Apparently I’m a nice guy. At least that’s what my trusty Pip-Boy 3000 (Model A) tells me. I’m glad it does this because I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise, what with people commenting on how nice a person I am or how much of a “goody two shoes” I’ve been. Fallout 3 is giving me a curious sense of déjà vu, I’ve had this experience before.
I was a bit more of an asshole in Mass Effect, but really the galaxy wasn’t going to save itself and the council seemed content to sit around all day talking and never take any action. I think a degree of bluntness was warranted. I was a Renegade, the game reliably informed me of that regardless of my own opinions on my actions. The game was making a judgement call on the kind of person it thought I was.
Dozens of titles have featured similar metrics for portraying good or evil, usually based on a Judeo-Christian view of morality. I appreciate the desire to allow for a range of player behaviours, and using the cultural mores of the western world makes a degree of sense given the perceived audience for such games. I become concerned when the game feels a need to tell me explicitly how good or evil it believes I have been; the issues I have with such systems are two fold.
My first problem is that the interface of the game is usually designed to represent my own knowledge of myself and my status. It describes my mental and physical state, the items I am carrying and any information I have gleamed during the course of the game. In that case shouldn’t the interface be as impartial as possible? In my life I have done things that others have not been happy with. I’ve often been caused to questioned my actions but ultimately the only guide for my morality are the reactions of others and my own conscience . I don’t have an internal meter telling me I’ve shifted 2 points towards the good side of the morality spectrum.
In their own mind I suspect most people consider themselves to be fairly decent, flawed yes, but neither paragons of virtue nor amoral villains. Even people who society as a whole would consider “evil” are likely to have their own motivations for their actions and not consider themselves in the same way others do. Everybody is the hero of their own story, we take the actions we do based on our own sense of morality influenced by our culture, upbringing and belief system.
For a game to offer choices of varying morality and then judge those choices seems counter productive. The relative morality of our choices is ultimately judged by the reactions of society, of the world around us and the people we meet; it is rarely known immediately and exactly.
My second issue is that by making player morality or karma, an interface element encourages an attitude of “playing the gauges” whereby players will make their decisions based not on a sense of role playing or what they view as right or wrong in a given situation but on which option will push them one way or the other on the great morality meter.
Games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect already do a good job presenting a world and a cast of characters who react to your actions based on their own individual personalities do we really need dedicated interface elements telling us how the game itself (and by abstraction the developer) views our actions?
Games are about exploration and what is more powerful than exploring our own personality? This can’t be done on anything more than a surface level if the interface of the game itself is constantly making judgements about what kind of person it thinks we are.