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Moral Systems in Games (warning: Spoilers to Prey (2017) and Elex)

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This post may contain massive spoilers to Prey (2017) and Elex.


I just finished Prey (2017). I think it's generally a good game. Rushed in some areas and tedious in the end, but generally good. What really made me think, though, is the system of moral decisions it has. That sucks. Of course, it can be argued, that it's not as bad as in Bioshock, which is probably Prey's half-brother. However, since the gist of the game is that it's one giant test of your humanity, it's kind of more important.


In most cases, the game makes you decide whether you help people or not. Save someone by completing an extra objective or don't. If you don't help, sometimes the people die, other times they will just be disappointed - but you always miss out on game content and rewards. On the meta-level the decisions don't come down to moral ones, but whether you want to spend more time in the game or rush through it faster. Whether you want to know more of the story, or whether that's not important to you. And even inside the game world, the decisions are rarely difficult. The game balantly asks you whether you want to be a monster or not. 


It's similar in many games. Even ones that have more nuanced worlds, like the Fallout series, make it hard for the player to play as an asshole. Most of the time, the "evil" decisions are just kicking puppies, figuratively, but also literally. If you go by the healthy moral compass of a human being, you end up as the knight in shining armor. Evil decisions are generally wrong, good decisions right.


Does it have to be like that? I don't think so. However the only game I know that did it in a decent way is Elex. Now, it's not really a good game, but I think they nailed that aspect.

Few people played it here, I assume, so I'll explain the basics. You play as a guy who was recently kicked out of a faction of technologists who brutally murder people to extract a drug from them that grants special powers and keeps their emotions down. Since you don't have access to a constant flow of the drug, your emotions come back. How they do, that's for you to decide. I think that's a clever way to have a blank slate RPG-character without the amnesia trope.

Instead of a karma meter, the game keeps track of your "coldness": Emotionless, utilitarian decisions count as cold and raise the meter, emotional decisions, whether from anger or compassion, lower it. 


The good thing is, that this never tells you whether your decision was right or wrong. For example, early in the game you find a man who is trying to care for his brother who was turned into a monster. The human decision is to keep quiet about it, since the local authorities would kill both of them. If you do that, the monster brother kills the other man anyway.


This "moral" system is set in a world filled with assholes. There are five factions that can be summarized as bigots, bullies, supermacists, terrorists and mass murderers, and you get to decide whether you want to ally with the first three. I've read reviews of people who complained that they stopped playing because they hated all the factions. Well, that's the point! When I played the missions of these factions, I found myself constantly trying to screw them over while still meeting the mission requirements. Sometimes that works, sometimes it gets back at you later. Even the first companion you get in the game only stays with you if you help him frame the cold blooded murder he comitted on an innocent guy. I the end, I agreed with that, took him back to the camp, ratted him out and killed him.


There I realized it: In this game playing as an asshole has a point. Often you only have questionable options and you'll have to go with the one that helps you with your own goals. If you try to be the good guy all the time, you are not only going to get used, you are definitely going to make things worse for everyone. Because the people giving you quests lie to you.


I find that really fascinating. What do you think? Is there any game that implimented something similar?

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Might want to give the Wasteland series a go then... They have a lot of split decisions that are morally ambiguous. (it was even a major selling point)

Don't insult me. I have trained professionals to do that.

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On 6/10/2021 at 11:04 AM, BTGBullseye said:

Might want to give the Wasteland series a go then... They have a lot of split decisions that are morally ambiguous. (it was even a major selling point)

I played some of Wasteland II, but can't remember much of it. The moral system didn't strike me as especially interesting, as it concerned mainly tactical decisions. Plus, as far as I remember, most missions do have a "right" way to play them. Most of the time it's still "play a good samaritan or murder everyone".

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On 6/20/2021 at 1:43 PM, StrixLiterata said:

You might like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., here's why:


Everyone likes S.T.A.L.K.E.R, but I don't agree with this guy in several points:

Fist of all, Stalker is a terrible example for a faction system. His only point is that all the factions are relatable. Great. What does it mean in the game? Nothing. The factions don't influence the story progression in Shadow of Chernobyl, they are basicly a minigame in Clear Sky and play no real role at all in Call of Prypiat. He even says it correctly that there are no real moral decisions in the game. I get that he likes the idea that all sides have a point, but that's easy to do if it doesn't matter in the end. 


Furthermore, he makes exactly the opposite point I gave in my example with Elex: He dislikes faction systems because they tend to make you choose the lesser of two evils. I can't understand why this is supposed to be a bad thing. I just think this is realistic. If you're not the leader of any faction and forced to work with them, you'll just end up with their goals, not yours. The great thing about Elex is that you have many ways to decide, but no decision is going to be a good one. There's no lesser evil, you just pick the evil you like. If you think one of the factions might have the right idea, you probably missed something or are an extremist yourself.


I think he mixes some points up there, because with mentioning Bioshock he's on the right track. This is a game where you can either choose to be a monster or an angel. No grey areas and the moral decision is so utterly obvious that it's painful. I can completely agree here. But I don't get why he is complaing about games only offering bad solutions to problems. Stalker only escapse this situation by having no faction-specific endings! Otherwise it would be exactly the same as, say, in The Outer Worlds. 

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i feel like the problem with moral systems in games is that its either "oh you are a kind soul" or "you are a monster" sometimes with a neutral option


they rarely give us motive to be the "bad guy" or make we chose a conflicting decision where we really have to decide what to do


humans arent black and white people arent assholes just for being an asshole (most times anyway) usually they think they are being a good person even when thats not the case


but most games wants us to take these black and white decisions with ends up with most of the playerbase being the good guy and the ones playing with "evil" characters doing it either to see what happens or just for the lolz of it all


decisions shouldint be "i will kill you because i am a monster" but "i will kill you because this is the only way" thats what they were going for with bioshock they would make so saving the little sisters would really screw you up and make the game a lot harder and more frustrating while harvesting them would make the game a cake walk


but the publisher didn't let them do it so we have this system where it doesn't really matter if you save or harvest them

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Yes, this is a major point. Most games with a moral system give you a choice whether you want to play the game seriously (play as a good guy) or just mess everything up (bad guy). The old Fallout games and Fallout New Vegas tried to mix it up by putting most of the factions in some grey areas - but the player choices are nevertheless rated good or evil and do feel that way. 

I can imagine that Bioshock was planned that way, but also why the publisher didn't allow it. 

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   Yes. the way most game developers implement morality systems

tends to be unsophisticated and deserves a long discussion.


Having read your post I just fell compelled to recommend you to

play Tyranny from Obsidian, Which, for a lack of a better

explanation, works on a very Classical Roman morality lens, usually

misrepresented by most as "Being a Bad Guy".

Edited by HeartaceX (see edit history)

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