For all the high-end graphics and vast, open worlds, the gaming industry still hasn’t got a handle on morality systems. Most of them stink at presenting real moral dilemmas, or adding anything tangible to the core gameplay.
Can we do better? Is there a light at the end of this tunnel?
Come with me, and I’ll take you through all the morality systems that exist today – and why they don’t really work. Come with me, and I’ll show you why the best morality system is more simple than you think…
Let’s get started:
5) The Karma Scale
What is it?
Do good things, get good points. Do bad things, gain bad points. A single number defines your morality: good, or evil.
You start at 0 Karma. You feed a hungry homeless person. You gain +1 Good. You then punch them in the face. You gain +5 Evil. You are now at +4 Evil.
You are considered Evil.
What games use this system?
- Black and White
- Fallout 3
- Knights of the Old Republic
- Provides a minimum of player agency and encourages replayability
- Little to no depth and can encourage grindy gameplay
When you think of a morality system, this is probably what you think about. Do good things, move up the scale towards goodness. Do bad things, move down the scale towards evilness.
It’s simple, it’s easy to program and it’s a good way to encourage more than one style of play. Players can run through the game as a goodie two-shoes, then play again as Literal Hitler, and will usually get very different gaming experiences.
Players can run through the game as a goodie two-shoes, then play again as Literal Hitler, and will usually get very different gaming experiences.
Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is a great example of this system. Do bad stuff and you’ll move the The Dark Side. That will make evil, damaging powers like force lightning cheaper for you to use. Be a charitable sort and you’ll head towards the Light Side instead, giving you access to support and healing powers, as well as enabling you to fart rainbows. This game weaved the morality system into an integral gameplay mechanic, making your progress towards the Sith or the Jedi more meaningful and providing an overarching character progression, regardless of where in the story you are.
However, KOTOR isn’t the norm for these systems.
Most of the time, they force players to grind for morality points to get certain rewards, access certain quests or just generally do certain things. That encourages grind-y gameplay, where you’ll eat 1,000 Kitten Burgers ™ in a row just to unlock that BIG DADDY DICK EVIL REAPER MASK that will increase your strength by one billion or whatever.
There’s no room for nuance in this kind of system, and that, ironically, limits how you are able to play the game. Yet it remains popular, because at least it lets devs put “your choices matter!” on the box.
4) The Alignment Chart
What is it?
Same as the Karma Scale, but with more than one axis. Good/Evil might be one, but you might also have Pure/Impure or Lawful/Chaotic. More than one number defines your morality.
You start at 0 Karma and 0 Lawfulness. You feed a homeless person; something that is forbidden by law by the local authorities. You gain +1 Good and +1 Unlawfulness. You then punch them in the face; also against the law. You gain +5 Evil and +1 Unlawfulness.
You are considered Unlawful and Evil.
What games use this system?
- Mass Effect
- Fable III
- Dungeons and Dragons
- Greater diversity of characterisation than the Karma Scale.
- Still relies on arbitrarily defined morality with little room for shades of grey.
Unlike the Karma Scale, the Alignment Chart system lets players have a little bit more choice in their behaviour, morality-wise. Rather than there just being a single scale of good and evil where you slide one way or the other like an indecisive Michael Jackson, the multiple meters give you more than one moral line to walk along.
Mass Effect is probably the simplest example. You have Renegade points on one scale, and Paragon points on another. They are separated, enabling you to be good in one example and bad the next. However, Mass Effect does fall over a bit in this regard in that it is still ideal to be purely Paragon or purely Renegade in order to unlock certain dialogue options. This is not the fault of the morality system though; it is the fault of the grander game’s design.
Fable III is a little better. You can be a good, kind and caring person, but incredibly impure. Alternatively, you can be a pure individual, but utterly evil.
You can be a good, kind and caring person, but incredibly impure. Alternatively, you can be a pure individual, but utterly evil.
On the Karma Scale system, purity and goodness are one and the same. But in reality, they are actually separate traits. Dungeons and Dragons uses a similar scale in its infamous alignment chart. You have Chaotic Evil and Lawful Good i.e. evil incarnate and boring paladins, but you also have Chaotic Good (Robin Hood) or Lawful Evil (Darth Vader).
