Choices, Story, and Where It All Goes Wrong- Part 1

Given the unique level of interaction video games provide as a medium, it’s not surprising that many of them have allowed us to try and manipulate their stories by providing players with interesting ways to shape their narrative, but doing this without creating conflicts between the gameplay and story is much harder than it would at first seem. We’re only too familiar with moral choices, dialogue options, branching stories and similar concepts but to me it seems like there’s one fundamental mistake in how such choices are often implemented into games.

Rewards for Story Choices

 Choices in story are all well and good, but what happens when we attach gameplay rewards to them?

I’m a big fan of developers attempting to make gameplay and story flow more smoothly together. I believe that if you want to make a player really care about something in the story, be it a character, object or goal, then making it an important part of the gameplay is one of the best ways you can do that. there seems to be an inherent problem in trying to do this with story-based choices though. Many games follow the tact of trying to make players feel a greater attachment to the narrative by assigning gameplay rewards to certain choices within the game; choose this dialogue option and get +10 “good” points, select this storyline over that one and gain different attacks, and so on. The problem is that as soon as you apply this kind of logic to choices within the story, they stop being narrative choices and start being gameplay choices.

Did I lie to that NPC because that’s what I wanted my character to do? No, it’s because I got bonus experience points for an action that utilised my speech skill. Did I sacrifice that character for the good of my own because I wanted too? No, it’s because I’ll benefit greatly from the huge boost to my “evil” quotient. In the real-world such choices are difficult and interesting because we have to consider the feelings of real people. Video games are entertainment products, where our choices (in single-player at least) affect no one but ourselves and players are very likely to place the importance of their gameplay success above the narrative choices they want to make, and even in situations when they don’t this kind of design still creates a conflict. These choice-based systems often benefit the gameplay but they actually work against the narrative they’re attempting to enhance, a particularly relevant problem considering that it’s the narrative-focused games such as RPGs that make the most use of these kinds of in-game choices.

Moral Choices or Moral Problems?

 Sadly, moral choice systems have a whole lot of issues.
Problems are exacerbated in games with moral choice systems, which have become infamous for their use of a simple good-evil point counter to tackle the complex issue of right and wrong. Not only will games like these positively reinforce players’ actions in some of their gameplay systems, but then give less desirable reinforcement to the player in their moral judgements, but as we’ve all noticed they also treat morality as a black-and-white concept where the developer’s idea of morality is forced upon the player. I find this particularly disappointing because the way I see it, the most interesting moral questions a creative work can ask revolve around situations where it’s hard to distinguish right and wrong, and this includes the situations I’ve found in video games. 

These kinds of questions are impacting because they’re not just about the game world or even about the player’s ability, but they provide us with deep questions about our beliefs and morals. Do we think its right to limit the reproductive capabilities of a race that has a history of genocidal actions? Is it okay to leave someone who loves you to fight a war you believe in? Video games are the first medium which can acknowledge our answer to these kinds of questions and allow us to watch how our answer might affect the world.

As I see it these kinds of difficult questions are much more interesting than constantly being asked “Do you want to be good or bad?” I’m not trying to be all high and mighty here, saying that every game with an in-depth story needs to be asking intellectual, probing questions. I love games that don’t care about that kind of thing and allow you to just enjoy the world and game mechanics the developers have created for you, but now and then I want more than that, and in either case any game with a well-developed story needs something more than just clicking the blue option or the red option over and over.

Illogical Morality

 Caricatured morality is fine for games like Fable, but what if we want a more serious interpretation?

Most games with moral choice systems push us to extremes; we’re either always picking the good option or always picking the evil option, because only the good option or the evil option will push the good/evil meter in the direction we’re aiming for. This often appears somewhat ridiculous; the real world rarely works in terms of extremes and people never take every single opportunity to go out of their way to be dicks or be nice. This is fine for more cartoonish, less self-serious games but in other circumstances it doesn't work so well. Middle-ground options are also almost entirely ignored as they either don’t reward any kind of points or don’t push the morality meter far enough in one direction. This greatly diminishes the idea of the choice in the moral choice or narrative choice, as developers are presenting players with a number of possible options, but giving them very clear flags at to which choice they’ll benefit the most from choosing. We wouldn’t see this kind of non-choice in any other part of gameplay, but in the case of narrative choices it seems to pop up only too often.

