Commentary

Getting To The Gray In Gameplay

As video games continue to mature as a medium, one of the major narrative elements being included in AAA titles is the idea of your character's moral choices having an effect on the outcome of the game and the game world itself. Some of the top games of the last year have incorporated this element, including "nFamous" and "Fable 2" (where your character's moral choices not only affect the world, but also your character's appearance, ranging from saintly to devilish). Several major upcoming titles are also using this element: "Mass Effect 2" and "Dragon Age," to name two, both currently under development by BioWare.

But there's a problem with this approach. In almost every game that features these kinds of moral decisions, the choices aren't just easy, they're totally transparent. The first decision you make is whether you want the character to be the good guy or the bad guy, and then all decisions you must make to achieve that outcome are predetermined: Feed the puppy to be the good guy, kick it to be the bad guy. As former Activision developer James Portnow put it in his column this week on Gamasutra: "We tend to deliver to our players all the exciting possibilities of either being Mother Theresa or being Hitler."

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Developing some shades of gray into this spectrum of choices is critical for video game's development as a medium. People don't read books or watch movies because it's 100% clear what the characters should do all the time; stories are at their best when characters have to make hard choices.

And every human being who's spent a modicum of time thinking about right and wrong knows that's not at all how it works -- you can decide up front how you want to live your life, but putting that decision into practice is the hard part. In video game world, it's the opposite -- once you've made the decision about who you want to be, making the decisions to bring that about is the easy part, and in most games, you've got a handy progress bar telling you exactly how good or evil your actions have made you.

One issue with the shades-of-gray approach is that it violates a general tenet of game development: that player's actions should have predictable outcome sets. But until a healthy dose of ambiguity is introduced into these systems, moral choices in games will never have the same resonance that they do in other media.

3 comments about "Getting To The Gray In Gameplay ".
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  1. James Lee from Agency.com, July 10, 2009 at 2:44 p.m.

    Hmmm... Really depends on the genre.

    Ogre Battle, back from the SNES heydays, had a very good shades-of-grey approach built into the game engine.

    Text-heavy rpg games offer mores opportunities to build larger good/bad trigger pools, which can in turn lead to more complex moral outcomes within the game's environment.

    It gets even more complex when you take into account the fact that what the game defines as a "good" action (detetermined by the developer) may not necessarily be in line with what the user deems as "good," especially when cultural differences are taken into account (as the majority of RPGs are coming out of Japan).

    I would argue that characters in films are not meant to be complex. Their situations may and often are, but there are always clear-cut good and bad guys. It's a tenant (for better or worse) of modern film making. 2 Hours just isn't enough time to introduce too many complex characters, thus caricatures are the mainstay. They are exceptions of course, but this is rule (and what I actually learned in screen play writing class). Video games seem not to stray to far from this trend.

  2. Ned Canty from New York Television Festival, July 10, 2009 at 3:05 p.m.

    While I agree that most choices in games tend to be extreme, I would argue that the end of Fable 2 presented one of the most morally complex choices I've ever dealt with in a game. (Semi-spoilers ahead) Having to choose between my faithful friend and the good of the world had me literally frozen with indecision. I would also argue that the Baldur's Gate games (also from Bioware) always did well with finding a "middle path" series of choices.

    I think we are still in a phase of gaming that is the rough equivalent of the early years of Hollywood--lots of shorts, lots of disposable content and a few visionaries attempting to stretch boundaries. In the years to come I believe we'll see a wealth of talented storytellers emerge for whom this is a native mode of narrative. I, for one, can't wait.

  3. Josh Lovison from Josh Lovison Consulting, July 13, 2009 at 2:43 p.m.

    I think it really depends on the game and studio. InFAMOUS had a pretty poor system, where it was black or white, and the black seemed pretty contrary to the character's initial arc.

    BioWare tends to do a great job with this, and I recall in KOTOR there being moral decisions which even when going down the "dark side" path I felt were too evil to choose.

    Fallout 3 had achievements and gameplay mechanics tied to riding the middle ground between good and evil.

    Generally when the "good or evil" is thrown in as a gimmick or an afterthought (I think BioShock falls into this category too), it's just a black or white scenario. But when it's focused on as an integral element of the game, the developers usually do their due diligence and build a framework that has multiple layers.

    Consider the *spoiler* decision in Mass Effect to kill off the bug queen or set her free --- that was a really complex moral decision, which could have subsequent impact in the future games, and didn't have a clear "good" or "evil" choice. *end spoiler*

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