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Opinion: Mother Theresa Or Hitler? Designing for Ambiguous Moral Choice
Opinion: Mother Theresa Or Hitler? Designing for Ambiguous Moral Choice
July 9, 2009 | By James Portnow

July 9, 2009 | By James Portnow
More: Console/PC

[What are the real challenges behind providing meaningful moral choices in games? In a fresh look at one of the industry's biggest obstacles, Divide By Zero's James Portnow takes a pragmatic look from the designer's perspective.]

Moral choices in videogames... not really our finest hour. There seems to be a nagging issue, namely that we tend to deliver to our players all the exciting possibilities of either being Mother Theresa or being Hitler.

We see it all the time, even in the best of games. Infamous, Fable, BioShock, Mass Effect, even Fallout 3 (though Fallout did a better job and really upped the ante by letting you choose between being Mother Theresa, Hitler, and A Guy). The list goes on...

So why does it matter? Well, when faced with the question 'Do I kill this little girl and eat her soul to grow my unholy power or do I restore her lost innocence and return to her the childhood that was stolen from her by despicable men?', it’s just not something you’re going to spend all day pondering - which is a problem. Why? Because it’s not fun. What’s interesting about moral questions is how fuzzy they are, how utterly debatable they can be.

If you can ever get two players to actually debate a moral point in a game as vigorously they might debate a StarCraft build, you’ve won at life. You’ve built a great game complete with deep, meaningful, choices and exciting extrinsic social opportunities; moreover you’ve given your player an opportunity for introspection, which is something our medium should excel at and which, in my book, can only be seen as good.

So why is it so hard?

The Real Problem

How come we’ve failed at delivering on the promise of moral choices in games for so long? Well, that’s the question that got me writing this article in the first place. I’ve seen many people decry the state of writing in games and blame bad writing for the shallow choices we see in games, but I don’t think that’s it at all. I think comes down to something much simpler: money.

When most people think of deep moral choice, they think about a breadth of options. A broad set of options for a storyline decision usually means a divergent story, which means more content. More content of course means more development dollars... and those dollars are almost never there.

Let’s look at one of the more successful attempts at providing meaningful moral choice in a game that has been presented recently: Fallout 3 (yes, I gave it a hard time earlier, but honestly compared to the norm it’s pretty fantastic).

Why does Fallout 3 succeed? Because, given the vast, open world type of game they were making, the developers had the luxury of assuming a player would never see all of the game’s content, which meant that they were ok with developing content that a player might never encounter. This made delivering meaningful moral choices easier from an internal perspective as having the "I want to make area X that 75 percent of the players will never see" conversation must have been much easier than it is on most projects.

Think about BioShock for a moment. Consider how much more impact they could have given the moral decision in that game if they had built four more levels, two exclusively for people who saved the little sisters and two exclusively for people who didn’t…but of course that would never fly when the money could be spent to spruce up levels everyone would see.

So Are We Screwed?

So does this mean achieving the player debate described above is impossible without having the internal corporate fortitude to spend massive development dollars in this area? No. Remember, ambiguous moral choice is different than free moral choice, and ambiguous moral choice is all we have to be able to present in order to provide the player with the satisfying introspective moment we’re trying to deliver (this is something that’s often overlooked or muddled when talking about developing moral choices in games).

First let’s take a look at the game we just touted as having all the advantages required to deliver moral choice: Fallout 3. Why did Fallout fail even though it had excellent writing and a huge open world with effectively unlimited content? They tied choice to a progress bar. The Righteousometer (Karmometer?) kills any possibility for moral choice to be ambiguous. It forces all moral choices and all of their answers to share one plane…and then quantizes them.

Unfortunately almost every game that aspires to moral choice uses this mechanic. In order to get away from this paradigm we have to shift our thinking a bit. The first step is to back away from thinking of moral choice as a system and start considering individual moral choices. This mindset makes it easier to craft ambiguous moral choices because it lets us build scenarios that have no clear “good”. Ambiguity comes from tradeoffs; it comes from having to decide what is the most good in a situation that is mostly bad.

I’ll turn to Fallout one last time (thanks Levi Fleming for reminding me about this one) to illustrate this. In The Pitt expansion, you’re given the choice of kidnapping a child in order to help a group of slaves find a cure for a disease they are afflicted with or kill the leader of the slave revolt to protect the child from being taken from her parents. Neither of these are wholly righteous choices -- the player is forced to weigh the good of the many against the fate of an individual child.

It is this sort of choice that we must deliver. Now how do we give such choices meaning without creating a development burden?

Making it Meaningful and Cheap

It is easy to pepper a game with these types of choices without giving them any real impact on the game world and leave it up to the mind of the player to wonder what effect their choices had. But let’s assume this isn’t enough. What can we do to allow ambiguous moral choices to have real impact on a game without forcing us to create a great deal of new content?

The first and most obvious answer is “repurpose”, i.e. reconfigure old content to present it in new ways which better suit the player’s possible answers. There are a million different ways to do this (reuse locations while changing what spawns in them, alter non-voice acted dialogue, et cetera.)

But this is old hat to most of you (and really should be the subject of its own article) so I’ll leave off here because repurposing really answers the question, “How do we create more content cheaply” which helps here but is in no way specific to the question at hand.

Another answer is to limit ourselves to a singular question. An entire game can be made out of the questions “What makes a war just?” or “How do you balance the good of the many against the rights of the few?” A game centered around these questions need to be no more divergent than our current “Do you want to be good or evil” games but contain a great deal more depth in the decision making. Without even any divergence, Shadow of the Colossus was just such a game.

Next we can simply de-systematize these choices by rewarding each one on a case by case basis, providing ambiguous moral problems only in situations where there resolution doesn’t cost us much development.

Finally we can just present ambiguous moral choices using the same system that we use right now for unambiguous choice, but hide the statistical effects. That is to say: simply don’t show “+2 to paragon” every time the player does something nice. This lack of direct quantification may go against many of the things ingrained in us as game designers, but almost all of our training has been in presenting logical puzzles.

Ambiguous moral choices are non-logical, so we can’t simply reduce them to a logic puzzle. We must present these challenges as they are presented in life, without a right answer and without definitive metric to tell you how you did.

Possible Way to Execute Ambiguous Moral Choice as a Unified Mechanic:

But if you’re really dead set on working in a clear, overarching, player facing, metric for moral choice here are some brief thoughts:

We often talk about moral dilemmas in terms of shades and colors, which is why it seems so odd to me that we have chosen a very linear and numeric metaphor to represent a character’s moral state. Even something as simple as a wheel or a graph, where a character’s choices are weighed on independent axis, would give a much greater diversity to the moral dimensions of a character.

For example if a player’s moral characteristics were plotted with Discipline/Freedom on one axis and Good of the Many/Rights of the Individual on another axis, you could design choices which would force the player to balance the things they valued. Choices would no longer be black and white as a choice might raise a player’s Freedom but lower their Rights of the Individual or lower their Discipline but increase their Good of the Many.

More importantly, a player might be willing to trample on individual rights a little in order to follow the dictates of discipline, but just when they cross the line into rebellion is, in and of itself, an important, meaningful and ambiguous choice.

Perhaps the concept of factions is only explorable in the context of an MMO (I’m honestly not sure about this one), but I’ve been surprised at how little use has been made of this mechanic to explore moral systems and moral choice.

For a decade – since the 1999 launch of Everquest – ‘faction’ has been a firmly established game mechanic. For those of you unfamiliar the concept, faction is simply the idea of giving the player a numerical rating for how much they are liked by each of the different NPC groups in the game (for example you could have a faction of +20 with Wood Elves or -10 with Paladins) and how much any given NPC likes the player is determined by an aggregate of how much the groups it belong to likes the player’s character.

