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Morality and ethic system in videogame

My impressions on the current state of the morality systems in videogame.

DUTERTRE Simon, Blogger

February 22, 2014

15 Min Read

Hello People.

So, several weeks ago i read a news about a school using the game Walking Dead (Telltale's series) to teach about ethics in one of the class.
You can find the article here : http://www.gamespot.com/articles/the-walking-dead-used-to-teach-ethics-in-norwegian-high-school/1100-6417213/

My first thought was : " Great, it is a huge step for video game to be recognized as a really deep media, good job Norway!". But shortly thereafter, i changed my mind and thought that was maybe not the best game for that...

I'll try to explain my point of view in this article, and talk about the morality and ethics systems in videogames that we currently have. 

The case of Walking Dead (Telltale series)

Don't get me wrong, i loved Walking Dead ! I felt very invested in the story and loved the characters. I haven't been playing a lot of "traditional" point'n click but i like it so much, i did the whole game in 24 hours.

However, despite all of the quality of the game, many people including me felt in the end "cheated". Here are some *SPOILERS* so stop reading NOW if you haven't played the game !

No matter what were your choices, your answers to Kenny questions or Lily b****g, the result was pretty much the same. It is not ultimately the worst thing in the world. I completely understand that Telltale wanted to tell a story, and so they couldn't really let the player drift from the road they had indented. However, i still think that maybe i was led on the whole time.

When you answered something, you had this tiny text appearing on the top left of the screen " XXX will remember that"... " Whaou ! Maybe i shouldn't have told him that, if Clémentine finds out, she will be heartbroken" is probably what most people thought. Telltale managed to make us think that each of our action could influence the story and how people would behave between each others...

Flashnews ! Kenny and Lily will always hate each other, Super Angry Dad will always have his head crush and Carley... will get shot by Lily.

The first time Carley got shot in Chapter 3, i was trying to calm things down between everyone and when Lily killed her, i thought it was because i didn't blame Ben (F***k You by the way). So I did what every "classic" player would have done, i "Alt + F4" and relaunched the chapter, this time blaming Ben for everything, the stealing, the Zombie apocalypse and even Gas being too expensive. I thought Lily wouldn't think i was siding against her and would blame Ben.... And i was wrong. This is when, despite Telltale efforts, i felt powerless toward the progressing of the story. No matter what i say or do, things won't change.

Of course, it could be just their way of saying you can't change anything in certain situation, that Fate does exist. But i felt betrayed... 

So here is when i finally get to express about the title, about morality and ethics systems. Walking Dead is an amazing game with a great story, but i personally think it is not to be referred to when talking about morality and ethics. Why that you could ask ? I mean, you decide if you want to shoot that girl at the beginning of Chapter 3, you decide if you want to steal the food and gears in the truck of the Stranger. But does it matter ?

Ethic and morality are a creation of the human race, we identify people thanks to it and behave accordingly. We cant' kill people because it would endanger the society, we need rules to follow so we can keep living as a group. A zombie apocalypse would be a perfect setting to see how the morality of one person could easily shift, going from a loving father to a bandit trying to find food to survive.

However, morality and ethics are supposed to affect the choice we make in life, and there are consequences to these choices... Last year, i saw a job offer before all my friends, i was checking every 10 minutes the job board of a specific company. I had to choose: Would i tell it to my other friends that were also looking for work or not ? I did, and unfortunately no one got the job... I could have raised my chances to get the job by not telling them.

In Walking Dead, every moral choices have no real impacts on the story itself. If my choices have no impact, then they don't matter and therefore i don't matter in this story. So do the moral choices are really choices in Walking Dead ?
Does not shooting the girl at the beginning of chapter 3 gives you any bonus ? No. 
Does not stealing from the abandoned car prevent the stranger from kidnapping Clementine ? No.

Now i would like to go back a little on something that i said earlier about "classic" gamer. Trust me, it is related.

Player Education and Conditionning in VideoGame

I have been playing a lot of game... I am 24 now and i have been playing them since Megaman 2 on the NES. I grew up with them and so i saw them evolve. I witnessed the introduction of tutorials, i saw the appearance of competitive multiplayer game, and the most important of all, i saw how you would evolve your avatar's ability evolve.

