by Chris P
Videogames, in general, have been trying the whole morality system for a very long time. The most ‘popular’ of these would be BioWare’s system, which they recently implemented with the Mass Effect Series, Dragon Age 2, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. This system essentially gives you a small morality decision within each line of dialogue, whether you’re nice, mean or sarcastic. At the same time, bigger decisions are outlined and give you points towards either good or evil, renegade or paragon or the equivalent. It’s very black and white, but it can be fun seeing both options play out, or even just the one you feel you (or, more importantly, your character) would choose.
It’s empowering, as choices you make have consequences and develop your character and game world further, but sometimes it’s a little too wide a gap between answers, even with games like The Old Republic sometimes giving you a third (or more) option. They’re all still plainly labelled, and it’s obvious what choices you’ll make depending on the character you wish to build.
Mass Effect generally has this similar problem, but it evolved over the course of the series, with the choices in Mass Effect 3 standing out as being extremes, but not feeling as much like opposing forces as they had previously. You knew the consequences of your decisions, and sometimes it felt like both decisions had bad outcomes, rather than a pure ‘good’ choice. Paragon and Renegade didn’t mean “Good” and “Evil” respectively anymore, it was greyer, more intriguing and, as a result, much more difficult when it came to those decisions. Do you save the Quarians, or the Geth? The information you gain around this choice makes this decision even harder, but playing the game through efficiently opens up the option to save both. Do you save a friend’s life or allow him to sacrifice himself for the greater good? Even this kind of decision has the consequences depending on previous choices made in the first game.
It’s varied enough that it’s no longer black and white, but this is entirely through the tone of the final game of the trilogy. It’s all about sacrifice; it’s all about fighting with your last breath and making tough decisions. It’s deliberately greyed because of this; it’s darker and gives you the feeling that this really is the end of things. Although Mass Effect 3 did have its benefits, it did unfortunately step back on the choices through the standard dialogue, the majority of the time giving you one choice, rather than many. It suits the tone of the game, but it’s a low point of the series in terms of character choice and development.
Meanwhile, with its slight edits to the formula, Dragon Age 2 implemented this system, whereas the first game had a more classical RPG dialogue system. While Dragon Age 2 was vastly similar to Mass Effect’s styling, the more RPG nature of Dragon Age seeped into this by giving the player more than just good and evil choices. You could choose to be aggressive, sarcastic, flirty or good natured, all marked out via symbols much like previous game’s good and evil choices. It felt like you had more choice, but the choices themselves didn’t feel like anything more than A, B or C options. It wasn’t natural, which is the main issue with the way BioWare deliberately chose to create the system. As interesting and deep as the choices could be, they always felt slightly mechanical and less like the player choosing to play the game a certain way. The choice is shoved in your face and subtlety is completely lost. While some of these options do lead to different consequences (flirting leading to a relationship, or aggressiveness leading to a fight), many lead to the exact same outcome. Of course, there are moments in the game where there is an obvious choice, with equally obvious options, but they don’t seem vastly different like some other titles.
A game where the lines are more blurred, giving you difficult choices without them being blatantly two sides of the coin, was The Witcher 2. Occupying a much darker world than anything previously mentioned, The Witcher series has been known for dark fantasy, stemming back to the excellent novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, upon which the games are based. There are multiple choices that happen throughout the game’s three acts, but none of them are easy.
Do you chose to side with the rebels fighting against racism and brutality, or do you side with the man who helped you out of prison in order to discover the real assassin of the king? It’s not an easy choice by any means, and it’s made even more difficult by slowly discovering more about each of the factions. Not only that, but the choice itself changes the second act completely, and it’s certainly not the only one to crop up. It feels a lot more natural, as these choices are produced through cleverly written conversation, but, again, it’s very “videogamey”, as the options are put in letters in front of your face. The Witcher does grey areas extremely well, but they’re completely grey, with bad outcomes on either side. There is no right decision or good outcome, everything can (and will) go from bad to worse in the universe that Geralt of Rivia inhabits.
There are also choices given in Spec Ops: The Line, which has, honestly, the best morality choice system in any game I have played. It deals with it in a spectacular fashion, giving choices that are not button prompts or at all obvious… they’re just options. Do you go and save a hostage from the CIA, or sacrifice him to save others? The choice is presented in a way that’s natural to the story. Your squad, consisting of two members, argue about the choice presented. They’re giving you the reasons for either option, and it makes sense that they have a different viewpoint on the matter. You choose by nature of your actions, like you have been throughout the game. Do I change weapons, reload, and flank? It’s almost as if it’s one of those simple gameplay choices, but the consequences are extreme.
Without going into spoilers, one of the many decisions made in this game hit me harder than any other medium has. I felt truly terrible about the choice I had made, as it had seemed like it was the right thing to do, but it was there in a situation where the facts simply weren’t all there. The consequences for the actions I chose were extreme, and it made me feel like it was my fault for making a rash decision. It was the most realistic and damning choice I’ve come across in the game, and I literally had to pause, put the controller down and think about what I had just seen. I thought about it a lot, and felt haunted by it. It’s how choices should be done in a game, using the mechanics to seamlessly blend gameplay and branching paths. Not only that, it presents the truest form of “grey area” decisions, where they are tactical, rather than moral, although they result in things you never saw coming. It’s amazing storytelling in a release that otherwise screams “generic.”
Morality isn’t just appearing in titles that aren’t strictly linear. Although it has some open-world features, Batman Arkham City sends you down a linear story path. The morality situation in all Batman material is prevalent – Batman doesn’t kill people; it’s something that has been a staple of his character for a long time (although not from the beginning), and it comes up multiple times. Even in the newest of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series of films, this is cemented in the character from Batman Begins, but that doesn’t stop the morality question creeping into all Batman stories, whether they be comic, movie or videogame.
Arkham City deals with this very well over the course of the story, and it comes to an abrupt end that genuinely makes you wonder what goes through the Dark Knight’s head. It’s seen in his relationship with the Joker and the dilemma of simply killing him in order to save countless lives. On the one hand, it wouldn’t make as interesting a story if Batman just murdered all his enemies, but, on the other hand, sometimes it just does not make sense why he would continue to let these psychopaths live. It’s a complex characteristic that will always mean Batman is the good guy, as dark as the world he inhabits may be.
Another linear story that seems to contain a lot of questionable choices (although not made by the player) and morality is Max Payne 3. While the first two games did have their share of disturbing moments, the third seems to ramp these up by the truckload towards the third act. Max, by this point, is a shell of his former self. He’s trying to rebuild what he’s lost and he’s gone a little crazy, due to the sequence of the events in the previous two acts. They’ve changed him; he’s become angrier and more determined to put a stop to the evil things that are going on in Brazil.
Through Max’s reactions, you see the utter shock and horror in his face and hear it in his voice. They reflected my own, because I didn’t expect to see what had been going on; it’s not entirely clear at first, and it makes you feel slightly wrong. When Max comes out and says the words it hits you even harder, and pushes you to try and find the assholes responsible. It’s much bigger than his wife and child being murdered over drugs; it’s something that you feel you have to finish, not because it’s affected Max, but because it’s the right thing to do.
Videogames have an interesting place in entertainment. As much as controversial movies and scenes in games can affect some people, it’s an entirely different thing to make the player feel as if what happened was their fault. Giving the choice to the player, especially in a way like Spec Ops, where you literally just play the game rather than pushing a button, is incredible. It’s a way to affect the story and the minds of those enjoying it. It makes you think, and it makes you wonder what else we could make people feel.
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