Degrees of Evil Part 2: Reward & Punishment

In the first part of this series, here, we went through some of the flaws in morality systems in games. Namely, we discussed how the subjective nature of right and wrong makes it very difficult for a developer to create a system with which all players will agree.

This makes morality systems flawed by their very nature but the way in which they are implemented is perhaps the biggest problem. Gameplay will change around the decisions you make, usually resulting in some things being unavailable to you if you make certain choices. This ultimately renders the morality system pointless, as you’re more likely to make choices based on what your reward will be from that choice rather than whether it’s good or bad.

As ever, this article may contain (mostly gameplay) spoilers for Dishonored, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the inFAMOUS series and the Mass Effect series. The games will be in bold when they are mentioned so you can skip them if you want to avoid spoilers.

inFAMOUS is perhaps the most obvious example of this out of the four games. Depending on your alignment throughout the game, you will gain or lose access to different powers. For example, as evil Cole you’ll have access to the cluster upgrades for shock grenades. These do exactly what you might expect – they separate into other grenades that all then explode. This upgrade is exceptionally useful when fighting groups of enemies as it covers a large area with explosions. It also makes them very destructive, causing a lot of collateral damage to nearby civilians and vehicles. Compared to the upgrades for good Cole’s shock grenades, which simply increase damage, radius and restrains enemies, the cluster grenades are considerably more fun to play with.

[drop]Another useful power evil Cole possesses is bio leech, which will suck the life force from enemies and replenish some of Cole’s own. If you have a preference for one power over another, it’s likely you’ll choose your alignment based on that. You could argue that it makes sense that evil Cole has bio leech and abilities that cause destruction on a wider scale, but from a gameplay perspective it serves only to limit the player to choosing the abilities he wants rather than making actual moral choices.

The results of choosing a path are less obvious in the other three games, however. Deus Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t change what’s available to you whilst playing like inFAMOUS does, but instead rewards you with more XP for every non-lethal takedown. So to unlock abilities quicker, the optimal way would be to avoid killing people altogether. I’m more likely to be playing non-lethally purely due to the fact that the game rewards me more for doing so. If I choose to play lethally due to having no qualms with shooting groups of pixels in the head then I am effectively being punished by the game with a slower character progression. Morality doesn’t necessarily come into my decision at all as I’m being hamstrung if I choose the wrong way.

Even less obvious than Deus Ex: HR is Dishonored‘s system. It doesn’t explicitly change anything between the two approaches but rather the gameplay suffers when choosing non-lethal over lethal. A huge part of Dishonored is the emergent gameplay through the powers the game gives you to play with. There are countless ways to combine powers and that experimentation is where a lot of the enjoyment of the game comes from. Waiting for an enemy to shoot, stopping time, then possessing the enemy and moving him into the way of his own bullet doesn’t really get old. The wealth of combinations you can use dwindles, however, when you are unwilling to actually kill guards.

There are even a few powers that are completely useless when playing through without killing – Shadow Kill, which makes enemies turn to ash when you kill them thus disposing of the body, and Blood Thirsty, which causes adrenaline to build up when fighting, allowing the execution of brutal finishing moves. Devouring Swarm could be useful in order to summon a rat to possess, but you’d have to be careful not to do it near a guard or they’ll eat him, and Windblast might have some utility provided you’re careful not to throw any guards off anything high.

The other powers have plenty of non-lethal utility but you undeniably have fewer options to get through. Then there’s the knife that will be on screen throughout the game – it has absolutely no use for a non-lethal playthrough, but you can’t unequip it in favour of having a power in each hand. It’s just there, doing nothing; a steadfast reminder that your options are limited. Then there’s the storyline changes, mostly with how a few people react to you and the way Emily’s character changes based on how you are playing, plus her drawing of you. If you kill everyone you come across, she’ll draw Corvo with the mask on, because that is how she sees him, whereas she will draw him mask off if your chaos rating is low enough.

This is similar to the way Mass Effect changes based on how you play. It limits your choice of things to say in conversations and strictly choosing a side will affect Shepard’s relationships with characters. Shepard will also look more evil as you amass renegade points, with a medi-bay upgrade letting you remove the effect at a cost. The main thing here is the limiting of conversational options, which can affect how the storyline progresses or how missions play out but does not affect gameplay itself. I like this as it seems to make sense that your alignment would affect how events progress rather than the skills you can use. Instead of changing gameplay, it changes the storyline, ensuring that there is no hit on gameplay depending on which side you choose.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from playing neutrally, choosing whatever you think fits the situation better, but none of these games seem to do particularly well at coping with that. The dialogue options in the Mass Effect games affect how missions play out and if you’re playing a mixture of both good and bad you won’t have access to either option. In Dishonored, Emily must draw one picture or the other, so your neutral playthrough will still be distilled down to either “good” or “bad”. inFAMOUS only unlocks powers when you reach a certain threshold of karma towards the correct alignment, so if you play neutral and stay in the middle you simply won’t get those upgrades. Deus Ex HR may cope best with playing neutrally as skills don’t unlock based on alignment and the storyline isn’t really affected, but you’ll still earn less XP for every person you kill instead of knock out so you’ll earn less overall XP throughout the game.

