Thursday 7 January 2010

Moral Ambiguity in Game Design

I recently asked should monsters in Unangband be able to surrender to the player? This was driven primarily by the desire to see whether the act of surrendering itself was an interesting game mechanic - does having a monster throwing it's hands in the air and giving up disrupt the player's enjoyment of the game, or increase it?

But one response in the comments touched on the much more interesting area of the moral choices involved in allowing surrender - that is, if I implement monsters surrendering, I should be careful to include an alignment system that enforces the player's actions towards the resulting prisoners of war. A simple approach would be killing surrendered monsters should tip the player towards evil, and letting them live should tip the player towards good. But the implication is that the player's moral choices should be rewarded and enforced by a game mechanic.

And this, in my opinion, is a serious misstep in understanding how morality in games should work.

By implementing a moral choice as an in game mechanic, you rob the choice of real consequence. The player stops viewing this decision as ambiguous shades of grey that reflect on them as a person, and starts to min max the benefits of the decision according to the game rules. And they'll usually adopt the position either explicitly or implicitly encouraged by the game designer (more correctly: the emergent advantageous position of the rules created by the game designer) regardless of whether that position correlates with their morals, or refutes them.

Take a complex moral choice I've written about before: the choice of delivering a coup de grace to a fallen enemy. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl there is no in game reason to do so: you are free to leave a fallen Stalker lying on the ground cursing and suffering. Whereas in Far Cry 2, the equivalent injured soldiers will always pull out a pistol and start shooting you - forcing you shoot back. Morally, the unpunished greys of S.T.A.L.K.E.R are far more interesting from the player's perspective because there is a real choice involved.

You may argue that if there are no in game consequences, the choices are trivialized. But this misses the opportunity for the player to make a decision that is personally meaningful - that is, to play out the situation in whichever way resonates to them, or maybe creates dissonance. I am thinking of the term role-playing in its original sense - without consequences, you are free to adopt whatever persona makes sense to you at the time, guiding yourself by instinct instead of forethought. It is this specific reason of not wanting to consider consequence in the moment that there is such an emphasis on creating a safe environment when working with improvisation in theatre.

Being rewarded or punished for moral trespass is the kind of slippery slope of justification that people are innately comfortable with - the Stanford Prison experiment being the canonical example - and presenting morality in games should challenge the player's assumptions, not reinforce them. In game consequences weakened the power of Bioshock's Little Sister euthanasia, and the watered down choices of the 'No Russian' level in Modern Warfare 2 where anything outside of the boundaries of 'shoot civilians' and 'don't shoot at all' resulted in immediate game over. The greatest accomplishment of the Grand Theft Auto series of games is creating a sandbox without imposed moral judgement.

You are still free to recognize moral choice within the game - which is why roguelikes have modes like iron man, vows and challenge games - but these are self-imposed rather than built by the game designer, entitling the player to bragging rights and feeling of moral superiority if they succeed while working within these limits. The canonical metagame decision is, of course, difficulty level which does drastically alter the game play in a way that seems to contradict what I have argued moral decisions should do. But again, this is a player initiated decision, which very few games delivery judgement on (the Ninja Dog difficulty level in the later Ninja Gaiden's being one notable exception). Plenty of game players will judge you, on the other hand, but that's the consequence of playing games in the unsafe real world.


wtanksley said...

I posted that comment -- I wondered why you dismissed it. Now I see -- you assumed that I was proposing some kind of reward and punishment system. I didn't say that, and don't want it.

I assumed you knew about Omega's alignment system... But in short, your actions align you with order or chaos, and a number of in-game choices are available to only certain alignments. None of the alignments are punishments, per se (although you CAN get punished by an in-game entity, such as the Paladin's Guild, for falling out of alignment after you'd joined them); all of them are reasonable ways to play the game.

This isn't the same as a game rewarding or punishing moral choices; it's more like _recording_ those choices. Will the play minmax the results? Well, I hope so -- if the game is well-balanced, minmaxing should be the same as playing the game. I think Omega was well-balanced: I played as all of the alignments (including some odd guild combos that require some careful alignment watching, like a paladin-thief) and enjoyed them all.

The Mad Tinkerer said...

I've found the best system for rewarding moral choices in a game is found in Ultima VII. (Possibly also in Ultima V and VI, but I haven't played those)

In Ultima 4 there are explicit mechanics for morality (possibly the first game to do so) via the Virtue meters, so it's disqualified.

In Ultima VII, however, good behavior is reinforced primarily via feedback from your companion characters. Go around attacking innocents and they'll complain (in case you did it accidentally), go on a murder spree and they'll start leaving.

Stealing things in U7 is particularly fun and challenging because sometimes your companions won't mind (stealing from monsters and villains), and sometimes you need to tell them to take a break while you sneak off out of their sight to go theiving. Most innocents don't have much money lying around, however the Royal Mint is a wonderful source of funds.

Unfortunately, after Ultima VII Part 2 they didn't bother to add companions anymore, and in Ultima 9 they didn't even bother to make the AIs aware that they owned things.

But that's how moral choices should be arbitrated IMO: via companion characters, or at least NPCs that serve some important function.