Multiple meters provide nuance in terms of gameplay, user experience as well as plot. It’s still restricted: the developer gets to tell you if you’ve been good or bad. That can be a problem, because most designers aren’t going to be willing to say whether killing an elderly man to save him from suffering from dementia is a good or evil thing to do. Too complex an issue for most games, so they usually don’t include it.
So you are still restricted; but the restrictions are less severe then the Karma Scale in an Alignment Chart system.
What is it?
Rather than dealing with good/evil, pure/impure, lawful/chaotic, this is a measure of your effect on the NPC communities you encounter. Do something beneficial for the locals, the locals like you more. What you did might be considered good or evil, but it doesn’t matter: only how people view you.
You started with a Neutral Reputation with the community of Vezra. You feed a homeless person and gain some Reputation Points. You are now considered Liked by the people of Vezra. You then murder a whole bunch of kittens. Thankfully, kittens are considered a pest in Vezra, so the outcome is positive.
You are now Accepted by the people of Vezra and hated by the Catpeople.
What games use this system?
- Fallout: New Vegas
- Developers don’t have to outright state what is good and what is evil; it’s more open to interpretation and means they can create more diverse scenarios.
- Lumps all interactions with a group into a single meter, removing individual opinion.
Reputation systems are more specific than most Alignment or Karma systems; they are focused around communities and the effect the player has on them. There isn’t any ill-defined “good” and “evil”. There are just behaviours that are positive for a group of people, and behaviours that are negative for a group of people.
Fallout: New Vegas is an excellent example of this. If you kill a bandit, for example, the local gangsters don’t like you as much. The local townspeople, on the other hand, become more receptive to you. Action, consequence. No good or evil required.
In a regular morality system, you might have instead gained karma points for killing such an obviously evil person like a bandit. But what if the developer then wants to give those evil bandits some depth? Perhaps make it so those bandits are committing these bad deeds for good reasons? You can’t do that as easily with a good/evil paradigm. With a reputation system, you can.
Fallout: New Vegas goes one step further, and has multiple reputation axes – you can be a good-natured rascal, for example, if you do lots of good and a little bad for a community, or a soft-hearted thug if you do lots of bad and a little good. In other systems, you might be able to recover your morality after a particularly evil deed just by grinding up the good boy points. In a multiple-meter reputation system, people don’t forget so easily.
However, the reputation system still falls into the same traps as all points-based morality systems do. They can become grinds where you do the same things over and over to improve relations.
In addition, the communal nature of the reputation system can remove the individuality of the community you are dealing with. If you get a great rep with Faction A, for example, every person in Faction A now reacts to you favourably, regardless of what their personal opinions of you might be.
It’s getting better, but it’s still not a perfect system.
What is it?
Similar to reputation in that good or evil doesn’t factor, just people’s opinions. But instead of communities, Opinion systems are based on how individuals view you. Do something someone likes, and their individual like of you will grow.
Often used in conjunction with another system that handles your rep/karma with groups, towns or factions.
You start with 0 Opinion with a local figure. The local figure wants you to kill a whole bunch of kittens. You do it, and gain +5 Opinion with the local figure. But the township liked those kittens, and you lose -5 Opinion with everybody else in the town.
Local figure, however, now gives you a discount on his wares and/or is willing to travel with you and/or can now be porked via an awkward romance cutscene.
What games use this system?
- Dragon Age: Origins
- The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion (sort of)
- Allows the player to develop more interesting and complex relationships with NPCs that have their own code of ethics.
- Difficult to implement on a wide scale and has to be used in conjunction with another morality system.
This system takes over the individual relationships you have with close companions. Dragon Age: Origins does it, Tyranny does it, Oblivion does it (though on a wider scale and not very well). It allows for more in-depth NPCs and NPC interactions without having to deal with good/evil definitions, or even community reputation.
It’s a more intimate form of morality, and is more to do with how your closest friends see you. It’s more concrete; more real.
Rather than having to obey community laws or an abstract notion of good and evil, you are instead beholden to the congratulations, ridicule or even outright hostility of those that you interact with frequently. This encourages developers to create solid, reasonable opinions for their NPCs – after all, if there are going to be indepth arguments about right and wrong with the player, there needs to be some substance to the NPCs views.
