On Morality and Making Choices Matter in Video Games

I take my choices in video games seriously. Although their concept of morality is usually nothing more than a ruse to present players with a common thread to characters, I still care about the illusion it generates–repeatedly finding myself entangled in the web of choices that are presented. Moreover, I always find a sense of satisfaction in doing right by my character and surrounding world. I even go as far as to debate both the mundane and monumental at great length before taking any action.

Early on in Rockstar’s most recent release, Red Dead Redemption, John Marston walks into a saloon where he happens upon a man whose wife has left him. In a continuation of an earlier quest, the man explains that he has information to spill if the price is right. In-between sips of gin, he offers Marston the chance to either find his wife and bring her to her senses or to slip him some money instead.

While both choices would move the story forward, they would do it from opposite ends of the moral spectrum although which end each task belonged to was unclear. Erroneously, I chose to help him and would immediately end up regretting this.

Walking out of the bustling saloon, I found his wife just across the road sobbing into her handkerchief. I quickly approached her and explained her husband’s wishes to reconcile. But instead of crumbling at Marston’s southern drawl, she put her feet down; screeching that she would never return to such a scoundrel. Almost at once, before I could even attempt to understand her outrage, the option to threaten her into returning to the saloon through brute force popped up on screen. It was the only choice and I would watch in horror as John Marston brandished a knife in her face.

In attempting to resolve a seemingly innocent marital spat, I’d inadvertently taken the side of a smarmy abuser and returned his wife back into his arms by dragging her there, all the while kicking and screaming.

As a fan of neutral good characters in video games, I found both Marston’s actions and their outcome problematic. For a character with a wife and a child he cherished, a senseless burst of misogynistic violence seemed unjustified even if he was always a little rough around the edges. I was dismayed at Marston’s actions and myself for spurring them on, leaving me with no choice but to reset the game from my last campfire. Next time, when I found myself back at the saloon, I chose the much less eventful option of bribery before continuing on with the game.

Hey, it helped me sleep a little easier at night.

Part of me wonders if Rockstar intended a message with the distinct morality of the choices. If it was better to simply pay money and get out, perhaps they were implying people’s business is their own and I had no right to interfere. After all, a cowboy on a mission of redemption, John Marston had better things to do than get involved with the matters of some stranger’s heart. It is also possible that they had meant it as a dark introduction to the tumultuous world Marston was living in–to show how different the antihero was when compared to the men he was surrounded by. Or maybe it is supposed to show how corrupt a society is when both choices were morally bankrupt and disappointing.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely it meant anything at all which is exactly why it shouldn’t have bothered me so much. I shouldn’t have had to reset the game because I felt guilty–John Marston certainly didn’t lose any sleep. But it did and it always does, in nearly every game in any genre I play.

In BioWare’s Mass Effect 2, my Commander Shepard was a strong leader. She was also a very compassionate one who put her teammates before herself. Due to the game’s place in the RPG genre, she had more choices than Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston, and she strove to do right thing–whether or not it was the popular course of action. With every choice she made, she was strictly Paragon in alignment without even the slightest hint of Renegade. Her morals manifested in both small and large ways during her leadership on the Normandy, but it was ever present.

Her Paragon set of morals changed how I played the game.

For instance, when her friend Garrus sought revenge on a killer who massacred his crew and finally had him in his sniper rifle’s sights, my Shepard stepped in the way of the crosshair to stop him from taking the man’s life. She explained later on that he would have regretted it, but a tension grew between them when he didn’t agree; instead of extra experience or a deeper friendship, her only reward was knowing he would be a better person. And when Miranda became uncertain about her degree of involvement in her estranged sister’s life, my Shepard physically pushed her towards her twin with words of encouragement about family. She knew that Miranda’s life would mean more with this connection in it and that it would help her crew to have resolved their issues before their final battle. Moreover, as a friend, she wanted Miranda to be happy.

In spite of my doubts of their authenticity and subsequent impact, I feel that my version of Commander Shepard is uniquely mine due mostly in part to these choices. While she might be sporting a haircut some other Shepard has and maybe even wearing the same color of lipstick, she’s her own person and she’s been hand tailored to be compatible with my morals. She’s made decisions which have changed her irrevocably and characters treat her differently because of them. She’s changed her world and it was all because of me.

By giving her solutions to her problems and answers to the game’s questions, I have made her mine to some degree. I identify with her. And I want her to help her crew out–because it’s what I would do, if I somehow fell into her shoes.

