Morality systems have long been a debated issue in gaming. The idea of a developer choosing whether our actions in a game are morally good or bad is a flawed concept itself, as the idea of what is good or bad is highly subjective. Not to mention whether or not the means should justify the ends or whether or not being good is worth the inevitable hit on how much fun you’re having whilst playing.
This is the first of a two part series in which I’ll be discussing morality and karma in gaming. This part will focus on the systems themselves, and what exactly makes my character evil when he’s aiming towards a “good” goal. These articles may contain minor spoilers for missions in Dishonored, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the Mass Effect series and the inFAMOUS games, though each time a game is mentioned it will be in bold so you know it’s coming and can skip it if you wish. We’ll start things off by looking at the newest of the bunch, Dishonored.
Is killing people in Dishonored necessarily an evil action? Okay, all the guards are just doing their job, and though their job is to protect their corrupt higher-ups they are not fully aware of the corruption (as far as we know), so it could be argued that the necessity to use lethal force is not there when it comes to the guards. The corrupt higher-ups themselves, however, are a different story altogether, as are the ways of dealing with them.[drop]Let’s focus on the fifth mission in the game, the assassination of Lady Boyle. Lady Boyle is funding the Lord Regent’s army and, as such, is marked as your target. You must discover which of the Boyle sisters is your target, find out what she’s wearing so you can identify her and dispose of her either lethally or non-lethally.
It turns out Lady Boyle likes to sleep around a bit, so you can talk to her, get her to meet you in her room and stab her. Yup, you killed a woman. A corrupt woman who is funding the army of the man who had the Empress killed and framed you for it, sure, but you killed a woman.
Not too bad, right? Let’s look at the non-lethal option. A party-goer approaches you whilst you wander around the party and says he knows why you are there, though how he knows that is anyone’s guess. He says that he’s in love with Lady Boyle and pleads with you to not kill her. Instead, he says he will wait in the basement and, should you take Lady Boyle to him alive, will permanently take her out of your hair without killing her. You do this and he sails off in his creepy mask with the unconscious Lady Boyle at his feet after saying something about her having her whole life to learn to appreciate him. Even at your most optimistic it’s difficult to imagine that whatever he means is better than just killing her.
It’s worth remembering that that is the non-lethal (“good”) option for that mission. It’s completely fine that she’s likely going to live a very long, very unpleasant life just so long as Corvo doesn’t get any blood on his hands. Far be it from him to actually take care of something himself instead of pawning it off on someone else.
A lot of the non-lethal options for missions throughout Dishonored seem like they aren’t really any better, or may even be worse. Hell, one of them just has you interrogate an art dealer about the contents of his safe for the leader of a group of thugs in exchange for that leader having your target killed. That’s almost exactly the same but instead of killing someone, you torture and help rob someone else for a crime boss who leads a gang that likes to harass old women, and the target still dies. That’s murky at best.
Alright, so Dishonored really doesn’t try to indicate that what Corvo is doing is good other than the chaos rating you get at the end of each mission and having good and bad endings based on how you complete your objectives. So why is that chaos rating there? Is it a badly thought out morality system or is it a way to increase replayability? Why is there a “good” ending if the “good” options in the missions are very clearly not good? Dishonored’s characters are defined with different degrees of evil but the way in which it tracks them is a little too black and white.
The Mass Effect series approaches the issue in an artificially different way that manages to essentially be exactly the same. The game’s Paragon and Renegade labels are just euphemisms for good and evil, but are usually collected by doing things that don’t really make much sense. Sure, throwing a guy through a window or electrocuting him with his own tool might be a bit excessive, but considering that they’re all standing in the way of you accomplishing your goal – the defeat of an invading force that threatens the entire galaxy – it seems a bit unreasonable for it to ever be considered “bad”.
Mass Effect is like Dishonored but reversed; everything you do is a certain shade of good. Everything you come up against is only able to get in the way of you saving everyone, including those you’re fighting your way through.
However, is lying to my crew about the chances of our success really considered a good thing? I can’t help but feel my crew would appreciate honesty and candidness more than patronising reassurances, yet it’s considered a renegade action when I choose to be up front with them.[drop2]This system is only compounded by the dialogue system, where (especially in Mass Effect 2) the summary you chose isn’t really a good representation of what Shepard actually says, and the vague nature of an icon on screen telling you that you can do something but not necessarily telling you what it will be beyond renegade or paragon.
Again, this is a disconnect between what the developer thinks something is or means and what the player thinks. At one or two points in the series, Shepard literally punches out a female reporter if you opt to go for a renegade action whilst talking to her. I just thought he’d walk off mid-conversation or deliver a world-shaking put down but instead he knocks her out, one of the precious few acts you can do that is actually a bad thing rather than just a lesser (or debatably greater) shade of good.
An example of a game that almost seems unsure of what is good and what isn’t would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Throughout the game, if you opt to avoid killing people you will be awarded with more XP than a simple kill, because obviously that’s the good option when you’re fighting terrorists and bigots.
Of course this doesn’t apply to the bosses, you can murder them all you like. Mop the floor with their spine for all Eidos and Square Enix care, it’s only their soldiers that shouldn’t be harmed. Indeed, you are almost punished for choosing the no-kill route if you don’t already know to prepare for the bosses, as you’ll be needing a lethal weapon to take them out unless you’ve researched an exploit beforehand.
Finally we move onto inFAMOUS, one of those rare games where things you can do genuinely have the capacity to be downright evil and selfish without it being forced upon you. Whilst you are defending against gangs or huge monsters, making your end goal have at least a good tint to it, throughout the games you have the ability to utterly destroy everything.
You can recklessly disregard the immediate safety of everyone around you by simply killing them or just sacrificing their well-being so you are not inconvenienced. At the beginning of the first game you can steal a food drop for yourself which is suitably selfish for a bad character, or you can leave it for the general population. The idea that the ends could justify the means are offset by the fact that you’re perfectly capable of needlessly bad or selfish acts within the context of the game – particularly with the mentioned food drop as it happens before the main plotline starts. Sure, the game spells them out for the player like he’s an idiot, but I’m discussing the system not the way it’s delivered to you. However, the consequences of your actions are where the game (and most other games) fall down.
The reward system for your choice of alignment is flawed in all four of these games, whether it’s inFAMOUS modifying the powers you can get based on your alignment, Mass Effect making you look progressively more evil as you complete subjectively “bad” renegade actions, Deus Ex’s rewarding your non-lethal kills with more XP, or Dishonored’s “good” endings despite everything being various shades of evil. The effect of these actions on gameplay is far more important than the moral standing of your actions.
This is what we will be discussing in the second part of the series: the consequences of your actions and just why the way the player is rewarded or punished makes morality systems ultimately pointless.