This can result in far more interesting experiences for the player. You might decide to side with a town against a group of bandits, for example – something that traditional Karma systems might reduce down to gaining Good points. You gain reputation with the local town as they celebrate the victory, but for some reason one of your companions is upset. Turns out they had family with those bandits; people who weren’t bad at heart but just fell in with the wrong crowd. Now, that family is dead or badly hurt.
You can see how this is far more in-depth than just ding ding, you gain karma, or even ding ding, you gain reputation. You aren’t just experiencing the gameplay mechanic consequences of a karma/reputation/opinion loss; a central relationship has now changed because of your actions.
I’d say that’s a far more important distinction than being able to unlock some new power because you stroked enough cats or refused enough prostitutes or something.
1) None At All
What is it?
What it says on the tin. No morality system, no karma checks, no reputation adjustments, nada. You get rewards for helping people (or not helping them), sometimes you get punished for making a choice, but sometimes you don’t, or sometimes it works out in your favour. Your behaviour has consequences, but there’s no number explicitly keeping it in check.
You make the right decisions (whatever ‘right’ means for you or your character) to the best of your ability with the information presented before you.
You walk into a town beset by many troubles. You assist with some, reject helping with others, make choices that, to the best of your ability, you think are the right ones. Or at least are the lesser of two evils. Sometimes you are wrong, sometimes you are right; sometimes you never find out.
Read more: How games can teach moral lessons
You anger some people, upset some of your companions, but also forge natural relationships with the people you agree with, without any need to grind karma, reputation, opinion or any other such quantitative metrics. Nothing is ever spelled out for you. You are left to discover the effects of your actions on your own.
What games use this system?
- The Witcher
- The most natural morality system in the world is not to have one. There are no numbers, only actions and consequences. You get to decide if it was good or evil.
- Requires excellent writing and a huge amount of player agency to work well.
Why do we have morality systems in games? To gate some content, to encourage replayability, to give the players a feeling of choice and consequence. But in reality, our attempts so far to quantify what is right and wrong, good and bad, correct and incorrect are simple at worst and restrictive at best.
Ultimately, morality systems are just another form of experience bar. You get enough karma, opinion, reputation, whatever, you get something in return. You ‘level up’.
But that is such a poor representation of morality systems that I don’t know why we bother with them. We can achieve all of that without needing something as blunt as giving it points. By quantifying it so obviously, we are making it more difficult to make meaningful ethical dilemmas in our games.
It should be more meaningful than that.
In other words, we are putting so much emphasis on the numbers that we are missing out on the real, emotive value of morality in games. Deciding who you will support shouldn’t come down to who has the better equipment to unlock, or whether you should support the bad guys to get that cool ability that would synergise with your playstyle well.
No. It should be more meaningful than that.
The Witcher does an excellent job of doing exactly this. CD Projekt Red made a point of there being no right or wrong choices. No good or evil. Just actions and consequences. The Witcher series has no quantified karma, reputation or opinion system – and combined with the excellent writing, that makes for genuinely difficult choices.
For example, in the first game, you must at some point side with one faction or the other. Both of them make excellent arguments, and for me personally it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made in a video game. Because it was all based upon how much I as a player agree with their views.
Had there been some kind of reward in the shape of an ability or some new equipment very obviously spelled out for me, that would have cheapened the entire narrative experience. Suddenly you’re not choosing a side; you’re just choosing another piece of equipment or ability.
The reality is that if you want to make a truly memorable plot-driven video game, don’t bother with a morality system. Create moral dilemmas, absolutely – but just don’t spell it out for the player.
Sometimes the best morality system is not to have one at all. We’ve been trying to gamify ethics for years, but in reality the goal comes down to three things:
- encourage replayability
- develop emotional connection
- enable unique gameplay experiences
You don’t need a number to do that. You just need actions that have real consequences, and quantifying morality is a cheap and ineffective way to do it. The Witcher has the right idea: don’t bother with obvious meters of right or wrong. Just create natural decisions with consequences (unforeseen or otherwise), and let the players figure out for themselves what they think is good or evil.
Do you think that games still need explicit morality systems? Do you think there’s one we’ve left off the list? Let us know in the comments below!