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Interesting observation about morality in games
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
Was helping interview a candidate for a game design position today, and in the course of the conversation, he made a really interesting observation:

Videogames that have a morality system typically reward the player for picking one morality and sticking with it through the whole game. If you're always good, you get access to the best "good powers"; if you're always evil, you get access to the best "evil powers". This means that the player is (from a game-mechanics sense) discouraged from having any sort of character arc. If the player acts in a way that implies a character arc, current games can't even recognize that behavior, much less reward it.

Questions for future pondering:
Can videogame main characters have an arc?
If they could, would it be a Good Thing?

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You know that I am not a gamer, and remain ignorant of games to the degree you might expect.

But: when I read this, I said to myself "character arc is something an author imbues a character with because they know the story, and what will happen, and how it ends. As they write the story, they may change any or all of those things. How can a character in a game develop a meaningful arc, when the acts that are to come, or unfold, are unknown?"

How would that "work"?

(Deleted comment)
I think the base observation is incorrect.

"Character arc" tracks the changing status and viewpoint of the character over the course of the story, and does not imply transition between opposing states. Going from evil to good is an arc, sure. But so is going from evil to Even More Evil.

All that you need for an arc is for the character to go somewhere - and further along a given path is still somewhere. So, typical games restrict possible arcs, but that's not the same as not having any arc at all.

Part of what I'm getting at here is that most players in these games make exactly one moral choice: "Am I going to play a good guy or a bad guy?" They never rethink that choice, and the game doesn't encourage them to -- in fact, it actively *discourages* them from doing so.

To me, a character arc implies a choice *during* the story (preferably at a climactic moment), not just a change in magnitude along an axis that you chose at the beginning.

Most good CRPGs have some form of character arc, though it's not usually a morality arc per se, more of a world-understanding and power arc, which can include some amount of morality as you learn of betrayals and are faced with interesting decisions where you're uncertain of underlying structures.

On the pure morality level, it's hard to even define reasonably in a single-player game. One appeal of the game is that you can do things consequence-free, or at least with different consequences than in the so-called "real world". To the extent that morals are heuristics of behavior evolved into us based on consequences from historical contexts, they simply do not apply the same way in a limited-consequence game.

Games that try to reward/punish/notice "morality" based on modern real-world sensibilities hamfistedly transliterated into a fantasy world with different cause-effect laws are unlikely to ever get it right; they're modeling it on the wrong level.

In a MMO, of course, some types of morality make sense - behaviors that detract from others' fun are generally verboten. Arcs in this dimension absolutely happen - ninja-looters or lazy greedy guildmates can reform and become valuable teammates, and the reverse is seen as well. I'm not sure these arcs should be encouraged by designers, though.

Well, games, broadly speaking, reward depth over breadth, right? In a class-system game, you get the coolest stuff when you pursue one class to the exclusion of all others. (Yeah, maybe you can max out one and then do another, or max out on everything so you're the perfect fighter, mage, and healer, but I believe typically the amount of content in a game is roughly what is expected to get you through maxing out one path.) So I look at Good and Evil as classes, in the kind of game that gets you Good Powers and Evil Powers.

There can definitely be a moral component, and it can be less black and white, but I think it means detaching game morality from this path-based development.

There are a number of characters that have arcs imposed on them by the game, and get no choice about what that arc should be. So, is it possible or advantageous to mechanically encourage some arc, without specifying what that arc should be? I suspect that at least in primitive terms we could do it now, by (handwaving somewhat due to my lack of game-design knowledge) having a series of Turning Point events, after which you reward behaviors that are markedly different from the behaviors before them. I'm not certain, though, whether leaving the moral dimension free-floating is conducive to writing compelling storylines.

I suppose the most true-to-myth version would be to allow a player to change alignment at critical junctures, and to have NPCs react to them based on the length of time they have spent acting in accordance with their alignments, with a close-to-peak bonus for time approximating one segment of the overall story.

Erm. I mean, if you start out evil, you can change to neutral by sparing the kidnapped heroine, or to good by freeing her. And a Good NPC will be wary of you immediately after the change, but accord you full respect if you continue to act Good down the road.

Gosh darn it, there ought to be a better way to model treachery.