An Incomplete Education said...

Well, there is another way to add value without having a sliding good/bad scale. But it takes the sort of careful engineering that doesn't really fit (I haven't seen an example, at least) with rouge-likes.

The thing about shades of grey is that they have to be put in by hand into each interaction. Here are some possible shades:

1. Kill the monster anyway.
2. Give the monster a thrashing or some Zorro-like scars. Maybe other monster will treat it differently?
2a. Mark the monster with some sort of magical sign, a permanent hex
3. Tie it up and leave it. Will it get free? Will it have to fight other monsters in the dungeon?
4. Shackle it and . . .
4a. just drag it around like a trophy
4b. use it to set off traps
4c. make it work for freedom
4d. take it to a prison
4e. sell it
4f. drag it to an altar and live sacrifice it. I guess you could use this to defile a good altar.
4g. marry it!
5. Let it live, free and unharmed.

So, ideas for you.

The Mad Tinkerer said...

Oh, in case I wasn't clear on this: ticking off your companions in U7 is a VERY BAD THING. They might not forgive you if they witness you doing something really heinous(though they will forgive most things), so it's like permanently reducing your manpower by 1/8th for each companion that permanently abandons you.

There was the occasional glitch, like the one fisherman's catch of fish that will cause your party to abandon you if you try to take it (whereas stealing food isn't even frowned at in almost all other cases), but it mostly worked.

John Doe said...

First of all, people min-max their real-life moral choices all the time. Secondly, moral choices are meaningful to people because of consequences--even if those consequences are felt by other people.

But, if something is not in a video game, then it is simply not in the video game. Virtual morality simply doesn't exist unless it's represented in the code, because video games do not contain thinking, feeling people. It would be nonsensical to talk about consequences that are not felt by the player.

Similarly, the true, improvisational kind of role-playing you mention cannot exist because there is no audience. There is a word for "recognizing" choices that are not modeling with the game, and that word is "pretending." See:

I agree, of course, that video games can cause minor moral feelings in people (such as guilt), particular if the result on screen is particularly shocking, but that effect wears off quickly. Mature players will see how transparent those attempts are and categorize them under "neat atmosphere," at best.

A better solution is to increase the complexity of moral consequences as much as possible. If I want role-playing in my game, then I will try to add as many possible different plot branches and NPC reactions as possible, while hiding the behind-the-scenes calculations as much as possible so the outcomes flow naturally--invisibly--from the player's choices. And don't let the player save and reload to test the system, either. That's the only way to allow for anything close to real improvisation.

I'm sure you know better than I how big a challenge this stuff is, but praising the game for a choice being "personally meaningful" (i.e. the player making stuff up), is not the way to go.

Pender said...

I have never seen a morality system in a game that I liked.

Far better, I think, would be a reputation system. Slaughter a few friendly elves and suddenly the rest of the elves you find won't be as friendly. But on the other hand, maybe the goblins will be inclined to cooperate with the famous elf-slayer. Slaughter the now-friendly goblins too and maybe they'll start fleeing and cowering when they see you. A system like that makes the world feel interactive and gives your decisions import without annoyingly paternalistic nanny-gods policing your every move.

An Incomplete Education said...

The most interesting part is when you get unexpected reactions or rewards. E.g.: What if the Goblins respect you for kicking their ass and made you their God of Slaughter?

Anonymous said...

I would have to disagree with the idea that only moral choices that have consequences in the game are meaningful. On many occasions I've gone out of my way to do something the 'hard way' because I was more morally comfortable doing so.

If you min-max morality in real life, I think you're missing the point.

Don't get me wrong, though. I feel that having in-game consequences for moral choices is great and I'd like to see more of them. Just don't underestimate the value of letting someone explore "who they are in the dark".

VRBones said...

I'd have to agree that the response from others is what makes a moral system worth it. You don't have to tell the player that he's "bad" or "good", but you sure can let NPCs convey what they think of you. Perception management can be a complex metagame.

I'm surprised no-one's mentioned Dragon Age, it's head and shoulders above anything else I've played in terms of consequences for your actions and moral murkiness.

Dan Kline said...

Good post Andrew, and an interesting comment Alex.

1) Alignment in and of itself doesn't imply consequences. It's "As a designer, I think you as a player are ________". The mirror of alignment along could be useful, or it could be internally tracked and hidden. Whether the game creates a mechanic around that is a separate question.

2) Have you considered moral quandaries rather then moral mechanics? Moral quandary can be meaningful, it has to provoke breaking a player's taboo with rewards that they would otherwise want. Game mechanics frequently miss that because they present to frequently and after the player has already declared their approach to the taboo.

Andrew Doull said...

Alex: I have some 'passing' familiarity with the 'roleplaying by yourself = pretending' argument. Let's go back to the very early days of this blog for a moment:

I'm really glad you mentioned it though. I'm going to reference this in follow up blog post later on today/tomorrow.

David Robinson: I hope you're agreeing with me, because you've just restated the argument I was making.

Darren Grey said...