This does something amazing: it externalizes the morality of the game. Instead of being told that any given action is good or evil, the player is instead informed of how that action is perceived by different groups in the game.

This system can be used to explore many different moral schema - as any particular action might be seen as good by one group and evil by another - further removing us from the realm of absolute and allowing for truly debatable moral questions to be raised.


The only thing that makes absolute moral choices interesting is how difficult it often is to do the right thing. For example, I’d like to give each homeless person I see a dollar but at some point this becomes a hardship for me. Only when a homeless man comes up to me and I look in my wallet and see that all I have left is four dollars, exactly enough to pay for the burger I went out for in the first place, does the moral question become interesting to me.

At this juncture I have to overcome my own desires in order to do the right thing… and yet I often say to myself, “But if I don’t get something to eat I will not be able to work as hard and thus won’t earn as much money, meaning that I won’t have as much to distribute in the future.” This could be a rational argument towards the greater good, or it could simply be a justification, but as you can see, at this point we’ve gotten ourselves into an interesting moral quandary.

Doing good in games almost never brings us to this moral precipice. Doing good is usually no more difficult than doing ill, moreover when we do ask players to sacrifice the sacrifice is usually illusory (giving up a clip of ammo out of their stock of ten thousand). If we choose to deal with unambiguous moral choices we owe the player the enjoyment of having to choose when they get to do good rather than allowing them to mindlessly choose the option that gives them +1 to sanctimony.

By making it prohibitively expensive to do good all the time you make the choice to do unmitigated good interesting again.

Our Own Values

Rarely in life do we choose between good and evil, more often we simply must muddle through, choosing the options that we believe to be the best. Even then, when we at last come to believe that we have ascertained what is right, we are beset with different conceptions of the good. And then, in those rare cases that we can choose unmitigated good, it usually comes at great cost to us.

Morality is a complicated issue and deserves to be treated as such. Not only because doing so will create more compelling game experiences but also because it lets us stretch the medium and, dare I say, do some good. But in treating morality more seriously we face a great danger and we must be aware of the influence we have. So I will leave you with this simple thought about our medium…

It is our job to raise moral questions, not impose our own moral judgments. If we fail here we may well do worse than we would in never having tried at all.

[James Portnow is a game designer, formerly of Activision, and now at Divide by Zero Games, where he is also the founder and CCO. He received his master's degree in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon University. He can be contacted at or JamesPortnow on Twitter for comments on this article.]

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Simon Ludgate
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Very interesting article.

However, I don't think the problem is that players are asked to sacrifice too little to make moral judgments. I think the problem is the lack of uncertainty. In games, you generally know all the consequences to your moral judgments. In games like Mass Effect, you have a pretty good idea of what actions give you paragon points and which ones send you in the other direction. In fact, if I recall correctly, the topmost dialogue choice is always the 'good' one and the bottommost one is the 'evil' one.

On the other hand, in real life, moral choices are uncertain. As in the example you provided, you don't know if refusing to help the beggar now will allow you to help more beggars in the future. Moreover, you don't know if, by refusing to help a beggar, the beggar will find a way to help himself rather than rely on the generosity of others. By giving him money, he might stay a beggar, but by leaving him to starve for a day, he might work for money the next. Or he could be run over by a truck on his way to McDonalds to spend that dollar you gave him; had you given him nothing he'd still be on the street corner when the truck went by. You just don't know.

You don't want to just make morality random, however. If you take an action that should give +5 karma and change it to give you -5 to +15 karma, then players might just save the game right before turning it in and reloading until they get their desired result. This is especially important if morality is a core gameplay mechanic.

For example, in Infamous, you look at a list of powers and see what you get for being good and what you get for being evil and, based on the power set you want, you play as a good or evil person. Good and bad, in this game, is like choosing your class in an RPG, and you don't want your choice of having to play a warrior or a wizard be a completely random one, right?

Although it seems to be a contradictory statement, I think the only way to make moral decisions feel meaningful is to make them not be meaningful; that is, to untie them from gameplay mechanics. As long as morality is one of your character's stats, either as a single axis or a big list of factions or whatever, players will powergame their way to the ideal score.

But I think morality could be implemented in some good ways. For example, if you give some money to a beggar, the game can randomly chose from a list of consequences. Maybe one of those consequences could be that the beggar buys a gun to rob a store for more money. The player enters a shop to find it being held up by the same beggar he helped, and is faced with a new moral choice of killing the very person he tried to help earlier on in the game. All this might not have any significant consequences on gameplay (you don't unlock any new power or go to a different level), but it would resonate soundly with the player because it will feel that the player's actions are causing repercussions in the game world and its inhabitants.

Andre Martins
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Amazing article!

This is the kind of text that makes game design something wonderful, complex and unique - and makes me think that games are more than just technology and entertainment.

Ian Morrison
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Dragon Age is set to pull off something unique in this regard. There's no good or evil slider, only the approval or disapproval of party members, and moral choices have significant story and gameplay consequences. The previews that started dropping yesterday are doing a fantastic job of highlighting this... unfortunately, this does fall into the category of "make ridiculous amounts of content that might not even be seen".

The entire concept of "good points" and "evil points" is flawed, since ultimately moral choices in real life are about the eventually consequences of those actions, not some arbitrary numeric representation of karma. I kind of liked the Mass Effect version of this, where it wasn't "good" versus "evil", but "paragon" and "renegade". You're still the good guy however it turns out, what changes is the direction you approach obstacles... as a tactful, compassionate negotiator, or as the human equivalent of a sledgehammer. More importantly, all that going down one side or the other would gain you is access to new dialog options for intimidation or persuasion, which both end up complimenting your preferred approach. All the moral decisions made during the game ended up being more about the consequences of the choice than the arbitrary good/evil value of it.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I don't understand the need to demonize systems when discussing morality in games. After all, morality is a system! Morals, whether ambiguous or clear must be quantified in a game because that is what computers do. Also, part of the point of playing a game is to have a system that is more easily understood than 'real life'. How is not providing feedback a good thing when we view games in this way? The real question seems to be how to provide feedback to players about the effect of their choices in a more satisfying way. Not providing feedback makes moral choices completely meaningless, robbing the player of agency and not rewarding the time they spent making an agonizing choice.

Also, I think you don't give Fallout 3 and Mass Effect enough credit. Sure, you may only get to choose between Mother Theresa, Hitler and Some Guy, but those options increase in complexity when taken as a series of decisions within one conversation. I especially liked how Fallout 3 made the Mother Theresa route a little harder to follow by always providing the Hitler and Guy options as temptations alongside it, whereas the other two options quickly led to violence or commerce.

Mike Rayhawk
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I remember obsessing over the original Deus Ex for this very reason - it used faction reputation to offer choices between several morally ambiguous options, without giving away what the consequences would be. Choices as simple as how often you used lethal vs. non-lethal force in the early levels had unexpected payoffs half a game later, as different characters and factions reacted positively or negatively according to their worldviews. It remains one of my favorite games of all time (even despite the sequel).

Adam Bishop
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I've talked about this pretty extensively myself (
n_Video_Games.php) so I'll try not to repeat myself here.

First, I don't agree that Fallout 3 had good writing. I think it had extremely "game-y" writing, and that's one of the reasons the moral choices in that game fail to feel weighty. If we want moral choices in games to have weight to them, we need the characters that they effect to feel human, and I never got that feeling from the characters in Fallout 3.

