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Infusing Games with a Moral Premise

Reid Kimball puts forth an idea of how to use the concept of a Moral Premise to synchronize both gameplay and narrative to create more meaningful gaming experiences with progressive moral arcs.

Reid Kimball, Blogger

July 6, 2009

16 Min Read

My main complaint with morality choices in games is that they seem to be a collection of random situations that the developers hope players will find engaging. But they are unconnected and don’t contribute to any sort of analysis of what the whole gaming experience means.

Cultures thousands of years ago first used values to help influence behaviors and decisions among their people. Values have been so fundamental to the evolution of civilizations that they have helped spawn legal and religious systems that continue to this day.

The strength of a society is often derived from how strongly the public defends its core values. If its people do not strongly protect their values, then it is deemed to fall eventually, as those in power subvert their own laws once deemed inconvenient. It’s worth considering creating games based on values, since values have served an important purpose for thousands of years and will continue to do so.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

If we agree that games with a narrative have a moral universe, full of characters that follow their own moral values and gameplay choices made by the player following their own moral values, then do games have an arc in their moral universe? Do characters go through a moral arc? Does the player?

Too often the main character does not go through a moral arc. The ideal is that the player also goes through the very same moral arc as the player character. However, this depends on the structure of the game. A game may have a linear narrative progression that players simply go along for the ride, whether they agree with their character’s pre-authored moral arc progression or not.

The other option is for the game to react to the player’s choices, interpret where they stand on the moral arc and reflect that back through a slightly non-linear, though heavily guided narrative. This is where the dialog possibilities in games lie, as I mentioned previously in my blog article titled, “Dialog in Games”.

This article proposes a framework that can help establish a game’s and character’s moral arc and how to make sure the gameplay and narrative are in sync.

Creating a Moral Premise
A lot of what I’m going to talk about is heavily borrowed and adapted from the concept of a Moral Premise which is covered in the book, “The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success” by Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. Williams makes clear in the book that he isn’t the originator of this idea either, rather it was something he observed as existing in many popular and successful films. The idea of a Moral Premise being central to a story is derived from many past writers such as Aristole’s concept of a “controlling idea” and Lajos Egri’s concept of a “premise” in stage plays. While reading the Williams’s book, it struck me that the concept may work in videogames even better than in other art forms such as theater, novels and films.

As stated by Stanley D. Williams, “The Moral Premise is at the heart of all successful storytelling from ancient history right up to the modern day. We find its controlling nature in the writings of Plato, the Bible, and Aesop.” (p.XXII) The Moral Premise serves to describe a story’s moral meaning. It is the practical lesson of the story and the moral does not refer to only what is right, but both what is right and wrong. The juxtaposition of both right and wrong leads to conflict of values, which all good stories require.

Before we can begin creating moral premises for games, we need to look at its structure. The moral premise has four parts to it.

  1. Virtue

  2. Success

  3. Vice

  4. Failure

The designer or writer chooses a virtue that they personally believe in and includes its opposite, the vice. Then, using the two, virtue and vice, they construct a statement that they believe to be true. Or coming up with the statement first and then figuring out which values are involved can form the Moral Premise.

For example, say I want to make a game about the virtue trust and therefore I include its opposite, the vice suspicion. Next I formulate a statement that I think is true about trust and suspicion that I wish to use during my dialog with the player through gameplay and narrative.

“Trusting others leads to cooperation and success,
but misplaced suspicion of others leads to mutiny and failure.”

Notice there are two parts to this statement. Part one says, “Trusting others leads to cooperation and success.” Part two says, “Misplaced suspicion of others leads to mutiny and failure.” The game mechanics must be constructed in such a way that through play, the player experiences the truth of either side. Think of it as two sides of a coin, they are inseparable, but a player might only bare witness to one side throughout their play, depending on their choices.

The use of a Moral Premise naturally leads to games that allow multiple play paths. A player could have the following moral arcs through a game:

  1. At start: trusting others. At end: trusting others even more.

  2. At start: misplaced suspicion of others. At end: learns how to trust others.

  3. At start: trusting others. At end: is suspicious of others for no reason.

  4. At start: misplaced suspicion of others. At end: has greater misplaced suspicion of others.

Path 1shows how people can achieve greater heights of their potential if they work hard enough. Path 2 is the ideal narrative path showing dramatic change in the player and their character from harmful actions to helpful actions. Path 3 is a tragic tale of falling from grace. Path 4 is another variant on the tragic tale but potentially more tragic as we see someone who can’t escape flawed past actions and falls deeper into suspicion of others.

