Wednesday, June 03, 2009

You must choose, but choose wisely. Or don't. It doesn't matter.

Above: It's good advice, no matter what the situation.

Morality systems in games are the new hotness. From BioShock's dilemma of whether to harvest or save Little Sisters, to the stacked ethical considerations of Fallout 3, it seems that game designers are interested in making players question their own actions. This is a good thing. While I like a brainless action game as much as the next guy, you can only accept so many attaboys for your genocidal prowess before you start to feel yourself covered in an indelible goo of wickedness.

So I appreciate inFamous's attempt at a moral dimension. After your character, Cole McGrath, becomes superpowered, his actions affect the way the citizens of Empire City perceive him. Kill civilians indiscriminately, and they will fear you. Save them, and they will grow to love you. Not only does it make sense, it also fits organically into the flow of the gameplay. Pedestrians writhing on the sidewalk are a common sight at Empire City. It's up to you whether to stop and help, or cruise right on by, and whatever you choose to do will matter, on some small level.

It's the big-money "karma moments" that seem shoehorned onto the proceedings. And it's these decisions that ultimately make the difference in whether Cole becomes a hero or a villain. The action stops, an icon appears onscreen, and Cole growls about the choice before him. In almost every case, the decision is contrived and simplistic, without offering any important gameplay consequences. "I could help this guy, or not," basically. Sometimes it's even less difficult than that. There are some choices where you can kill bad guys in order to earn power-ups called blast shards, or kill good guys to earn blast shards instead. Agonizing.

Part of the problem is that blast shards aren't nearly tempting enough to provide a real pull toward the dark side. Cole collects them to increase the size of his power meter, which is important, but not once in the course of gameplay did I ever feel in danger of running out of juice at an important time.

The other, bigger problem is that inFamous steers clear of ambiguity. Choices are obviously good or obviously bad, even when you get the feeling that the designers didn't plan it that way. There seems to be no admission that sometimes a moral choice can be good and bad, or that it can have unintended consequences. When Cole does good, the people love him. I was reminded of the Hamlet-like depth of Spider-Man, in comparison -- when Peter Parker does good, people still hate him!

Further still, the game rewards monomaniacal pursuit of the all-good or all-evil path by reserving some of its most potent powers for players who've stuck with one or the other. All of the game's karma moments lead up to one big decision near the end, which should be a tough choice but from a utilitarian point of view isn't difficult at all. If you've spent all your time pursuing one path, the decision is easy to make.

The idea almost certainly was to make players question all of the actions they'd taken in the game to that point, which is a worthy goal. But because the game's good-or-evil framework necessarily means that the storyline has to make sense no matter which path you choose, it's impossible for the consequences to be as momentous as they should be. inFamous actually disregards some of the choices you make. You make an ostensibly difficult decision, and then the plot says, psych! After all, you still have to beat the boss and finish the game.


Gary A. Lucero said...

Although I doubt I've played every game that has morality choices, the only one I have played that made sense to me was Mass Effect.

You can never be truly evil in Mass Effect, which makes total sense considering most games where you can be evil still expect you to save the world or only slap your hand when you are. Some, like the original KOTOR, had a single decision point where being evil mattered.

In Mass Effect you can be the "good" good guy or you can be a total jerk. You can punch and kill people who get in your way, and since you are the commander and a Specter, no one in your command can honestly stop you or leave your command.

To me this seems reasonable, and it's very enjoyable to do things like tell an interogation subject that they can no longer live once you are through with them, or agree with your subordinates that Wrex, one of your own crew, is a threat and needs to die.

Freedom to do good or evil is fine, but it has to make sense within the game world, and as far as I'm concerned, Mass Effect is one of the few that has done it right. It amazes me that more people haven't seen the brilliance of the system.

Simon Ferrari said...

@ Mitch: As a philosophy major on his way to a PhD in games studies, it's interesting for me to see what journalists like you, Tom Chick, and Simon Parkin have to say about ethics and games. Journalists have their own code of ethics, so to speak (at least they have a shared value system based in verification and reducing bias, etc.), and it's fun to see which ethical systems in games they relate to and which ones they don't.