The reactions of NPCs or computer-controlled characters in games with moral choice systems also don’t often make sense. When a character performs a good action or an evil action, every NPC in the in-game world instantly has knowledge of the good or evil action they've committed, and every single person makes exactly the same judgement about how morally just or unjust the player character is, as though they were all held together by some universal force. Fallout goes as far as to almost comically suggest that there's a universal karma at work. It’s one of the more minor issues but it still comes across as rather odd when you’re the player.

The Designer’s Choice

Of course you might assume that moral choice systems are only appearing in games because they’re all the rage now, one game that has moral choice systems sells well, then another adopts it and before you know everyone needs one, and I’m sure that’s a big factor, but designers have a deeper problem. Keep using these current kinds of choice systems and you risk creating conflicts between gameplay and story, remove choice systems and the choices the player makes in the game have less of an inherent impact. Each of these approaches obviously has its pros and cons, and I think there’s room for both, but in most situations I think the latter is preferable to the former, and in situations where choice systems are to be included perhaps moral choice mechanics, at least, could do with a bit of an overhaul.

Duder, It’s Over

Next week I’ll look at what I believe could be done to improve choice systems and make a conclusion on this whole crazy matter. Thanks for reading, good luck, and have zombie.

-Gamer_152

20 Comments
21 Comments
Posted by Gamer_152

Given the unique level of interaction video games provide as a medium, it’s not surprising that many of them have allowed us to try and manipulate their stories by providing players with interesting ways to shape their narrative, but doing this without creating conflicts between the gameplay and story is much harder than it would at first seem. We’re only too familiar with moral choices, dialogue options, branching stories and similar concepts but to me it seems like there’s one fundamental mistake in how such choices are often implemented into games.

Rewards for Story Choices

 Choices in story are all well and good, but what happens when we attach gameplay rewards to them?

I’m a big fan of developers attempting to make gameplay and story flow more smoothly together. I believe that if you want to make a player really care about something in the story, be it a character, object or goal, then making it an important part of the gameplay is one of the best ways you can do that. there seems to be an inherent problem in trying to do this with story-based choices though. Many games follow the tact of trying to make players feel a greater attachment to the narrative by assigning gameplay rewards to certain choices within the game; choose this dialogue option and get +10 “good” points, select this storyline over that one and gain different attacks, and so on. The problem is that as soon as you apply this kind of logic to choices within the story, they stop being narrative choices and start being gameplay choices.

Did I lie to that NPC because that’s what I wanted my character to do? No, it’s because I got bonus experience points for an action that utilised my speech skill. Did I sacrifice that character for the good of my own because I wanted too? No, it’s because I’ll benefit greatly from the huge boost to my “evil” quotient. In the real-world such choices are difficult and interesting because we have to consider the feelings of real people. Video games are entertainment products, where our choices (in single-player at least) affect no one but ourselves and players are very likely to place the importance of their gameplay success above the narrative choices they want to make, and even in situations when they don’t this kind of design still creates a conflict. These choice-based systems often benefit the gameplay but they actually work against the narrative they’re attempting to enhance, a particularly relevant problem considering that it’s the narrative-focused games such as RPGs that make the most use of these kinds of in-game choices.

Moral Choices or Moral Problems?

 Sadly, moral choice systems have a whole lot of issues.
Problems are exacerbated in games with moral choice systems, which have become infamous for their use of a simple good-evil point counter to tackle the complex issue of right and wrong. Not only will games like these positively reinforce players’ actions in some of their gameplay systems, but then give less desirable reinforcement to the player in their moral judgements, but as we’ve all noticed they also treat morality as a black-and-white concept where the developer’s idea of morality is forced upon the player. I find this particularly disappointing because the way I see it, the most interesting moral questions a creative work can ask revolve around situations where it’s hard to distinguish right and wrong, and this includes the situations I’ve found in video games. 

These kinds of questions are impacting because they’re not just about the game world or even about the player’s ability, but they provide us with deep questions about our beliefs and morals. Do we think its right to limit the reproductive capabilities of a race that has a history of genocidal actions? Is it okay to leave someone who loves you to fight a war you believe in? Video games are the first medium which can acknowledge our answer to these kinds of questions and allow us to watch how our answer might affect the world.

As I see it these kinds of difficult questions are much more interesting than constantly being asked “Do you want to be good or bad?” I’m not trying to be all high and mighty here, saying that every game with an in-depth story needs to be asking intellectual, probing questions. I love games that don’t care about that kind of thing and allow you to just enjoy the world and game mechanics the developers have created for you, but now and then I want more than that, and in either case any game with a well-developed story needs something more than just clicking the blue option or the red option over and over.

