Binary Morality (Day 6)

Many games feature morality systems, used to showcase your character’s “moral alignment”. Typically, they’re on a scale of “Good” to “Bad” or “Light” to “Dark” and so on. Taking negative actions – like beating a puppy – will push your character further toward the dark side, and selfless actions – like beating the guy who beats puppies – would push you towards the light.

These often come with physical changes to your character, especially in the Fable series. Going evil would make your character sprout horns and cause flora to die as they walked past it – conversely, being good would make your character generate a halo (and often turn their hair blonde, which feels a little “Aryan Master Race”).

Just as often, the plot would change according to your character’s alignment, locking and unlocking certain actions if they weren’t good or evil enough to perform them. This is a post on about these “binary” morality systems, taking a quick look into the ups and downs of the system.

They lock your character into a path

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In my mind, this is the biggest and most obvious flaw with this kind of morality system. Players essentially make a single decision, then watch the effects throughout the entire game – is my character good or bad?

This is because some games – most notably the Mass Effect series – lock your actions according to your morality. Want your heroic, selfless champion of the light to do one bad thing, potentially in the name of a greater good? Too bad! Your character clearly isn’t evil enough.

This is typically worsened by having rewards tied to your morality, such as in Star Wars: The Old Republic. In SW:TOR, certain pieces of powerful gear are tied to your “Light Side” or “Dark Side” points, and can’t be equipped if your character doesn’t meet those requirements. This means that neutral characters are shit out of luck, essentially, and those who want their characters to be a little bit dark or a little bit light are just weakening themselves.

You pick a path – good or bad – then stick with it for the rest of the game. Roleplaying is killed at the outset, because the player doesn’t want to lose potential rewards, if they’re even given the option to do something outside of their chosen moral system at all. There are no tough decisions to be made; just pick the blue option every time.

They reward sticking to that path

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So, yes, your character is essentially locked into being extremely good or extremely bad, at least if the player wants to reap the best rewards and access as much content as possible. But there is a point to be made that the game is rewarding roleplaying, in a sense.

More to the point, it’s rewarding consistency in your actions. I imagine the idea of these systems was brought about because some developers wanted to reward people for creating a character and sticking to their ideals, rather than just choosing whatever dialogue option would net them the best rewards.

For example, a game may have a quest in which an evil response gets you a million dollars with no downside, but the good response gets you a pat on the head. In this case, players are going to choose the evil option a lot more, because it’s objectively better, but this isn’t something that a “good” character would do.

Still, I think the result was too restrictive. Rather than rewarding players for roleplaying, this system tends to force people into narrow characterizations and punish those who try to break the mould.

They’re largely extinct

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It’s up to you as to whether this is a good or a bad thing, but these morality systems seem to be disappearing at a quick pace. Even Mass Effect 3 largely did away with the Paragon/Renegade system, instead rewarding people for simply making choices (it had about as much impact as it sounds).

It’s often said that games are “a series of interesting decisions”, so it’s no surprise that a system that limits decision-making wouldn’t be especially popular. Modern RPGs, such as The Witcher 3, put heavy emphasis on the consequences of decisions, particularly in the narrative.

In the case of The Witcher, some decisions made in the opening hours will come back to help or hinder you in the final hours. Every decision feels massively impactful, whether or not it truly is. The game also totally lacks any kind of morality system, instead painting Geralt as a combination of his characterization in earlier entries and player-made decisions.

It’s admittedly harder when the character is brand new, especially when they’re player-created, but games like Path of Exile and Tyranny have managed to allow players to create deep, nuanced and consistent characters without relying on binary morality systems.

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So I’m basically just rambling on about these, and I think my stance on the system is clear and unchanged. It’s a system that feels antiquated and was never ideal in the first place. The upsides feel outshone by the limitations, and I’m glad to see it gone.

I knew this from the beginning, but thought maybe writing a bit about it would make me change my mind, but here we are! Do you agree, or disagree? Do you love or hate these morality systems? Why? Let me know!

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One response to “Binary Morality (Day 6)”

  1. Robert McPherson says :

    Did a series on Morality system myself, ultimately they’re self defeating. The idea was to make morality ‘meaningful’ but as soon as they start tracking it they quantify and make pre-defind judgements about what’s good or bad.

    Probably the worst example of this was Fallout New Vegas. Breaking into a raider camp and stealing their stuff? Sorry, stealing is bad you loose karma. And don’t even get me started on the faction morality that goes completely against the narrative they’re trying to tell about said factions.

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