Laevatein’s Campfire Tales: The Naughty or Nice List in Games

Hello everyone, it’s Laevatein, and I’m back from the dead! Or for a more mundane answer, I’m back from my hiatus. Anyway, it’s Christmas Eve, and Santa is probably still going over his list to see who’s naughty and who’s nice (he’s gotta check it twice, after all). You know the drill though, whoever’s nice gets good gifts, and whoever’s naughty gets coal (or Windows phones or whatever people consider lousy nowadays (I’m joking about the Windows phones part)). Now, as a guy who writes about games, I think talking about how morality works in games is a pretty fitting choice for a post on Christmas Eve. I mean, how much more meta can you get than Santa?

For those of you wondering what I meant by Santa, picture your standard video game morality system. You’re given several options, which usually boil down to something overwhelmingly good, something overwhelmingly evil, a neutral option, and sometimes varying shades of good or evil. For instance, if a girl asks you to a rescue a cat from a tree, you can either do that, do it and give her a piece of candy afterwards, ask her how much she’d pay him for his work, tell her to take a hike, or set the tree on fire.

Where does Santa play into all of this? Well, he sees what you did, and gives you points accordingly. Then he tallies up all your points, and assigns you a grade, naughty or nice (let’s forget about neutral for a moment). Sound familiar? Yup, it’s your standard game morality system.

This system is present in many games, such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and inFamous. Even games that are otherwise quite respected in the video game world have this system, like Bioshock and Dishonored. Let me outline where it makes sense to have a binary morality system (even if only slightly so), and where it doesn’t make sense. In universes where one can be judged for their actions, binary morality makes sense.

In Knights of the Old Republic, binary morality makes sense because it fits into the universe. There is a Light Side and there is a Dark Side; there is the Jedi and there is the Sith. My thoughts on the universe aside, Knights of the Old Republic makes sense. Knights of the Old Republic 2, for the record, is also well appreciated, as it injects some much needed realism into this system.

Games in the Dungeons & Dragons universe use the nine-point alignment system because they fit in the universe, and the universe is built with this system in mind (it has entire worlds designed around these alignments). The famous D&D games even add additional systems like reputation, or apply morality on a much more realistic scale.

So what happens if you’re on an edge?

Once we get to games like Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Bioshock, things start to become a little weird. Which entity in Jade Empire is saying without a doubt I’m open-palmed? How does anyone know just how Paragon and Renegade I am? Why am I getting a bad ending in Bioshock, even if I wasn’t an absolute saint? And in most of these games, how does everyone in the world know exactly how good or evil I am?

Of course, that’s not the only problem. It is pretty much impossible to sum up a character by a single, double, triple, whatever sliding bar. No binary system will ever properly sum up someone’s motivations and interests. Binary morality systems don’t even work as representations of what other people think of you. Even if it’s just an average, this still doesn’t make sense, because it simplifies and systemizes a lot of information into something meaningless for everyone except the player. I suppose that’s not technically a bad way to design things, but it is similar to the justifications used to defend power fantasies, for instance.

Rather than use intangible concepts for our characterization systems, I would like to see more social systems. Why deal with a system that will only make sense on a level we are still theorizing about when we can deal with a system that reflects what goes on in our day to day lives? It’s easier and more believable to categorize what other people and groups think of you rather than what some higher authority thinks of you.

Funny how one of Bioware’s more generic-at-a-glance games has some of their better systems.

Dragon Age: Origins, for instance, eschews all traces of Bioware’s beloved systems, and puts in one that tracks solely what your party members think of you. While I would think it’d be better if more characters than the ones in your immediate party were represented, this system is a step in the right direction. You’re not given points in some intangible moral direction, your choices instead affect what your party thinks of you. Your party members also have different wants and interests, and often argue and disagree with each other.

This system is not only more believable, as it makes more sense to assess what someone thinks of you rather than assess what everyone or some entity thinks of you, but it affords both you and the characters themselves more agency. It affords our characters more agency because it removes the shackles of game morality (which often penalizes the player for not following the system wholly), and it affords characters more agency because it allows their interests and motivations to shine more.

Though one can easily game Dragon Age’s system through excessive gifting and other silly things, it still has more of what I’d like to see. Even better is something like Alpha Protocol, a game which is practically built on choice and consequence, and has the best system, in my ability. Say what you will about the game’s combat and bugs, but the way the game handles characters, plot, dialogue, and character approval systems is almost perfect.

Alpha Protocol does something akin to Dragon Age’s system, though it does it on a much larger scale, as you can track what the entire cast thinks of you. And I don’t mean by a sliding bar; each and every character in the game has their own approval of you. Though each character has their own interests, how they interact with you is governed by what they think of you.

See this guy? He’s a random dude. How you deal with him has consequences with major characters.

Essentially, Alpha Protocol allows characters as much agency as possible, and though you can game the system by getting everyone to like you, it makes sense in universe, and is also something people try to do. While dialogue primarily affects what characters think of you, it’s not so easy as to pick every attitude you think they may like, as what they like and what they don’t like is based on the context of your dialogue choices.

The end result is a game that so much branching dialogue and plot, it actually accomplishes what other games only advertise. It stands to reason that a system based on people’s perception and assessment of you will grant you more agency than a system with standard game morality. Even though Dragon Age’s plot is pretty linear, it still allows for more agency than games that use game morality.

Or games could be more like the Witcher series, and eschew any sort of system. Games with only choices and consequences, and maximum amount of agency? Mm, now that’s one present I’d love to receive.

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A mad scientist who's so cool!


A mad scientist who's so cool!

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