Illogical Morality

 Caricatured morality is fine for games like Fable, but what if we want a more serious interpretation?

Most games with moral choice systems push us to extremes; we’re either always picking the good option or always picking the evil option, because only the good option or the evil option will push the good/evil meter in the direction we’re aiming for. This often appears somewhat ridiculous; the real world rarely works in terms of extremes and people never take every single opportunity to go out of their way to be dicks or be nice. This is fine for more cartoonish, less self-serious games but in other circumstances it doesn't work so well. Middle-ground options are also almost entirely ignored as they either don’t reward any kind of points or don’t push the morality meter far enough in one direction. This greatly diminishes the idea of the choice in the moral choice or narrative choice, as developers are presenting players with a number of possible options, but giving them very clear flags at to which choice they’ll benefit the most from choosing. We wouldn’t see this kind of non-choice in any other part of gameplay, but in the case of narrative choices it seems to pop up only too often.

The reactions of NPCs or computer-controlled characters in games with moral choice systems also don’t often make sense. When a character performs a good action or an evil action, every NPC in the in-game world instantly has knowledge of the good or evil action they've committed, and every single person makes exactly the same judgement about how morally just or unjust the player character is, as though they were all held together by some universal force. Fallout goes as far as to almost comically suggest that there's a universal karma at work. It’s one of the more minor issues but it still comes across as rather odd when you’re the player.

The Designer’s Choice

Of course you might assume that moral choice systems are only appearing in games because they’re all the rage now, one game that has moral choice systems sells well, then another adopts it and before you know everyone needs one, and I’m sure that’s a big factor, but designers have a deeper problem. Keep using these current kinds of choice systems and you risk creating conflicts between gameplay and story, remove choice systems and the choices the player makes in the game have less of an inherent impact. Each of these approaches obviously has its pros and cons, and I think there’s room for both, but in most situations I think the latter is preferable to the former, and in situations where choice systems are to be included perhaps moral choice mechanics, at least, could do with a bit of an overhaul.

Duder, It’s Over

Next week I’ll look at what I believe could be done to improve choice systems and make a conclusion on this whole crazy matter. Thanks for reading, good luck, and have zombie.

-Gamer_152

Moderator
Posted by Daiphyer

" I drove by the fork and went straight" - Jay-Z - The Story of My RPGs.

Edited by nintendoeats

Good writeup, I am inclined to agree about moral choice systems.

My two big examples of games that do this properly are Alpha Protocol and Fallout (the new Fallouts, I never got that far into the 2D ones). In each one you make decisions, and those decisions change how the world works and the story plays out. Being a tosser has some advantages in the short run, but in the long term it loses you important allies.

One thing that kind of bothered me about Fallout New Vegas is that there are, more or less, "evil factions." By giving the player allies no matter how they behaved, that choice between friends and food became increasingly irrelevant.

EDIT: Actually, I want to expand on Alpha Protocol a bit. One really neat thing about the choices in that game is that many of them revolve around trying to get people to work with you. This means that you often benefit from giving responses other than the ones that you would naturally give. End result: you feel like a spy manipulating the shit out of people. It deliberately creates ludonarrative dissonance, but places the disconnect between the player/character and the action they perform, instead of between the character and player.

Posted by TheDudeOfGaming

I think the morality system should be completely removed, but games should still have distinctive morale choices. The problem with this would be, you'd have to make characters very likable or despicable in order for the player to truly do what he wants, to be motivated to help or kill someone, as opposed to: "Hey, I'm a good character, i need those good karma points." If there is no morality system, then players will be forced to do what they want. Also, if a game already has a morality system that tells you if you're good or evil, those games need more neutral choices, games like Neverwinter Nights 2, Knights of the Old Republic and Fallout only let you balance to neutral by doing good actions, and then evil actions or vice-versa. Instead of accepting to help an NPC or killing them, we should have the option to demand payment before doing anything and thus, earning neutral points. In fact most of the mentioned games do offer a neutral path, but you can't choose a dialogue option or action that will earn you neutral points, which destroys the neutral path. 

