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Morality Systems in Video games, a flawed design.

A look at three morality systems in video games and how each one works on the player, or more likely fails to get the desired reaction.

King Link, Blogger

May 18, 2020

19 Min Read

The following is adapted from a Youtube script, which is also provided for those who wish to see it in that format.

Today I wanted to discuss morality systems, and how they fail harm how a player interacts with a game, we'll look at a few games to attempt to examine what they do with morality system and how players will utilize those systems.  I’m going to be talking about the original Mass Effect trilogy by Bioware, which will effectively represent much of Bioware’s earlier games here, Fable by Lionhead Studios, and Catherine by Sega.  I’ll be putting up chapters for each.

So let’s get started, and we’re going to start with the big game that people think about when we talk about player choice or morality systems. Mass Effect.  Bioware as a whole was known for their morality systems dating back to Knights of the Old Republic. While I probably should focus the video on Knights of the Old Republic, I’m holding off on that because the morality system there is based on the source material, that little movie named Star Wars.   So instead I’ll be touching on the first three Mass Effect games.

In Mass Effect, Bioware pushed a strong narrative with the ability to be anything from the pure hero of Luke Skywalker to the loveable rogue of Han Solo.  Wait a second,  I did say I was doing Mass Effect instead of Star Wars, right?  

Those are the two choices in the game, you have the paragon of good which is a proud Jedi, and the renegade in Mass Effect being closer to Han Solo.  Just to make it clear, Han isn’t evil which is important, but he’s a far more chaotic person than Luke ever was, and that’s what Mass Effect aimed for, a darker character, but not necessarily a villain, Both Luke and Han earned medals at the end of the first move, hell, only Chewie didn’t.  Instead of the normal good vs evil scale, Mass Effect focuses more on this idea that can be summarized as the Dungeon & Dragons trope of Lawful Good vs a more Neutral Good.

Mass Effect is an old series, I originally played this game at launch in 2007, and still have my save games, thank god because replaying these games would take a very long time.  Bioware has changed quite a bit over the years, but I still think the original Mass Effect trilogy is interesting, if flawed, and not in the way you’re thinking. Don’t worry, I will talk a bit about that.  The dialogue choices in Mass Effect are fantastic as is much of the story.  You get the feeling you can say what you want with a number of these choices.  You will eventually have to choose from one of up to three choices on the right side in most situations, and the game isn’t exactly clever about this.  The top choice is Paragon, the middle choice is neutral and the bottom choice is Renegade.   This is a flaw, but there’s a choice that works for the middle of the road that players can choose usually if they don’t want to be a paragon of good or a right bastard.

Let’s just get into the big problem with the Mass Effect’s system.  It’s that morality system.  Most of the important dialogue in each of the original three Mass Effect games put the player on a morality scale and that scale is a major gameplay element of the Mass Effect games.   Each game does treat it a bit differently.  I’ll just quickly sum them up because they also show the evolution of the idea.

The first Mass Effect gives you skills that should be seen on the screen, that expand when you reach certain levels of Paragon or Renegade points.  If the player earns something like 75 percent, they also get an achievement, if they earn 80 percent they get a special mission.  This is… ok.   

Honestly, this is just a system ripped off from Knights of the Old Republic, you get abilities as you gain light or dark side points.  Here those abilities are just for dialogue and I get that this is an evolution of that system, but unless you go heavily into either Paragon or Renegade you lose some dialogue ability, so early on almost every player will choose either Paragon or Renegade path.   That’s how this system works and it’s a big problem.  There’s no benefit from any real form of roleplay, you get what you asked for, and trying to play both sides is a weaker experience. 

Mass Effect 2 evolved these rules, The player no longer gets abilities based on their reputation, they now get locked dialogue choices.  If you aren’t enough of a badass you can’t say the sassy line.  This is…. essentially the same problem, in a different coat of paint.  In Mass Effect 1, if you’re not 60 percent or more Paragon, you can’t level up your charm ability.  In Mass Effect 2, if you do not have 60 percent of all the paragon points you can obtain, you can’t say a similar line.  It’s the same result for a slightly different reason.  This is a coat of paint on the same issues as the original game.

There is a change here where the system now looks at what percent of all the points you have earned were Paragon or Renegade along with a look at possible points, but once again there's no reason to play the middle of the road choices.   There’s also an interrupt system here that works but because these are all possible points, so you’re going to have to use them to maximize your choices. 

