How can we design a fulfilling moral system for a video game?

RPGs are the perfect art medium to explore moral issues. Here are some of my thoughts on how we can move towards this.

I recently started replaying Fallout 3 but this time with the addition of a few truly excellent modifications. I won’t got much into this other than to say that Fallout 3 seems to be 100% better when modded but the main thing that  struck me as I was going through the quests is how unfulfilling the moral choices and the relevant moral system is.  It’s nothing more than a Good/Evil scale which seems to telepathically travel around the world making everyone have similar reaction to your character.

I can’t help but be disappointed by it, especially for a game which for some reason has been praised for its wealth of moral options. I guess this is to a large extent due to its open nature and the number of side-quests to take which generally devolves to helping some person for free, helping some person for a reward, or killing them and taking their stuff. Much of this is caused of course by the limitations imposed by full voice acting but that doesn’t change the fact that one feels severely restricted.

Fallout does better than most still, you often have a choice on how to help them and so on, but then the arbitrary karma rewards/punishments come around and travel telepathically around the world which really takes away from the immersion. Fortunately I have a mod which can hide the Karma messages but I can’t escape their effects which makes it very weird when a village I’ve saved from certain doom starts being hostile to me because I murdered a tribe of cannibals and took their stuff, on the other side of the world.

The only way I’ve figured I can immerse myself in such a game is to decide before hand what my alignment will be in terms of a few ambiguous moral rules and stick to them, come what may. For example in the current iteration for example, I’m trying to play a “the needs of the many overweight the rights of the few” kind of character, who is also extremely xenophobic in terms of “weirdos” (i.e. all that are not “proper” humans) and see where that gets me. This leads me to be very nice and fuzzy to humans but extremely callous and downright evil to everyone else. Karma can’t represent this in any meaningful way and thus I end up stuck in the middle as “neutral citizen”, while my relations to most people, human or not, are generally cold. This only is interesting because I keep the experiences of my character in my own imagination as the game does not provide me with any real effect from my actions and even then, the game insists on making things difficult.

For example, in the scenario with the Cannibals Raiders above, I managed to let me talk to their leader at some point but there was no possible combination of dialogue to make them hostile to me once they became friendly. Sure, I could choose between 3 different options to resolve the quest I was in peacefully (all pretty much similar), but none of them fit the personality I’d chosen for my character: The fact that I do not deal with freaks and especially cannibals. There wasn’t even a dialogue choice I could choose to tell them that I was about to wipe them from the face of the earth. I could only proceed to an unprovoked attack which more so ended up triggering a game bug making me fail my quest if I didn’t do it right.

So I started thinking how this could possibly be improved in some significant way so as to capture the more complex effects of my morality. I had a few ideas but then I found this video online and I noticed that it had expressed a part of my thoughts very concisely.

So obviously the concept of factions would go a long way to make the moral system more realistic. Just imagine if one faction asked you to perform a quest which went against the interests of another faction who, when you ended up causing them enough trouble, would mark you as KOS or something. Or if one faction improved their impression of you after word that you wiped out their enemies spread around. Fallout 2 in fact had this, where the reputation system kept track of how each settlement viewed you but in this third iteration, they decided to dumb down the game to the simple good/evil dichotomy.

But further than factions, I’m thinking that games are truly the artistic means where it’s the best way to explore moral issues. Books and movies can only give you a perspective but it’s limited by the ideas of the author and how much one can identify with the characters. However RPGs are made for identifying with the main characters and the freedom to explore paths we wouldn’t normally experience or choose allows for some really interesting thoughts.

Imagine for example, if instead of one Good vs Evil scale, we had more than one, not necessarily as a graph like the video above suggest, but rather as separate counters which moved to either side depending on your actions in the world. Lets imagine for example a gender equality scale where a new character starts in the middle. Depending on the character’s interaction with males or females of the world (i.e. you should get on occasion phrases which allowed you to marginalize particular genders, such as dismissing the opinion of a female or something) this counter would move in either direction.

Now lets say that you have started acting like a misogynist. Initially you would have a few dialogue options which would allow you to move your scale to ther misogynist side of the scale. As you started to move towards it, more and more of your dialogue options would involve being outright sexist, until for example, you wouldn’t be able to refer to females without calling them “chicks” or “bitches”, even to their face. Now obviously this should create friction in the interaction with the women of the world and even a lot of the males through their dialogue, making for example feminist storekeepers have higher prices, women companions desert you and so on.  On the other hand, you could make it so that the player who reaches the far ends of misogyny be eligible for special perks (like the one which is already in the game giving extra damage vs females), special quests and so on. The fact that the initial steps one made into misogyny (i.e. the dialogue options one selected) might not be obvious and yet eventually the player discovers him/herself having progressed towards it might be an interesting result for people who have not even considered how their words and behaviour can be perceived. Not only does this make an interestnig role playing experience, but it might provide people with a new perspective.

Likewise, someone staying in the middle of the scale, at equality, could also be eligible for a perk and might get positive reactions from similarly minded people or factions or negative reactions from sexists.

Other similar scales could easily explore stuff such as racism (even if that is limited to the fantasy races of the game like Super Mutants and Ghouls) freedom of personal choice, mutual aid, respect for property, charity and so on. Therefore, you would not have good or evil characters but you could have a more detailed map of a personality which would be really tough to claim as simply good or evil.