I think the problem lies in if you reward only one style of play. Many RPGs fall foul of either giving the best quest to goods only, or giving lots of free treasure to those who steal (and so in such games you'll find players that complete the good quest with no material reward for bonus karma points, and then will secretly pickpocket the questgiver because he has a unique artifact and pickpocketing doesn't affect karma much - this is the bad sort of min-maxing that should be avoided).

I think the idea of recognising without necessarily rewarding is good. There are different paths to take, and none is necessarily better than the other. The player chooses through his actions how the game will then react to him. ADOM has a similar system to Omega's, with choices between shades of Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic (and for once the neutral choice is actually relevant, instead of encouraging extreme good and evil only). Many quests are opened are closed depending on alignment, and it becomes both an extra gameplay mechanic and an interesting way of recognising the player's choices in the game. Many ADOM fans would point it out as one of the game's most outstanding features.

Anonymous said...

Andrew: Yes. I'm agreeing with you. I was offering my opinion because it seemed like a lot of comments were not.

Any element that lets you role play ("pretend") better has value.

ShaneWSmith said...

I posted about this on my blog here last month:

I agree that a "morality" choice should not have gameplay implications, because that so often reduces it to a mercenary decision. I agree with what you said about the sandbox triumphs of GTA, but I would further argue that GTAIV undermined its own achievements when it attempted to introduce morality choices.

I think that the best moral dilemmas in games are the ones that the gamer has no choice but to confront (i.e. a linear story that pushes you down a single path, such as Shadows of the Colossus for example).

Luke said...

Definitely agree that a moral choice should not have gameplay implications. Alignment is way too confining a system - Order of the Stick has had some fun with this.

Kest said...

I haven't encountered an alignment system I like - they seem to be pretty shallow.

An Incomplete Education said...

Moral choices must have game; otherwise it is a waste of time to code them.

They must also have interesting or complicated consequences. We're all tired of the simple sliding Good/Bad scale.

The only way to generate ambiguity is to have many different competing interests, not just good/bad.

An Incomplete Education said...

"must have game consequences."

Deep Dark & Sexy said...

Giving the user options is always a good thing especially when it comes to topics such as morality. Now how that is handled in past and present games has seem to taken as someone mentioned a "sliding scale effect" good vs. evil. Which honestly is rather boring when you really think of it. There is no real satisfaction in siding with either.

Now if you threw in twist and turns that make it more true to life, that's when it becomes more interesting. So say you allow the enemy to surrender. Now at that point you can either allow them to give up or kill them. If you kill them that's it, but say you let them live and you are allowed to take them prisoner or hostage or allow them to go free. But what if you threw in the mix of being able to communicate with them before you made a choice? Like in real life? They give you the reasons for attacking you. Maybe they were hungry maybe they're just evil maybe they were forced whatever it may be.

That in itself is getting more interesting. So lets say we take it a step further by possibly having the enemy tell you a lie. To make it somewhat realistic for this to take place in a game, you would have to add some type of system that allows the player to figure out if the enemy is lying or telling the truth. Maybe the monster says one thing, you ask him same question then it changes. This giving the user a chance to connect on whatever level with the monster.

Now lets take it one step further and add some type of faction system. Not just a good and evil choice but one that would allow the player to align or dis-align themselves with all things humanoid.
So say you capture an enemy and they say "i attacked you because im hungry" you believe them and choose to help them out. At which point maybe a quest is given or some type of reward. But also by doing this you have allowed the player to gain favor with say X- Race in the game. So wherever the player goes those monsters do not attack but instead they assist the player. So say after gaining good favor the player decides to kill the monsters after giving help, then the faction would dissolve and would not be able to be regained.

Obviously this is all theoretical and would require some more thought into the system mechanics that would require this to work.. but i believe it can be done. So in the end you not only give the player a more true to life game play with the moral choices.. you allow the player to connect on an emotional level with the game, which obviously would sell more games and get people to replay it and experience an entirely new game the second time through.

orillian said...

Alignment is a bad way to go overall, because it leaves very cut and dry "good or bad" levels and unfortunately those extremes tend to be boring in most cases after the initial "Look at me I'm sooooooo bad", reaction a person has to breaking the rules, or the over pious feeling one might experience for being a goody two shoes.

Morality in a game were the primary focus is killing stuff is kind of hard for me to understand, a good moral person would not be going out of their way to find people/monsters to kill in the first place.

Using a factions system that allows checks and balances across a number of groups etc, is a much more realistic approach as your Moral standing is then dictated by the reactions of different people to your actions. Also actions should factor differently based on proximity. Killing an elf way down deep in a dungeon might endear you to the dozen orcs watching, but the tale of that slaughter might not be so evident to the slain elf's brethren, on the other hand killing an elf in front of a group of elves in the middle of their town would factor more towards how they view you.

I'm not a big fan of things like the telepathic guards in Oblivion. So a system that checks the chance that an action could affect a particular faction based on proximity to faction entities and weights the scales accordingly would work better then one that arbitrarily assigns a point gain or loss to any one particular action. The problem is the amount of computing that then needs to be done, in a turn based game that overhead would not be as big an issue when compared to say a game like oblivion.