Moral Choices

May 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Like many games before it, the recently released ‘Infamous’ by Sucker Punch, developers of the Sly Cooper series of games, has moral choices. In a medium driven by interactivity and pining for a wider appreciation the inclusion of such a system should be applauded and praised, but instead it has been greeted with a nonchalant “meh” by gamers and critics alike.

They’re not wrong in doing so of course. Infamous’ system of morality is relegated to a mere side-show, and has no bearing at all on the game’s overall plot. One of the most common choices a player must make, between reviving or harvesting downed civilians is made with a single button press, and the result is to push you towards two polar opposite, yet equally rewarding extremes of ‘hero’ or ‘villain.’

The choice here is completely binary, but seeing as each choice is in theory equally rewarding this should prove to be an interesting moral dilemma. Except it isn’t of course because 95% of players will invariably always choose to be good if the rewards for being bad are just the same. There’s no moral choice here, just a sense for the player that they’re missing out on half of the experience.

It also doesn’t help that as with every game ever made to include moral choices it is blatantly obvious when such a choice is being made. This isn’t merely jarring in as aesthetic sense when big huge button prompts appear on screen, but also holds the game’s morality system back from achieving its full potential in that it announces exactly when you are being judged on your actions, and of course once you know that, you know your actions throughout the rest of the game will carry no moral consequence. Grand Theft Auto 4 did this, and it resulted in its handful of choice scenarios adding next to nothing to the game (the exception of course being when the choice was not whether to kill but who to kill).

Of course these choices could be done much more subtly. A game could choose to give you the option of going down one of two paths, but not tell you that you’re making such a choice. It could even give you the option not to kill certain individuals.

This highlights an interesting thought however, that all gamers would choose the path they’d be conditioned to choose through years of gaming so long as they were unaware that they had any other option. Every time you reach a level’s boss you kill it, because that’s what you do in every other game. When playing the Darkness the opposite happened to me, and I held off killing the final boss because I thought it was a moral choice scenario in which I should choose to resist the evil inside f me in order to reach a ‘good’ ending. Evidently no such ending existed, and I was eventually forced to kill him.

Another interesting point is that if the player or reviewer doesn’t know they’re making a moral choice, haw are they supposed to appreciate it? You could argue that this means the consequences of the choices need to be obvious to all but this brings us back to our core issue of subtlety.

Morality is never compelling if it’s as block and white as games so often make it out to be, but the dated systems developers hove been using for years will only ever allow it to work this way. Hopefully some day games will have moral choices that are included for reasons other than as extra bullet point on the back of the box. Until then we can continue to play as the ‘good’ guy in every game we play, and ask ourselves if choosing the evil path was ever really an option.

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