Bottled Water for Megaton: Morality in Video Games

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It’s very common trend for video games to feature moral choices, and as to be expected certain games fair better than others in their attempts to capture moral dilemmas or tough questions. Adding choices that effect the story are easily spiced up by giving them a moral twinge, for example taking one path in a story giving you an easier time and rewarding you with better loot, but negatively impacting the population of the game-world. The problem that often occurs with representing moral choices in video games is simply the binary nature of most examples in gaming.

Take the example of the first “inFAMOUS” game. Early on in the game a blockade by the military results in the game world of Empire City being slowly starved out. The main character during an early scene can chose whether or not to allow some random civilians to claim some recently airdropped rations and supplies, or if he should steal them all for himself and his friends living with him. The two choices presented are both so over the top that it loses any sense of being a realistic and complex problem, leaving you with the choice of being either a stoic monk refraining from any food at all for the good of all mankind, regardless of practicality, or being Satan on earth, spitting in the eye of an orphan as he cries for more porridge. The main problem here is simply that the realistic need to retain some of the food for yourself and your friends is seen as a bad action in spite of it’s necessity, morality is simplified to a simple binary “good or bad” switch.

Another way that morality is represented is via “moral currency”. A good example of this is within the more recent Fallout games, featuring actions that effectively +1 good or evil to your character’s moral stance. This is a slightly better attempt at representing morality, but also falls upon problems. Just as the title of this article references, the player character can blow up an entire settlement (granted, one situated in the not-so-prime real estate of an active nuclear warhead) and yet work off the karmic debt by giving bottled water out to homeless thirsty survivors out in the wasteland. The ability to wash away such a black mark from your character is certainly an admirable one, but not when it feels quite as arbitrary as simply as paying off your recent killing spree by giving away free candy.

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Bioware have featured moral choices and stances very prominently in their most popular games. Out of all the examples however ‘Jade Empire’ stands out to me for being particularly balanced in it’s attempts to allow for nuance and complex moral stance. When following the “Way of the Open Palm” indeed you are typically choosing the positive, optimistic outlook of the world that seeks balance and harmony, but is often naive and can lead to many obvious problems of practicality. On the other hand though, the “Way of the Closed Fist” is problematic for it’s selfishness and desire for control no matter the cost. The “Closed Fist” however is not simply the evil path, but a nuanced stance that never truly feels like the cartoonish villainy often displayed in games of it’s type.

Another good example of choices that define your characters outlook in a mature, and more accurate way is Mass Effect. Here however choices are less moral, but more preferential upon the best way to achieve a desired outcome, but the way in which striving to save the galaxy or defeat the threat to humanity is not a simple case of being a typical “do-gooder” hero, but the possibility of also playing the anti-hero as well. The paragon and renegade options that you can decide to act upon or not do not make you a good or bad character but instead allow you to choose the best option that you think makes sense in a given situation. The most convincing games that allow for the player to make decisions that can alter the plot, or define the characters moral stance, have to also allow for nuances in character’s particular stance, such as allowing a good character to be outside the law, or a bad character to be law abiding.

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The problem that even Jade Empire and Mass Effect have when representing moral stance and character role-play is that try as they might, there is still the problem of the choices made seemingly to be outside of the game play mechanics and the preset story. In Jade Empire regardless of what you want your character to be, your character will still fight and kill many, many NPC’s in the many combat sections of the game. The death count caused by the character can either go along with or sully her pursuit for justice or domination, one might argue that in most cases it is in self-defence, but it only highlights the fact that the moral content is an addition to the game rather than a defining feature of the characters motivation. Mass Effect lacks two sides that both make sense to follow. Obviously awful choices in the game are often so bleak that it hardly compares to the good option in terms of balance. A good option might be to give a medical kit to a dying man, but a genuinely bad option might lead to the death of a teammate or might even go all the way to the destruction of an entire race. I feel that the darker side in Mass Effect simply plays out as just pointlessly evil, and in some way banking on the fact that you are not invested in the game world, so much so that you will happily kill off a large proportion of it for arbitrary reasons.

One of the best examples of moral choices in gaming to date I feel is a game I previously reviewed: “This War of Mine”. The thing that stood out in this particular game is simply that the morality is never obviously drawn, there is no halo floating above your head such as in the Fable games, no +10 evil points every time you steal from a poor group of survivors, and thankfully no upgrades for being a good or bad player. The best part of this is that it is purely up to you what you are willing to put your group of survivors through in order to keep them alive, will you steal from and kill anyone in your way to maintain your supply of food and medicine? Will you prefer to trade so that you can get what you want and still maintain a dialogue with fellow survivors in the area? Or will you just hunker down, growing what you need, praying for enough rain and venturing out only if completely necessary.

The key to the games success is that it never holds your hand, telling you what your choice will mean or how it will affect your characters, it simply presents you will a terrible situation and gives you a handful of people to keep alive. Your characters will lose their wits if they commit horrible actions, or perhaps harden to the cold reality of warfare. The decisions you make will leave your characters scarred and battered, shaking in their sleep and crying for their pitiable circumstances. This approach doesn’t force the weight of your actions upon you, or force you one way or another, and it is precisely this grey area of simply trying to survive that represents morality faithfully.

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Of all the examples of how morality is represented in video games, each attempts to ground the player in a world where decisions and actions have consequences. In so doing the game makes each step and each action matter in so much that the player character is affecting the world around her. In this regard, attempting to create a living, breathing world with an interesting array of denizens, it is necessary to feature an accurate, believable web of choices and outcomes that can affect that world and it’s inhabitants. This is key to making the story, or the message being presented matter to it’s audience. Gaming has a long way to go in order to achieve similar acclaim as film or literature in it’s capacity to show the many sides of our personalities and the world’s we live in, but it also has the potential to supersede them both by it’s very interactive nature as a medium. So it is pleasing to see it making great strides in it’s attempts to represent us at our very best, and our very worst.


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