Games like Stalker for example, (Call of Pripyat especially) allow the player to do what he/she believes is right, with no morality system to interfere. You could ally yourself with the bandits and shoot free stalkers, or you could join duty or freedom, both factions being very "gray" as opposed to good vs evil. I definitely think we need more narratives, stories, characters and factions to focus on the gray, neutral area. Fallout New Vegas is also a good example, not in the morality system or morality related choices, but in the gray area, no faction in that game was completely good or evil. NCR was fighting the Legion sure, but they occupied cities and forced taxes on them, and when they help people its because its in their best interest to do so. Likewise Ceaser's Legions methods may be evil, but in reality their doing the same thing NCR is doing, trying to conquer new lands. With House and Yes Man being the most neutral, only looking out for  their own interest and the interests of New Vegas. 

But the Witcher takes the cake, it had a perfect universe, and a very "gray" one at that. Both the Order of the Flaming Rose and the non-human rebels did some terrible stuff, the only truly evil organization being Salamandra. It did a great job at allowing the player to come to their own moral conclusions, and depicting a universe where no one was good or evil, not even Geralt himself.  

Edited by nintendoeats

@TheDudeOfGaming: Thanks for reminding me of STALKER, that's a neat example as well.

Keep in mind of course, all good really means is greed that is so deffered that you can't even see your end goal anymore. Ok, that's a very cynical view on the topic and people can validly disagree with it. Actually, figuring out how to build these systems really forces you to take a stance on that issue.

Anyway, the point that I was going to make is that the NCR are building a sustainable system that they will benefit from a bit more than the people brought into the fold, whereas the legion is building a system that only they benefit from right now, with everyone else destroyed in the process. So Caesar is kinda still way more evil.

EDIT: So yeah, the end result of this is that you can choose either the side of sustainability or of unbridled greed. Sustainability isn't pretty (Well, the Followers of the Apocalypse were pretty awesome) but it is definitely the "good" choice. That's actually a good system, because you are taking in information and then reacting to it in your own way, instead of following the designers arbitrary silliness.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

It's a great blog, and I agree with your points. Honestly, though, I just am not sure how I'd fix the problem, save for more variations on the good/neutral/evil choices while eliminating the bonuses given for good and evil picks. As far as the variations go, I'd like to see just more options. Think D&D's lawful/neutral/lawless good, lawful/true neutral/lawless neutral, and such. It'd get awfully cluttered though if you had text choices, so perhaps an option might be doing away with the pre-written texts at the bottom and opting instead for a good/evil wheel. Good on the left, evil on the right, with three options each to have a supremely good, lawful answer, a neutral good answer, and a self-serving good answer, with the equivalent of the evil choices on the right. That way, the player knows exactly how his character will respond without the mess of the prewritten texts.

Moderator
Posted by Fattony12000
Posted by nintendoeats

@Fattony12000: Was a compelling but inexpertly designed adventure game?

Could you elaborate a little?

Posted by Contra

When I think choice in games, I always come back to Deus Ex.  
 
Even the ending didn't have a specific evil option (secret 4th option... maybe >_>).  
They all had their good points and bad points.  Some were more selfish, some were dramatic.
 It depends on what you thought was the right answer.
 
But from the gound up, the game was like that. It rewarded players for doing things and took them down different paths for doing so.

Posted by Fattony12000
@nintendoeats: It just dealt quite well with morality and ethics, that's all. It had some fucking balls.
Posted by Hailinel

I really love the way that choices are presented in the Shin Megami Tensei series. There isn't really a concept of good or evil in games like Nocturne or Strange Journey. The system is based on the concepts of law and chaos, and verging too far into the lawful end of the spectrum can be just as damning as the chaotic. In all of Nocturne, there's really only one character that's considered "evil" by other characters in the game.

Posted by Khann

Witcher

Posted by Astras

Moral choices for me just mean that the game has a higher replay value. 
In RPG's using different builds such as a character with a high SPEECH skill just means a higher replay value. 
 
They allow us to approach the game from different angles and significantly (in some cases, KOTOR is a good example) alter the games direction. 
 
By remembering that 'games are just games' and are meant to be fun. They are bound by mechanics and when you play games long enough you understand how these moral systems etc work, this is part of the design. 
 
You sound to me like you should just play "More real life" and less trying to create a real life system in a virtual world.