*SPOILER paragraph* Surprisingly, I think you're the only journo who mentioned utilitarianism (or any actual ethical system) by name. And you're totally right--of course, the game pretty much implies it straight up, so you really would have to be a dick to go the selfish option. I would say that they could have designed it a little better (maybe 1 to 2 ratio instead of 1 to 6) to make it more juicy. I will state that even if the choice had been 1 to 1, there are some ethical systems, such as Kant's categorical imperative, that would have demanded the same "good guy" choice. The problem, of course, is labeling it "good" and "evil." The choice is, quite literally, beyond good and evil. Sith Lords aside, there's nothing evil about passion and love. It's a matter of what you see as important.

@ Gary: Mass Effect definitely was more about being a dick versus being a nice guy than it was about being black-and-white "good" or "evil," which was a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, just as in this game (and most, except for Bethesda games really), the fucking UI designers color-coded the choices for you. Like, really?

@ Both: My biggest problem is the idea of the binary choice. In real life, there aren't really binary choices like there are in the great philosophical dilemmas. This is a sign of unnatural structure being imposed on the game world by the designer (or the writer), and I don't like it much at all. I want at least five choices for any given situation, even if they don't "affect" much of the game world. And I don't want color coding.

Looking forward to seeing what you write the next time a game with ethical choices comes out. Hopefully by then I'll have read Sicart's new book on Games and Ethics and will have more to talk about!

Gary A. Lucero said...

Simon, I agree that developers need to make things a little more nebulous. I am on my sixth playthrough the Mass Effect and I find myself more and more irritated with the conversation interface and the fact that it's simple phrases map rarely poorly sometimes to what the character actually says.

But I do like the way Bioware handled its morality system and hope that they continue to evolve it. For me it seems like the best one to date.

Brian said...

I'm still trying to decide if I'd rather they left the 'choice moments' out altogether, or just not made them so interruptive. Even if Cole voiced them over as you approached an objective, I think it'd feel less hokey, and you'd be free to do whatever you wanted.

I'm curious if I'd like the actual moment-to-moment action of the game any less if you just chose from the beginning. You pointed out that to become fully powered, you really have to commit to one side or the other, so I chose immediately and am sticking with it solely to get to the higher level powers. It's no longer a decision.

Maybe an interesting choice would have been to make it simply a 'two games in one' style storyline, where your first choice is a big one and sets you down a course permanently, with good and evil different enough to make you want to go back through again later to see the other possibility.

Simon Ferrari said...

@ Brian: If they'd done what you suggested, I may have actually played it through twice! As it stands though, there's no way I'm going to shoot people in the head with lightning for ten hours again just to see the "evil" last two hours of the game, you know? I probably should've done a few saves at key points.

@ Gary: I agree with you that Bioware is in general really good for this kinda thing (with the one caveat that I like Bethesda more, especially You Gotta Shoot Em in the Head! and Oasis in Fallout 3). That said, I think Mass Effect is a step backward from Kotor and Jade Empire, which I write about here a bit (second para after the Fallout picture):

Gary A. Lucero said...

Simon, I disagree that Bethesda does it better. I will admit that Fallout 3 is much better than Oblivion as far as story and quests go, and Oblivion is much better than Morrowind.

And I do think some of the quests are great in FO3. Their dialogue is so much better now, and questing is more fulfilling. But they lack cinematic flare and outside of achievements, being good or evil has little consequence.

For instance, in my third playthrough of FO3 I chose to put the stuff in the water supply to kill off the mutants and other non-pure beings and I've seen little consequence from this action.

And while FO3 gives you a montage with little weight at the ending, the ending of ME is based on your decisions in the game.

Both great games, two of my all-time favorites, but overall I think Bioware is the better at delivering story that matters.

Simon Ferrari said...

@ Gary: I think we agree but have subtly different tastes. Cinematic flair completely turns me off. But you're totally right about the ending of FO3: total crap. Beyond total, disappointing crap. That said, my judgment of ME is entirely based on it being not as interesting to me as their previous games. After thinking about it I saw why you liked it better though: in Mass Effect it's about believability, while in Kotor and Jade Empire it's about choice affecting gameplay directly. Only thing I don't agree with is that the ending of ME differed at all. I'm pretty sure there's only two choices that affect the end, and that they occur just before the final boss fight and directly after it (I only played it three times through to your six, though!). One determines whether the Council dies, the next determines what happens to the Admiral guy.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, sorry for turning this isn't a totally different discussion...