I am not sure I want my video games to reward morality at all. I think that actions should have 'realistic' consequences. Some of those can be seen as 'rewards' for 'evil' behavior, and some, the other way around. The interesting question is always are the rewards (of whatever action) worth the costs. There is no merit in always choosing the 'good' side, if that is always rewarded and never punished.

Those who want to play heroes recognize that not killing the bad guy in cold blood is going to leave the possibility (certainty in stories) of the bad guy escaping and doing more harm. They do it anyways.

Those who want to play villains recognize that their minions will be stupid and betray them whenever they can.

Those in between want the moral anguish from killing the bad guy.

The interesting question is always are the rewards (of whatever action) worth the costs. There is no merit in always choosing the 'good' side, if that is always rewarded and never punished.

You could steer people into a character arc by shifting the costs. Say the game involves fighting zombies. Early on, zombies are, well, zombies; all you can reasonably do is kill them. Kill zombies, rescue your wife, she starts helping kill zombies. Then things get more complicated: the zombies start getting smarter, and your wife starts wondering whether killing them is wrong. Every time you kill a zombie, she gets more and more angsty about it; if you just keep going, she leaves you, and soon you run into a boss zombie that you can't survive without her help. If you switch to killing zombies only when they're actually attacking, she sticks with you, you survive until the Turning Point.

At the Turning Point, you're fighting a bunch of zombies led by a much more intelligent zombie, who acts pretty much human...and turns out to be your daughter. If you kill her, your wife leaves you and becomes a powerful enemy; if you let your daughter go, she comes back to kill you. You have to find some third way, some way to keep your daughter alive (undead) while you look for a way to cure zombiehood. At this point, if you kill any zombie, there are serious costs—maybe you start tearing up, thinking of someone killing your daughter, and can't defend yourself.

Oh, and, once you've found the cure, then you have to decide what to do about people who want to remain zombies. Do they have the right to? Do you have the right to cure them against their will?

It's not the same as recognizing when a character is creating their own arc; but, really, that's an AI-complete problem. First you have to recognize good and evil; then you have to recognize a shift from one to the other; then you have to recognize when that shift is reflecting a coherent story. Oh, and then you have to figure out how to sell a video game that requires the player to make up a coherent story.


Re: Dynamic cost model

Have you read Richard Matheson's _I am Legend_? (Or seen the fairly faithful Vincent Price movie adaptation "The Last Man on Earth"?) It has a similarly complex story arc.

(The recent movie adaptation with Will Smith was originally filmed with that arc, but they chickened out and slapped a new Hollywood ending on instead.)

Re: Dynamic cost model

No, I haven't read/seen those; but that wasn't really the point. The point was just that, by adopting a slightly more complex cost model, you can get much more complex behavior.

Ideally, a cost model would provide for more than one arc, by being state-dependent. If you took too long to save your wife, she gets badly hurt by zombies, and develops an irrational hatred for them. She doesn't start feeling for them, and discovers that, if she cuts out their hearts, she finds something to let you control zombies. If you encourage her, you gain power, but eventually, when she meets your daughter, she realizes what she's been doing, and kills herself. If you don't encourage her, she gets over it herself; you don't get enough power to make a big difference in combat, but it is enough to keep your daughter safe, and maybe to cure her.

I think the premise here is flawed, but that the lessons are valid. The premise is that a linear morality progression is incompatible with character development and engaging character growth. Conflating the two does a disservice to both.

That said, there is a valid point in that morality systems in video games are drastically under-nuanced. If there is one at all, it often falls into the binary situation shown above, where morality is a 'score' that goes up or down depending on actions, and the palyer is only rewarded for extremes. And when used, morality is rarely used to reflect on the character or the player, but is only used to grant access or deny access to externalalities. Players _Should_ regularly have moral questions, because ambiguities and turning points make for interesting personalities. (As an aside, one of the things I like most about the TV show 'Heroes' is how all of the characters go through cycles on the good/bad dynamic, some more than others.)

So teh question really is how to allow choice but work with what is _interesting_, not simply play it as a min/max equation. Maybe when a good character does a bad thing (say, casts a bad spell) it's much more effective than when a bad character casts it. Maybe when a bad character does a good thing, the ramifications are that he no longer has access to information from 'bad' sources. Maybe you reward someone who is bad, but never kills, or punish someone who is good, but never tithes.