Perhaps one of the problems is that we're constantly thinking of choice in terms of "moral". Not all choices are moral, and certainly many choices do not have clear morals. The most interesting decision the player has to make in Mass Effect (*spoiler alert*) is whether to let Ashley or Kaiden get killed. There is no morally correct decision. You have to decide who is more valuable to your team, or the mission, or even which character you have a greater connection to. It is an interesting decision precisely because the game does not give you an artificial indication through a "morality meter" of what you should want to do.

Another interesting decision is found in Indigo Prophecy. You're walking through a park, when a child who can't swim falls into the water. Your first instinct is to dive in and save the child, but wait, there's a police officer walking up who could identify you as the suspect in a murder investigation. Do you dive in to save the child, but risk getting arrested, or do you walk away and hope someone else dives in? The results of your decision affect the story and your character's psyche, but not a good/bad meter, and as a result, it's a much more emotionally engaging decision. That's the kind of thing games should be aiming for.

Glenn Storm
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"If you can ever get two players to actually debate a moral point in a game as vigorously they might debate a StarCraft build, you’ve won at life." - quoted for truth.

I'm wondering if part of the reason we more often see the dramatic moral choice over the ambiguous one, aside from cost of branching content, has to do with our collective timidness and our need to clearly define important paths the player can take. If there's a fork in the road and one path leads to gold, the other to insta-death, we put a large sign post, have NPCs warn of danger, sprinkle with sound efx, etc. For a relatively new (to the mass market) component to our game systems, moral choice seems to get the bright red shiny paint job, more to highlight the new feature than to cloud it. This mentality also seems to lead to the "morality +1" presentation to the player. Ambiguous choice defies usability.

I would add to the point on how to introduce moral choice on the cheap, that we should lean on our strengths, which entail devising complex systems of meaning, to develop game story, environments, characters, etc., that do not require the binary "if - then" paradigm, that can take a fuzzier approach and present a more adaptive world to the player, reflecting their adaptive moral choices and other game actions. Same assets, adaptive presentation and response. Sort of an extension of the re-purpose argument. Along the same lines as the faction illustration, but taken to adapt more than just the disposition of NPCs to the player, taken to the point where the environment, circumstances and the story arc itself can bend and adapt, bringing that real life situation with the homeless person and the burger money into the game.

I would also like to suggest that the "singular moral question" tactic could be augmented. If we slightly extended that to say, "singular moral theme", I'd be well on board. Yes, there are great stories that revolve around one question, and a single dramatic moral choice is great at a climax, but more often ambiguity requires complexity, more questions surrounding a single issue or theme. Fallout3's environment, for example, could excel at the moral theme of misanthropy vs society.

I am again enjoying your personal approach to a tough topic, James. Great article!

John Petersen
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I have some games I am writing about here in the blogs that have moral choices to be made, but the player can choose to do the right thing or do nothing, or do a little bit and it will affect how the game will play out. Without going over budget.

They are games based on real world environmental issues we must tackle and inform the younger generation about. Even the the old crows can learn something.

The games are a combination of Hunting, fishing, farming and racing.

Note: All these in-game activities will have the fun aspect of the game, such as the act of fishing, hunting, racing, and crop regeneration.

Hunting- Let's you make many moral decisions, and it could have a greater impact with statistics about what choices the player makes. Like whether or not to take my bag limit this year because of the thinning hawg population, and what happens when I take more than my fair share, or what happens when land is taken away, and the animals start getting dieseases...etc.

Fishing- Water pollution and over fishing are huge moral dilemma's. If a players see a polluted body of water and fishes there, the fish, may be sick, or stunted in growth, or very few fish may reside there. There's lot's of moral dilemma's that can be tackled and still be fun to play. With tournaments, and crafting, and economy, All that.

Racing- Another million moral issues can be handled from the price of oil to the damage of tree's and the consenquences of plowing over that tree. That plowed down tree might play a negative role in the hunting area of the game by taking away needed resources of the animals there, or it might fall into a lake or river where it positvely affects the fishing there. And so on.

Farming- There's almost an infinity of ways to use this as a moral do or don't. Players can learn the environmental impacts of what farming has, how it plays a role in pollution and what can be done to make it more earth freindly, and at the same time it can teach how to grow real food. There's lots of room for this.

But beyond all that, it'd be fun to play such a game. And if I can learn from it and actually be able to become a better fisherman, hunter, conservationlist, and grow a tomato plant. Well halo-lleua!

Simon Ludgate
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I'm not sure I agree with Ian or Davneet regarding morality as a system for determining party composition. In Mass Effect, when you chose which character to save, is this a moral decision, or a gameplay decision? Are you deciding which character DESERVES to be saved? Or are you choosing which character you want to keep in your party? In Dragon Age, are you making choices based on morality with the effect of which characters are in your party, or are you choosing which characters you want in your party and choosing the interaction options that will make the characters you want to use like you? This is why tangling gameplay with morality is problematic.

Regarding Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade or even Indigo Prophecy's multiple story arcs, are these really based on moral choices or are they just choosing between different stories? This is to say: if you play Mass Effect twice, once as Paragon and once as Renegade, are you making these choices morally, or are you merely experiencing all the game content? Is this any different from watching two different alternate endings to a movie? Is there a moral choice made when you pick one alternate ending over the other, or do you just watch both amorally?

Adam Bishop
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I'm not really sure what you're getting at, Simon. That the choices we make in video games are not actual real world moral choices? Well, no, of course not. Does anybody actually think they are? Was my Indigo Prophecy example a story decision? Of course it is. But why does the player decide they want the story to play out in one fashion and not another? The game asks the player to decide (within the context of the story and game world, obviously) what they value, what type of character they want to be/play. I don't think anybody believes that the decision is truly a real world moral decision, but it's not supposed to be. It's supposed to be a decision within the context of the fictional game world, and within that context, it definitely can be a moral choice.

Tom Newman
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"We must present these challenges as they are presented in life, without a right answer and without definitive metric to tell you how you did."

Excellent point, and very important! Most games tell us what the choice is and give us an idea of what the consequences could be. Put that mechanism behind the scenes, and it will be a much better experience overall. Also, many games will present a choice, but then offer different rewards, so even though there is a choice there is only one correct one which I feel defeats the purpose entirely.

One good example of what was done right - even though it is not directly a moral choice, more of clever AI - is in Dead Rising. The first time I went to rescue 2 survivors, I had to fight them to get them to agree to come with me. I hit one of them with a low impact melee weapon, got their trust, but then died and decided to re-do the scenario. At that time, I had no low impact weapon and the fight seemed to last longer, so I used a haevier weapon, killed the NPC and then his friend would not trust me in bringing him to safety. On the 3rd attempt, I didn't kill the npc, but did enough damage to where he still would not follow, but each attempt, I got a different reaction. While this was not directly a moral choice, it did impact the game, and also had a big influence of how I thought of and handled survivors from that point forward.

Where we REALLY see moral choices in action is with MMOs. Often the choices you make are how you interact with other players in the game world, and can seriously change the way you play. Many tasks require you to team up with other players, and how you treat them will determine anything from what guild you can get in to, to what dungeons you can explore; etc. Just like in real life, if you piss off enough people, word will spread accross the server and no one will want to help or join your group, and may even randomly show up just to antagonize you.

Mark Raymond
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This is a brilliant article, and I was, in fact, thinking of writing something similar, also specifically using Fallout 3 as an example (albeit with a more negative slant). I think some of what you've said is good common sense, but you've articulated yourself so well here in this article, probably much better than I would have. I just think it's great. :D

What's fascinating to me, especially as someone who's completed a degree in philosophy, is how we are rediscovering what morality is all about, just by talking and raising questions over what should count as moral decisions.

