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In a game of moral choices, do players really want to be neutral?

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I remember reading a survey years ago on the players of masseffect. One of the questions was what alignment people played as. And a vast majority of people played as a Paragon. A tiny minority played as Renegade. And almost no one played neutrally. Mass Effect 1 and 2 were designed with the option of neutral responses in mind, they’re almost always available, but almost never chosen. The games actively penalise players who choose to be neutral in the later parts of the games by restricting them from options which resolve conflicts cleanly – in order to access these options, players must be sufficiently paragon or renegade. I couldn’t find many people who had ever pursued a neutral stance, and of those who did, all had done it experimentally after multiple playthroughs, not on their first. Almost everyone opted to be good on their first playthrough. When Mass Effect 3 came out, almost all neutral replies had been removed, and players were furious, despite the fact that they almost never used those options. They never intended on being neutral in Mass Effect 3, they just liked the thought that they could.

This seems to be a symptom of most moral choice based games now. There is a constant push for choices to be less binary, to be more complex and grey, but players don’t seem to want to be grey themselves. Whether it’s because being good is a part of human nature for most of us, or simply because we have been taught that kindness is always rewarded and cruelty always punished, it’s hard to day. But there is no reward for neutrality, in any game. It is often seen as a wasted choice.

I only realised this when playing Disco Elysium. Even though the game tries not to present options as outright good or bad, players will try to break down those choices and their potential consequences, and figure out which ones are the most benevolent, or evil. As if there’s still a good or evil choice, but the game is trying to disguise it. And that’s fair, because often it’s true. And those games will reward players who sniff out the good and evil choices.

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The game confronts you with this fact multiple times, pointing out that trying to do the nicest thing possible at all times is pitiful and naive. It labels you the ‘sorry cop’. Over the course of the game, you are presented with multiple political stances, and asked to take one. They’re all bad, and Elysium doesn’t shy away from portraying the flaws of Fascism, Capitalism, Communism, and so on. So instinctively many players will avoid siding with any of these, perhaps in the hope that something better comes along. You’re playing as a good guy, so you don’t want to side with corruption or exploitation or prejudice. Even in the most ambiguous world possible, people want to be good or evil.

And Elysium is prepared for this. It offers you a fourth solution. You are freed up from having to do anything morally ambiguous or take on any morally grey views. But nothing forever is really no better. Hiding from violence is no different than standing for the status quo. All you’re doing is hoping that somewhere along the line, there will be good consequences, but without anyone having to be inconvenienced by it. And it drives home that sure, you don’t need to sully yourself or get your hands dirty. But that’s the only good thing about the path you’ve chosen. There are multiple examples of this. Being merciful to a person leads to negative consequences, and cruelty can be rewarded. Disco throws the idea of karmic retribution out the window.

I think that’s one excellent thing about Discon Elysium. There is no wholly evil or wholly good choice, and to pursue either is hopeless. It forces you to be neutral and ambiguous and grey, and incentivises it. But many other games aren’t like that. Hell, a lot of people enjoy the simplicity of a game which straight up tells you what the good and bad choices are. That’s a form of escapism. But no one is fantasising about neutrality. Ambiguity, sure, but not neutrality. So I kind of understand the creators of Mass Effect for deciding it wasn’t worth it to programme out all those dialogue trees with neutral options that no one wants. What do people here think? Do players actually want to be neutral? Or do they just like the idea of the option being there?

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