The Games We Play: Role-Playing Morality

Brandann Hill-Mann
View profile »

I don’t go looking to video games for entirely accurate depictions of reality. It is an escapist hobby for a reason, as I think it is for most people. I enjoy getting away into a world of possibility and imagination. It probably explains my tendency towards RPGs. I want to enjoy myself. I want to be immersed in a story. Sometimes I want to be the hero. Sometimes I want to raze the ground behind me. Sometimes I want to slay the dragon. Sometimes I want my revenge on the character who really pissed me off.

What I really don’t like are confining options when it comes to the stories that unfold within games. One of the most aggravating things I have encountered in RPGs is the way that morality systems are so heavily polarized that they limit any type of satisfying outcome.

One of the most obvious examples of this type of system is found in the Fable franchise. Peter Molyneux is fairly notorious for a system of ethics in his games that can make you choose between kicking puppies and polishing your halo for pastimes. In the most recent installation, the choices presented to you are so jarring that they lack any kind of grasp on or connection to the story whatsoever. You are perfectly free to dethrone Albion’s current king, who is deemed to be a tyrant beyond all measure, but then you can either become a paragon of angelic virtues or emulate him in every possible way (you will even see this physically manifest as you either lighten or darken according to your choices). You can destroy ecosystems, make orphans homeless, or allow your citizens to live rent free to earn their approval. It never allows you, however, to question the real ramifications of such political decisions. So long as your treasury has the amount of money needed to thwart mystical evil by the end of the game no one seems to mind that you killed four of your spouses, slaughtered a contingent of guards, and orphaned four of your own children to level up that really cool weapon.

Mass Effect used a Renegade or Paragon system to try to shape the way that your Shepard interacts with the worlds inside the game. The system allows you to role-play Shepard into a diplomatic or aggressive person who makes morally upright or more than slightly shady choices to attain a final objective. Less heavy-handed than the Fable series, this system still affects your immersion into the game, how other characters interact with you. In ME2, the Renegade or Paragon system is so vital that in some missions certain game-play options will only be available to a player who has played their character to one extreme or the other. There is no benefit for middle ground or playing according to how you think you would respond. You know, actual role playing? You are either going to have to be All Aggressive All the Time, or you will need to be the Hero who Saves the Day in order to survive certain situations optimally.

One of the sneakier morality systems that really gets to me is one that I get some pushback for criticizing. The choice to harvest or rescue Little Sisters in BioShock has always really triggered me from a viewpoint of someone who cannot stomach needless violence against children. In a show of How Good or How Bad can you be the crux of the final outcome of your success in life is supposedly whether you staved off the selfish urge to slaughter a little girl for her symbiotic sea slug. This, despite how many people love the woman scientists in the game, has always really hurt and crushed me to the point that I can not bring myself to really enjoy the game. Even if you “rescue” a Little Sister, she is still running around helping you harvest life force from people who are in the throes of withdrawal. But don’t worry, they take care of you in true hero fashion in your old age.

I would really like to see games reach beyond a system of morality that insists on dichotomies. I don’t really feel that limiting your choices to actions that are either morally reprehensible or aggressive at one extreme or charitable on the other is giving us a gaming experience as enriching as it could be. So few games offer critique on the circumstances that lead to or are affected by the choices you make. Fewer still explore the in-between options; those choices that don’t solve things cleanly and leave the edges raw.

We need games that, while still allowing us the escapism we turn to them for, allows us a better look at the realities of decision making than “I ate your kitten” or “I will die for you.”

I know many of you are probably champing to say something. I will hold you off no longer.


Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

13 Comments Have Been Posted


I agree with you on all points here. Only offering "Good" and "Shady" options in role-playing limits one's realistic choices and is boring due to predictability. This is the main reason I don't play RPG games for very long. I would really like to play a character who represents a mix of ideas, a personality that is neither angel nor devil.

How could BioShock have been better?

Speaking as the one who argued with you last time about the merits of <i>BioShock</i>, I'm very fascinated to delve more into this debate.

I certainly understand your objections to the thematic elements as well as the moral dichotomy the game presents. So, I'm curious. What do you think could have been done to make the game (or any game, really) a richer, more emotionally and intellectually satisfying experience? Can you think of an in-game decision or theme that could better reflect the gray-area types of morality and ethics we're talking about?

Like I said last time about

Like I said last time about <em>BioShock</em>, the only thing I think that could improve it is to not base the crux of the moral system on the slaughtering of disenfranchised little girls who then may or may not go on to help you kill the mentally ill. Using little girls as drug mules is not my idea of a way to make a social statement. It's too much like actual human trafficking. There are better vehicles to make whatever points they were trying to make.

About the entire Little Sisters thing...

Your entire issue with Bioshock's morality system seems more personally driven than any legitimate issue with the game, whether thematically or with the gameplay. You won't find many opinions that think Bioshock's morality system was heavily flawed and far too simplistic with the endings (a feature Bioshock's designer Ken Levine admits was forced upon him). Yet at the same time, reducing the entire game into a Little Sister killing fest feels too shallow an observation; at least from how the game's been perceived by most gamers who've played it. You expect a few players to get off on the notion of murdering little girls, but only a rare few players reacted to that with sadistic glee when asked about what they did. Everyone else, not so much. Some weren't as emotionally immersed into the game, and reduced the morality choice to simply gaining more ADAM, and chose to ignore the implications brought by the game.