I really think that when it comes to morality, good and evil are such childlike terms. The idea of creating a more diverse set of moral axes – for example, a right to freedom vs. a right to safety, something the Splinter Cell series has played around with – is far closer to what we, as individuals living in society, might face, and that's partially how they gain their meaning.

For anyone interested in this subject, let me suggest two further resources:

Design Rampage: Designing Ethical Dilemmas (Manveer Heir):

Click Nothing: Ethical Decision Making (Clint Hocking):

John Flush
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Very interesting article indeed. I've always been somewhat annoyed with the Light / Neutral / Dark meter in games. I like the idea of having another axis to play on. Factions seemed already at one point, but really have been used for little more than what group(s) you can get fed quests from.

I'm eager to see how the Mass Effect series works with this situation. By carrying our saves from game to game I wonder if they will only carry the big choices or all of them, because the later could easily add in that second (or more) dimension to the moral choices. for example, you could eliminate some characters in sub-plots in both a good and evil way, yet the fact they are dead might ripple through the universe where if you left them alive (in a good or evil way) it would change what you see later.

Of course, I wonder if the money aspect you describe will get in the way of reaching the true potential we could gain from our decision making.

Mark Raymond
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I also think that, sometimes, the more impactful moral choices are the smaller, more personal ones i.e. those involving a few well drawn characters rather than deciding the fate of an entire city. Those kind of choices sound far more achievable because of their reduced scale, but they can end up having more of a resonance with the player. This, of course, does depend on good writing. One of the reasons I dislike Fallout 3 is that its denizens reflect the world far too well: cold, barren and devoid of emotion. Consequently, none of the choices in that game really affected me.

Carl Trett
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I love that the subject of morality-design in games get's this much attention.

Honestly, and this is just an opinion, but I don't believe it is possible to design meaningful 'consequences'. The problem stems from the fact that everyone feels something different in every experience whether in real life or during a game session. You can run a hundred focus groups then write hundreds of lines of dialog and script many scenes that you believe will effect the largest percentage of your audience in the way you envision, but ultimately what someone feels when coming in contact with the 'designed' content is a completely unknowable metric. At the time they are in contact with the content how do we know that they will be receptive to a high-minded in your face 'moral' decision? Perhaps they wouldn't even be playing the game if that was a concern, but I must mention it.

We can try our best to lead our audiences through a set emotional experience with tried and true writing devices, music and imagery, but can we similarly guide a moral compass? What is it that we even want to deliver when we attempt to provide a moral system? Are we trying to model real life or pass on our personal life moments and moral decisions we had to make, are we simply emulating scenes we felt particularly moving in literature, film and perhaps even other games? I would argue that we are really delivering mechanical choices. Any choice that we have designed the consequences for are not true moral choices. They can only be mechanical choices as long as we design the consequences in a flat systematic way.

In the same way a reader can turn back the pages in a Choose Your Own Adventure, they can go back to save point if they don't like the result of the choice that they made. Users understand that this is simply a systematic device that they given the choice can manipulate. Our medium gives us many tools and perhaps we should be thinking of new ways to present choices that have consequences that arise out of happenstance. As long as we want to lead a player through a preset emotional experience with controlled pacing and story delivery, we will be unable to fully simulate a moral choice.

I do strongly agree that MMOs hold the most possibility for real moral choices. However I don't believe I know of any current MMOs that have a strong way outside of the faction model of presenting a 'moral' system. In fact I find a faction system to be a complementary system but not an actual moral system.

Bart Stewart
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I would suggest that "fail" is a little strong to describe Fallout 3, which did include examples of the kind of ambiguous opportunity for moral action proposed in this essay.

For example, I chose to allow the ghouls to enter Tenpenny Tower. I thought -- at the time the choice was offered -- that I was doing the ghouls a favor. But the result, while satisfying for the ghouls, turned out to be not particularly good for the existing tenants. So I'd say that was reasonably ambiguous as a moral choice in a gameplay context. It's also worth mentioning that every so often, Threedog comes on the radio to remind me of the consequences of my choice.

I would add that Mass Effect does offer several morally ambiguous choices. The result of the late-game choice between two team members doesn't show up on the Paragon/Renegade meter at all, for example. It's also important to recognize that, unlike Fallout 3, in Mass Effect the player could choose to be both a Paragon *and* a Renegade simultanously -- the two values were independent, rather than being two mutually exclusive ends of a single spectrum. So while individual choices might be obviously "good" or "bad," the character over time could choose to be both -- or neither, if you prefer.

But I think there's a larger question here, which is whether gamers actually want moral ambiguity.

Film has gone through this question several times over the years with no resolution.

Consider the early 1970s, when "shades of gray" -- moral ambiguity -- was all the rage. "Dirty Harry" is a good example -- is Harry Callahan more interesting or less interesting for being flawed? This refusal by storytellers to choose sides can be seen as a reaction to the moral clarity of storytelling in the 1950s, when entertainment clearly defined who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.

But that moral clarity was itself a reaction to the moral ambiguity of late-'30s/early-'40s storytelling.

And Star Wars, with its sharply defined heroes and villains (even Han Solo turned into a hero who didn't shoot first), restored to late-1970s audiences entertainment that satisfied their need for moral clarity after years of relativism.

So the question I would ask is: in the world of computer games, has that time arrived? Even if the author of this essay is ready for moral ambiguity in his computer entertainment, do most gamers share his perspective?

Mark Raymond
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Well, Bart, if we look at the relative success of the new Batman films and failure of Superman Returns, one could suggest that the time for moral ambiguity is now – certainly in terms of film audiences, anyway. Whether that transfers over to video games, I don't know.

Scott Thomack
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I think about this topic fairly often and I have read a number of discussions too. Everyone's thoughts are great but I feel like we are just barely progressing with each discussion.

I propose a different way of using moral choices. Have the choices make the game world and NPCs change not the character or story. No branching quests. No morality meters. You can still join the faction you want and they will always love you but some of your choices will affect other things. For example lets use a GTA style game and the previously mentioned bum asking for money. If you don't give the bum money, maybe he tells all the other bums in the world around that you are a bum hater. From that point on (or maybe you have to say no a certain number of times) when you are on foot bums try to trip you up. Next time a bum asks you for money you give him some. If you do that too many times, then the bum tells all the other bums that you are an easy mark and they will always be after you for money. Maybe you can give enough money to have less bums on the streets or maybe if you never give them change they will attack you out right.

Something as simple as buying food from hot dog vendors could have an impact. If you buy enough hot dogs maybe you see hot dog vendors taking over where peanut vendors were or just more vendors show up since you created a higher demand.

These types of changes would seem to be easier and thus cheaper to incorporate into a game than ones that directly affect the main character or story.

Reid Kimball
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"I would also like to suggest that the "singular moral question" tactic could be augmented. If we slightly extended that to say, "singular moral theme", I'd be well on board. Yes, there are great stories that revolve around one question, and a single dramatic moral choice is great at a climax, but more often ambiguity requires complexity, more questions surrounding a single issue or theme."

Have you taken a look at my latest article? Might be of interest in regards to your comment above. My article on creating a dialog with players may also be of interest.

Tim Randall
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As I've said before, we have to think carefully when presenting moral choices. If we don't get it right, we run the risk of not offering the player a decision between good and evil. If white-hat and black-hat differ only in making available different conversation options or weapons, if we're just giving the player two sub-games and asking them which they want to play, then we're back to choosing between strawberry and chocolate.

