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The Space In-between: Morality in Video Games

May 17, 2011

[This is an editorial piece written by murf for GeekLore. If you enjoyed this article, and want to see more geeky goodness from murf and others, please check out]

Fable 2

The Fable series places strong emphasis on morality.

Recently, I’ve been playing Mass Effect after nabbing it on sale in Steam for $5. Having never played Mass Effect and having heard good things about the series, I felt it was worth a shot. So far I’m enjoying it. One of the aspects Mass Effect is the increasingly common “morality” system where a player’s actions are judged as “good” or “evil” and often have consequences along side them. While this is an interesting mechanic that makes for some interesting game play decisions, I feel that for the most part no one game (that I’ve played) has done morality correctly or even exceedingly well. I’d like to take a moment and discuss my feelings on the matter and what I feel the industry can do improve on this idea.

For the most part, I’ve noticed the path is often three-fold you can be good, evil, or neutral. Typically I play these games with a good/neutral approach. Depending on the game though, I may opt for evil. While playing Knights of the Old Republic I started out by being a cold-hearted jack-ass because, let’s face it, Dark Side powers are cooler. I managed to maintain this until I got to Kashyyyk and had to deal with the Wookiee slave problem. I had no trouble being evil anywhere else, but I’ve got a soft spot for Wookiees. After this though, I started back towards the light and its crappy power set simply because making “evil” decisions, even virtually, didn’t really appeal to me. Maybe this is why I also don’t enjoy games like Grand Theft Auto where you are forced to make immoral decisions. This does not mean I don’t enjoy evil characters. In fact, for the remainder of KotOR, my party was always Jolee Bindo (who was neutral) and the always-awesome HK-47 (who was totally evil) because I enjoyed the multi-toned morality they brought the stage. I just don’t personally enjoy being evil.


BioShock features absolute moral choices in the form of saving or harvesting Little Sisters.

Despite having three paths to take, I find the system flawed in general. TakeFallout 3 for example. The town of Megaton has an atomic bomb in its center. You’re given the option to disarm it and save the town, blow it up and destroy the town or simply do nothing. All-in-all its interesting quest, but it highlights the issue. You are typically doing tremendous good or tremendous evil, and the middle ground isn’t even worth mentioning. This is also the inherent issue with morality in BioShock. In games, morality is often black and white. The issue of course being that morality tends to came in shades of grey and isn’t always about being a savior or a harbinger of doom. Given the option of pure good or pure evil is not interesting. In fact it is rather boring because it so cut-and-dry and doesn’t explore deeper concepts of morality.

Moral issues where the answer isn’t clear-cut is much more interesting. Is “eye-for-eye” punishment such as the death penalty morally justifiable? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? If you go back in time and meet Adolf Hitler as a child, do you kill an innocent child knowing what he will become? Decisions like that are far more interesting because there is no clear answer, and both sides can be deemed morally “good.” A personal favorite example comes from Doctor Who. The fourth incarnation of the Doctor is given the option to kill the Daleks, a race of genocidal aliens comparable to Nazis, before they even have a chance to get started. Despite the Daleks being a race that prides itself on its hatred and genocide of others, the Doctor halts to ponder this decision due to the idea that if he commits genocide of the Daleks, is he truly any better than them? THAT makes for interesting moral decisions with no truly clear answer that is “good” or “evil,” except for what you set as moral by your own standards.

I will note that the one thing I’ve seen pulled in a variety of games with morality systems that I truly despise is what I call the “focal decision point.” You can play the entire game being an evil jackass. You’ve slaughtered whole towns, sold out your best friend to the villain but eventually you’ll come to event to make a single choice that will determine your status. Just to spite the villain since you yourself are evil, you decide to take the “good” option. It doesn’t matter how you’ve played the game until then, or how you’ll continue to play it. This one decision alone will drive the story’s conclusion. You are a hero to the people and you’ve saved the day, despite the fact you’ve been a malicious jerk-face the entire time. That is a prime example of not doing “morality” correctly. In the end, your decisions didn’t matter except for that one. That isn’t right. If you want to make an emphasis on moral decisions for your game, the player’s decisions need to drive the story and effect its outcome otherwise the decisions they make carry no weight at all and thus have no relevance or impact.

Fallout 3

Do you save Megaton, or destroy it?

Why are moral systems so hard to implement? The answer falls down to one simple word: Money. Video games are still a business where publishers and investors must make decisions around budgets and costs vs. gains. So why does this matter? Games with any form of dynamic decisions are by necessity going to be huge and expansive games already. Money becomes an issue because each in-game decision will require diverging paths and if the decisions are to carry any major weight, that requires even more additional paths to accommodate different outcomes. Each major path will require its own unique content if it is to have lasting effect. This means you need to build the resources for each path. That could include character models, dungeons, dialog, voice acting and other resources that need to be built for those cases. Each additional case means more dollars for the production cost and higher production cost means more risk for investors. This is where the issue comes into full view. In order to create a game with complex decisions, let alone moral decisions, it costs a lot of money that investors may not be willing to risk losing if the game flops. Ergo, simplistic decisions with minimal effects tend to be the easiest to implement without driving costs too high. Using the Megaton example from Fallout 3, this is where you can see how the problem can arise. If you blow up the town, the town becomes a smoldering crater and leaves most (but not all) citizens dead and that area is now inaccessible due to radiation. If you save the town, the town remains standing and goes about its peaceful ways. Two completely different sets of resources are required to make the decision last and have an meaningful effect for the game in the long run. If the whole game were made of decisions like this, it would be awesome and chock full of replay value to see the different scenarios, but it would very costly to make.