There is nothing like the feeling you get when you finally unlock the Great fairy mask in Legend of Zelda : Majora's mask, you have suffered for it during the whole game and here is your reward. This feeling is present in a lot of game, when you reach the end and your characters become powerful. 

This tool is the core of the RPG's such as Final Fantasy, The Elder Scroll series or even The Baldur Gate series. In these game, the player has many choice on how he wants to build his characters, on how he wants to play the game. Do i want to play as a thief, deadly but squishy, do i want to become a mage or just a warrior (which often is OP). The player has the choice of the gameplay.

The reward system in RPG's is also very flexible, often when finishing a quest, the player will have the choice to select his reward, which lead to more specialization. And by specializing your character, you will become very strong in certain domain but weak in others. There is an upside and a downside to each of the choices the player makes. In Skyrim - The DragonBorn expansion pack, the player will find Black Books that when finishing the sequence in it will grant him a specific bonus among 3 that he can choose.

These games that the "Classic" player has been playing for the past 20 years (wow, i am old...) are conditioning him to believe that every time he accomplish something, whether it is killing 10 Trolls or rescuing a kidnapped woman, he can decide how the adventure will evolve for him, with advantages and drawbacks, just like in real life. Have any of you been drunk at a party with your friends and hook up with one of your friend's ex-girlfriend/boyfriend ? Sure, you had fun at the moment but you have hurt your relationship with that friend.

And the morale choices in the game should be the same, they all should have an upside and a downside. Of course, by this i don't mean it for them to be either Black (bad) or White (good), but they must have an impact. 

Let's go back quickly to Walking dead and ask ourselves, Why didn't any of the choices matter ?
There could be several explanations:
1. The developers of the game didn't have time to create every endings the 10.000 lines would create.
2. They wanted to tell a specific Story, about a man seeking redemption, and wanted the player to invest himself in it. Much like a comic book or a movie would feel.

I personally think it is the second one, and it is the one that i like the most because it would mean that games have evolved, that now, we can care for pixels ! We as Player can't be the same we were 20 years ago, expecting to be rewarded every time we do something. Sometimes, you do thing and it doesn't do anything, it doesn't change how people view you, it doesn't give you money...

So Walking dead must be approach that way to me. It isn't a game in which what the player will decide depends on the reward he wants, about how he will specialize his character (like for example Infamous). However, i still don't like not being able to change anyone's fate... Sorry Telltale, i still love you !

The Walking Dead is a game where the story matter the most and the player has to do a real effort to break the conditioning of "classic" gamer in order to invest himself in order to enjoy the experience.

Role Playing and Investing in VideoGame

Now that i discussed the choices in Walking Dead, i would like to talk about one key element for this new brand of game that is coming to us, game where the atmosphere, the story, the ambient feelings are more important than "traditional gameplay". This element is the role play.

I am a huge player of MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games and fighting games such as DOTA 2, Street Fighter 4, Super Smash Bros... If some of you already played these game, and really played them for hundred hours, you know there is a peculiar atmosphere around you when playing them. When i play Super Smash Bros. with my friends, there is a lot of chatting, screaming, cursing... It is a convivial moment that you enjoy with your friends. Now, would you play Walking Dead in the same enthronement ?

If you said yes, i apologize but i really think you played the game wrong and thus,you must be stupid and here is why:

My first argument is that you don't watch a movie or read a book with other people around you and interacting with them, it is a personal experience. Why do you think talking isn't allowed in Movie Theater ?  Different people will react differently to the same setting of event, it is the human nature, we are all different. Many game now are breaking the barrier between Movie/Books and games, such as The Last of us or Walking Dead. And like i previously said, i think you have to invest yourself in these game to enjoy them.

Why did Telltale gave the player so many choices although they didn't matter so ? To help the player to invest himself in the story. By thinking it is your choice that develop the story, you tend to relate to the main characters.Why do you think so many character in Videogames are void and empty, having no voice or their archetype defined ? Link in the Zelda Series, or any RPG's character ?