Just in passing: don't look to MMOs to provide the answer. Any moral subtlety or realism in an MMO is a direct result of dealing with real people, who can provide an infinite variety of responses depending on the context, none of which can be labelled as a bug, much less a design failing.

As for the question of how we could best implement moral issues in game design, I think that we're on the right track, but just haven't taken it far enough yet. Recording numbers is the CPU's strong suit, and is a much more cost-effective way of modelling the potential complexities of moral choice than attempting to chart out conversation tree or plot branches that would adequately cover the possibilities. I think where we could do better is (as pointed out above by various folks) to realise that morality isn't measurable by a single number. Games such as D&D have long offered a two-dimensional representation of a character's moral alignment, and the "faction" mechanic has made the important step if extrapolating that idea into N dimensions. I think this is the way to go. A player's past decision making history can be abstracted into a series of sliders which might be labelled e.g. selfish-unselfish, pragmatic/dogmatic, idealistic/cynical, fluffy/spiky, whatever. Moral choices (and there is no reason why any action cannot be tagged as a moral choice under this system) would then affect an arbitrary number of these variables. The reactions of NPCs to the player may be affected by these variables in any way the designer sees appropriate, as may other gameplay features. Fable II made a good start at representing the character's alignment visually, but it never made much difference to how people responded to you. Personally, I would like to see the player character who kills too many people in cold blood developing a hard, cold demeanour which really scares people who meet them. If we can get *there*, then I think we have moral consequence.

Ed Alexander
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In my personal opinion, "Morality" in games are a flawed concept and generally not worth it to pursue because it is often a dictation by the developer with a moral outcome imposed upon the player. I say this, not because I don't think anyone will ever get it right, but because it's traditionally executed poorly and the concept itself is a really big scope that most developers won't get the chance to get it right. The amount of design work I believe to be required to make the shining beacon that everyone thereafter uses as the this-is-how-you-do-it model for morality comes with a metric ton of work.

inFAMOUS is a good example of morality executed poorly in my opinion. First I'll clause that I only really played the demo a few times, read a lot of reviews and discussed the game with people who own it. I figured out that I wanted to be the guy with the red lightning. I prefer the aesthetic value, as well as desire those powers that I feel would better suit me. Goal established, let's get there.

But first, the choices I'm presented through the game will largely reflect what types of choices I'd make as a person and whether or not how to get to the goal. A part of my own personality is I'm a nice guy, and if I see an opportunity or am presented with a choice to help someone, especially if they're innocent or unjustly caught up in a bad situation, it is highly likely I will try and help them. Another part of my own personality is I'm a bit retributive as well. If I'm attacked, I fight back and it's likely I'll rage under the adrenaline and not hold back. If you attack me, I won't show you mercy. These 2 parts of my personality can be projected through the game in the form of resuscitating citizens and finishing off downed enemies.

So in inFAMOUS healing citizens gives you the Good points and finishing off a downed enemy gives you Bad points. But to achieve my goal I specifically have to avoid helping citizens out? And if I were trying to be the "Good" guy I would have to avoid killing the guys who just tried to kill me, and instead try to shackle them to the ground? *sigh* That's not who I am, that's not what I want to do, but to achieve my goal I have to step outside and game the game to get what I want.

Morality often tries to do its own thing or make a statement, but neglects to realize the impact it has on the most important part of the game: the gameplay. As long as I'm trying to play and enjoy the game mechanics, using morality as a means to effect my gameplay will often result in unfavorable views on the game because the game tries to praise me or punish me for not choosing what the designer imposed on me through the moral choice.

And having moral choices with no real effect is just as bad, if not worse. If nothing I choose has any bearing at all on anything, why even offer me the choice to begin with? Because you thought I'd like to think about it? No... I'd rather just keep on playing the game, fighting my enemies, getting stronger, and defeating even stronger enemies. If Little Timmy's cat died because I didn't help it out of the tree and nothing were to come of it, I'd rather not encounter Little Timmy and his cat in the first place. It's detracting from why I'm playing the game to begin with. There's a reason writers don't write about boring parts of a journey where nothing happens.

The only true way (in my opinion) to successfully execute morality in a game is to not look at it in a Right vs Wrong sense, but a Choice & Consequence scenario. And the consequences shouldn't always be of the Reward vs Punishment variety, either. I don't want to feel corralled into picking choices I don't want to make for fear of missing the reward or getting the punishment. In the end, I stop projecting myself through the character in order to continue playing the game and getting the carrots. It really destroys my immersion.

A good example of what I like in a Choice & Consequence scenario actually comes from a game that doesn't even offer morality moments to the player. Valkyria Chronicles gives you a roster of enlisted personnel to take with you into battle, but if they die, they're dead for good. (Though, you can run a soldier to the fallen soldier and call a med evac for them, thereby saving them, but if an enemy touches a fallen soldier or you let 3 turns pass before you evac them, they're permanently gone.)

This completely changed how I played the game, and it did so for the better. It made the game even more deep and strategic than before. Avoiding death became more important than completing the mission because, even if Oscar isn't as good of a sniper as Marina is, my personal feelings of responsibility and comraderie project through and to me his life is just as valuable as hers. Beating the game wasn't enough, I had to beat it without sacrificing my troops.

This is an example of how I would like morality in games to go. It is not Right vs Wrong, it is not an A vs B vs C, it is consequences for the actions I choose to make. I'm making choices based upon what I want to do. I want the consequences of my actions to come to fruition, to live up to my responsibility. Not to have a game tell me "HEY! No. Bad player!" If in the end I receive a "bad" ending or scenario, I would rather it be because I ignored the other potential outcomes and chose for things to unfold as they did, not because I chose predestined "bad" things, so "bad" things need to happen to me to teach me I was "bad."

Morality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Not everyone likes to have someone else's definition pushed onto them.

Ed Alexander
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Also, I forgot to bring it up, but on the subject of factions I feel it would be best served if they weren't bars with Hated on one end and Exalted on the other. That's two dimensional, and while effective for gameplay, it is not effective for immersion and in depth moral dilemmas the player needs to weigh on.

Instead of a bar, I think a radar chart would be a better choice, even though more complicated to design and implement. Have there be multiple directions in which your actions change how the game responds to you.

Let's say a particular race doesn't take kindly to strangers, but they don't hate you! They don't want to kill you. But you want them to open up to you, they have this awesome weapon only they can provide you and boy do you ever want that sweet axe! And it just so happens there are vikings who are constantly attacking, razing, raping and pillaging this race's capital city. They appreciate any acts done towards the vikings because my enemy's enemy is my friend.

So you can capture the vikings and bring them to the paladins who can deal with them. This makes the paladins really like you for upholding their moral code of conduct! But might also make your enemies think of you as a pansy little paladin and the really evil ones hurt you more because they hate your kind and attack you with that much more hate towards you.

Or maybe you kill them and report their deaths to the paladins. Perhaps they don't particularly care for your method of justice, but it is justice served all the same. You're doing them a favor and they didn't have to see it. Out of sight, out of mind, you know?

Or maybe you just brutally decimate those vikings, crushing skulls, razing buildings and wearing cut off ears as fetishes. You're ruthless and you exude an aura from you that makes people inherently fear you. Those paladins still appreciate your efforts, they just don't necessarily like how you dish it out. Maybe they look at you in disdain while the townsfolk secretly whisper about how they are scared of you... But they still appreciate your efforts and you are still becoming their friend! Just one with a necklace of bloody viking earrings hanging across your chest. And maybe vikings fear you, meaning you dominate them a little bit harder in combat because they don't want to have their ears across your chest.