Posted by Gamer_152

Thanks for all the comments, I'm enjoying the majority of the discussion here. There are comments here which I don't really have a proper response too so I won't be replying to everyone individually (it's not a reflection on the quality of these comments, it's just the way it is), but I do have a couple of points which I think apply to most things said here: 1. I want to discuss this issue with you guys but there are certain things I'm going to have to hold back on for risk of spoiling part 2. And 2. Every time I think about games with moral choice systems and possible fixes, I still come back to the issue that if you give a gameplay reward for a story choice the whole thing falls apart. You've either got a gameplay choice or a story choice, you can't have both at the same time.
 
@nintendoeats: I've not played Alpha Protocol but I like the concept of its conversations as a means of social manipulation, rather than genuine human interaction. It deals with the whole narrative-gameplay conflict nicely by making it obvious to the player that the situation is about the latter rather than the former. As for Fallout 3's choices, I love the branching story but I thought the moral choice system was generic and rather poor, implementing the good-bad meter in lieu of something better. I'm going to talk about New Vegas in the next part of this blog but I certainly think what it did was a step-up. You're right though, there is at least one "evil faction" in the game, so in at least one regard it's about choosing whether you want to be good or evil instead of finding the group which best fits your ideologies (or experimenting with different ideologies which don't necessarily immediately appear evil).
 
I really disagree with the idea that good is deferred and blinded greed though. Many will do good out of instinct or in hope of personal gain, but I believe even these people needn't necessarily be blinded to their end goal and I believe there is genuinely such a thing as altruism. At any rate genuine good seems to be what the majority of games are trying to depict when it comes to morals. With the NCR and Caesar's Legion I think the fundamental difference to be recognised is what they're trying to achieve: The Legion is working out of a tribalistic urge to try and serve their leader by any costs, the NCR are attempting to restore law in the Mohave by any costs.
 
@TheDudeOfGaming: Yeah, I think we basically agree on this one. Moral choice systems need to be abolished in games that have any kind of considerable story, the gameplay and the narrative just end up butting heads with each other.
 
@Sparky_Buzzsaw: The way I see it there isn't really a "fix" for it, but if we want to play around with the idea of making moral choice systems better, then I think the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system is an interesting way to go but not the strongest answer. The D&D system still contains the concepts of good and evil and as such would still require the developer to slap down their exact idea of good and evil as if they were black and white concepts. The D&D creators themselves admit that the alignment system was never meant to be an exact measure of anything, it was only to be a tool giving vague statements about a character's traits to help in the process of character-building.
 
@Astras: There are ways for developers to let players approach a game from different angles, without implementing systems with all the inherent problems of narrative choice systems and particularly moral choice systems. See, the problem is games aren't just games, they're also trying to be a visual means of entertainment, an auditory means of entertainment and in many cases a story-based means of entertainment. As such, surely developers should be taking into account the fact that games have these facets in addition to gameplay, and developing with that fact in mind. My problem is yes, among other things games are meant to be fun and when the story pulls one way and the gameplay pulls another, for me, and for many other people I've spoken too, that's not fun, that's frustrating.
 
You say games are bound by mechanics but no mechanics are inherent to all games, people create the mechanics and so the mechanics can be changed. I believe I understand how moral choice systems work and I hoped that I'd displayed that here, but if you think I don't understand how they work please feel free to point out the hole in what I've written. You seem to think that the issue here is that I don't have a life of my own, so I'm somehow proposing changes to video games to make them more life real-life so that I can comfortably "live" in them. I think that's a pretty extreme conclusion to jump too and I assure you, this is not the case. To a large degree this issue isn't even about realism in games. If you like moral choice systems, great, enjoy them, but I have a lot of problems with them and all I'm talking about here is about building better entertainment products.

Moderator
Posted by nintendoeats

@Fattony12000: That it did. I've always meant to read the book, but I enjoyed reading the Wikipedia entry on the game more than I did actually playing it.

@Gamer_152: Whether or not altruism exists is a big issue that far more qualified people than us are still battling out vehemently, so I'm not really attached to one stance on it. The advantage of the "deferred greed" definition is that it presents an obvious gameplay approach, and can ultimately be expressed through the game. Imagine the Fallout example, in which you help and make friends with everyone. Then a great tragedy befalls you and everyone is there to help out. Alternatively, you run around nicking everyone's stuff all game and during the endgame everybody pretty much leaves you to your own damn self.

