Morality, consequences… and Heisenberg!

Well, considering everyone here is talking about it, perhaps I should jump in as well and pee inside this moral choices and consequences in games swimming pool.

While Patricia focuses her attention on morality and the disconnection between action and consequence and Tom rages on about the idea that there isn’t truly any real consequence, I’m still stuck with the word “choices”. When games already have a hard time delivering those, why do we even expect them to deliver anything more elaborated like “moral choices” or “real choices”?

First thing’s first: definitions. A real choice is nothing more than a decision. A decision is an irrevocable allocation of resources that may or may not involve uncertainty. There are two key words here that are systematically ignored by game developers: IRREVOCABLE and UNCERTAINTY. Irrevocable, because a revocable decision is not a decision at all! Imagine you decide to eat a banana but change your mind and decide to eat an apple. Have you really decided anything? Of course not. No resource was allocated. Now imagine you want to eat a banana and drive all the way to the supermarket to buy one, but then decides to eat an apple. Have you decided anything? Yes, you did. Two decisions, in fact. They have cost you time and, depending on how far the supermarket was, gasoline you won’t be getting back anytime soon. Right there, you see the consequence of your decisions: those resources you have allocated are gone for good.

Meanwhile, uncertainty is important because rarely we face decisions that doesn’t involve some degree of it. In fact, no deep decision is 100% certain because, if so, the decision would be reduced to simply picking the option you want more (and then the problem with would be merely not knowing what one wants). This is what justifies the disconnection between action and consequence that bothers Pat: a good decision doesn’t imply a good outcome and vice-versa. I could drive drunk (bad decision) and arrive home safely (good outcome) or I could drive sober (good decision) and get into an accident because of some other drunken driver (bad outcome).

Now, explain to me how can games feature any decisions when players can simply reload their save files and try again? In fact, this was one of my biggest dissappointments with Mass Effect 2. I first imagined the fact that actions and consequences were separated by different games (i.e. the choices I’ve took in Mass Effect 1 would only come to bite me in the ass in Mass Effect 2) would allow for real deep decisions to take place. Alas, the only consequence for not killing a given extra in the original game ended up being merely a cameo by such character in Mass Effect 2.

But then again, maybe this dissappointment was caused exaclttly because I was absolutely certain my actions would have consequences. But why should they? Or perhaps it was because the decision points were so insultingly apparent? I mean, really, when was the last time everything stopped until you decided which wire to cut: the red or the blue one? When was the last time you were asked whether or not to save a Little Sister and you couldn’t even move until such decision was taken? Most decisions we take in real life, even the important ones, are usually done in trivial circumstances – and sometimes people choose without being even aware that a decision had just taken place.

Only games create such drama around decision points. They point their fingers at us and proclaim in their best Gandalf’s voice: NOW YOU MUCH CHOOOOSE! It’s so tiresome. Considering interaction is what builds games, pointing out that a decision will occur is like a film adding a disclaimer that people inside pictures will appear to move.

Let me now talk about two favourite games of mine that are able to handle these issues perfectly – including their moral aspect in the second example.

The first one is Wario Land II, honestly the best Game Boy Color game after Metal Gear: Ghost Babel. It was the first game I remember in which the main character was unkillable. In it, Captain Syrup steals Wario’s treasure and Wario must take it back… or not! If you don’t press anything at the beginning of the first level, Wario will never wake up and Syrup’s troops will simply ditch him and his bed and take over his castle! Or not! Each secret level changes the story path, but the game never actively tells you there are other paths to follow. In fact, in your first walkthrough, as you won’t know whether the exit you’ve found was a secret one or not, you will think that there is only one path.

Wario Land II

Its not high art; just a fat guy who loves body slams...and pirates.

But hey, you were making decisions all along! Sure there is a fixed structure behind the possible story paths, but since you are never aware of them, it feels like the uncertainlty was always there. This is the opposite of Bioware games, where algorithm is crystal clear and I can see that the wizard’s hat has a false bottom.

The second one is Chrono Trigger. There is a reason people remember this to be the greatest, unsurpassed, RPG of all time, you know? The way they handled all its endings was one of them: after all, it is never clear what action ended up determining what ending you would get. The secret of Chrono Trigger is what later made Psycho Mantis’s fame: it tracks a lot of your choices but never tell you what exactly was being tracked until it’s time for that rabbit to come out of the hat. Chrono Trigger hints this is going to happen by the time you reach Crono’s Trial, when some of your deeds and misdeeds are brought into court to establish your character. Only then you would realize that your altruistic good nature or dickish demeanour had any weight in it.

Developers make it seems like moral choices are a hard thing to pull off – but they aren’t. A good story structure is much harder. One could waste many, many moneys trying to cover all different branches in the dialog tree, but hell, if a mute like Crono could pull morality choices, why can’t Shepard?


  1. David

    I have yet to play the game, but I’ve heard The Witcher does a pretty good job at hidden branching as well. For as much as I’ve liked their past games, BioWare’s design is starting to get tiresome.

    You really nailed it when you wrote this “where algorithm is crystal clear and I can see that the wizard’s hat has a false bottom.” Also, way to use an absolutely obscure game reference (at least to me) to build your argument 🙂

  2. Pingback: I Don’t Want To Save the World « Nightmare Mode