Morality often encompasses more than "this is good, that is bad" so it seems silly to continually make morality in games reflect so few possible outcomes that end up resulting in NPCs liking you or not liking you. True depth will come when you can achieve the same end but with multiple paths or responses to getting there.

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Here is our moral questions: "Continue?", "Load Game?", "Checkpoint Reached!", and "Save?", those are our moral decisions in ANY game: Fallout, Deus Ex, Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls, or Mass Effect. How can we expect our games to have any kind of moral choices if someone can abuse the system to get the outcome they want? Would real life have any moral decisions at all, even given its complexity, if we could just load up our last save point and start fresh? It's pretty simple if you ask me, you have to make the game hardcore, like life, or your moral decisions boil down to the questions above no matter how complex they are. So sorry to say, but as long as we're actually moving the opposite direction to "casual" friendly or easy, as little time lost as possible with each decision mechanics, I don't see us achieving what is talked about here.

Ryan Pendell
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I love this article - and the comments. It's very exciting to think about. A few thoughts:

- How do habits form people so that they are limited in given directions -- say, someone who has spent their life caring for the poor *cannot* harm them. Or someone who has developed habits of abusing others *cannot* stop himself. Perhaps there are actions that only the purest of heart could actually will to do (or even think of) - or perhaps one could work a character into such cruelty over time that it couldn't be kind even if you wanted it to be.

- I'd like to see a game based on 'utilitarianism' - whatever causes the most pleasure for the most people is good, whatever causes the most pain for the most people is bad. :) You make people feel good and happy, you're good. Cause people pain, you're bad. Cause a few pain for the greater pleasure, you're good. Etc.. Very easy to make into a points system! Read Peter Singer's Practical Ethics.

- Think in terms of 'imitation' - how does the PC 'inspire' other NPCs? Perhaps if an evil player is successful, his presence could turn nearby NPCs into evil or violent people, too - leading to crimes outside of the direct action of the player. For example, if a player does good deeds in a town it might raise up more heroes to ally with him or her later. Don't be surprised if the more you pickpocket, the more pickpockets you see!

- Different actions mean different things to different people. Bedding a wench at the local inn will start a friendship with the innkeeper - but don't think the local priest won't hear about it, and he's got a lot of control over how happy your stay is in said village. Or perhaps you are the local priest!

- I think that one major issue however is that when a player walks into, say, a torture chamber, he realizes that someone designed that--that it's there for a reason, it's a set piece, it serves a function in some way for the furthering of the game. But what really disturbs people about evil is that 'it shouldn't be / doesn't have to be this way.' And there's that feeling that rises up: Something must be done about this! The whole reason people have a Problem of Evil is that it seems to most people that much evil isn't necessary, yet it's here.

- Most morality is lame in games because, well, these are really big questions with complex answers. Is morality a social construction or a universal truth? What exactly is evil? And where does it come from? Is evil meaningless/chaotic or does it come from deliberate human action? What are the actual effects of combat / war? What are the consequences of crime in a neighborhood? And on the other side: What do 'good' people look like in the real world? How does one become a good person in real life? By habit, by force of will, by hanging out with good people, by luck? A game designer who hasn't at least wrestled with these questions isn't going to create a game that takes them into account.

Matt Ponton
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@Adam Bishop: You said, "Another interesting decision is found in Indigo Prophecy. You're walking through a park, when a child who can't swim falls into the water. Your first instinct is to dive in and save the child, but wait, there's a police officer walking up who could identify you as the suspect in a murder investigation. Do you dive in to save the child, but risk getting arrested, or do you walk away and hope someone else dives in? The results of your decision affect the story and your character's psyche, but not a good/bad meter, and as a result, it's a much more emotionally engaging decision. That's the kind of thing games should be aiming for."

I have to admit that when I played Indigo Prophecy for the first time this was my most memorable moment. However, what's interesting to me is the method of which the weight I felt from this scene came about. See, I wanted to save the boy. I really did. I even tried to save him and got him out of the water. Unfortunately, after that point I didn't know you had to go to him and press down on the right stick to initiate CPR. After missing this instance - and thus getting seen by the officer - I ended up having to just walk away, and as Lucas' monologue came up about how much he wanted to save that child my heart felt heavy. It felt heavy at that moment because I too wanted to save the child but unfortunately - from what I knew at the time - I couldn't. It saddened me.

That's my personal experience from that situation, and even though the moral choices are littered throughout the game with its varying storyline, that's the most impactful moment I had. The funny thing is that it was out of the sheer fact that I could try to save him but shortly understood that I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried. I find it really ironic that the most impactful moral decision I had in that game was because I simply wasn't informed easily that I needed to perform CPR to save the kid. One way that I believe the scenario could have been better is if you chose to save him but CPR failed (forced by the dev or failure of QTE) and he dies anyway.

Dr. Elliot McGucken
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The future of gaming lies in rendering the classic moral premise real in video games--infusing it into the sum total of the AI and gameworld, and bringing to life classical ideas which have epic consequences, just as they do in the real world. This is the simplest and most efficient way to exalt story, love, romance, character, and meaning in games.

Consider the classics--the greatest dramatic and poetic art ever created.

Consider Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Inferno. Consider the classic, epic hero's journey.

All of these are founded upon a moral premise which pervades the alpha and omega of the world. The hero must resist temptations to regain his love, as did Socrates.

The bestselling book of stories of all time endures via the moral premises in its pages.

And thus vast opportunities exist for games to learn from the epics and exalt a new paradigm in gaming--to create tomorrow's billion-dollar markets in the realm of character, honor, epic story, exalted art, and classic morality.

What is needed is for the third act's showdown to be tied to the sum total of all the action in a game and a love interest, as it is in A Fistful of Dollars, Homer's Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and Braveheart which are all love stories above all else. The gold 45 Revolver technology accomplishes this in a simple, elegant manner.

What is needed is a third act, a showdown, and a love interest, all of which are united in being won via serving exalted, moral ideas and ideals. The Gold 45 Revolver/Ideas Have Consequences/Moral Premise technologies/patents solve all of this, as well as a glaring design flaw in Fallout 3:

"Self-censorship was the least effective course of action open to Bethesda if they are looking to morally instruct their players. Why not take the route less traveled and try to implement some meaningful consequence, something beyond an essentially meaningless "karma" stat? (YES!! THE KARMA IS MEANINGLESS! WHY NOT INCORPORATE A GOLD 45 REVOLVER WHICH ONLY SHOOTS ZEUS'S LIGHTNING IN THE END IF YOU HAVE BEEN DOING THE RIGHT, MORAL THING THROUGHOUT?)"

--read more here

There is a vast and rising demand to fall in love, exalt/save a hooker by speaking to her of the immortal soul, and wield the Gold 45 Revolver in the third act of the soulless, dumbed-down, boring, morally vapid gameworlds, and shoot Zeus's lightning as the swarms of zombie/vampire/fiatcrat fanboys descend, shrieking their slogans and raging against the universe's moral premises--against romance, marriage, Beatrice, and the classical, epic soul. The nimble, entrepreneurial companies who serve this rising demand for the Gold 45 shall reap billions, while those who serve the corporate MBA arrogance will fade away, as Fallout 3 becomes like playing Combat on a 1981 Atari system. And I do not mean to slight Combat, as at least it was an even fight, and you couldn't just go around killing unarmed women.


Dr. E :)

Eddie Vertigo
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I LOVE this article. This is some of what I think of when I picture games evolving (rather than just better graphics, for example). If we had more of what you mention here, than it would be easier to label video games as art, and that would really help the entire gaming industry overall.

