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Morality systems in video games were fundamentally a bad game design.

Gamingtodaynews1b - Morality systems in video games were fundamentally a bad game design.
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So I recently made a youtube video on morality systems with the hope that it would produce some interesting discussion, it hasn’t and to be honestly I think part of the reason is youtube comments is not the best place for in-depth discussion about game design.

But I want to talk about this topic, after working on a video on it, I found that I had very negative associations with Morality systems in games. Morality systems also can be called Karma systems, and I see them as the same thing.

The original morality system was in Knights of the Old Republic and it was based on an existing IP which has a strong morality system. Light Side and Dark Side, with force powers associated with each. I understand that it was a fundamental part of adapting Star Wars to a video game, and it’s well done there.

But I also think that’s the last time it was well done. Even the next game from Bioware failed to do morality systems right. In Mass Effect you had the choice of Paragon or Renegade, and the problem was if you wanted a verbal character, players would have to either go heavily Renegade or heavily Paragon to get all the skills associated with one of the two. The problem is suddenly the ability to choose any response is lost because players have to maximize one of those two points.

The ability to choose your own dialogue was destroyed by the ability to get better speech skills depending on which you choose. Mass Effect is not a very interesting game when you look at it after you understand the speech system, and to play it in the “proper” way is to have to ignore the reputation systems.

This didn’t get helped in Mass Effect 2, though it was restructured. Suddenly what percentage of points you got from either Paragon or Renegade now mattered, as well how how many possible points you had. It tried to fix some of the issue but it is the same issue, only they removed the player having to spend skill points on skills, but the same issues exist.

Mass Effect had 92 percent of players going Paragon, Mass Effect 2 also had a majority of players who went Paragon. The good news is that rather than just throw away the system Mass Effect 3 tried once more, and while they neutered the system it’s an interesting one.

Mass Effect 3 adds the Paragon and Renegade points together to show total reputation and makes your verbal skill based off of that. Personally I actually chose more paragon (I’m mostly renegade, Han Solo vs Luke Skywalker, come on!) in Mass Effect 3, and was able to enjoy the dialogue more, but it’s still a point system that artificially makes player play into it. It also means that neutral choices were completely gone (or shouldn’t be chosen because you miss out on reputation points with those choices)

But none of these systems are really “good” where Star Wars HAD to have Light Side and Dark Side points as a fundamental part of being a Jedi, Mass Effect didn’t need it and feels worse for it as it makes players feel the need to choose their morality and stick to it for maximum results. It’s not required, but for any character who wants a good verbal experience, one of the two sides has to be adhered to.

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There’s also Fable which is well known for having a morality system and also…. Well not have a strong one. I actually can prove this (And do so with my video) in that I can slaughter a village of people and barely lose half of my “Hero” points going from max good to only about 60 percent. But what Fable does right is giving the hero only a cosmetic benefit from manipulating his karma. You can get a Halo or Devil horns, but that’s all that really happens from the Karma system.

I honestly think Lionhead Studios did better than Bioware at their morality system as Lionhead studio doesn’t force players to adhere to a path for some benefit.

One of the few games that I think did well with the morality system is Catherine. Catherine actually doesn’t tell you what the morality system is. It’s not good vs evil. It’s a fundamental part of the game and is only revealed after the final scene of the story. The idea though is to track your answers to questions and let you discover the player’s values instead of guiding the player through a moral play and judging them how well they play it.

It’s an interesting system but what makes it work is by only really modifying the ending of the game. While it has some minor uses in the game itself I don’t think they’re major changes to the story, just minor changes to the main character’s responses at times.

The ending though doesn’t change a lot based on these choices. There’s 8 or so endings, the downside is that the morality system is only one of a number of checks for which ending you get and mostly it’s just the decision between the “Best” ending and the “good” ending.

Still I think Catherine does it right because it hides most of this and doesn’t really give a player benefits for the morality system, using it only as a way for the player to think about the themes of the game.

Catherine is a rather special game, and a one-off. Most games can’t be like Catherine, and ultimately while Catherine does morality right, a significant part of the narrative has to be wrapped up in that morality system. I don’t think any other game can really touch on morality in the same way.

So that’s kind of my opinion on it. While doing research on the video I didn’t find any morality systems outside of Catherine that really shined, or didn’t originate from other forms of media (mostly Star Wars).

The problem though is Morality systems force the player into a binary choice of what their actions will be so they can maximize the value of the system. It means that a “Grey” choice is a poor choice and even if one was to create a “Grey Jedi” in the middle of the two extremes, you’ve only made it so players now have a third path that they can focus on, but it doesn’t make for a better game.

Really, morality systems are intended to judge the player’s actions but ultimately lock the player in a specific set of actions so players can min max their characters to greater height.

So what do you think about morality systems? I think the game industry have moved on from morality for the most part which is a good thing, but I think they were always poorly designed, and probably should have never become "a thing" in the first place. Is there any game I missed that should be talked about?

And if someone wants to see the video that caused me to think so deeply about these topics, you can see it here

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