Game Set Watch’s Eric Caolli has written a very insightful piece on morality in games—or, rather, the lack thereof. How does a game designer make moral decisions meaningful when restarting or reloading take only the push of a button? Through Christine Love’s Don’t Take It Personally Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story, Caolli explores the difficulty of making morality effective in a videogame, touching on issues of narrative, agency and linearity—oft contentious elements in game design:
I don’t believe that being able to save and reload invalidates the meaning of a choice any more than knowing that at the end of Hamlet, (spoilers) everyone dies horribly. We feel ruining the surprise lessens the impact in the same way that, perhaps, knowing there is a way to save Mass Effect’s Wrex might lessen the tragedy of his death.
Yet Wrex isn’t real anyway. If one truly feels a sense of loss when he dies, I’m not sure how a playthrough in which he survives invalidates that feeling. Wrex’s death was always a fiction, a lie. The player’s reaction, in fact, is the only real thing.
While we don’t have a long history of choice-enabled storytelling, the secret to getting players to care about what is going on in a fictional universe is nothing new. It is as simple and complicated as getting players to care about the characters and situations at stake. Choices don’t matter if what’s at stake is meaningless, no matter how irreversible they are.