Josh Wilson
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Great article and the comments are especially good.

To me the question that is still unanswered is: when is morality game play (tactics), when is it story-creation, and when is it actually morality? I'm unconvinced that there is anything more than simulated morality, but that simulated morality as game play (I do this to win the game) exists on one end of the continuum and as story-creation ( I do this to see how the story develops) on the other.

If your actions have an effect on the game outcome, then the morality is just another mechanic: you are "nice" or otherwise in order to receive some future benefit. Clever dialoguing helps, as in a couple of the games referenced above, but it still comes out the same: I do this to win the game. On the opposite end would be shaping the story line and character. My decision to save or not save the girl from drowning in Indigo Prophecy (haven't played, as referenced by Matt Ponton) could be a decision about how I want to have the story unfold, not a question of morality. If the recipient isn't real, then the morality is only simulated, and I'm shaping the psyche of my character. But if the game were to quantify the decision and make we "regret" the choice not to save her, then it would move from the story side to the tactics side.

When we're talking about incorporating moral decisions we're really talking about the chance to shape our characters in multiple dimensions, of which morality might be one aspect. Others would be personality, intelligence, etc. This brings us right back around to role playing, and we're a long way off from being able to create games in which you can role play with NPCS. Maybe we'd be better served by focusing on creating environments that engender moral decision making between multiple players in the same game.

Matthew Hanlon
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"Dragon Age is set to pull off something unique in this regard. There's no good or evil slider, only the approval or disapproval of party members, and moral choices have significant story and gameplay consequences."

Unique apart from games that have done it before, e.g. The Witcher which has one of the best system of choices and consequences in games. There was no karma meter, nothing was black or white, the choices you made had effects on characters you had built up relationships with and some choices had real ramifications hours later when it was impossible to just retreat to the last checkpoint because you don't like the outcome. I'd encourage everyone interested in this subject to try it.

As soon as we introduce karma meters people play to be good or evil, with games like Fable the point was to make the choices you would and things would change to reflect that. But because there's a bar people played as evil or as good, it wasn't a reflection - the game changed their play style. Fable 2 tried the multiple axis with good/evil & pure/corrupt - there were instances where the game tried to introduce more interesting choices where you would do something corrupt/evil for the ultimate good.

That's also an area where we fail, because there's only one real path through a game I can be a complete evil bastard and still save the world - see Fallout, Fable, etc, etc, etc.

Glenn Storm
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Thanks for the heads up! You slipped that article in while I was out of the office sick. :) Will read.

David Peterson
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Interesting article, and interesting comments. I agree - the basic two-dimensional measure for your 'moral code', be it good vs. evil, paragon vs. rogue or any other measure is limiting. That was one of the few things I didn't like about KOTOR back in the day - even though Light Side vs. Dark Side is a core part of Star Wars fiction. The choices were a) too black and white and b) not that interesting. It was a mechanic.

A couple of people mentioned the example in Mass Effect where you had to choose between two comrades, and how it was essentially a gameplay/personal taste choice, not a moral choice. This is largely because the two characters were very similar, neither deserved to die, and you had no other option - it was one or the other. A more interesting choice would have been between picking someone you hated but had something you needed vs. someone you loved but didn't have any critical part to play in the plot (greater good vs. personal need, in this case).

Here are some thoughts on some of the topics that have come up above, and gotten me thinking.


More interesting choices would be great. A big part of this is separating out 'good vs. evil' into a larger set of personal values, as has been suggested above. If you can do that, even small choices will contribute to your rating with various values. Even how you earn or spend virtual cash can effect this. A key thing for me would be that these 'value' ratings don't directly limit what powers I can gain in the game, but instead provide different opportunities to use them.

Power in and of itself is rarely a good or a bad thing, rather it is how you use that power. Do you use nuclear power to provide efficient energy or destroy things? Do you use your 'Jedi mind trick' to sneak past check points or seduce the girl of your dreams? Even then, what you use them for could be considered 'good' or 'evil' depending on your perspective anyway - that is the point. The game doesn't cast a moral judgement on you, rather it just records what values your actions indicate you have (or are pretending to have), and chooses interesting scenarios for your value system.


Leading from that, the consequences of choice should be interesting based on your value system. The faction system mentioned by some above is one way this can play out. People in various factions share similar core values, and as you develop in the game, you will (hopefully) gravitate towards one or two of those factions. Other consequences could be more immediate, but should still be interesting. A person showing gratitude because you performed some task for them is not interesting - it's predictable. Throw in some more unusual responses that deliberately tweak _against_ the player's value system.

Also, make failure a real option, at least on the small scale. If your choices can't actually have a personal cost, be it to characters you care about or personal objectives, they become less meaningful. That said, having a choice I make in the first hour of the game come back to kill my game 30 hours later is definitely not fun - unless I knew it was going to have a serious price at the time.


Managing content was indicated as a potential issue. If you are building a game where the player has a lot of options about how, where and what they do things, a lot of the other options will never be seen becausea particular player will never explore that place, or that character option.

However, I'd argue that is a design flaw in and of itself in some ways. The only way for a player to see more of the content in that style of game is through multiple play-throughs with different choices being made in each. Other than the game sucking, there are two main reasons I can think of as to why a typical player would never see the 'alternate' content:

1. Time. Most people don't have time to play a 40 (or even 30 or 20) hour game through to completion more than once or twice. A truly interesting set of choices would require more plays than that to get through them all.

2. Obscurity. Often, the range of paths available isn't made clear, and even if it is, it's often a lot of work to get back to the one interesting choice you wanted to try out. On the one hand, not having the choices so obvious during play-through is a good thing (heck, that's one of the issues with good vs. evil in the first place). On the other, it's too much work to figure out where the interesting branches are.

I think one possible solution to those two issues (and this will only work for some types of games) is this:

Make the game short.

A key thing is to make it clear that there are many paths to follow when you replay the game. Things like:

* Actually spell it out at the end of the game that they've achieved 1 out of 30 possible outcomes.

* Throw a hint about something interesting they might want to investigate next time through that they haven't come across yet in any previous play-throughs.

* Provide a way to jump back into their previous play-throughs at an interesting juncture so they don't have to repeat the whole set of branches up to that point again...

This essentially increases the breadth of the game and shortens the length. But I think it would actually increase the depth of the overall experience. It lets you do some of these things:

* Allow the user to fail (however that is defined). Because it's short, you just try again a different way next time.

* Allow wider variability in paths. If you're not worried about big decisions breaking the end-game 30 hours later, you can provide more options for variety.

* More players will finish the game at least once, and hopefully have a satisfying outcome.

Anyway, enough from me. Again, great article. I'm looking forward to playing games from readers a few years from now. Maybe even my own :)

James Portnow
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Wow. Thanks for the fantastic comments. You guys have given me a lot to chew on.

Steve Jakab
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I'd just like to mention that designers looking to implement moral choices in games should take a look at the first game (that I know of) to do so successfully: Planescape: Torment. One of the main points of the game is to decide who your character is, morally and otherwise. And although the Dungeons and Dragons system the game uses divides morality in into 9 categories (good/evil/neutral and law/chaos/neutral) the designers implemented a lot of choices that fall in between those. Of course even 9 categories are better than the pure good/pure evil most games these days let you be.