So long as some kind of satisfactory ending (not necessarily a "good" ending, but one that is well presented and makes sense) is given to both players, you can have your moral choice system interact with your gameplay quite swimmingly. The trick is to approach it as though the player has shaped their own destiny and, by being a tosser, they managed to put themselves in a pretty crappy place. The challenge is threefold: make it clear WHY things are going badly for the player, make sure that you aren't being overly preachy, and ensure that the player doesn't hate you so much that they don't bother to think about what just happened.

That last one is the hardest.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@Gamer_152:

After giving it some more thought, I think variations on Bethesda's system might work the best. You take a game like Morrowind, right? There's a distinct feeling of reward for being evil - you can rob whoever you like, murder whoever you like, and obtain tons of powerful equipment through various nefarious means and measures. Being good has no tangible reward, as being good should - you're making morally sound decisions not for the sake of rewards, but because you genuinely want to be good.

I think they botched it up a little bit in Fallout 3 by attaching rewards and perks to specific alignments, but it wouldn't be hard to just yank that system back out again.

Moderator
Posted by Gamer_152
@nintendoeats: You're right about the altruism debate, but again, I do think there are a lot of games presenting their "good" as more than just deferred greed. I think the moral choice example you presented is a darn sight better than a lot of stuff being used today, but I still have one slight problem with it. If you don't want the player to feel screwed over at the end of the game, then you have to properly present to them the consequences of taking the good route or the evil route before they make their choice, however, once the player has a proper understanding of this more items vs. more allies situation, again, it largely becomes a gameplay choice as opposed to a narrative one. Perhaps that trade-off wouldn't be so bad, maybe it could work, but I'm sceptical and I think I'd want to really see it in practise before saying it's a legitimately good system.
 
@Sparky_Buzzsaw: I don't quite agree with the idea that we do good because we want to be good, the logic seems too cyclical. In the real world, ultimately, doing good matters because we live in a world with other human beings just like us. In games characters may occasionally make particularly strong emotional appeals to us which make us want to be good, but the large majority of the time there has to be as much benefit for the player in being good as there would be for them in being evil, or there just wouldn't be a reason to be good. If you refrain from giving the player a reward for being good, but do give them one for being evil, then you're essentially giving them the gameplay choice of "Would you like a reward?" and the majority of the time players are going to place gameplay as a priority above all else.
Moderator
Posted by nintendoeats

@Gamer_152: Here we come down to the real problem, which is that the human implementation of altruism (if we stick with the deferred greed definition that is inherent to this concept) is fairly abstract. Generally we don't draw a clean line between an altruistic action and the thing that we hope to get in return. Sometimes it really comes down to "It would make my life easier if people behaved this way, so I will do so in the hopes that it will encourage others."

Let's advance into MMO territory a bit. Let's say you were playing an MMORPG that didn't have any factions. Instead, you had a relationship with the characters in the game. During the tutorial segment you teach the player that allies are helpful, and also that there are rewards to be had by messing with people. You then never talk about it again. At some point paragons and cheats will come into contact with each other and note the significant differences between the ways that their characters have progressed. The cheat will have a bunch of stolen equipment and lots of hoarded gold, the paragon will be a little poorer but will presumably have collected more difficult to find items, and have friends that they can call on. The idea is to always be asking the player this question in a subtle way, and to eventually pull back the curtain and let them see what they have accomplished. This is as opposed to presenting the player with a very clear mechanical system and telling them that to really win they must play to extremes.

And really, in the end, is there even a problem with this being a mechanical system? Presumably if a designer has decided to include morality in their game, it's because they have something that they want to say about it. If they build it such that being altruistic confers and advantage in the long run, and being neutral or evil is very short-sighted, then they are essentially building a system that reflects that view about real life. The player thinks "well, this path will work out best for me so I'll do that," and then hopefully starts to apply that reasoning for real life.

This is actually the real artistic strength that I see in video games. Instead of saying "X path leads to Y" (like a linear artwork) they can say "X system leads to Y with Z outputs." This makes it bad at some types of messages, but great at others.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

@Gamer_152:

I think both can be right depending on the individual. Being good and the reasons for it are entirely individually unique, obviously, but I think we just stated what are (or should be) the two primary reasons to be it. As far as mine being cyclical, yes, it is. Absolutely so. But being good for goodness' sake (had to say it, sorry, you may smack me about the head) is practical and spiritually reasonable. It's not fear of hell that should drive an individual, nor should it be "Oh, if I do good, karmically, tomorrow or next year, I should get everything I want!" Being good simply for the sake of being a kind, decent human being is an admirable quality. Same with your example - being good for the sake of others is perhaps even more admirable.

