Good vs. Evil, MMO-style

Tobold kicked off a good discussion yesterday about morality in MMOs, especially in the context of giving players choices.  Now, BioWare — his main example — is no stranger to such an approach, having used it in pretty much every game they’ve done.  With KOTOR they put it to a meter with good and bad (or light and dark side) points moving you up and down the scale, a system that they’ve held on to in several subsequent games and also for the upcoming SWTOR.

The quote that caught my eye was when he said, “The other problem is that by clearly attaching good and evil points to decisions, the players are bound to the ideas of morality of the developers.”  It’s a good point, and I want to explore it a bit further.

In general, game companies are not where we should be looking to for our moral compass.  They’re made up of a conglomerate of personalities, belief systems, religions, and philosophies just like most other companies.  The companies don’t want to alienate players of any walk of life, because hey, they’re paying customers and who needs the controversy, so there’s a delicate walk to be maintained when advocating a moral stance — either implicitly or explicitly — in a game.  I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but that there’s some… diplomacy involved.

This is where you get games like WoW and RIFT that have completely opposing factions who are both “good” from different points of view.  They needed factions but didn’t want to portray either as evil, so they doubled-down on being fantasy Boy Scouts.

I actually like that BioWare doesn’t shy away from tricky moral and ethical dilemmas in games, and I agree that sometimes they’re hampered by simplifying it down into “good” and “evil” with no other categories.  However, let’s not do the same to the company, since with games like Mass Effect you don’t pursue a good or evil course, but have the option to be as ruthless or virtuous as you like in achieving your goals.  In essence, you’re still the hero in the games doing the right thing, but the avenue of how you get there is determined by what your morals (or preferences) dictate, not theirs.

I agree that game studios shouldn’t be judging my morals, as in penalizing me for not believing in something they do or for doing something that they dislike.  However, I’m all for having them set up a situation that allows me to exercise my morals and see — as in real life — how it plays out.  Sometimes doing the “right thing” in life doesn’t have an immediate positive response, and sometimes doing something wrong can be beneficial to you.  But having the ability to make that choice according to what YOU (or your character) want or believe instead of being forced to do X in order to complete a quest is a step back in the right direction of roleplay and immersion.

Sometimes, as in real life, the right thing to do can be extremely hard to discern, and require more than seeing if the text is blue or red to indicate good or bad.  Sometimes there are many ways to do something right or wrong, to take big or small steps along a moral path, and I’d be all for games mirroring that complexity.

Ultimately, games are games.  If SWTOR allows me to choose my character’s decisions without constantly hitting me on the nose and saying “BAD gamer!”, then awesome.  Yes, I’m not a big fan of light and dark side gear and powers, since that will have a stronger influence on how people “game” the system than to simply play and choose according to what they or their character would do in that situation, but it’s still more than we usually get, and that’s something.

Plus, wouldn’t it be really cool if BioWare makes these choices and stories so compelling that it tears people away from grinding light/darkside points to do what they want to do?

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7 thoughts on “Good vs. Evil, MMO-style

  1. Maladorn August 19, 2011 / 2:18 pm

    Another problem with Good vs Evil choices is that a dichotomy rarely covers all of the situation. To craft a hypothetical example, say that the head of a major NGO made an agreement with a local crime boss, “You let us take care of people, and we’ll pay a bribe.” The NGO then turns around and hires you, an adventurer in this game, to go knock the crime boss down a couple pegs. You fight your way through, beat up the criminals, and then discover the NGO’s original deal. You confront the NGO, who explains that if they hadn’t made the original deal, they never would have been able to get adventurers to come to the area in the first place, and they never intended to actually pay the bribe. Is it evil to hide the evidence, protecting the NGO and allowing them to continue their aid work? Is it good to expose them, and potentially devastate the people that were supposed to be helped? I get that not every situation has a perfect outcome, and sometimes trade-offs are inevitable. However, in these sorts of situations, two options is just too few.

  2. bhagpuss August 19, 2011 / 4:02 pm

    I would say that both factions in Rift are “evil” rather than “good”, a point I made more than once in beta feedback. There are quests on each side that, if you agreed to carry them out, should get you not a new pair of boots but a close-up view of either a secure mental hospital or a war-crimes tribunal and that’s just in the starting zones.

  3. Gina August 19, 2011 / 8:18 pm

    I think the Dragon Age games did this well. Especially in DA2, where you get to see what the results of your decisions were. To me, Paragon vs. Renegade Shepard seemed more like Doormat vs. Asshole.

  4. Encrazed Crafts August 19, 2011 / 9:09 pm

    I like how you described the choices you make in Mass Effect. You aren’t exactly good or evil, you just make decisions and carry on from there. My main problem is games generally do not offer that type of outcome. Like, Red Dead Redeption: Undead Nightmare. You are told to kill sasquatches for whatever reason. When you get to the final one it doesn’t even fight you, it just sits next to a tree crying as he is the last of his kind and you killed all of his friends and family. You can choose to kill him or not.

    If you kill him, that’s bad. But wouldn’t letting him live be even more evil? He’s got nothing to carry on with, so it’s situations like that where either option can be skewed as evil or good that devs need to add in a secondary ‘intent’ option. Not so much a “would you do this, or this?” but more of a “why would you do this, or this?”

  5. Cam August 22, 2011 / 2:32 am

    I’m hoping that the differences between Dark/Light/Grey bonuses will be purely cosmetic, that their primary requirement will be level, so that for most players their morality score is not the focus of goals, but a side-effect.

    By the sounds of it, the crafting system will allow you to harvest light/dark points anyway, so that if you do desire a specific piece of gear you should still be able to make whichever choices you prefer in dialogue, and off-set the change by sending crew out to farm points.

    (I am expecting that particular path to be VERY grindy, though. To prevent exploitation.)

  6. rowan August 25, 2011 / 4:19 pm

    The attachment of a meta-game goal (gear) to a “moral” choice will inevitably lead to min-maxing your choices in favor of that goal. WoW example: Aldor vs. Scryer in TBC. Most players ended up making that choice based on the gear each faction offered, rather than an inherent RP motive.

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