On Moral Ambiguity in Video Games

After playing and reviewing This War of Mine, I got to thinking about moral choices and decision making in games. Many games have implemented a simple good vs evil morality system, with different rewards or end-game outcomes dependent on the choices made. In most cases these choices come up through dialogue options, pathway decisions (save people vs ignore people), or in-game crime (stealing, killing, breaking/entering). And, in most cases, the general implications of going good or evil are relatively the same in each game. For instance, the good decision generally means less of an immediate reward, but yields a potentially greater reward later in the game. The evil decision generally yields a greater immediate reward, but your overall payout will be less than “going good.”

This has become a fairly stale and over-used mechanic to deepen conversation choices, and in-game decision making. And at the end of the day, the general outcome is the same for each game. So when games like The Banner Saga, and This War of Mine come out - they shake the foundation of what is right versus wrong.

In the Banner Saga, you play as Rook, the recently appointed chief of a village and you are tasked with leading your people to safety. As Rook, you have no prior experience with leadership - and as yourself, you most likely have no experience leading hundreds of hungry and frightened people. So there come times when a decision needs to be made, and the good option is not highlighted blue, and the evil option is not red, and there are actually five options you have to choose from -- how do you do it? How do you make the right decision?

Well folks, here’s the thing -- there is almost never a 100% right or wrong answer to a problem in The Banner Saga. Frankly, there is almost never a 100% right or wrong answer in life! Many of those five choices will have varying degrees of rightness and wrongness. Think of good and evil as a sliding scale, rather than two truths. It may seem like the right decision to stop your caravan to let a few stragglers catch up to you. You’re doing the right thing, helping everyone. Well those stragglers were able to reach you, but the enemy caught up to you as well and you lost more people in the ensuing battle. These are the kinds of outcomes that actually matter, and actually impact you emotionally as a player.

In This War of Mine, you have the option to steal from your neighbours, or trade with them, or outright kill them. These options are available for almost all of the NPCs you meet in the game. If one of your characters is severely wounded, and really needs those bandages, are you willing to steal them from the hospital, potentially letting a different NPC die because of it? The militia approaches you and inquires about a stolen aid package, they’re asking for information on who could have done it and they’re offering a large reward. Do you rat out your neighbour, whom you helped steal the package? Or do you keep your mouth shut and hope he does the same? Or, if you listened to our episode on This War of Mine, both Graham and I had a character die trying to prevent a rape. Being the hero is not going to work out every time.

These are the kinds of decisions that games should be forcing you to make. Clear cut right and wrong answers are boring. Decisions need to have consequences other than a sliding morality scale that gives you bonuses for being purely good or thoroughly evil. Look at the rogue-like Faster than Light. Many decision trees have an option to help people in distress, however this almost always puts you and your crew at risk, and being good can ultimately lead to your downfall.

More games like these need to challenge the hero versus villain archetype, and start implementing more ambiguity into their morality system. Taking a brief look at TES: Skyrim reveals a really cool opportunity for this: civil war. Generally speaking there are going to be pros and cons to each side in a civil war - maybe you don’t agree with the current government’s [insert morally wrong] policy, but you’re on their payroll and you have job security. If you decide to join up with the rebellion, you may die, or if you live, you may not have a job, maybe their government will be just as bad. Life is full of difficult choices, and when video games present them without clear consequences, they really resonate with the player.

I think more consequences should be added to decision making in games today. The mainstream has moved farther and farther away from “punishing” the player, which is fair, because that means the game is not “fun,” and you won’t keep playing. However, given the right setting - in the dead silence of space, in a besieged city, or on the run from a relentless enemy - the outcomes of your decision making will have a greater resonance on you than playing through it again Dark Side.