As to the rewards of a gamer for being good, from a moral standpoint, I don't think it's necessary, but I see your point in terms of how a gamer would choose. I like the general idea of.... damn, now I've gone and forgotten the name of the game. My brain is shit in the morning. Anyways, a game I've played recently has characters running up to you and delivering goods because you did good or evil. Frankly, the system was never really great because it felt like you were given junk or practically nothing either way. But the idea has possibilities for a good character, if the rewards were amped up depending a) on level and b) on the amount of good things you've done. I don't think it worked quite as well for an evil character.

Moderator
Posted by DocHaus

I think it was Yahtzee who said that he detested most games that claimed to offer a "moral choice" but at the end you were either Hitler or Jesus with no in-between option. It's like the first time I ran through Bioshock, where at first I focused on the immediate reward and absorbed a few Little Sisters, but then decided that it wasn't worth the cost and started saving them instead. Didn't matter, the game thought I was Hitler despite the choice I made to not kill any more of them. 
 
For all it's faults, Alpha Protocol handled this aspect of gaming well. There wasn't really a "good" or "evil" option in dialogue trees, and I knew from the beginning that it was impossible to get all the perks in one game. Instead, you try to gain the respect of different people and factions any way you can, or you can be a total dick (a la Archer) and just shoot all the bad guys you come across. Either way, there's no real incentive to answer all dialogue with the "suave" or "aggressive" option (unless you really want to), because you miss out on game-altering perks if you don't. Maybe that's the answer then? Offer perks for either side of the dialogue tree, but don't make them game-breaking or cartoonishly good/bad? Or perhaps just remove them altogether. Along with achievements. Back in my day we didn't have...[crotchety old man rant]
  
Personally, I'm waiting to see how Deus Ex: HR is going to work with its morality system.  I hear that there's not so much a good vs. evil framework as there is a subtle/calculating vs. aggressive/violent one, but there's the fear in the back of my head that I'm going to choose to play a stealthy character and then suddenly slam into a brick wall when encountering a boss who can't be stealthed, knocked out or negotiated with, like in Alpha Protocol.

Posted by Gamer_152

Sorry it's taken so long for me to get back to you guys, I'm not entirely sure Giant Bomb has been messaging me about all the comments on my blog posts. I hope all my responses make sense, I'm a little burned out at the moment.
 
@nintendoeats: To quickly address your first point, if you're saying what I think you're saying then I agree, society generally doesn't make a distinction between true altruism and someone doing something nice for someone else in hopes that they themselves will benefit.
 
You may have swayed me a little on the gameplay and I see what you're saying about the whole morality metaphor and the pulling back the curtain kind of thing, but I believe that if you are trying to present that kind of system it's most likely going to be much more beneficial if you avoid building a lot of explicit narrative around the player's actions. With all the narrative of the story-focused games that use this kind of system, the situation is presented as a faux choice between good and evil when really we know that there are different underlying gameplay mechanics, and not to sound like a broken record but I think you know where I'm going with this, gameplay vs. story conflicts, yada, yada. I suppose in this sense an MMO is perhaps more suited for these kinds of systems as they do make use of story, but they tend to provide the player with a lot of gameplay choices as opposed to a lot of story choices and give minimal story feedback on the player's choices.
 
@Sparky_Buzzsaw: You say that your logic is cyclical but I'm not so sure it is. You say in your post that being good is practical, spiritually reasonable and an admirable trait, aren't these then some of the reasons why we are good? As for the gameplay stuff I think the game you might be thinking of is Fallout: New Vegas and you're right, it was barely worth waiting through the dialogue to receive the one maize that the character would impart upon you. In theory New Vegas' item reward system kind of works, but there's no reason you couldn't award items for other kinds of gameplay progress rather than just making your way through the games morality/faction system.
 
@DocHaus: I believe Yahtzee said that and a lot of other video game commentators have expressed similar sentiments. I know someone who had a mid-way change of heart in Bioshock about the morality system as well and you're right, once your so far in there's not much you can do about it. The game also had the problem that rewards between the good and evil path were not wildly different. Nintendoeats actually already referenced the dialogue system in Alpha Protocol and it sounds like a strong one, as for offering perks for both the good and evil side of the morality meter that's actually already what the large majority of games are doing and it leads to the same kind of conflicts I've been talking about here.

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