Diagram of moral arc paths

The nice thing about this concept of using a Moral Premise to make a statement about values is that it can be implemented in purely game systems form or it can be skinned with a narrative to give it context.

Examples of a Moral Premise
As an example, in the purely game mechanics form, imagine a 2D topdown game where you have to escape a maze, but must ask for others to help you. Asking another NPC blob is done with a simple button press and represents entrusting another person with a task to help everyone escape the maze.

However, if you follow behind too closely or ask a specific NPC blob repeatedly, the NPC blobs interpret this as suspicion towards them and they are likely to not cooperate. Mechanically, the player needs to ask once and leave the NPC blobs alone to do their thing, to trust them. While this isn’t deep, hopefully it illustrates the potential.

The problem with a purely system driven game like this is that it’s too abstract. Players won’t know the game is really about the value of trust in society. It won’t come across as a dialog either because it will be hard to tell which questions are being asked, if any at all.

To help with this, the game mechanics of a Moral Premise can be coupled with a narrative to give the Moral Premise context, making it easier for players to understand and reflect upon the moral lesson. This is why stories have been so powerful in cultures over thousands of years. People can relate to them and internalize their meanings.

If we take the above Moral Premise and put it in the context of the player as a captain of a pirate ship with gold treasure, then we can see more clearly the truth of the statement. If players put trust in their shipmates, then at the climax in the narrative when the ship springs a leak, the crew valiantly plugs the hole long enough to reach shore. If players don’t trust his or her crew, everyone fends for himself or herself and you are left alone on the sinking ship.

Without trust that everyone will get an equal share, everything breaks down into a last man standing sword fight, where everyone kills each other and there is no happy resolution. The pirate ships’ treasures sink to the bottom of the ocean, metaphorically representing the group’s morals.

To engage in a dialog, the game designer can use the Moral Premise in story and gameplay to setup situations and characters that ask the player questions. Perhaps something like, “Is it OK to spy on others to protect the groups interests?” The player can answer through a dialog response if it’s posed via character conversation. The game notes the player’s answer and then presents a gameplay situation that tracks the player’s commitment to it. Based on player responses and behaviors and the designer’s own point of view, the game can present counter-points that hopefully persuade the player to reconsider their beliefs if needed or encourage their current viewpoint.

The dialog topics you can have with players are endless. You can have a dialog with players about the right of mankind to serve only their own interests and no one else’s. Doesn’t that sound familiar? In fact, it sounds a lot like the ideas presented in BioShock. Upon a closer look, BioShock already uses the concept of a Moral Premise, though, not as well as I think it could have.

Examination of BioShock’s Moral Premise
BioShock’s Moral Premise is:

“Extreme selfishness and greed leads to destruction,
but selflessness and generosity leads to creation.”

We can see that “Selfishness and greed leads to destruction” is true when one player harvests all of the little sisters for their own gain and they get the bad ending[4]. In that ending the player destroys the lives of the little sisters and escapes with them to bring his brutality upon the world outside of rapture.

If the player acts selfless and generously by rescuing all of the little sisters, they get the good ending[5]. In the good ending, years later on the player character’s deathbed a family of little sisters surrounds him. His selfless actions to rescue them all created a loving family.

BioShock Art

BioShock Art

Implementation Issues of the Moral Premise in BioShock
However, there are several issues in BioShock regarding the application of its Moral Premise.

  • There is a Ludonarrative Dissonance.

  • Players can embrace the vice and still “win” the game.

  • Harvesting vs. Rescuing doesn’t make the Moral Premise clear until the very end.

Clint Hocking wrote a great critique on BioShock[6], explaining that the gameplay mechanics allow the player to be selfish and greedy through harvesting the little sisters, yet narratively, they have no choice and are forced to be generous in helping another character, Atlas and his family to escape.

A solution and one that applies to all games that use the Moral Premise on purpose is to allow multiple narrative paths that match the multiple gameplay paths. Perhaps players are given the explicit overall goal to escape Rapture and presented with the choice early on to go it alone (selfish track) or to help Atlas and his family (generous track). On either track, the player’s own moral values are tested constantly, in progressively more complex ways that are more difficult to deal with.

In the end, if the player defeats the final boss while on the selfish track, narratively, they do not succeed in escaping Rapture. They are stuck there forever, to live out the rest of their lives as a brutal selfish and greedy dictator. If they finish on the selfless (generous) track, they escape with the little sisters to start a new life and family.

