A lot of games in recent years have been tracking the player's morality. There are many examples of games that let you play as either a good guy or a bad guy, such as Fallout 3, Fable, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, with some of them even letting you play a neutral character. It seems like a good way for game designers to add variety and replayability to their games. However, do these games really portray morality accurately, or does it become just another stat to raise in order to make things happen?
To examine this, I'd like to use Fallout 3 as an example. Fallout 3 is one of my favorite games. An expansive game world, many things to do and excellent modding potential all make it a game that is worth the many hours of time I've spent playing it. However, we aren't here to talk about how much fun this game is, rather we are here to talk about how the game treat morality.
Fallout 3 uses a karma system in a manner similar to that of the other Fallout games. Do good deeds and you gain karma, but do bad deeds, and you lose karma. Sounds pretty simple. Many of the things you gain and lose karma for make sense. If you help people out of kindness rather than for profit, you get good karma. You steal things, you lose karma, but if you murder people, you lose even more karma.
However, there are several things that make this system fall apart. One of them is the presence of water beggars. There are several NPCs in the Capital Wasteland that you can give Purified Water to. In exchange for that, you gain karma. However, you can do this as much as you want. You could be the most evil individual who normally leaves settlements as a pile of corpses, but if you pay enough in Purified Water, you're suddenly Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi rolled in one. It's a bit jarring to hear Three Dog condemn you as the scourge of humanity one second and then, after one play of "Butcher Pete" and 20 purified waters later, praise you as the Messiah of the Wasteland.
Instant Sainthood, just add Water Beggar
Another thing that bugs me about the karma system is the fact that it tries to dictate what actions are morally right and what actions are morally wrong, leaving little room for meaningful player interpretation. One particular situation that bugs me is how the karma system treats two similar but different quests. In one quest, you are collecting Nuka-Cola Quantum for a Nuka-Cola maniac named Sierra Petrovita in a place called Girdershade. However, after you retrieve the quest, a man named Ronald Laren approaches you and offers to pay you to give the bottles to him instead, which he intends to give to her so that he can impress her and eventually have sex with her. The game treats this as an evil karmic action supposedly for his sleazy intentions, despite the fact that, since he and Sierra are the only two people in the settlement, he could easily have his way with her and no one would be able to stop him, rather than letting her agree to have sex with him. Although he certainly is no saint, I wouldn't call his actions evil at all.
Moving over to Rivet City, there are two other people, Angela Staley and Diego. Angela is in love with Diego. Although Diego does care about Angela, he does not wish to pursue a relationship with her because he intends to become a priest one day. However, rather than respect his decision, she asks the player character to give her some ant queen pheromones in order to seduce him and override his inhibitions. Despite this, giving her the pheromones results in positive karma. So what the game is trying to state is that a guy trying to persuade a girl to have sex with him, I'm supposed to believe it is wrong, but a girl drugging a guy against his will so she can have her way with him is somehow morally correct. Unfortunately, I strongly disagree with this game's view of the morality of those actions.
That's the prime spot where the karma system fails in terms of judging a player's morality, because quite frankly, morality is subjective. Everyone has an interpretation about a character's personality, actions and other aspects, including the authors. A good story will allow the reader to form his/her own conclusions concerning the morality of character's actions. The problem with using a quantifiable way of measuring morality in games is that it pretty much enforces the developer's interpretations only. Even if you don't believe that action was good, if you gain good karma points for it, then according to the game, it's a good action, no ifs, ands or buts.
On another note, in many of these games, I tend to do good playthroughs. The main reason for this is that, to me, I enjoy being a good guy and helping people even though it feels like sometimes, I'm doing good actions for the sole purpose of getting a better item, advantage or raising the karma meter. Another reason for this is that, in a lot of these games, the evil playthrough goes on the same path as the good playthrough, just with more puppies kicked along the way. Sadly, the best way to be evil in many of these games is to go out of your way to be as much of an evil jerkwad as possible such as by slaughtering townsfolk for sport and stealing items, even if the only benefit it gives you is minor loot and evil karma points. Although these games, including Fallout 3, do have several evil sidequests, for the most part, you are following much of the same path as a villain that you do as a hero. Even as a primarily heroic player, I still think it would have been nice to allow players to join up with the Enclave in Fallout 3 or the Mythic Dawn in Oblivion (technically, you can join them, but you can only stay with them as long as you put the Main Quest on hold after you do. Otherwise, you have to betray them to continue).
We must kick more puppies and tie more women to railroad tracks! Those evil karma points aren't going to earn themselves!
I still believe that tracking the morality of a player's deeds has a place in videogames. Rather than being based of what would be considered moral in the real world, these systems should instead focus on what is considered morally acceptable in the context of the game's world. These systems should act more as a way to track the reputation of the player character rather than his/her actual morality. This allows not only for the player's choices to impact the game world and how other characters see him/her, but also leaves the character's morality open to interpretation for the player.