Getting all the Little Sisters to do your bidding, well, that was only with the second Bioshock, and the entire "drug trafficking" angle becomes a little moot when tied into the game's setting. Rapture's not a nice place to live, and using the Little Sisters to help you gain power is more pragmatic than anything. Yes, it's horrible, but if that helps you stop Sofia Lamb and eventually free the Little Sisters, I doubt most people would object that as opposed to the alternative. Even with that, to Bioshock 2's credit, its morality system went beyond the choice to save/kill Little Sisters. There are a few key individuals that are out to stop you, and you can determine whether they should be spared or not. And since these individuals are adults, there are very clear yet varied motivations on why you should either kill them or not, and those reasons aren't entirely sympathetic. Better yet, the endings were expanded from Bioshock's three endings (one good, one bad, one ambiguously bad) to a whopping seven that better represented your decisions over the entire game. It's still not ideal, but it's a nice improvement over the original's problematic version.

As for the "mentally ill" thing, that's way too big a stretch if you ask me, given the era's own moral compass (in the 1940s and 50s, people treated the mentally ill worse than we do now), and given how the Splicers were formed. In some sense, they're innocent victims, since they were given unstable products that had adverse affects on their bodies. Yet at the same time, even though people were clearly becoming addicted, no one regulated the consumers' ugase of ADAM (though that could double as criticism against Objectivism). They're more likened to drug addicts than the mentally ill, and like the ones in real life, desperation will make them do some really bad things, including but not limited to killing Little Sisters. And since Rapture's so far removed from other societies, the desperation rises exponentially. Bioshock does a good job reflecting on this, but never implies that they're mentally ill people. They're truly capable individuals and/or potentially good people that got sucked into a horrific situation. No abelism here.

Of course, little of this will matter come Bioshock: Infinite, since the setting's completely different from Bioshock 1 and 2, along with the gameplay (at least with what the teasers suggest).

I agree on the "mentally ill"

I agree on the "mentally ill" part, Casatron. The Splicers, it should be remembered, voluntarily went to Rapture and consumed ADAM. While one, I suppose, could argue that information was withheld from them (maybe it was, it's been a while), the Splicers' monstrous acts are not born out of a condition that could not have been helped. Maybe they could have been rehabilitated, but that doesn't make for a very compelling video game. In fact, as the main character, you, too, use ADAM to gain powers, and it could thus be argued that you play as a "mentally ill" character as well.

I'm on the fence about the Little Sisters. It's not even the drug/killing thing--for me it's more basic, that small girls are again used as symbols of the morality of others.

I want to point something out

I want to point something out about Mass Effect's paragon/renegade system: none of the actions restricted to people on one extreme or the other are game-breakers. In ME1, they can be used to avoid a boss fight; in ME2, they can be used to avoid having one teammate resent you for supporting another teammate they loathe violently due to (mostly) matters of principle. While it's cool to be able to avoid these things, it's not exactly realistic--so if you're REALLY after "actual role-playing" then you should be gratified that people playing the middle ground aren't able to talk their way out of everything, since neither can most in real life! The fact that you can potentially get characters like Tali and Legion to magically resolve all their differences should be the thing breaking your RPG immersion, if anything.

Anyway, I would advise you to look into the Dragon Age franchise, which is also produced by Bioware and (in my opinion) handles character interaction and PC personality far better than ME ever did. They don't exactly track morality (though DA2 tracks the "tone" with which you have your Hawke speak), but the other characters react to your actions in ways consistent with their characterization.

I thought the system in ME

I thought the system in ME was too simplistic still, but at least in ME1, it was possible to do both (though it wasn't easy). You could go to both extremes. They seem to have made that impossible for ME2 as far as I can see, but it's still possible to get one full and get a good chunk of the other too. Also, doing something renegade will up your renegade meter, but it won't remove any paragon points that you already scored (and vice versa), which I appreciate.

Yeah, after writing four

Yeah, after writing four posts where I droned on about Dragon Age I promised myself I'd let it go for a while. There is a ton of stuff I can still write about that game, but I figured everyone here might be tired of reading about it. Heh. You are right though, while the tone of your Hawke is altered, I did like the way the game avoided clear-cut moral decisions. Unlike Origins there is almost no way to resolve things neat and tidy using one choice or another (and also unlike Origins, there is no "third, safer, cleaner" choice that saves the day without hurting anyone). It also really bends the way you look at some deep moral issues, and it is a post I am trying to put together. Just perhaps not here, where I have already written about the game so much.

As for ME2, the Renegade and Paragon system plays heavily into the way you are able to resolve things, and that was pretty much my point. You are only able to resolve certain issues by focusing your game play one way or the other. For instance, there are options on the Justicar mission that aren't available unless you have already upped your score high enough. Otherwise you just sit there and have to allow the scene to play out. The game rewards you for bending the scope, which was what I was saying above.