Bob Bates
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Designers have been struggling with this issue for years. In Shannara (1995), designers Corey & Lori Cole and I (as producer) created a pivotal decision point for the player that played out legitimately no matter which path the player chose, without judging them for their action. (It was hard!). The choice was this: You had a companion throughout your quest whom (hopefully) you had come to care about. She became mortally wounded, and was going to die regardless of the choice you made. She was uinder a curse that said if she died during the quest, her soul would go into the service of the dark lord. But the player had a "ritual of release" he could perform to kill her himself, but set her soul free. So what do you do? Plunge a dagger into the chest of someone you love in order to free their soul (which, of course, is still murder), or let them live a while longer, knowing that their soul would thus be enslaved. We tried to balance it so that half the people would want to choose one path, while half would choose the other. The Coles and I certainly disagreed - they voted for killing her, while I couldn't bring myself to do it. I got mail for years afterwards saying how difficult that choice was for people - and that made me glad.

Michael Rivera
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Excellent article + comments!

In the end, if a developer really wants to include moral ambiguity in their game, they need to reflect that ambiguity in mechanics. Whether that be through removing (or at least hiding) a games "karma meter" or randomizing the outcome of a moral dilemma, games will never be able to address those "shades of grey" as long as the consequences of a player's choice are easily identifiable.

Michael Rivera
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Excellent article + comments!

In the end, if a developer really wants to include moral ambiguity in their game, they need to reflect that ambiguity in mechanics. Whether that be through removing (or at least hiding) a games "karma meter" or randomizing the outcome of a moral dilemma, games will never be able to address those "shades of grey" as long as the consequences of a player's choice are easily identifiable.

Rob Schatz
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I agree with James that money can be an issue with respect to getting moral ambiguity content into games, but there's a market for simplistic decision-making that makes it difficult to get any traction. However, this may be changing sooner than everyone thinks. I discuss it in my blog here and I'm hoping I can get everyone here to join in this lively debate. I really appreciate everyone's time and thoughts.

Shaan Khan
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I think it's okay to have games that only do good vs. evil. That's what Star Wars is all about--there really is no ambiguity in the films. But the one thing that the films have that the games based on it did not was any difference in terms of difficulty. In any such game, if you want to be good, it has to be harder. Any game that offers the choice, that's the way it has to be. Bioshock was on the right track in this regard, but didn't go far enough--it still ends up give you more adam in the long run if you're good. The only rewards for being good should be immaterial (you saved the girls), and the only rewards for being evil should be material (more adam, more power!). Isn't that what being evil is always about?

For games that don't take the b&w good vs. evil route, maybe they need political systems rather than moral--wouldn't that be a closer reflection of how real-world morality manifests itself? And morality is an element of politics anyway, which would crop up as mentioned in the Indigo Prophecy example mentioned above, just not explicitly defined as a moral decision.

Politics would be great especially for mmos. Leaders of factions could either be elected or have staged a coup to take power. Leaders would make choices that would have real consequences (affirmative action for orcs in Elf country, or whatever), and this would affect the rules by which other players play the game.

One final thought--it would be a good idea for some decisions made early on not to have any immediate consequences, but that lead to dramatic (or subtle) plot twists later in the game at a time when the player may have forgotten about a seemingly minor decision he made early on. Good storytelling always remembers the possible impact of any choice made by the protagonist, bringing it back upon him or her maybe when least expected.

Oh another final thought, maybe the game designers who create games with apparently moral choices that have no effect on the outcome are trying to tell us that choice is an illusion. Free will does not exist! They're being more philosophical than you realize.

Mike Scott
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Don't make it a good or evil play, make it a repercussion play. ie- If the character shoots everyone, good guy or not, no one wants to work alongside them because they've "all heard the stories" Then give the player a chance to earn/redeem themselves..

Don't make it a clearly defined roadmap, with clearly defined decisions, just take casual player choices and give them weight in regards to interactions with other characters.

This aids in the ambiguity and yet delivers new gameplay based on choices that were made, without offering new gameplay areas, etc. It helps determine HOW the game plays out, but not WHERE. Thereby perhaps delivering some alternate dialog, or character programming loops, but these are far less expensive options.

I think it would be best to reward the player for their choices, and not really directly tell them what they did. It helps with immersion. It's also interesting if the players later discuss an interaction that went differently for each of them:

"Remember those dwarves..? I hated those guys!"


"They were hard to kill and had those weird grenade things they'd use on you.."

"Woah.. why were you fighting them? They're the ones that gave me the armor!"

"You had armor on that level?"

"Yeah.. they came out to meet me, and then we stayed with them, partied, trained and stuff.."

"Huh? Those guys kept coming after us as soon as we hit the mines."

In real life, actually stopping to make a moral decision is less likely than you might think.

For example, I haven't been directly approached by a homeless guy I had to react to in about 4 years. However, every week, while commuting to/from work, I pass by folks that have broken down in their cars. Some days, I help, most days I barely notice.. I have never been "rewarded" for stopping to help, I was merely empathetic for the people that were stuck on the side of the road, and the only reward was the act itself, and perhaps the only change created by my actions might be the elevation of myself in the eyes of those folks that are with me, or waiting for me.

None of the folks around me would have thought less of me for passing by the stranded motorists like everyone else, but they might think I'm exceptional for stopping to help.

In reality, good deeds like that make no difference except that the folks around me treat me differently. In game terms it adds quite a bit of depth to do that sort of thing. It makes the AI look far more dimensional when they seemingly react to your character doing things.

Andrew Brown
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"Although it seems to be a contradictory statement, I think the only way to make moral decisions feel meaningful is to make them not be meaningful; that is, to untie them from gameplay mechanics. As long as morality is one of your character's stats, either as a single axis or a big list of factions or whatever, players will powergame their way to the ideal score." - Simon Ludgate

When I read this, the game that immediately came to mind for me was Morrowind. I'm actually surprised no one has mentioned it so far. I think a lot of people played that game in a morally ambiguous way even though it isn't exactly built into the game mechanics that you HAVE to make any moral choices at all. You simply have a lot to gain from killing people, but you can get caught and you can also end up needing that person for a quest or as a vendor later so you had to make trade-offs without immediately knowing whether you made the correct decision. It could definitely be taken further though; as people have already mentioned, the decisions you make could actually cause change somewhere else in the game world.

Sande Chen
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2007's PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, was known for its meaningful moral choices. The game is marketed around the tagline: "There is no good, no evil... only decisions and consequences."

-the-witcher/ for discussion on Act I's choice of letting villagers kill the "witch" or letting her live. The "witch" however is not so innocent, but neither are the villagers.

Since the player will not know the consequences of choices until many hours down (in this case, Act IV), the player needs to make up his/her own mind as to what to do.

Luciano Lombardi
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Great article, really interesting topic:

I know that it is most likely that many have already here know what I am going to say, but maybe some of you haven't played it.

Arcanum (of steamworks and magic obscura) by the company Troika has a really interesting system of moral choices. It has a mix of many systems that have been discussed here, both in 'moral' systems and in the design license of being able to create content that the player will not see (even after several replays)

Although there is a visible metric right in your character sheet of Karma value (ranging from -100 to 100 if I remember correctly), but it isn't completely deterministic, because each NPC has a 'like you' value.

This value determines many things like available options and dialogue outcomes. What is interesting here, is that the former karma metric is just one of many other aspects that play a role in this 'like you' value.
Your previous conversations, your decissions in previous quests, your 'faction' value (how much does the overall city likes you), your race, your skills and even the clothes you are wearing.

Anyway, apart from the moral system on its own, I highly recommend those who haven't played this game to give it a look. I believe that there are some really interesting moral choices well written in there, without always falling in black and white situations (even some have that 'uncertainty' that has been talked about in the comments, but I don't want to spoil the twists in the story or even in minor quests the game has)