission, but I'm only joking. She laughs, and then we have sex. What?! At least give me some sort of hint that there's sexytimes ahead, in case I'm saving myself for someone else.

The problem also comes up when you do something for a particular reason, and the game interprets it in an entirely different way.
Spoiler alert for the end of Mass Effect 2!
At the end of the game, you're faced with the decision of whether to give the Collector ship to Cerberus and use it to fight the Reapers, or to destroy the ship. A friend of mine, playing paragon, chose to keep the ship, deciding that he needed every weapon at his disposal to stop the Reapers... and then renegade points pop up and Shepard starts talking about how humanity deserves to use that ship to secure their rightful place as the heads of the galaxy. When I made the same choice while playing renegade, I destroyed the ship and thought “**** you Illusive Man, you keep screwing me over, so no ship for you!” And then I get paragon points and Shepard tells the Illusive Man that the technology is too dangerous and we shouldn't use Reaper tech against the Reapers.

I guess this is mainly a weakness with the now-popular dialogue wheel, where there just isn't enough space to fully explain the exact lines your character will speak. Although I did run into the same problem on occasion in The Witcher (where I didn't want to pick a side in a conflict because both of them had major problems and I thought neither of them should come out on top, but Geralt simply expressed that as “witchers aren't supposed to get involved in politics so I won't get involved”). Sometimes it's funny to see something you didn't expect – like when I meant to tell that reporter to shut up and instead punched her in the face – but often it's really frustrating. I know I can't expect the developers to anticipate every thought that might run through my head when I face a choice, but it would still be nice to acknowledge more than one or two things.

Most games also fail to offer much choice in terms of morality. Usually you have a simple scale of good vs. evil with one of two options: a sliding scale, or two separate scales. A sliding scale, as seen in Star Wars or Fallout games, adds or subtracts points from a numerical score. For example, maybe 0 is evil and 100 is good. If you perform a good action you gain points, and if you perform an evil action you lose points. The other option tracks two separate scales, like in Mass Effect: good and evil points are tracked separately, and whichever is greater determines your overall morality.

Speaking of Mass Effect, you might say, “But sir, Mass Effect doesn't use good/evil, it uses paragon/renegade!” Exactly right. Mass Effect is a decent step towards what I want, but only a step. In Mass Effect, you're always the good guy — you can't play an evil character. But you can choose your methods: do you choose what's right even if it makes your job harder, or do you get the job done no matter what it takes? It's a good distinction, and a great way to provide the player with a choice while sticking with the same story, but it's still too dualistic.

A better model is the one used by most editions of Dungeons & Dragons. There are two axes: good vs. evil, and law vs. chaos. As an example: a lawful good character works within the boundaries of law or honour to do what's right, while a chaotic good character is willing to break rules (and faces) to do what he thinks is right. Sounds like Mass Effect, right?

The dual-axis scale allows for a lot more versatility and complexity. For example, you can play a chaotic neutral character, a sort of anarchist, who doesn't lean towards good or evil but hates strict rules. You can play a lawful evil character who works within the system for his own benefit at the expense of others. You can even create distinctions within the alignments — a lawful good character might obey the letter of the law and work for the betterment of society, or he might be a character with a strict code of honour (like a knight or samurai) who serves only his master.

There's a lot more variation in the two-axis system, but it still has its weaknesses — two of them, to be precise: there are more options but that still means you're being pegged into one of nine slots; and good/evil or law/chaos are very abstract things. I can't look at a real person and accurately determine where they lie on the good/evil axis — everyone knows the real world is a lot more complex than that. People do the wrong things for the right reasons, or the right things for the wrong reasons.

Most importantly, very few people act in the interest of abstract concepts like good and evil, which are actually objective things and sources of power in several versions of D&D. People do good things because they want to help people or because they believe it's the right thing, not to further the cause of good and destroy evil. And people don't do bad things because they're trying to spread evil; they do so because they're selfish or have a very different view of the world from other people.

Some would argue that there's no such thing as “good” or “evil”. A lot of people that society deems “evil” did what they believed was right. That doesn't necessarily mean they should be forgiven or get off easy — I'm just pointing out that in their minds, they were the good guys. It's very subjective. The majority of people have collectively agreed what good and evil mean, so when someone takes an action which the collective disagrees with, that action is called “evil”, even if the person truly believed they were doing a good thing.

Anyway, enough philosophy, let's get back to video games. Here are a few examples of the lack of complexity and the sheer black/white division of most games.

I already talked about my example at the end of Mass Effect 2, which has morality issues as well as clarity ones. Another time when the duality bothers me is when the difference between the two is too great. In Fallout 3, if you play exclusively good, you're Mother Theresa, putting everyone else first and refusing to be paid for anything. The game's ultimate good icon is basically a cartoon Jesus. And if you play evil, you're Satan incarnate: killing indiscriminately, slaving, and stealing. There's only a single perk that grants you a bonus for staying neutral, but it must be exactly neutral, not “generally an okay guy” or “a bit of a dick”.

Worst of all is when you're rewarded for being either fully good or fully evil, and get dick-all for being somewhere in the middle. In a lot of Star Wars games you can only use certain items or powers if you're all the way on one side of the scale, but get nothing for remaining neutral. Many games give you achievements for hitting one side of the scale or the other, but nothing for hitting dead centre.

I want a bit more complexity in my games. I don't want to choose between black or white; I want to choose shades of gray and motivation instead of abstract morality. I've got two important points I want to see in a rich, complex morality system.