Before we move on, let’s focus here.  The middle of the road becomes a worthless pick especially in Mass Effect 2 because players are forced to specialize in Paragon or Renegade points for optimal dialog choices.  If you are a player that didn’t side heavily with either Paragon or Renegade, that would be acceptable but realize you’re the oddity.  I also will tip my hat to someone who avoids the allure of a stronger verbal character to roleplay a more interesting character, but that’s not me or most players. 

A designer from Bioware said 92 percent of all players chose Paragon first in Mass Effect.   This is far higher than I would ever have imagined, in Mass Effect 2 only 35 percent of players chose the final Renegade choice, granted this is a single choice at the end of the game, but shows that players were heavily favoring Paragon choices.  This is interesting data, but as a designer, the first piece shows a major problem with the game's design, because now the designers have hard data that most players are choosing the Paragon side.   So what would you do? 

I applaud Bioware, what I would expect a developer to do if 92 percent of their audience chooses one side of a moral choice is to focus a majority or even all your resources on that path.  Why have a Renegade path if it’s over 10 times as many people play the other path first?   That’s not what Bioware did, instead… well, it messed up the Morality system. 

The quick version of Mass Effect 3 is Morality almost doesn’t matter.  It no longer matters if you choose a Paragon or Renegade choice, both of them give you reputation, and that reputation is actually what will matter when the dialogue choices pop up.  Have enough combined reputation of both types?  You can use the sassy line.  

This is a better situation, right?  Yes and no.  There is still an issue here.  What’s missing from this?  That’s right.  The morally grey area of the game is gone in Mass Effect 3.  You’re going to be the hero, so you can say “I’ll save you all.” or “You better pay me after I’m done.” but both give you the same karmic reward.  The choice barely matters, but you should never say anything other than the Paragon or Renegade choices.  Otherwise, you appear not to get the reputation points which is what matters, so you will feel the need to use every interrupt to get all those reputation points and choose one of the two paths to get into every story so you can get those little points. 

The problem here is the morality system stops being a deciding faction for your character which is a huge improvement but still has the same issue of being mandatory in a third coat of paint on a similar issue.  I understand why, Mass Effect 3 was a trilogy.  I will heavily praise Bioware for making this choice to step away from the previous system and offer a new reputation system in each of the three games.  It shows they were committed to trying to fix the issues they had.  

The final version allows players to make their best decision for their character.  Though… they did add in the War Resource system which has very similar issues to the Karma system, though I’ve already spent enough time on Mass Effect so just repeat much of the same complaints, players will min/max that, potentially requiring those level of micromanagement for the best endings.

And speaking of that, before we leave Mass Effect I’m going to tackle one other topic.  I’ve been harsh, but I’m going to defend Mass Effect 3’s big issue.  Everyone gets mad at the end of the original version of Mass Effect 3 and you are fully within your rights to make those cases. I strongly agree with many of those opinions.  But since we’re talking about player’s choice, I want to point out a misconception people have.  Bioware said every choice you make will matter to the ending of the trilogy or something like that, I’m paraphrasing.

I think these complaints miss the forest for the tree, and yes, the ending of Mass Effect 3 is only one tree of a large forest.  Mass Effect 3 is one of the most impressive games I ever played for one reason.  I felt like I got a handcrafted story that was unique.  This isn’t true, there are only eight critical choices called out, and then your romance option, though there are closer to twenty to thirty smaller choices that aren’t called out that matter as you import your save file to Mass Effect 3.  In just the eight named choices if they were just binary, that is close to 256 possible entry points for critical choices and far more outside of them.  Granted with the Paragon and Renegade routes most players will have a near similar experience to one of the two main paths, but the point is, there is a difference. 

Note if you don’t import your game in some manner on Mass Effect,  you are missing out a lot in this trilogy.  That sucked for Playstation 3 fans because they got Mass Effect 1 six months after the release of Mass Effect 3, so only then did they get to experience the real Mass Effect Trilogy, but you can see that  some of these choices on the screen would be major. 

The thing is many choices you’ve made in both Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 matter in Mass Effect 3, just to give one of the earliest examples in Mass Effect 3, you’ll team up with a team member from the first Mass Effect game, and players will have made a choice who survives to this point.  Personally, I have Ashley Williams here. 