So the player can identify to them. It is the same for Walking dead, to enjoy a story, people need to identify to the characters, to share their emotions and understand their behavior.
The main character in Walking Dead is a cliche, a man seeking redemption, having made some bad call during his life... Like ANY of us !

Secondly, role playing a game helps making sense. 

I am currently playing Skyrim for the first time, i am at 65 hours in one character, a cool Redguard that is the Harbringer of the Companion, but also the Archmage of the College, and also member of the Dark Brotherhood.... and also Thieve's Guild Master... and having helped every Daedra.... 
Do you see what is wrong here ? I made the mistake of accepting EVERY Quest i could, and even while having done all of this, i still have hundreds of quest opened... And now, nothing makes sense, i don't even like my character anymore, how can someone be all of this combined ?
The reason is i played Skyrim like i played the Zelda games where 70 % of the quests are needed to complete the Main storyline where they unlock when the player is ready.

My point in this example is that in order to enjoy deep, fulfilling experience that is "LOGICAL", the player has to limit himself in certain ways by role playing. It helps defining a certain course of action, not seeking the most beneficial choice but the "logical" decision that the character (The player) would make.

How to make choices impacting the player

We are now approaching the end of this article, and i think i talked about many subjects that to me are linked. The "false" choices, the conditioning of the player and role playing in games... I am convinced that morale choices need to have a true impact in games in the future, and not necessary just choosing a reward. Real consequences that affect both the gameplay and the story.

New *SPOILERS* regarding the Metal Gear series guys, you know the drill...

During MGS3: Snake eater, Big boss is captured by the bad guys and tortured in front of The Boss, Eva, Ocelot and Voljin. As the scene progress, the attention is directed to Eva that is about to get shot by Ocelot and, being the faithful white knight Snake is, he intercepts the bullet meant to Eva and lose an eye in the progress. " So that's how Big Boss lost his eye, cool... But did i really lost an eye ???? " was maybe your first thought. Yeah, you did... and THIS affect the gameplay, the left side of the screen when shooting in first person is black and blurry. Of course, since you are focusing on the center of the screen , it is not that big of a deal but still.

I think that is GENIUS ! But it is not a choice sadly, the player didn't choose that but i think if the occasion had been given to me, i would have made that choice.

So why do I tell you about this event that is not even related to the subject, choices in games. Well, what are the game mostly about ? Gameplay (Story, characters, art are also important too) ! Take the gameplay out of game, and they become less entertaining, but what about impacting a little bit of the gameplay during the game ? The fact that Snake lose an eye during the game serve not only as a story tool but is also as a (minor) gameplay tool. 

Morale and ethic as i said are supposed to be important to us human being, so if designer want to make choices that rely on morale important, the consequences should be important to what game are really about, and that is gameplay. Why not take part of the game to player, i guarantee if Telltale's designer player would have created a food system determining if character would have lived in Walking Dead, player would have not hesitated to take the stuff in the abandoned car. It is the aversion-loss syndrome but i won't talk about it in this article.

And don't tell me it is bad to prevent the player from accessing a part of the game depending of his choices. The Witcher 2 makes the players play a completely different act after the first one depending on who he chose to help, either helping Roche or Iorveth. And i when i talked to my friends that played the game, i didn't even knew that i missed one chapter... I just wanted to play it again, i never felt betrayed by the designers because I CHOSE my path.

Maybe designers are too afraid of the player's reaction to this kind of choices, but i think you can really see the morality of a player when confronted to these. You could have a player that has been playing a very "Good" character completely change his morality because " F***K, if i decide to be a good guy this time, i will lose my arm and can't use bow anymore... and i like bows !". We would have much more grey tainted characters, and player would be able to feel real torture when having to choose between role playing and optimizing a character.

Of course, we can't see that in all of the games. We need every kind of game for everyone, but i would like to see this in the future. Maybe The Elder Scroll VI will have that, maybe it will be an indi game, i don't know but i'd like someone to try some day.

So here we are, i hope i didn't write too many stupid things or obvious statement. Maybe i am just too young in the business or just haven't been playing the right game, and again i would like to say again that i love Telltale, Bethesda and all of the games i have been talking about.

Sorry for the massive spoilers also, and i hope you enjoyed reading that article the same i enjoyed writing it :)

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