[drop2]So can a morality system be done well? I’m personally partial to Mass Effect’s approach of your decisions affecting only how the story progresses and how missions play out, leaving available skills and abilities untouched. It still affects the game in a meaningful way without resulting in a negative hit on gameplay options, ensuring fun is still had whilst your decisions still have effects. Locking you out of the better options in dialogue (and therefore in missions) based on a karma score, though, is still detrimental to the game. I’m not renegade enough to say these words instead of these ones? I can’t choose either option because I’m playing a neutral character? Neither of these questions should apply and Mass Effect is subject to both.

Decisions affecting the storyline can still be gamed to achieve the ending or mission result you desire but perhaps that can’t really be avoided in a game. The way to accomplish that would be decisions to have no effect whatsoever, for a decision to have no consequence to either gameplay or storyline, resulting in a decision that is entirely impartial and affected only by your own preference. In what is perhaps an unexpected turn, the civilians in Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian could, in fact, be the ultimate moral choice in this respect. You don’t have to shoot them but there’s no punishment for doing so either. And this moral choice could only be so effective because of the lack of a morality system in the game.

If a karma system is possible without punishing the player for not choosing the right side, or even for not choosing a side at all, then we are still yet to see it. The formulation of such a system would require the kind of planning that would have to be present within every aspect of the game, a system that changes the game without being detrimental to the experience in either decision, as well as ensuring that every decision is objectively good or bad – I don’t want to choose what I believe is the right option only to discover that the game considers it to be the “renegade” option. That’s a difficult thing to achieve.



  1. It’s a shame that you didn’t touch on Walking Dead (game) as the entire thing has you influencing things (or not), as the case may be. Hannypoppie, in all her bountiful joy, tried to be the happy-go-lucky protagonist and always chose the least harmful thing to say or do. However, at a few key points I’d say “play the character, Han” and you could see her struggling with the whole bad-ass approach. Also, there were times when you were simply choosing the lesser of two evils and the shit had hit the fan no matter what. For me, this was great writing and I’d love to see these things fleshed out into full price games of the £35+ variety. With Walking Dead you can see some of the brave decisions they’ve taken where a character-driven game has some real “oh god, no… did he just?… No!” moments.

    As bitter as those junctures were, you knew it made for a better game.

    With inFamous, I just found it a nice change and an excuse to try out the dark side, as it were. Although, I have to profess to smiling when playing a bad-karma approach and having the general public throwing stones at me as I passed with my red-crackling reputation proceeding me.

    • I haven’t played the Walking Dead unfortunately so I couldn’t include it. I do hear good things though.

      • Seeing what you review, I think you really might like it. Definitely worth a few pound for an episode on Steam, fella. :-)

      • Or the consoles… or iDevices… or a Mac. They’ve rolled it out nearly everywhere.

      • Yeah, I am planning on trying it at some point when I can get it. Preferably on console, though.

  2. `I would have liked to have seen some sort of morailty system in Skyrim, even if it was just clone of the Karma system from Fallout. While you can get arrested I didn’t feel that choices had enough consequence in the game. I feel that if I joined the Dark Brotherhood or Thieves Guild then I should have been shunned by The Companions or the College of Magic but the fact that you can join every group in the game without anyone caring made me feel like the different factions existed in a vacuum from each other.

    • The problem with that is it locks out content from that character. I want to do all those things with one character as starting another character is a bit tedious, so having that kind of consequence would affect the experience negatively.

      • I can appreciate that but at the same time, If a huge chunk of a game was only available if you chose one path and another huge chunk was available if you chose another then it wouldn’t be tedious because a second play through with good or bad choices would be different experiences.

        Infamous is mentioned in the artice and I played through Infamous 2 recently both as a good guy and as a bad guy and it was almost like a different game so each playthrough didn’t feel like the it was tedious or repetetive.

      • That seems to be the main reason for morality systems – rather than something that makes the player think and adds depth to the game they’re used to add replayability by just having a few different paths to go down.

        I like the idea, but I would prefer more than the kind of binary system in inFAMOUS/2 as it comes off as a little shallow and artificial, especially since the choices are sign-posted so clearly.

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