Throughout Mass Effect 3, I got a little teary-eyed because I got to see old friends again.  Players will have built up relationships with many characters in the third game which is awesome.  Now all three endings of Mass Effect 3 can be reached pretty much no matter how you enter the game, but I’ve heard that complaint from fans, that the actual ending doesn’t change. 

But hold up, if you want that, what you’re actively saying is you want the ending of Mass Effect 3 not to be based on what you do in a twenty-hour game, but what you do over about sixty total hours across three games.  Imagine if you imported a save that was impossible to get the best ending, the ending you wanted, or potentially the canonical ending.  Now you would have to go back and replay potentially three games to get the best ending and if you didn’t spoil yourself so you could fully enjoy the story, you already have completed each of the three games at least once, a feat of at least sixty hours.

I’m perfectly fine with how Bioware did the endings, but the cutscenes and the endings themselves should have been done better at launch.  That was unforgivable.

So that’s a deep dive in the original Mass Effect trilogy, I know it’s a lot but I wanted to show not only the issues with the morality systems but how Bioware evolved these systems throughout three games. Yet, it is not the only karma system we’ve ever had.  Let’s move on to another game.

This is Fable.  We’re going to bypass the acorn growing into a tree debate,  I could probably do a whole video on Molyneux and his habit of misspeaking about a feature before it’s in a game, but that’s for another time.

Fable, of course, has a morality system.  It’s not even as unique as Mass Effect as it’s simple Good vs Evil, and this isn’t even a “You’re a good person” or “You’re a rogue.”  In Fable you are given pretty weak versions of morality where you get the choices of do you want to save a kitten or burn the tree the kitten is in down to the ground.  It’s not that blatant but at times it is. 

Here you have the noblest of knights, even having a halo over his head.  Well, we’re going to mess with that good karma.   Let’s start by sacrificing a peasant to a cult.  This isn’t a specific NPC, I went to a nearby area, invited him to follow me to lead him here.   And what’s the final score? Not a big change so, let’s get to the bad part of Fable first.  Morality is subjective. 

So a quick backstory for our main character.  Your character grew up in a town called Oakville, something happened and about 2 hours into the game you come back to Oakville, this is your childhood home and you run into someone you grew up alongside.   Basically, you left the village when everyone was murdered.  Ok…

So I’m almost fully positively aligned right now, thus the halo and all.  And then one very long day happens where I slaughter the entire town.  As you kill people their houses become available to buy along with shops, kind of a funny little twist. I recreated the horrific opening scene and straight-up murdered everyone in this village to prove I could.  The guards respawn, the citizens are dead though.  And my karma is only half-way to the middle.  Realize that anything over the middle line is considered positive.  So slaughtering an entire village doesn’t create a full fall from grace, but rather a small step down.  Apparently, I was very good in a previous life. 

So the fact is, Fable is a little unrealistic about this whole Karma thing, and as a series, it really tried to present interesting looks at morality, but often it’s quite laughable.  While some small pieces of the game or achievements will be based on morality, the reason I bring it up is I think Fable does better with morality than Mass Effect.  

Yes, I’m saying that Lionhead Studios did something better than Bioware.  You see, that little halo is most of what you get from your Good vs Evil scale.  If you go evil, you grow demon horns.  As a hero, people might love you and there are some demon doors or pieces of the game that matter to morality but a large part of the game is choosing your morality, not necessarily modifying it to achieve some goal. 

That’s a nice difference and when I look at both systems.  I’m sorry Bioware, Lionhead Studios did better with this.  Don’t get me wrong, Mass Effect is a far better game, the writing and looks at morality is better, but for the experience, Lionhead Studios’ morality system is more interesting because it doesn’t get in the way of your gameplay or game experience.

.But what’s even more insane. After slaughtering the ENTIRE village, the bounty on the players wears off in about 10 minutes.    As I said, morality isn’t the strong point, but the use of that morality is better, and even more diverse in the sequels. 

So let’s see if anyone can do morality right.  The fact is, I think there is a game that has an interesting take on it. Here we have Catherine.  A game about a man wearing boxers, doing a 3d sliding block puzzle.  I’m not sure the gameplay tells you how this game is related to the topic.

