You know, I used to quite like morality systems in video games. They had a way of giving one’s choices some narrative weight and were often what a game’s different ending hinged on. That said though, I’ve found my opinion on the mechanic changing over the years. It’s not that the idea itself is bad, but I don’t think I’ve ever really seen it done well. There are games that come close, but those don’t really advertise having such a system, so I’m not so sure they count. So, what exactly am I on about? Well, after thinking on it a bit, I think I have two main issues with these sorts of systems: gameplay limitations and over-the-top choices/results. And…well, let’s just get into it.
In the years since the mechanic fell out of fashion, the thing that most people have pointed to as its critical flaw is how it tends to limit one’s options. What I mean is that even if you prefer a chaotic, action-oriented playstyle, you often couldn’t do that and still remain on the “good” side of a game’s morality system. “Good” characters work quietly, avoid confrontation, do their best to talk their way out of situations and will even do everything they can to ensure that a villain is spared if given the option.
They would never use that cool chain-lightning spell or even so much as think of shooting anything with that awesome gun you found. In other words, you can only play the game one way if you want the “good” ending. Heck, you can usually only choose the goodiest, goody-two-shoes conversation options too. It’s either be a absolute white knight or you get nothing.
The same is true of the opposite. Maybe you’d like to play the game as something of an anti-hero; someone who is perfectly fine using the OP abilities or overly-powerful weapons, but isn’t out to destroy the world and isn’t really a psychopath who enjoys bathing in the blood of his enemies. BUT…too bad! If you want to see the evil ending, you gotta be the nastiest, most blood-thirsty, “kill a guy AND his dog just for looking at you the wrong way” scumbag there ever was. Even more moderate systems like Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade system tended to force players to the extremes, and those extremes almost always resulted in endings that were so…silly that they were rarely satisfying.
The last game I played that employed such a systems was 2017’s Vampyr, and it too made a lot of those mistakes. I wanted the good ending (I always want the good ending in my games), so I did what the game told me and was the best darn vampiric doctor in all London. I did everything I could to treat people, keep their hopes alive, make sure nobody died, and absolutely DID NOT drink so much as a single drop of blood. After all, only the most monstrous of monsters would ever dream of giving into their vampiric thirst (even though they’ll die if they don’t).
Seriously, you have to be so impossibly good that the only reason it IS possible is because Vampyr is a video games, and players would freak out if they could get locked into a death loop from not drinking enough blood. The result was an interesting scenario in a game that got ever more grindy and frustratingly difficult as it went on. No fun vampire powers or real scenarios, only judgement and annoyance. Fortunately for Vampyr, the rest of the game was enough to carry it, but still!
Beyond that though, I feel like focusing on the moral aspect of the decisions took something away from the experience and limited what both players and developers could do. Like if we could have just taken decisions based on the situation and not had to worry about morality points (or NPC party approval, but that’s another topic), we could have been much more free to play the kinds of characters we really wanted. Take Dishonored for example; working within the morality system, you can really only be one of two things: a non-lethal ghost or absolute death-incarnate.
I mean sure, I really enjoyed playing as a near-legendary ghost whose very name should strike fear in his enemies. I liked the idea of Corvo being so dang good that the only sign that he was ever there would be some guards waking up in odd places. That was only fun the first time though. After that, I wanted to play a more balanced character who would approach different situations in different ways. But, it only takes a few kills and a few raised alarms to wind up with the High Chaos ending, so why bother with stealth at all then? It just kinda sucked the fun out of it.
So yeah, I’m kinda glad we don’t see this kind of mechanic all that much these days. It’s better to just play the game how you want and let your own ideas fill in any blanks left by the ending. If it were to come back though, I’d much prefer to see endings or other developments flow directly from the players actions themselves rather than the morality alignment of the decision.
It’d be much more satisfying to see a “decision A resulted in B, which then lead to decision C” sort of setup, much more so than what we’ve gotten before. Actually, I think Fallout 3/New Vegas got really close to this. Yeah, they have “karma” systems, but the endings still flowed much more from the actual choices than anything else (even though the bad choices were still comically bad). Overall, these sorts of mechanics were an interesting experiment, but that’s all. They really don’t need to come back.
What do you think of morality systems in games? Do you think they had any redeeming qualities? Are there any games you think do it/ did it well?
Image is official promotional art