The good/bad thing in video

The good/bad thing in video games was always frustrating to me. While I understand that everyone likes a good fairy tale with clearly delineated good and bad guys, I find it almost inevitable ends up ruining the story to some extent. One of the reasons that I preferred Fallout 3 (I don't know about the others, I'm only familiar with 3) was that while there were moral choices, they were not portrayed as "good" or "bad," just as choices with different outcomes. If you don't choose to go into the radiation-heavy chamber at the end you get basically called a coward, but that's really the worst of it. More or less aggressive or manipulative personality traits are not coded as better or worse than more diplomatic or honest ones, just different ways of approaching situations. When stuff gets bogged down with good vs. evil, I find that the stories become flat and I'm unable to be fully immersed in them.


The father's race does change. He basically looks the same whatever his race in terms of his face, but he bears characteristics of the race chosen from the main character. I also hadn't noticed gendered references to the character. The only thing I noticed was that flirting characters still skewed heavily female regardless of your character's sex.


There are a few MMOs that do

There are a few MMOs that do fairly well in this area, of not having just two extremes, and the options not being 'good' or 'evil'.

SW:TOR (Bioware's Star Wars MMO) will have the dark side and the light side, though they're pretty much bound by predetermined lore there. Though at least they didn't make your morality dependent on your chosen faction (so you can be a 'dark jedi' or the opposite of that). It'd have been more interesting if you could also slide factions though, but unfortunately once you pick one, you stay there no matter what happens.

I'm not quite satisfied by DA2's system, because even though they're not good or evil, the choices are still too often soothing/agreeing or confrontational/harsh and as a third option... humorous? It just seems weird some of the time to me at least. I know the middle option isn't always humorous, but still. Also, Hawke's idea of humour and witty remarks is... miles away from mine. I like it well enough, but I really can't get into Hawke as much as many other characters. (Another thing I'm very hesitant about: RPGs where you have to play a more-or-less set personality. It's not an issue when I can identify with it, but if I can't it might very well make the entire game not worthwile).

Then there's when they have a system, but the choices don't do what you expect. It was always present but I think with the dialogue wheel either it's got worse, or I'm not that great at picking the option that says what I aim for. Even back in Planescape: Torment, I found it ridiculously hard to maintain 'good' (hardly neutral), even though in any game I almost always naturally gravitate towards 'blue' or good for the most part. In any traditional test I end up chaotic good (which reminds me, *that* was the single hardest alignment to get to in PS:T). In Dragon Age (both games) I've had some pretty awkward moments, and have frequently been profoundly relieved at my "quicksave every 20 seconds" habit.
In ME1 and 2, though, I've often had my jaw drop and gone *FACEPALM!!!!!11!!1*, in moments where the options that is supposed to be diplomatic is pretty much just rude and unbelievably inappropriate (and I thought I was good at oblivious inappropriateness in meatspace, even I noticed this stuff), and I had to go with either the middle option (who knows what it's supposed to represent) or even the harsh option, which was bafflingly diplomatic.
I know it was not just me either: many people report their confusion at the dialogue options at various points in these games, though some points are viewed as weird by more people than other points.

I wonder what most people think of adventure games, where the story is often pretty much set, and you can maybe get one or two other endings at most that are not all that different?

As much as I complain about

As much as I complain about morality systems, I prefer them to the option of playing most JRPGs. I don't enjoy the FF series because the gameplay is far too linear. I feel like I am watching a movie that is occasionally interrupted with a push-button, turn-based combat sequence (I hate TBC) and then you are tossed aside again as the movie continues. Don't get me wrong, Square Enix is great at what they do, it just isn't for me.

I've heard a mix bag about the dialogue wheel in DA2. When I was playing Origins and Awakenings I always found myself wishing for a voice-actor to better immerse myself. I enjoy it (and I don't think it really impacts the morality, because really, there are so many things that you can't affect, and there are almost no decisions that end well). I think it comes down to personal preference, but even as much as I liked it, I still had to /facepalm now and again at the bait and switch dialogue options that would often upset my party members. It took me two playthroughs to figure out my party cohesion (and I still want to punt Sebastian to the moon and there is no making Carver happy for me*), which came down to, like you, saving every time I suspected there might be a cut scene. It has made for some fun conversations with friends, though.

*Though, sometimes, these two really helped me vent my frustrations.

ME2 actually held a very

ME2 actually held a very compelling choice during Legion's side quest. (Spoiler Warning!) You had to either destroy or reprogram the group of geth (humanoid robots) that have been attacking you since the beginning. Legion explains it as a conflict of ideologies, essentially. If you reprogram them, they have no memory of thinking differently, but will no longer antagonize you. Your only other option is to destroy them utterly.

Can you erase what a being with sentience - even a robot - thought and believed was right in good conscience? Do you believe that this "brainwashing" is justified? Is it more justified than slaughter? This was something that really made you think.

...At least, until they assigned a Paragon/Renegade score to your choices. Then it became math - an evaluation for the best outcome. No longer a moral dilemma.

Add new comment