For example. how would you label a person who is really strong in standing by and protecting his people but does not respect those who do not follow traditional values or are not human? How about the one who respects the individuality of everyone but sees all interactions with others through monetary exchanges? How about the one who believes that might makes right and that the more powerful deserve to rule but that one should always protect those who cannot protect themselves?

Most people would probably find a mix of good and bad aspects in each of these examples and the good about an RPG is that it allows you to Role Play such a character and see the world through their eyes. Sure, this is nonetheless limited by the developer’s creativity and possibly impossible to properly represent in the dialogue of a full-voice acted game but even so, you can still go at least halfway through a faction system plus specialised abilities and quests in case someone reaches an extreme moral value.

I hope we’ll see something like this in the future or even better, perhaps this is something that could be modded into the already existing games. Certainly when one can implement a scale for good and evil, one can also implement 3 scales for the moral values they’d like to explore in their game. One could even go for more, but as the video above mentioned, sometimes exploring only a particular moral value can be far deeper than a shallow good vs evil concept which cheapens the morality of the game rather than enrich it.

11 thoughts on “How can we design a fulfilling moral system for a video game?”

  1. Great article. I've puzzled over this a LOT when playing games, not only in Fallout but also in the Star Wars: KOTOR games which are also praised for their moral choice systems. Arguably in KOTOR it's somewhat easier because one is conforming to either the Sith or the Jedi character types (though I get incredibly frustrated when I wish to make choices that reject both the republic and sith and be a gray jedi, but thats a conversation for the more geeky amongst us)

    The major issue here is that any sort of in-game morality system, especially in complex, non-linear RPG's where 'good' or 'bad' actions have playable and key narrative results, necessarily must be some sort of objective, universal moral system. There simply isn't any way that I can see it being effective otherwise. Great idea with the graphing though.

    Off topic I know, but the new MMO star wars game looks like it might implement a very strong good/bad system that actually answers a few of your points. The big difference is that it is after all an MMO, so the interactions have much stronger moral implications. Maybe the only way to design a properly fulfilling moral system that works in a way that satisfies these larger issues is within the context of online play.

    1. I don't know, MMOs may be even worse because in a world where all human players are heroes and there's no particular drawbacks or consequences for any action, morality does not really have a place.

  2. One idea I've always thought would be great for the basis of a morality system is an "Action Database". Instead of mindless metrics and arbitrary numbers, just keep a database of the things that a character actually does. (Significant actions, things said, missions taken, etc..) Keep track of who, what, where, when, and how. That way a query could be done to the database by various parts of the game to determine an opinion of your character based on your actions it cares about. More advanced queries could also allow games to derive opinions and even figure things about your character. So if you are playing a thief with a particular preference to stealing certain types of items, you roll into a peaceful town, and the same type of of thefts start occurring… the local law will get suspicious of you if they've heard about these types of crimes happening in other places… especially if you've mentioned being in those places before. Or, you could be a vigilante out to clean up the world… you roll into a crime ridden town, and the local gangs start "disappearing"… The law could give you an unofficial blessing, while the gang leaders will come after you. (Especially, if they've heard similar stories from business partners.)

    1. THe problem I think is not so much a lack of data or a way to access it. The problem is to think of a creative way for characters to change their behaviour realistically based on the data they know of.

  3. I'm afraid that as long as games cater to the teenager male demographic, that's not going to be easy. The problem is that it's very difficult to do morals in anything other than an RPG and they haven't figured out yet a way to make RPG work without combat of some sort.

  4. This is an issue which has bugged me to no end when it comes to RPGs as well, and it has ultimately led me to stop playing Western RPGs all together, because of their failed attempts to be ambiguous. I got my hands on Dragon Age last year to try it out because a friend kept asking me, but it turned me off right away as soon as I realized that the moral options I wanted to stick with did not exist. I wanted to play a neutral character, slightly towards the evil spectrum. I wanted her to be cold and callous, hard to interact with but yet base her all her actions on logic and a cost-gain analysis. I got so far as to ending the introduction where you meet the prince, and then I realized I could only praise the prince or call him names. Why wasn't there a neutral option that would've fit my character better? Obviously there was no reason for her to act overly friendly or unfriendly towards the prince, so the best option would've been to just go with some general polite phrase and leave it there.

    Frankly though, I don't think the only reason why games like Dragon Age or Fallout 3 are limited in terms of moral options is because of money, but I also think it's because we still got a very limited way to think about morals in roleplaying games. The problem is that both fantasy and science fiction are stuck in the good vs evil dilemma as genres, and it is just very, very hard to break this norm.

  5. This is why I like the old-style tabletop RPGs. Your character had a basic alignment – Good, Neutral or Evil – and is either Chaotic, Lawful or Neutral in regards to how they act on that principle. Chaotic Good doesn't care about the rules as long as what they're doing is right. Lawful Evil follows the rules, but uses them to his or her advantage. Chaotic Neutral is really just out on their own and doesn't care much.
    Depending on the DM and the game world you're in, you can end up having very complex moral choices to make.

    The problem with implementing that in a videogame is the sheer complexity that it adds. You could take decades to figure out the moral nuances. Most game companies don't have that sort of time on their hands. But if the open source community wants to try it…(and somehow, I think they already did).

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