I love all Bioware games except for the original NWN, which was weak, but I guess in some ways the setting in ME combined with more developed character development and combat systems, both just about absent in Jade Empire, and a little overwrought in KOTOR, made it the best console RPG they've made yet.

I loved KOTOR but the good/bad stuff was just stupid, and Jade Empire was fabulous and to be honest, I don't remember if it bothered with morality at all.

And as far as Bethesda/FO3 goes, they do a good job of shutting out certain areas if you're good, or making certain groups attack you based on your morality, and as far as pure role playing goes, I think FO3 rocks. You can definitely get inside it and do what you want and feel like you are in the game.

I guess Mass Effect was just the first game where I could role play being good or bad and like you said, it felt believable and it felt like it impacted the story and had weight.

It's all good stuff, that's for sure.

Simon Ferrari said...

Yeah, sorry Mitch! Though I guess if anything this just hammers in any sentiment that Infamous is completely inept as ethical interactive storytelling :P

@ Gary: I definitely end up defending the character development in ME. You're totally right that, as far as developing a team of personalities goes, ME succeeds in spades if you're willing to put the time into conversing with your teammates and doing side missions, etc. Jade Empire was definitely more subtle than Kotor, but it had this Open Palm, Closed Fist dichotomy that was basically the Jedi/Sith divide for mystical martial artists :) As a ludologist, I just prefer if choices affect gameplay (read: allowable powers) directly, though I admit it harms believability and subtlety in narrative a lot.

Mitch Krpata said...

Hey, gotta follow the thread where it leads!

Going back to Brian's comment, it does seem that the thematic question of inFamous is what you'd be willing to do for power. Cole, Zeke, Kessler, and Alden all wrestle with that to some degree. And so you could probably make the argument that that's the point -- that once you've gone far enough down a particular path, even if it's the "right" one, that you lose the capacity for moral reasoning because your priority is the accretion of more power. I don't think the game successfully communicates this, just because I never did care about the story or the characters, but it could have been the intention.

I wish I could weigh in more on Mass Effect, but I had so much trouble playing that game that I've banished it from my mind. But it does seem like the distinction isn't whether your Shepherd is good or evil -- he's always good -- but whether he's compassionate, or the "judge, jury, and executioner" type.

Eleni said...

Joining in the Mass Effect discussion...

I also thought the morality choices in Mass Effect were very well done. Yes, they practically color-coded it, with the top choice always being the "paragon" option and the bottom choice being "renegade", but--and I say this as someone who usually cannot stand to be mean in games--even I sometimes found the paragon options wholly dissatisfying.

There are some quests that you can't get if you always insist on making paragon choices, there are lose-lose situations (e.g., either innocents die or the baddies escape), and there are situations where neither choice seems like a particularly "nice" thing to do (e.g., either honor your deal and let a crime boss run her relatively tame crime operation or kill her). I suppose in most cases your choices don't matter beyond the end of the quest, but they do at least make you stop to think. As someone accustomed to doing the "right thing" in games, it is refreshing when I find myself unsure of what is "right".

It's true, though, that even in Mass Effect, you're never given many different choices. There are some exceptions (often offered by Charm/Intimidate skills), but yes, it is very rare to get more than two options in one situation: be nice, or be mean. I'm sure it's complicated for the game designers to offer too many branching options, but they could make more of an effort.

I can't really compare BioWare fairly to Bethesda since the only Bethesda game I've played is Morrowind (which I found pretty soulless in terms of "plot"). Oh, and hi, I'm new here. Sorry, Mitch, for continuing the tangent; I like moral dilemmas but I don't know Infamous.

Mitch Krpata said...

Some day I'm going to have to try Mass Effect again, preferably with a walkthrough.

Krystian Majewski said...

Mass Effect is no more sophisticated than other binary good/evil systems. The results are just presented in a more believable way. Good writing but the same poor structure.

By the way, I think the Ending DOES differ depending on how many Paragon/Renegade points you've collected. I think remember seeing both good/evil versions of the dead council ending.

I'm just playing Fallout 3 I and so far I totally agree that it is more complex. It does boil down to karma points in the end but the means of how to produce them as far less symmetrical.

And another great game that had a nice ambiguous, binary decision: Grand Theft Auto 4. It's full of "kill/let him run" choices but the last decision was different. There were no clear "good/evil" indications, just different ideals to follow. I loved that!