Catherine is one of the most insane games I’ve played and has a great story dealing with morality, cheating, love, and more.  Currently, we’re waking up from the second level where we find Catherine with a C in your bed, this is a random girl who we don’t remember from before this point.  Of course, by sleeping with Catherine with a C, we have cheated on Katherine with a K.  Confused?  Yeah, that’s intentional, and as I said this game is insane.  We won’t even go into the updated version which adds in a third character named Rin as in another Katherine, but you get the point. 

If you’re interested in this game, let me give you the same advice someone gave me, don’t look up any guide about the morality system here.   Don’t worry, I’m only going to outline the system here, spoil what the choices amount to, but not talk about individual pieces.

Unlike Bioware, Catherine won’t assist the player when you’re presented with two options the game doesn’t even tell you what the scale means, and I’ll avoid discussing that as the game treats this as  a hidden theme of the entire narrative.  Players will try to puzzle out which choice goes to which side, and this is intentional.  Without reading a guide, you can’t min/max the morality in Catherine, nor should you, and that’s actually what I like here.  It’s also not necessary.  The bar in the game will continually move along the mystery meter which is what the game calls it.

Let me quickly without spoilers explain what the bar is for.  The bar is one of the major factors between the original Catherine’s 8 endings or Catherine: Full Body’s 13 endings.  

And the reason you shouldn’t look up spoilers is that if you play this completely truthfully you’ll get a custom experience where you are answering meaningful questions about yourself which results in you getting an ending specifically tailored to you.   Even better, the game constantly asks you questions about yourself such as:  Would you live with someone you aren’t married to?  These can be personal questions if you want them to be.

There was a point in my first run many years ago where I tried to answer a question how I thought the game would expect me to answer it so I could move the bar towards the goal I had, which was Catherine with a C, because honestly when I was closer to 20 that’s where my tastes went.  I was wrong, the bar moved the opposite way.   The meter here actually changes based on all actions that the player takes, not just the decisions in the confessionals as well.  

Like I said, play this blind if it’s your first time because Catherine’s morality system is well done.  It’s tracking your choices on the scale, but it’s not necessarily judging you, more just stating where you stand. This only affects the ending of the game and a few internal dialogues of our main character, though while replaying I question how much those dialogues change.   This is directly compared to where I felt the need to min/max the meter in Mass Effect to get the best results, and I struggled to do anything that evil in Fable. 

Catherine instead wants to talk about your morality, or ethics when looking at the scale.  If you let it, your choices define these values instead of the actions of the character you are portraying and it asks you questions rather than tells you to act out a morality play to judge you on, at least in theory.  

Overall I think Catherine has done this the best because the scale has no relationship with the gameplay, the choices will affect the story in minor ways, but also make you think about your choices at a deeper level.  Where Fable and Mass Effect makes the player feel like he’s attempting to manipulate a gameplay system for his benefit, Catherine is an examination of the topics and themes of the game, rather than an attempt to create some artificial construct. 

Yet, Catherine falls into the same problem as all three games have.  They’ve made morality into a binary choice, and while it does introduce a third state, similar to a single scale in Dungeons and Dragons, giving a neutral option, it’s just a three-state choice instead of two.  While this is done better, it’s not done well. 

I’m going to stop here for now.  I could go into more, such as Dishonored that tries to make the Chaos system, Dishonored’s form of morality into a gameplay system but we’ll arrive at the same point, binary systems that only affect a handful of custom pieces of the experience.  In Dishonored's case, while relatively minor changes happen over the game, it’s only really going to impact the final level. 

So let’s get to the conclusion here, morality systems or karma systems are fundamentally flawed.  If you give it too much power such as in Mass Effect, you force players to interact with it in pseudo-scripted ways.  If you give too little power, such as Fable, it becomes a cosmetic system, and while Catherine does a great job with it, it doesn’t feel like something that would work in a different story or game than Catherine.  So ultimately it’s a problem. 

However, getting a player's choice into your game is important, so I’ve decided to do something different with this topic. Next week I’ll be returning to discuss “Player Choice” further and see what can be done to create meaningful choices, systems, and expectations.  If Mass Effect is popular, well I’m going to talk about a game even bigger than that which has a better decision system.

If you enjoyed my blog post, consider watching and subscribing to my youtube channel while I discuss topics like this when I can, or letting me know on Gamasutra.  Feel free to leave feedback as you see fit, or your thoughts on the topic of morality systems in Video games. 

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