11.28.12

Why do games have morality systems at all?

A short think piece on Binary Revolver today calls for the end to morality systems in games:

The morality system in Dishonored diminishes the game. It breaks the core mechanics into two separate pieces, choosing to boost replay value over creating one fluid experience. This made the game’s entire combat system redundant. Emphasising stealth reduced the game to two buttons, Blink-Choke-Repeat. The simplest, most effective way to complete stealth playthroughs. The game then rewarded you for being stealthy and non lethal, in doing so it rewards you for not fleshing out its own mechanics, for ignoring an entire portion of its gameplay and refraining from using the combat at all.

A game's reward system ought not contradict its gameplay; fair enough. But this got me thinking: why do we have morality meters in games at all? It seems to me these systems originally developed for two reasons. The first is thematic: Star Wars games (KOTOR and Jedi Knight 2) built binary moral systems into their games because the Star War series has a literally bipolar moral universe. You can't understate the significance of the fact that "morality systems" in games arise from the Star Wars universe. The second reason, it seems to me, emerged from the first: Bioware realized with KOTOR that the moral system lent itself to narrative diversity (choose choice combination X, get plot combination X). 

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What this means to me is that most morality systems in games are not "moral" at all, but practical. You could argue that Bioshock is an exception, but it famously doesn't punish the player for making the harder, "moral" choice. It serves a narrative - a practical - function even as it claims a moral effect. Morality systems may, in part, represent something like a nascent critique of the designer-player relationship, but this is far from their main purpose. 

That's why Rockstar's accomplishment with Grand Theft Auto IV still towers. There was no morality "system", no branching tree of good and bad, just a character - Niko - so developed and so identifiable that many players did not want do any more bad with him than they had to. The game establishes a moral dynamic fluidly, without announcing it.

The best argument I can make for the moral system in Bioshock is that it thematically suits the Manichean moral universe of the game. But most games don't deal with these themes, and I'd hope that as games mature as a form, developers will realize that the branching morality tree is a tool in the chest that suits some stories and not others.