Mechanical Morality

People tend to sneer at moral systems in games. They see the stat tracking, the ‘you are 243 points evil’ or ‘your goodness is at 4/10’ and they laugh, and they poke fun at them, and talk about how ridiculous it is trying to quantify morality. They point out the complete fallacy of people treating you differently based on your morality score, as if you walk around with it emblazoned on your chest so that people know when to give you a wide berth or welcome you with a big friendly hug. And people are really fucking right, because all of that is really stupid, and we need to get rid of it immediately. People aren’t computers, and we can do better, we really can.

Mass Effect does better, because it sidesteps the whole thing by framing you as the hero; you’re going to do the right thing regardless, but it’s the kind of hero you want to be that’s the interesting part. Whether you play by the rules and go out of your way to help people out, or be a bastard and get away with being slightly less than legal. In your actions, not your age, you perv. But it’s a diversion, it doesn’t help the argument. It’s still weighed down by the slavish attention it pays to stats. Although, admittedly, by making it have internal, rather than external, ramifications, it does help somewhat. Although it doesn’t help anyone who wants to be a bit of both.

Bioshock, for all the failings of the Little Sisters, at least had the right idea. It was all about making the bad option actually strike some chord with you, make you regret taking the easy path. But it failed on two counts; the first was in not showing the actual gruesome death of the little girl, which, admittedly, would probably have caused quite a bit of controversy, but it was necessary to get their point across. And, of course, the other failing was rewarding the good path with just as much goodies as the bad guys got. They don’t seem to get it; being good is supposed to be its own reward. The bad guys get the stuff, but they get damned for it. They have to live with pulling a seaslug out of a little girl in a fatal fashion. You get to shove her into a vent and cure her of her malaise. So yeah, strike two, yerouttahere.

The closest I’ve seen to getting it right, or at least approaching right, was in Fable 3. And it wasn’t the whole game, because god knows that was just riddled with forced situations and false pretenses. No, it was about halfway through, (spoiler) once you reach the desert nation in the slightly odd second act of the game, just before you become king. You get attacked by weird shadow-tar creatures, and your stalwart friend, Walter, gets captured and tortured, and is blinded and infected by whatever it is these guys are made up of. You escape, and are presented with the wide open wilderness of the desert to cross.

And Walter? He’s blind, exhausted, and half insane. So you’re given a choice; leave him behind or take him with you.

The context of all this is that he’s been with you for the entire game so far. He’s voiced by Bernard Hill, which always helps, and he’s basically been your main companion so far, helping you escape your brother’s tyrannical rule, and being instrumental in guiding you. So this is a guy you’re probably going to care about, just a little. Enough that leaving him, blind and alone, in the middle of a desert, might be a little too much to swallow.

And so you decide to take him with you. Of course you do. You take him by the hand, in the much lauded ‘omg-our-characters-can-hold-hands’ mechanic, and start to lead him through the dunes. It’s painfully slow going, with him unable to move even as fast as a normal walking pace. You can see ahead, and even to get to the next landmark is going to take at least twenty minutes, give or take. You consider leaving him behind, just because it’d save you twenty minutes of monotony. The longer this drags on, the less you want to save him.

Except, five minutes into it, Lionhead lose their balls and just resolve the thing. They figure they’ve made their point. The fuck they have.

I’m probably even exaggeratting when I say five minutes. You go barely a hundred feet before it does the rest for you. It doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. It barely even feels like a choice. And to be teased like that, to be presented with a way games can use the fact that they’re a game to really test your morality, your conviction, to have that taken away is almost too much. I didn’t finish Fable 3. I was too fucking bitter. They’re cowards, putting emphasis on stupid hypothetical choices made without any investment above something that they could’ve genuinely progressed the medium with. They had the answer, right there in their hands, and they threw it away because they figured that some people might get frustrated.

But that’s entirely missing the point. They’re supposed to get frustrated. They’re supposed to over rationalise, look at Walter and think ‘y’know? I think I can get by ok without him. Is he worth this much boredom?’. They’re supposed to persevere, a bit, take him maybe over the next rise, see how much longer they have to go. They’re supposed to slip into the mindset of a marathon runner, where every little marker on the side of the trail is another achievement; I’ll go as far as the next one. Oh, go on then, let’s go to the next, and so on.

And, to rub an ocean of salt into the wounds, they go and ‘cure’ Walter of the blindness, on top of that. They go and retcon that fucker, and make that whole trip like nothing happened. What happened to sacrifice? What happened to ordeals? What happened to god-damned character building experiences?! We’re not babies, we can handle a bit of character investment getting turned against us. I mean, look at what Mass Effect 2 did! That’s what I want to see, applied to a moral situation.

You know why so few people are genuinely good and generous and kind to random strangers, why you don’t see everyone giving out change to every beggar that they see? Being good is hard work, and it’s not exactly all that rewarding in a material sense. Being evil should be easy. It should give you a tonne of cool stuff. But it should make you hate yourself for it.

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About Phill Cameron

I've graduated, had a look at the world, and spat. Now I'm devoting my time to moving from 3/4 of a games journalist to 9/10ths. I figure I can get away with 9/10ths.
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One Response to Mechanical Morality

  1. Miles says:

    Would it be wrong to suggest that the problem with these bold strides of the moral compass in games is the player? Mainstream games really seem to have dug their way into a creative grave through the need to serve and entertain the audience, not shock them and challenge their beliefs. Even if Lionhead was passionate about including such a feature, Microsoft would have stamped out that flame before it even left the match head.

    The real issue with a lot of systems of morality is the inherent subjectivity of morals. Even though killing the little sister may have resided on one side of an good/evil binary, it still, in principle, should have served the player’s need to survive , adding complexity to each choice. Unfortunately, Bioshock didn’t put a whole lot of emphasis on the broad spectrum of morality that could have accompanied this choice, and ultimately set it up as a good and evil situation, tempting you to evil not out of necessity but out of an unrewarding sense of greed.

    It’s interesting that you bring up that example from Fable 3, as I was toying around with a similar concept some time back. In the basic setting of a decaying, abandoned city, you and a companion have been set to conduct some kind of investigation. Throughout this game you must search for food, tools, ammunition and shelter whilst exploring, but half way through, your partner suffers a spinal injury and you must carry them everywhere. This means that you move slower/ are less agile, are more vulnerable, have to find a safe place to put him whilst searching for food. Although the game will never explicitly suggest it, you have the personal choice of killing him/ leaving him for dead, and going on alone. What I found interesting in this situation is that the morality is never suggested, the responsibility rests entirely upon the player’s conscience.

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