In this article, I want to explore what morality has meant in RPGs, what it means in real life and where gaming could be taking us. Morality in RPGs often boils down to two clearly signposted options: the Good Hero decision and the Bad Person decision.
Morality and the modern RPG
You are walking through the city when you come across a stray cat. It is hungry and has lost its family. Will you A: Stroke the cat and gently say, “Come on…I’ll take you home”? Or will you pick option B: Put it in a blender and laugh manically?
If you chose A: Congratulations! You are a Good Person! You will receive the instant gratification of a shining blue light surrounding your avatar. You’ll probably be given a reward from some grateful NPC for helping their cat once the side-quest is completed. If you chose B: Boo! You are a Bad Person! Have a red shimmery outline and an Evil Whiskers potion instead. Cat lovers the world over will be hoping that you choke on it. Drinking it may give you a slight boost in combat but will do nothing to mask your wickedness.
I love games such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age and the Fable series. It is rare that they ever leave you in any doubt as to whether you have done the right thing though. In the original Mass Effect series, you can proceed through the trilogy easily selecting Paragon options. You’ll be safe in the knowledge that you did the right thing and will be rewarded for it. If you are ever confused about whether you did the right thing – don’t worry! The Paragon point will reassure you that you did select the right option from the dialogue wheel.
Morality in real-life
In real-life, morality is rarely that simple and it is not often the case that nice people are the ones who reap the largest rewards. Sure, sometimes you will be rewarded for doing what appears to be the right thing. Often though, you will be left without any reward or recognition at all apart from a thank you if you are lucky. You may also be left wondering why somebody who appears to be a borderline psychopath gets promoted ahead of you in work or manages to date the person that you had always been attracted to.
There will also be many occasions where there isn’t an obviously good choice to be made at all. I can think of times where it felt like the only way to change the situation was to choose one of a variety of bad options that were available to me at the time. The best that I could hope for was to choose the lesser evil – and it was not always readily apparent which of the options available would be the least damaging decision. There are also times when a decision may seem to be good in terms of helping a smaller group of people but which may actually have a harmful impact on society as a whole.
Morality in early RPGs
We have come a long way since the early RPGs on the SNES such as Secret of Mana and Breath of Fire. When asked by some whiny girl to save her village, occasionally you were given the option to say “No”. This would result in her saying “Aw, that’s too bad. I’ll be here if you change your mind” or words to that effect. The plot wouldn’t proceed until you told the annoying tyke that yes, you’d love to solve her problems. It’s not like you had anything better to do that day, right? The plot would then proceed with zero acknowledgement that you had initially refused her request.
All that you were given in the early RPGs was an illusion of choice. Ultimately there were no real moral decisions to be made at all; you were a plucky spiky haired hero and would always do the right thing. It wasn’t really your story – it was more like you being a spectator to someone else’s adventure.
Fifty Shades of Grey Moral Decisions
What if it wasn’t always signposted whether or not what you were doing was the right thing? Also, what if sometimes there was no obviously good option at all? Or what if even if there was an obviously “good” aligned decision, the game still ultimately punished you for doing it?
Maybe the lost cat was possessed by a demon and it massacres a family after you help it. Sure, the game would probably have to drop a small hint that animals being possessed was a possibility or that this particular cat could be possessed but only the tiniest of hint may be needed. After all, it’s rarely clear in real-life exactly what the consequences of each action will be and it would be a shame to ruin the surprise.
Games such as CD Projekt Red‘s The Witcher series show that more complicated moral decisions can work with RPGs. I can remember many of the decisions that I made in the very first The Witcher game. Even though now I know what the consequences of my actions were in the later games, I’m still not certain whether or not I really did the right thing from a morality perspective. I hope that more game companies will follow suit and craft more complicated stories that will really challenge their players.
Would you like more ambiguous moral decisions or do you prefer to keep things simple? Please comment below and let us know!