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Am I Evil?

When was the last time an opportunity came along for you to do great good or evil to the world and its denizens? When in your life have you ever come to a choice where the line between the two was clear as day? Do you even believe in good or evil or do you just believe in amorality?

Moral choices in videogames have been here for quite some time and 2010 has seen its fair share of games doing it. BioShock 2, Dante’s Inferno, and even Army of Two: The 40th Day have all put their own spin on whether the player decides to be good or evil. Like most design choices, it works sometimes and other times not so much. Like a stealth level crammed into a game unsuited for it, moral choices can be put into a game just because it seems like everybody else is doing it.

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With serial fist-bumpers Salem and Rios now on the good/evil bandwagon, one has to wonder if the whole moral choice idea hasn’t officially jumped over every shark in the Atlantic. After all, when was the last time moral choices in a game felt fresh and innovative? Since when did it not feel a tacked-on feature? When was the last time you even bothered to play the game one way and come back to do it the other?

By its very nature the whole thing is rather limited. You’re either a good, virtuous saint or a genocidal maniac. It’s a binary choice, assuming there isn’t an option to be neutral which is rather redundant since most of the human race would fall into that category. There’s much less of a draw to be neutral in a game than to be hardcore good or evil respectively.

BioShock for all of its wonderful atmosphere and story was limited in its morality system. There were only two endings and if you harvested only one Little Sister you got the evil ending. The conundrum is if you harvest the little girls you get the max amount of ADAM, but if you spared them you got a heartwarming thank-you and gifts of ADAM as the game progressed. When you take an inventory, being good far outweighs being evil by the sheer amount of ADAM and plasmids you’ve obtained.

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Conversely, BioShock 2 is a little more complex—you can harvest/save Little Sisters along with killing/sparing certain NPCs. Depending on how you decide to mix things up there are four endings, but between the happy-happy-sunshine and evil, world-domination ending I found the “neutral” ending to be the most profound. Why? Because this ending has a real sense of ethos and there’s a big uncertainty lingering at the end. No happily-ever-after or a thousand years of death and misery followed.

Fable II is another game where the brunt of the marketing was about all the choices you could make in the game. The pay-offs are fairly obvious for each choice: being good means people look up to you while being evil nets you quick money and power. There’s also something of an aesthetic pay-off as well, being good means you look like some bearded monk while being evil translates into growing horns and turning albino.

My problem with Fable II is that all the NPCs inspire empathy in the same way that ants do with a child holding a magnifying glass on a sunny day. Really, why would you care what these digitized dolts think of you? They mill around and laugh at your farts and let you out on parole after you’ve massacred several towns. There isn’t a single trait they possess that causes you to seriously consider whether or not to help or harm them. All they ever do is either shake their heads when you’re evil or give you praise in swarms like they’re all part of the same hive-mind or something.

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Which brings me to the habit developers have about getting on their soapbox to decry the player’s evil actions—or at least by proxy through an NPC in the game. Pick any game with moral choices and there’s usually some character put in for the sole purpose of being a shrieking, nagging harpy when you do something bad and lavish you with praise when you do something good. BioShock has Dr. Tenenbaum, Fallout 3 has Three Dog and what they both have in common is tongue-lashing the player over what they’ve done—more often than not out of necessity—while they sit in their ivory towers, safe from danger.

There’s this unspoken rule that developers can give the player the choice to be evil so long as they can get on their case whenever they pick the evil path. They seem to say “yes, we’re giving you the option to be evil but we’d much rather you be good otherwise we’ll drag you by the ear to the principal’s office.” It’s so incredibly black-and-white and a fair question to ask is: who is the developer/NPC to judge me?

I don’t believe moral choices are a complete waste of effort. They can be implemented well, but such weighty philosophical matters can hardly be conveyed through a situation where “press X or Y” are your only responses.

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Fallout 3 is the best game I’ve played with a moral choice system. In it, morality doesn’t come down to one single act. Instead it’s taken as a line that spikes and dips and sometimes stays steady. It’s fluid and changing, much like the choices we make in real life. We may shoplift one day and rescue a cat out of a tree the next. Does one outweigh the other? Fallout 3 grants players the freedom to be completely incongruous with their avatar’s morality.

If it’s freedom of choice you want, Fallout 3 has that in spades. You’re flush with decisions on how to be good, evil, and every color in-between. Do you like to manipulate others into fighting or just kill as many innocent villagers as you like? Or how about blowing up an entire town just for some quick cash? This is a game where you can kill someone, chop them up, get high on drugs, cannibalize their remains and stick their severed head in the toilet. How’s that for evil?

Or you can opt to be a saint—never lie, never kill unless you absolutely have to, give and ask for nothing in return—be a swell person in general. Between those two options is the path to neutrality—not choosing a side or just trying to remain impartial as possible. That’s the best thing about Fallout 3, all the choices feel satisfying and sometimes the subtler moral choices are more effective than the over-the-top moments.

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It wasn’t all the killing or selling children into slavery that made me remorseful for my actions, it was when I talked the shopkeeper in Megaton—Moira Brown—out of writing her book. With her life’s ambition crushed, her optimism withered and she became just as world-weary as any other wastelander in the game. As a character, Moira felt real and so did the withering of her dreams. The game didn’t need to give me a yay-or-nay choice on whether I should perform a martyr-like act of altruism or strangling her with her own intestines in order to convey morality, but a more realistic approach with a variety of choices that have consequences no one can truly fathom.

Creating characters you can empathize with, or at the very least find engaging, is a step in the right direction for moral choice systems and so is giving the player a multitude of paths to take. The morality of the world is made up of thick shades of gray and it’s time the world of video games reflected that as well.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in March 2010.

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