A not so conventional morality system

Warning: Any pretentious  undertones that might seem to appear rather obvious in this post (and entire blog) are just a product of your rampant imagination, dear reader.

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I’ve always liked the idea of moral choice in games but despised how they are normally implemented: A single bar or score indicates how good or bad the player has been. It took me a while to find why this oversimplification didn’t work for me: Besides trivializing the whole deal into a single variable, I can safely say that what bothers me the most is that the game dictates what’s good and what’s evil and tells you about it in the least subtle way known to man: Via a HUD indicator.

You did the right thing! Here’s 5 messiah points. Who’s a good boy? Yes, you are!

You did something very despicable, you, evil you. Here’s 7 baby eating points. May your path be filled with fire and sulfur.

It’s insulting to the player’s intelligence. What if there was an abortion quest? Or maybe a “Good of the many” storyline? How would the game respond to that?

You just did something that we are not sure if it’s Good or Evil, and since we don’t have any rewarding schemes for anything in between we will compromise: 10 evil points and 10  good points for you! Congratulations! Now stop trying to break our neat one-dimensional system and go play with your guns. Remember: Shooting enemies good, shooting innocent people baaad. We’ll still let you do it though, only if you are willing to endure our constant disapproval. (Man, this is one long sentence to put in the HUD, isn’t it?)

Good & Evil Babies
Good & Evil! ... Mmmhhh, actually they both seem evil to me. Especially the one on the right. The innocent looking ones are the ones you need to watch out for. One second they are taking a nap, the next they're biting down on your ankles. At least when they have fangs and red eyes you KNOW that they're evil, so they won't catch you off-guard.

Mass Effect takes this idea and improves upon it by a little bit: Instead of having a Good and Evil meter, the morality system has Paragon and Renegade extremes. So instead of being outright evil you’re just a jerk, and instead of being God’s gift to mankind you’re just some dude who tries to do “the right thing”. It still feels condescending and sometimes utterly broken, but hey, an improvement is an improvement!

Anyway, that’s the reason why I always took a liking to the idea of personalizing morality systems: Instead of the game itself (and by extension the developers) telling the player what’s good or bad, it’s the characters themselves the ones who react in a positive or negative way and everything in between. Killing this dude right here will make that dude’s family angry but the rest of the town will love the player because everybody hated the now dead guy and they’re all strangely comfortable with murder and vigilantism.

You could take this very basic idea (though not so easy to implement, mind you) in a lot of different directions. Gareth in this post here proposes a favor system where by doing certain actions the player gains favor points that are specific to characters and/or factions. For example, selling things to the shopkeeper might net the player some favor points with him which can be spent on discounts or some rare items. On the other hand, killing his cat is going to set the player back more than a few points. It sounds simpler than it actually is, so please go and read Gareth’s post on the subject for a much more in-depth look at this idea in particular.

Now, I’m not here to rain on his parade or anything of the sort, but I do have to say that the system Gareth proposes is a not quite up my alley as a designer. The game would rely heavily on the quality of the writing to make things interesting, because the mechanics are basically just a reward system …. and that is not how I lately approach game design. The mechanics in and off themselves have nothing special to them and give little to no opportunity for interpretation or play. They don’t bring much added context to what the player experiences from moment to moment. It’s… kind of difficult to explain, now that I think about it. I guess you could say that this favor system Gareth muses about feels like it lacks personality. It’s a game design that feels too much by the numbers for my liking. It’s too functional, too … “mainstream”, if I do say so myself.

Chocolate Easter Bunnies Stabbing Fork Fake Blood Evil
Here we can appreciate Gareth's reaction to what I just wrote. I kind of expected a worse response, so ... yeah, awesome. Now, if you'll excuse me, me and my -5 points of health are going to take a little nap now.

Would I want to play a game that implemented such a system? You betcha. Would I design such a game? Er… probably at one point or another, but it’s not currently my style and I want to explore some other philosophies of design before going back to “functionality first, meaning second” and “relying heavily on the quality of the writing to make things interesting”.

The approach I’m currently thinking about (and yes, this was the initial reason for the this post’s existence) has a more … aesthetic style, inspired by Peter Molyneux. In particular his work in Black & White and the Fable series. In those games there’s always a visual indicator within the world for the morality of the player’s actions. In Black & White , as Wikipedia puts it:

The principle behind the game’s name is the conflict  between good and evil. Nearly every action (or lack thereof) will count towards the player’s image in the people’s eyes. As such, the player may be seen as a heart wrenchingly good god or an utterly evil one. The land and interface will shift according to the player’s alignment. A good god will have a white marble temple, a shining white hand, and a peaceful village filled with light. Conversely, an evil god will have a charred, clawed hand, a black temple sprouting venomous red spikes, and thoroughly terrified villagers.