  1. There should be a way of tracking different motivations rather than simple yes/no or good/bad (or other dualities).
  2. The player should NEVER EVER be explicitly told where he stands on the morality scale or how an individual action will affect his standing.

Let's start with point number one. The game should be able to track how you responded to different situations. One way of thinking about this: multiple independent scales for various motivations. Dialogue choices or game actions would add a point to each relevant scale, but there shouldn't be a choice for each scale — ie, there's not a good option, and an evil option, and a neutral option.

Thought experiment time! The town's mayor asks your character, Frank, if he can kill a group of troublesome slavers. Here's a list of possible dialogue options. These are just examples to illustrate the point system and some possible combinations and options — I don't expect there to be this many options for every decision the player makes, nor do I expect this to be the point scale used. Note that you can choose multiple options — certain dialogue options give points and continue the conversation.

“Yes, slaving is wrong” — selfless and helpful points
“Yes, but you'll have to pay me” — selfish and helpful points
“Yes, any excuse to hurt bad guys” — bloodthirsty and helpful points
“I'm heading to X. Is it on the way?” — efficient points
“I'd rather not choose sides” — impartial points
“Can I try talking to them first?” — mediator points
“No, I don't have time” — efficient and unhelpful points
“No, I'd rather not get involved” — impartial and unhelpful points
“No, it's not my problem” — selfish and unhelpful points
“Can we talk about this later?” — no points

Characters' reactions should take into account the standings of all the different scales. If Frank develops a reputation for being helpful, efficient, and bloodthirsty, people will frequently come to him for help, but make sure they're very clear and don't take up too much of his time. If Frank frequently turns down quests and increases his unhelpful scale, he will be offered less quests, but the rewards for the ones that are offered will be greater in an attempt to motivate him. What's important is that different combinations are taken into account, and people's reactions change as the scales change. It would be especially fantastic if the game could remember previous states: if Frank used to be a dick but starts acting more pleasant, people will initially be cautions around him, and eventually loosen up and maybe comment on how he's changed for the better.

I know this is a very complicated system, but it's more to illustrate my point than something I actually want to see in a game as-is.

Moving on to point number two: the player should receive no concrete indication of where he lies on the scales or which actions award which points. They should be told about each scale, and be able to infer what kind of points an action awards — but they should never be given exact numerical values through popups or a stat screen. As an example: imagine if Mass Effect kept track of your Paragon and Renegade scores, but didn't notify you when you gained points. Ideally, this would mean that the roleplaying is more organic: you would find out what people think of you by talking to them and listening to their reactions, rather than by checking a menu to see how big your numbers are.

Some of you may be surprised to hear that there are already games with an approximation of my proposed system: the Deus Ex series, primarily the original game. Deus Ex's system isn't the same as what I've described here — it doesn't have a morality system, it simply keeps track of which actions you've chosen, in a surprising amount of detail. Going into the women's washroom results in a line of dialogue from your boss telling you not to do so again, you're embarrassing yourself and the organization. Just that one simple line of dialogue tells you that there are still rules to follow in this game, and you can't simply do what you want without consequence. There's a massive number of situations in this game that affect how the future plays out, and each one is taken into account.

Each choice, however, is still dualistic. They add up to create a complex and unique story with each playthrough, but every choice point is still limited to yes/no, fight/don't fight, agree/disagree.

Maybe I'm aiming too high here. Deus Ex took some huge graphical hits to provide the sheer level of choice and complexity that it did, and judging by most of the reviews and forum posts I've seen, gamers are less likely to forgive poor graphics than they used to be. Maybe it's not yet possible to create a system that tracks all the variables I want and uses them to create an experience that's very different every time you play. Maybe it would be considered a waste of memory space to create a game where your choices dictate which levels you play such that it's impossible to visit every area in a single playthrough.

But dammit, I want my choices.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. I've had "morality problems" a lot in my gaming career, though they did NOT start with my first "morality" game - Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, whose morality system was rich and nuanced. IIRC, it controlled your class - and it was FAR from dual. I'm going on memory from 20 years ago here (and what little info is on wikipedia), but I believe it held 3 axes, 6 poles, which complimented each other to form 8 "types". "Love" and "Courage" combined to form "Sacrifice". If you were basing your character on, say, compassion, but then didn't act compassionately, you would lose the abilities that came with that virtue. And they weren't the absurd, 2-dimensional good/evil kinds of decisions - they made you choose between two real choices, both with positives and negatives, and you made your choice.

    In real life, I'm proud of my moral code, and my adherence to it, for the most part, has been honorable, in my eyes. When I role-play in a game, I want to see how my own, real life morality system would play out in the game world (of course, an idealized version, where I'm never distrought or angry or hungry or tired..). Or, alternatively, what would happen (on a second playthrough) if, instead of my typical focus on fairness, I leaned towards helping the unlucky?

    Good and Evil are archaic, unrealistic, and easy. In real life, as you said, everyone's doing what they think is right. (Though there is a caveat here: there have been important moments in history where people have said "Now we are all sons of bitches." - thereby acknowledging that they've done things, world-changing things, that were very, very bad.) We have virtues that are unrelated to religion or even culture, like generosity, kindness, and so on, and, each of us, as individuals, choose to emphasize some of these to be a person we can live with when we look in the mirror.

    Why do games still rely on this mythical idea that every decision is judged against an objective scale, where one decision is "right" and another decision is "the opposite of right"? Because that's easy as hell, both to code and to write. It's binary, it's one if/then statement, rather than a million. But, honestly, devs, that's stupid. If it's too hard to do it correctly, then don't do it at all.

    I'm tired of punching people in the face by accident.