My hero in Fable was similar, too. He had a halo around his head by the end of the story and he’d saved countless people’s lives. At the beginning of a game as a child, I was given the choice to guard a man’s supplies or help some thugs destroy them. I chose to guard them despite the taunting of my peers because it felt like the right thing to do; I couldn’t bear to face the man after and explain how I’d failed him. My hero had a conscience, even if it was only my own regurgitated into a form suitable for Albion. In inFamous, I even went out of my way to avoid killing innocents although the game’s design made that regrettably hard. And you don’t want to know how seriously I took Niko Bellic’s convoluted road to a better life–I debated over the final choice and whose life to save in the end of the game for hours. I eventually compromised on keeping a save before the checkpoint so I could replay both sides and see how they altered Niko for good (or for bad).

Arguably, choices are standard for role-playing games and they function the best in that type of environment. We also expect them from an RPG more than any other genre. But they’re prominent in other types of games as well, with the earlier mentioned sandbox titles serving as good examples. Choices in a non-RPG seem to be less intimidating on the whole. They are not under often false pretenses that they are impactful and deep–they do not provide agency, they only provide entertainment. And they are seldom beneficial to the plot, frequently even contradictory. While they are not overly serious, they tend to focus on the macabre and more deep issues surprisingly. They usually crop up as life and death choices of minor characters and often stem from seemingly innocuous choices like what weapon to use or what direction to walk in first.

Made in 1998, Dino Crisis is far from a RPG nor an esteemed title like Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s one of a very few games that fit in the uniquely coined Japanese subgenre of Survival Horror called Panic Horror. It’s a Capcom relic from the end of an epoch where camera angles were obscured with great purpose and dramatic music set players on edge.

The premise of the game is basic and predictable, although enjoyable in its own campy way. A soldier named Regina is meant to find a scientist, but her mission turns deadly and prehistoric when a T-Rex devours one of her teammates when they open the facility’s gates. Much of the opening act is spent having the realization that dinosaurs are in existence parlayed to extremes with Jurassic Park references littered throughout and it drags a little in this fledgling state. But it’s forgivable because it has dinosaurs. And, as with Michael Crichton’s creation, science is responsible for this faux pas and they are not peaceful inhabitants of the compound.

Teeth bared and claws sharpened, they lurk in every inch of the map.

Near the beginning of Dino Crisis, Capcom surprises gamers by giving them a character defining moment. Regina has a chance to choose her path and her decision remained with me, even if it had little to no effect on the mostly linear storyline. She is able to decide if she wants to follow command’s orders to continue a search for the scientist or if she wants to save a teammate who has just radioed a S.O.S. Unfortunately the teammate she saves eventually bleeds out either way, it just happens at different times depending on the decision she makes. If she chooses to save him later, he is already dead when she arrives; if she chooses to save him first, he ends up jumping in front of a dinosaur to save another teammate of theirs and gets ripped to shreds. Regardless of the outcome, though, the path gives Regina a little characterization.

In DC, Regina can be cold and callous–or she can be loyal and team oriented. It gives her a little bit of heart even if it doesn’t give the player any agency.

A different Capcom title in the same overarching genre, the remake of Resident Evil for the GameCube mimicked Dino Crisis’ focus on pivotal death decisions. Players are able to choose who lives and dies by certain events being completed in specific ways. If players don’t return Barry Burton’s Desert Eagle that Jill Valentine takes from him earlier, he will never escape the Spencer Estate alive. Similarly, S.T.A.R.S. member Richard Aiken can die in a multitude of situations depending on the player’s actions and their urgency while pursuing them. Although his death is essential to the plotline of Resident Evil, he can be killed in several ways–he can be devoured by a mutated shark or fatally injured from a giant snake. The end point is sadly emphasized on the fact that he dies, however. He is doomed from the minute he steps into the mansion and players are only allowed to choose his death sentence instead of possible redemption.

Another problem is that these choices aren’t really canon for the RE series–and in the case of Barry, may even be paradoxical. Barry saves Jill Valentine in the later occurring Resident Evil 3 and letting him die actually ruins the continuity of that storyline. Although Capcom isn’t known for its perfect timeline, this fact ruins the illusion of choice presented by the game. If a player is playing for the experience, they would do best to give him back his weapon before Lisa Trevor arrives. Unfortunately, if the choice isn’t impacting and permanent, it becomes a waste of time. At least in Dino Crisis, the choice is tangible rather than conflicted.