The same basic idea also appears in the Fable series in the form of the player’s avatar being the one changing in appearance according to the almighty moral compass built into the game.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

Yes, yes, that’s exactly right: I’ve been thinking about the metaphorical implications of having the player’s avatar change in appearance according to how the people on his surroundings see him in real time. And by this I mean that there’s no global morality system that dictates the avatar’s look, the people around the avatar are the ones that have that effect.

At first I was struggling to come to terms with how the hell was I supposed to come up with a way to explain the mechanics of such a thing. I mean, the game needs to average out the feelings of every person near the avatar in order to simplify the data enough to be able to be represented on the avatar’s appearance: Say, you’ve got a guy and a gal next to you. The gal hates you and the guy loves you… what’s your appearance? Well, you’d have to average those two and end up with a neutral look.

How would you explain something like that? Well, actually there’s a simple explanation: People have influence on one another and so, the mere presence of someone that hates you makes you look a little bit worse until that said person leaves. Or maybe not, maybe that influence is permanent and the people around you now like you a little bit less.

But averaging things out is not enough. The simple feelings of love and hate are easy enough to render (yeah, right), so we probably should add a few other emotions that may also be produced by the simple presence of the player’s avatar. For example disgust, annoyance, respect and admiration. All of those things would affect different aspects of the avatar’s look, but we should be careful with exactly what these changes do in order to avoid looking like a clown most of the time (a halo above the head, a running nose, bare feet, aristocrat clothes and whip as a weapon *shudder*).

This idea as it is wouldn’t fly inside a mainstream company, that’s for sure. Not only because of the high costs of making such a system but also because player customization is all the rage these days and having a game that flips that concept upside-down is not exactly welcomed en mass (or in other words: the game probably wouldn’t make any money without a big marketing push).

But that’s besides the point, let’s keep daydreaming here and see what we can do with this idea … Oh, right, I almost forgot to mention: You’re not the only one that changes according to other people’s views. Hoho, of course not. Every single character goes through that exact same extreme makeover. See? and you thought this was an expensive idea before! Now it’ll cost a fortune to just produce the art assets if we go by AAA graphical standards. But nobody in their sane mind would even dare to attempt something like that. If this idea ever comes to fruition then it’ll have to be something pretty abstract. I don’t know if it should be as abstract as The Marriage, but something like that can be done on a shoe-string budget for sure. The programming of such a system will be on the difficult side though, doable but still a pain. Especially because we’ve only talked about the aesthetic changes and nothing about behaviours.

Behaviours… yeah, that’s something I haven’t talked about much in this post, isn’t it? Well, that’s because going into that territory is dangerous in the sense of having to be overly generic and uninteresting or risk having to go into fine details. And this post is already long enough, so let’s just say: Yes, people react differently to the player’s avatar and other characters depending on their specific feelings towards one another. It’s both, simpler and more complicated than that sounds, but like I said, I don’t want to go into details since how behaviours would work is only tangential to the point of this post… and I have no interesting ideas on the matter just yet, so it would be just me talking on and on about something nobody cares about.

What? Like what I’m doing right now? … shut up. I’ll end this post now before it turns into a bigger uncomprehensibler (me write good) monstrosity than it already is.

Images taken from here and here.

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2 thoughts on “A not so conventional morality system

  1. When you started writing about the typical morality system, i thought for sure you’d bring up Dragon Age, as it does nearly exactly what you’re describing: rather than having a since good/bad-o-meter, what changes is your companions’ view of you, and each has their own opinion. A single action can make one companion like you more and another companion like you less. This was one of my favorite things about Dragon Age.

  2. Diego Doumecq

    Heh, that’s because I haven’t played Dragon Age yet due to my severe lack of home consoles and a gaming PC.
    It does sound like a step forward in the right direction, though I must say I’m a little bit dissapointed that they limited this system to companions instead of having every character react to the player’s actions… yes, I know it’s a compromise due to how gargantuan such a task would be, especially considering the voice actors and game logic necessary to pull it off.
    I guess I’m a “reach for the stars” kind of guy =/

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