Character arc is all about the ramifications of decisions. If you only have a boring min/max decision path, with no real ramifications, then you can say that it is antithetical to character arc.

I used to build (in theory) live-action games that rewarded a morality turnaround in a PC. I don't see how you couldn't bake that into a video game, though...

I think that the candidate makes an excellent point. Let's take it as read that we're talking about story-driven and character-driven RPGs, or at least that the point may not be relevant for games that focus on neither story nor character ("Mario, get over your feelings of guilt and throw that turtle shell at Wario's cart!")


I think that Ultima IV was actually a pretty decent attempt at a videogame that used player character morality as a drive for the story arc, so that the character's moral code gradually developed in parallel to (and with two-way feedback with) the story arc.

For those who don't know / don't remember Ultima IV, it was the last of the turn-based / square-based Ultima games, released in 1985. Unlike any of its predecessors (and unlike any other game to that point that I can think of) it didn't have any arch-villain to defeat, but was instead driven by the character's development in eight virtues (based largely off of the Chivalric virtues-- Richard Garriot IS in the SCA, after all, and even named most of the NPCs after fellow Prominent Persons in the Kingdom of Ansteorra...)


Consider that model against, say, Bioshock, where the moral decisions (which, on the face of it, were pretty extreme: murder innocent little girls, or rescue them) had surprising little effect on gameplay (a slight variation in how your grossly abundant XP were delivered and on what you could spend them) and even less on story development (two different cut-scenes to end the game, depending on whether or not you murdered *too many* innocent little girls, where "too many" was, inexplicably, a number greater than zero).

Consider each of those models against, say, the narrative arc of character development in Death of a Salesman, or Macbeth, or even A Farewell to Arms-- the basics of narrative story that we require every high-school-educated citizen to learn-- where characters evolve and change, for good or ill, developing and/or applying their moral decision-making right there before our eyes...

Yep, I think that your interviewee has an EXCELLENT point, and that he'll be a tremendous asset to whatever story-creating venture he works with. If you're lucky, it'll be yours.

"Ultima IV, it was the last of the turn-based / square-based Ultima games"

Historical quibble. V used the same basic engine as IV. VI (and the two "Worlds of Ultima" spin-offs) had an upgraded engine, but was still square-based, and largely turn-based.

"whether or not you murdered *too many* innocent little girls, where "too many" was, inexplicably, a number greater than zero"

This was a matter of some debate among the team. The eventual decision was that most players, even 'good' ones, would want to see what happened, so they got one 'gimme'. But if you did it again, after seeing what happened the first time, you got the bad ending.

Heck, it's hard to support character development in a table-top RPG, and there you've got a human making the whole thing up the whole time, ready to take compensatory action.

From a writer's perspective, character arc generally involves the character changing fundamentally: often dying in some important way. The character ends up altered, but not necessarily better. And in fact they generally have to LOSE a lot more than computer-game avatars usually do. These go against the ratchet of progress that most games employ these days (even if many include a "reset" halfway through where you're captured and all your stuff is taken away). So that's the first challenge -- keeping the player engaged while they keep losing.

And there are other problems. Supporting a fundamentally changed viewpoint character almost seems like writing a whole new game, in some sense. Detecting and classifying what actions indicate what kind of character transformation can be difficult (you can observe the action, but not the intent or extenuating circumstances -- though obviously the game designer can rig things, they still don't know what mental model of the situation the player has). And if the player hasn't made the same changes as the character, it can be jarring. These challenges mean it's very tricky to support a real arc, programmatically and story-wise.

On the flip side, hints at a real arc are very engaging. Marathon was at least partly engaging because your character (without your input, really) makes some fundamental discoveries about the world that change how he works and who he works for. In this sort of sense, yes, many main characters have an arc, it's just not under player control. The closest recent analog I played was Deus Ex; the character has a decent arc, but it's mostly forwarded in cut-scenes between activities. And you get to make the Hero's Choice, but then the game ends. (It was nice they left the choice till the end; I was worried that since I'd killed *anyone* I was stuck in some sort of player-jail of morality.)

I think this is the de facto standard: give a few minor choices (minor in the sense that they're usually boolean, not subtle). Anything richer than that and you get into serious game breadth. Alternately, you have proxies like "alignment", but those are really more like character improvement rather than arc.


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