But the point really isn’t about how they are ineffectual in both RPGs and other genres. To me, gaming’s lackluster presentation of morality is indefensible. The point is instead how they grip us anyway, digging into our psyche time to time and making us weigh our choices even when it has no resonating consequence. I deliberately chose to let Barry die because he had threatened Jill Valentine earlier and fallen to Albert Wesker’s mind games–and I had doled out justice in this sense and felt almost accomplished when he was killed. The only disappointment I had was that it couldn’t carry over to future games in the series. It would be a truly exceptional storytelling device if games could carry over memories from the first, second, and even third title in a series to make the fourth matter that much more.

Features like that are probably what is needed to give decisions and their morality some more bearing on the story. While I know I am not alone in feeling a strong sense of ethics while in any video game world, I also know there’s just as many players who ran through Red Dead Redemption putting every nun they saw on the train tracks instead of going out of their way to help a stranger. I don’t fault them for it, either; I laughed when I saw videos like these and there’s even an achievement for it.

The problem is ultimately that choices are meaningless–and we all cope in different ways. Some of us try to inject more meaning into them than initially came packaged under the game’s cellophane wrapper, while others find hilarity in their unintended lack of morality instead. There is no way to inforce a sense of right in wrong in a video game, and the medium lends no power to the cause with its current implementations.

But this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Games should always be looking for new avenues to showcase difficult choices and their myriad of reactions as well as consequences. In StarCraft 2 when playing a protoss opponent as terran, I know my victory is going to happen after a certain amount of time. The problem is that they also know this. If the protoss player lets me tech up to Battlecruisers or if they take severe losses to my initial push of Marauders and Marines, they will be defeated in due time. They also cannot allow me to expand past a second base. This means that they are constantly reinventing ways to sideswipe me as if engaged in a complex game of chess. From Stalkers to Void Rays, they can choose to confine my units in a variety of different ways and stop expansion. Then, using storm drops or Phoenix harassment, they can set back my SCV production. There is no linear path to victory in a StarCraft 2 multiplayer match.

Morality in games should do what SC2 does in a ludic sense, only for a narrative–they should analyze and change the choices being offered depending on a player’s response, always having a surprise or two up their sleeve in the form of a consequence for a certain move.

If I dislike harvesting Little Sisters in Bioshock and the game notices after a repeat aversion to this, it should put me in a position where I am forced to harvest one–or else lose something very meaningful to me. There should be a cause and effect, a sense of outrage that I must change my pattern against my will. I should have to fight for the ability to save them, or else cave into what the game wants me to do and feel defeated as if I’ve lost my pride when I harvest a Little Sister for the first time. As it is, it’s a canned response because harvest or save them, the rewards and punishments are virtually the same; while they are wrapped up in a different package, both benefit players in the same way.

In addition to making sisters harder to save, they should do the opposite for a player who has been repeatedly harvesting them. A player who continuously uses them should, at some point, find it harder to harvest a Little Sister. This could be done, perhaps, by a special Little Sister that emerges and causes possible problems down the road if the player harvests it for ADAM. Essentially, Bioshock should have a moral compass in its AI. It should punish, reward, and otherwise judge you repeatedly–whether you’re bad or good. Most games seem comfortable to only punish one morality if at all. More commonly, they do neither for either path, making it completely ineffectual.

If nothing else, it should at least remember your choice pattern and make it have a history. Mass Effect 3 has been rumored to be considering this as a core element of its gameplay. If the second one is any indication, it might make some strides there–certainly, ME2 does well by remembering Shepard’s choices about past lovers and acquaintances even if it’s not quite enough. When Shepard is encountered by an agent on Illium in the Nos Astra exchange, she’s offered a chance to help her out and shut down a shady weapons dealer depending on her actions in the previous game. If even more details are remembered like this and if even bigger consequences are given to smaller things, the game can truly rise above in what will already be a solid trilogy.

It can make an even bigger impact–and that’s an idea that excites me.

Games need impact. The fact is that for years, morality has been easy to ignore. While choices matter to me, it’s because I make them matter. I get sucked in where others don’t. I wanted everyone who played Fallout 3 to experience the destruction that was Megaton, but not everyone did. A good concept in theory, Megaton is an area that can be blown off the map for a sum of money or experienced to its fullest as a lively quest hub, depending on the player’s goals and motivations as well as their alignment. Unfortunately, it fails in its execution because the quests can be completed and then it can be nuked–it renders itself useless and morality by proxy.

If only it could either be nuked or experienced and not the possibility of both. It could have been morality in games done right and on a nuclear scale.

Gaming is getting close, but it is still weighed down by moral ambiguity and unrefined choices. More thought, more depth, and more attention to detail is needed if it wants to have the same impact as other mediums. But it’s starting to get close. We have come a long way from the classic good versus evil of Mario and Bowser–we’re just not there yet.

Ashelia