The Games We Play: Role-Playing Morality
I don't go looking to video games for entirely accurate depictions of reality. It is an escapist hobby for a reason, as I think it is for most people. I enjoy getting away into a world of possibility and imagination. It probably explains my tendency towards RPGs. I want to enjoy myself. I want to be immersed in a story. Sometimes I want to be the hero. Sometimes I want to raze the ground behind me. Sometimes I want to slay the dragon. Sometimes I want my revenge on the character who really pissed me off.
What I really don't like are confining options when it comes to the stories that unfold within games. One of the most aggravating things I have encountered in RPGs is the way that morality systems are so heavily polarized that they limit any type of satisfying outcome.
One of the most obvious examples of this type of system is found in the Fable franchise. Peter Molyneux is fairly notorious for a system of ethics in his games that can make you choose between kicking puppies and polishing your halo for pastimes. In the most recent installation, the choices presented to you are so jarring that they lack any kind of grasp on or connection to the story whatsoever. You are perfectly free to dethrone Albion's current king, who is deemed to be a tyrant beyond all measure, but then you can either become a paragon of angelic virtues or emulate him in every possible way (you will even see this physically manifest as you either lighten or darken according to your choices). You can destroy ecosystems, make orphans homeless, or allow your citizens to live rent free to earn their approval. It never allows you, however, to question the real ramifications of such political decisions. So long as your treasury has the amount of money needed to thwart mystical evil by the end of the game no one seems to mind that you killed four of your spouses, slaughtered a contingent of guards, and orphaned four of your own children to level up that really cool weapon.
Mass Effect used a Renegade or Paragon system to try to shape the way that your Shepard interacts with the worlds inside the game. The system allows you to role-play Shepard into a diplomatic or aggressive person who makes morally upright or more than slightly shady choices to attain a final objective. Less heavy-handed than the Fable series, this system still affects your immersion into the game, how other characters interact with you. In ME2, the Renegade or Paragon system is so vital that in some missions certain game-play options will only be available to a player who has played their character to one extreme or the other. There is no benefit for middle ground or playing according to how you think you would respond. You know, actual role playing? You are either going to have to be All Aggressive All the Time, or you will need to be the Hero who Saves the Day in order to survive certain situations optimally.
One of the sneakier morality systems that really gets to me is one that I get some pushback for criticizing. The choice to harvest or rescue Little Sisters in BioShock has always really triggered me from a viewpoint of someone who cannot stomach needless violence against children. In a show of How Good or How Bad can you be the crux of the final outcome of your success in life is supposedly whether you staved off the selfish urge to slaughter a little girl for her symbiotic sea slug. This, despite how many people love the woman scientists in the game, has always really hurt and crushed me to the point that I can not bring myself to really enjoy the game. Even if you “rescue” a Little Sister, she is still running around helping you harvest life force from people who are in the throes of withdrawal. But don't worry, they take care of you in true hero fashion in your old age.
I would really like to see games reach beyond a system of morality that insists on dichotomies. I don't really feel that limiting your choices to actions that are either morally reprehensible or aggressive at one extreme or charitable on the other is giving us a gaming experience as enriching as it could be. So few games offer critique on the circumstances that lead to or are affected by the choices you make. Fewer still explore the in-between options; those choices that don't solve things cleanly and leave the edges raw.
We need games that, while still allowing us the escapism we turn to them for, allows us a better look at the realities of decision making than “I ate your kitten” or “I will die for you.”
I know many of you are probably champing to say something. I will hold you off no longer.
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