It is a common trend in video games that player characters tend to change with their alignment. In Fable an evil character will grow horns and turn red, in Mass Effect your face develops red cracks, and a Sith in Knights of the Old Republic becomes pale with dark veins all around their face. I have discussed morality systems in games before, in my Degrees of Evil (1 & 2) feature that focused on the moral choices themselves, but this feature is more about how it affects the game world, the player character, and how these effects could be improved.
Batman may say that it’s your actions that define who you are, but I’m yet to see someone push someone over and sprout horns from their forehead – although I live in hope. You could argue that it’s to reflect who your character is, but to me it feels like it’s a shallow mechanic that’s implemented to try and add meaning to a morality system that, usually, doesn’t really affect that much. Or perhaps it’s to reflect who your character “is”, but even that feels shallow as that change in appearance doesn’t generally change much else and sometimes isn’t even mentioned.
In the Fable series, your character can range from some guy/gal to a satyr, depending on your alignment. The logical thing to do with that would have it range from angelic to demonic rather than clean to demonic, but that would still be just as shallow. All evil people are ugly? Are all good guys clean and well dressed? It’s a dull way to represent your alignment that doesn’t make that much sense even in the game world. Someone who looks like Satan walks by and nobody goes running or really reacts beyond a mention, or applause.
Fable does try to add further depth but it mostly consists of basic, emote-style reactions as you pass by. As a notably evil person who has killed literally hundreds of enemies, I would expect people to be obviously scared, fleeing, shouting, or even attacking me, just something. Instead they mostly ignore the clearly evil mass murdering monster with the giant sword, or they applaud the hero and then go on with their lives as if the saviour of the world isn’t among them.
Commander Shepard, saviour of the universe and all that, isn’t at any point referred to a dermatologist by the Normandy’s medical officer due to his severe skin condition. Mass Effect does actually go into further depth with conversations that have Paragon and Renegade options in the first game and similarly defined actions that are available during conversations in the following two installments. Your choices also affect the course of the story, as well as the options that are available to you later on.
These are good ways of having the morality system affect a game. It has meaning and results that affect the rest of the game and even the whole series. So it feels all the more silly that Shepard’s face looks like a magma golem’s arse. Perhaps the only good thing about Shepard’s fissured face is the ability to upgrade the medical wing of the Normandy to remove the scarring, an action that could be considered something an evil person might do to satisfy their vanity.
A recent game that I feel did morality quite well was inFAMOUS Second Son. Contrary to previous games in the series, Delsin Rowe’s appearance does not change to reflect his alignment, but rather the storyline and available upgrades change significantly. The story shifts based on the moral choices you make, whether it’s simply the dialogue in cutscenes to the different endings, and though giving different alignments access to different upgrades may lock a character out of some powers, it makes sense that evil Delsin has more destructive and murderous upgrades while good Delsin has upgrades tailored to healing himself and quickly restraining enemies.
If you really think about it, there is no reason why Delsin wouldn’t want to heal when using vents with the smoke power regardless of his morals, nor would good Delsin not find use for powers that deal additional destruction when he’s fighting large groups of openly hostile enemies. It’s not a perfect system, but it can at least be explained away by saying that Delsin’s powers evolved based on how he used them in-lore, hence the good/evil restrictions. Whereas silly-crack-face up there doesn’t make any sense in Mass Effect’s game world at all.
Dishonored’s morality system is flawed as discussed in Degrees of Evil, but it certainly has its moments. The element here that I think works is simply that it isn’t called good or bad. It’s chaos, and killing lots of people, triggering alarms, and various other non-stealthy activities will increase the chaos rating you receive at the end. While this is used to limit how you can play the game, the step away from the good and evil labels are certainly a big leap towards a better morality system.
Black and White, the PC god game from Lionhead, handled morality quite differently, for the most part. You begin by choosing a giant creature that will grow and evolve as you progress through the game. While your choices affect the look of your buildings, they also slowly come to train your creature.
Your creature will begin to learn your behaviour and what you end up with is a decent reflection of how you, as a player, have played the game. If you tormented villagers, threw them around and cast a lot of offensive spells, your pet will do the same, whereas if you cast positive or defensive spells a lot and look after your villagers, he will imitate that instead. The villagers will also respond to your creature. If your creature grows up to be a bit of a bastard, villagers will be scared of it, but they will happily play games and frolic with a friendly one.
This game and Dishonored have a common point – it’s not defined as evil or good, it’s just different actions that lead to different results. Torment villagers or murder every guard you see and you will see effects that make sense in the context of the game. It makes sense for NPCs to find Corvo distasteful if he goes on a killing spree everywhere he visits, and it makes sense for all those tiny villagers to be afraid of you and/or your creature if it keeps throwing fireballs at them to crisp them up before meal time.
Games that try distancing themselves from good and evil labels and the integration of results of your actions into the plot of the game results in a more interesting and immersive game world. I should be making decisions not based on what powers it will give me later or what it will do to my appearance, but entirely based on the virtues of a particular choice and what it means in the world and its storyline. This is the choice system that matters and truly enhances a game.
It seems to me that in the end the best morality system is actually no actual system at all, just choices to make and results to live with afterwards.