So, how do we make better moral conflict work in a game? First off, I’d say we need to remove the “single-axis” morality bar where you’re good, evil or somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t allow for much diversity and leads to the absolute issues (save the orphans, or slaughter them all) that drive the system. A grid may be more appropriate where you’re judged along varying axises based on other aspects of morality. For example, take the Dungeons & Dragons morality system (from 3.0) where you not only set whether you are good or evil, but also ‘lawful’ or ‘chaotic.’ If you’re chaotic good, you’ll always do the right thing but you’ll say “to Hell with the rules” if they get in the way. That’s much more interesting and way more accurate to how people would actually operate. Do something good, but break the rules doing so. Do something evil, but within the confines of the law. Having that level of flexibility in the metric that gauges “morality” automatically makes for more interesting situations and allows players increased flexibility in making their decisions. The axises don’t even need to be good/evil and lawful/chaotic. There’s a whole world of aspects you can align to a system of that design while still holding to the fundamental aspect of making players have decisions of what is “right” vs “wrong” along with what is “lawful” or “unlawful.”

Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks

The Doctor struggles with the decision to wipe out the Daleks.

Next, is to prioritize the effects of complex vs. simple decisions. For a complex decision, let’s go back to the Doctor. If he lets the Daleks live, he lets the most evil force ever have their run over the galaxy, but other races would unite in the face a greater evil. If he kills the Daleks, the universe is a safer place without fear of the Daleks, but the peoples of the universe remain divided and uncaring of the greater universe around them leading to societal stagnation. We have two different paths stemming from one decision that has long lasting implications and both have positive and negative effects. That would make for a more interesting story and make making the decision all the more critical to the experience. A more simple decision can have a lesser impact (such as people fearing or admiring you ala Fable), but be made more complex by adjusting the reward scheme where an “evil” decision nets you greater rewards in game (gold and items), but a “good” decision sets you back comparably in your own materials and the only reward you get overall is external to the game, in that you feel justified that you’ve done the right thing. Or perhaps the “evil” decision nets a large immediate reward, but the “good” option is detrimental at first but over time reaps a more substantial reward. By using a multi-axis meter and adjusting reward output based on decisions, you can cater to many areas of play where a character’s decisions may be derived from desire to do good, a desire to gain more wealth, a desire to see his community prosper, a desire to be asshole or anything in the middle. You create more realistic situations, more interesting scenarios and thus increase the range of “morality” in the decision making for a more dynamic and more enjoyable experience.

Using morality in games is an interesting prospect with a lot of potential. We’ve seen games approach this concept from number of angles and have been met with varied success. However, there is a lot of room for improvement in my eyes. I’m sure as time goes on, we’ll see games that use morality decisions to drive compelling stories with true consequences. If we fail to move beyond decisions between absolute good and evil, then the concept will stagnate and never reach its full potential. Sometimes, deciding to be the good guy or the bad guy is a lot of fun, but having more variance and ambiguity in the decisions leads to a much richer and fulfilling experience when exploring the world of morality. When games can make us reach deep down and make us think about ourselves on a more personal level, that’s when you elevate from being entertainment to being art.

What a Good Day Entails

May 15, 2011

So, yesterday was a pretty good day for me. Allow me to explain the full breadth of what such a day entailed.

First off, I get up at 11:30, simply because Heather finally decided I had slept too late. All-in-all, I woke refreshed and ready. We went to go grab some lunch. We came home, I relaxed and played a few games.

Around 2:15, we headed over to the neighboring town of Waynesboro to go see the new Thor movie at the first stadium-seating digital theater in the area (about time we got one). Thor was fun. I know nothing about the source material from the comics so I can’t pass any judgement on that front, but overall the film was fun and never took itself too seriously. Plus the fact it has Natalie Portman playing an astrophysicist. A “Hollywood” astrophysicist, but an astrophysicist none-the-less. If you know me at all, you’d understand the amount of man-jelly I turned into at that notion. The film is good entertainment and worth checking out.

Afterwards, we were headed over to my good friend Dana’s home to celebrate her birthday/nursing school graduation. On the way, we stopped at a 7-11 to pick up some soda for the party. Heather got a big Slurpee in a Thor cup, which made her to revert to child-like glee which was really cute. But I walk into the 7-11 and right there by the front door are some movies. Immediately catching my eye was “previously viewed” copy, that I’m fairly certain was new, of the Discovery Channel series When We Left Earth about the history of NASA’s manned-spaceflight program on Blu-Ray. It was only $13. With no hesitation I picked that up. Great series that I recommend if you like that sort of thing. Its on Netflix Instant Watch.

Then we headed over to Dana’s where I got to spend time with good friends I hadn’t seen in a while, eat some good food and congratulate one of my best friends on a great accomplishment. When we got tired, we left and got home just in time to catch the newest episode of Doctor Who on BBC America.

What does a good day look like? It looks like that.

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