Related to the above issue, in BioShock’s current state, players at the beginning of the game are given the goal to escape Rapture and even if they embrace the vice of the Moral Premise (selfishness) they still “succeed” in their overall goal. This creates a false Moral Premise that says,

“Selfishness and greed leads to freedom and destruction,
but selflessness and generosity leads to freedom and creation.”

Seflishness and greed does not create freedom. People who live by those values become prisoners of their own behavior, or in the case of people like Bernie Madoff, prisoners in the flesh.

The third issue with BioShock’s implementation of the Moral Premise, is that Players who choose either side of the Moral Premise don’t know what effect their choices have until they witness the end cinematic, which is good if they rescue or bad if they harvest. This is not really fair to players because they should have more immediate and frequent feedback based on their behavior. This will allow them to self-correct their path if they decide they don’t like where things are headed.

Film typically shows the main character who has flawed values making poor choices and their consequences early on because they are embracing the vice side of the Moral Premise. At many junction points through out the film they are given a chance to switch sides and are shown the possibilities of living life another way.

This is the personal psychological struggle they go through as they decide how to approach the problem they are trying to solve. Often another character will offer them a chance to embrace the virtue of the Moral Premise but the main character needs to see the value of it own their own. They need to come to an epiphany in which they realize what they believed in the past has been wrong and to be successful they must change their behavior.

Examination of Mirror's Edge’s Moral Premise
Mirror’s Edge also features a Moral Premise, but it is strictly in the narrative and not within the gameplay mechanics. This is the exact opposite of BioShock’s application of the Moral Premise. The Moral Premise for Mirrors Edge can be stated as:

“Running from someone’s problem leads to them becoming your own,
but running towards other people’s problems leads to solutions for everyone.”

The gameplay is about running, usually by running away from your attackers. Other times you may choose to run towards them to engage in close combat. With notable exceptions in the latter part of the game, the gameplay mechanics don’t lead to negative consequences if you run away. Running towards enemies can lead to either good or bad consequences, depending on the skill of the player. There is no consistent message within the gameplay.

The narrative on the other hand is quite clear. At 4:20 mark in this video[7], the player character (Faith) talks to her sister (Kate) a police officer about the murder of an old friend and a candidate for mayor. Faith in the cinematic expresses her value of running by trying to get Kate to run away from the scene of the crime with her. Faith says, “Come on, come with me. I’ll take you somewhere safe.” Kate refuses to act in such ways, “This isn’t the time to run! I’m not like you. Running will just make me look guilty.”

Kate pleads for Faith’s help and Faith says, “I can’t get involved in this.” But the refusal of Kate’s call doesn’t last long as Faith agrees to help before leaving the scene in a rush to avoid the police. In the ensuing gameplay sequence, Faith must outrun police and is now running towards various leads to uncover the mystery of the murder of Robert Pope and clear her sister’s name. By trying to solve the mystery, Faith helps her sister escape police custody, which could represent the imprisonment of the citizens of the city.

Mirror's Edge Art

Mirror's Edge Art

The city is a totalitarian society where the government controls information and spies to get even more. The citizens have given up their freedoms to live under a false sense of security (hello Patriot Act). At the end of the game, players can destroy government computer servers that collect all the communication data of the citizens, thus freeing them, temporarily from their government’s watchful eyes.

The narrative of Mirror’s Edge seems to say that running towards someone’s problem, in this case, Faith helping Kate’s problem of being framed for murder, leads to solving a problem for everyone, such as Faith bringing down an oppressive instrument of a totalitarian government.

The one but massive improvement for Mirror’s Edge’s use of a Moral Premise is to allow players to see the consequences of running away from someone’s problem and the successes that come with running towards a problem to solve it. Again, an open world like structure works best, players are introduced to the world, and maybe they see injustices of oppression by the police, yet do nothing but turn and run away. By doing that, the problem hits close to home and the player’s sister Kate gets in trouble.

It is not unlike the beginning of the film Braveheart where William Wallace wants to stay out of trouble and raise a family in peace. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen and he’s forced to fight back.

The Game Universe Bends Towards Meaningful Experiences
In this article, I’ve introduced you to the idea of using a Moral Premise in games. The benefits are twofold; fuse narrative and gameplay into a more meaningful, cohesive experience and to engage players in a dialog. Stories have been used for thousands of years to teach people within its societies valuable life lessons, morals and profound insights into the human condition. Through a Moral Premise, there is potential to engage players in thinking about important ideas on a variety of subjects that will help them understand the world or their own lives better.

Also posted at my personal blog, Reiding...

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