Does morality in games improve the experience?

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Broken moral compass

I love when office chat turns to decisions we’ve made in games. Contrary to popular belief, Darryn is quite possibly the worst human being on this planet, at least when it comes to being horrible in games. Opportunity to steal from children? He’ll take it! Opportunity to nuke an entire city? Sign him up! I just can’t – I get far too invested and attached to the characters to let them be bad people. But is morality really something that adds value to games?

Over on Cracked, the guys did a hilarious video about Fallout. No, not Fallout 4 because they haven’t gotten to play it yet, but even based on Fallout 3, it gives a great idea of the game’s universe, and the arbitrary nature of morality:

The video is hilarious, but it does raise an interesting point. I’ve made some tough decisions in games. In Mass Effect, it was a matter of saving or destroying entire races and every choice could come back with dire consequences. But who gets to decide what is the right or wrong decision? Why were some choices considered good or bad?

Morality is such a vague and tricky topic in general. Depending on time period, location and general mindset, the moral code of what is acceptable or not can vary so widely. When I started playing a popular PC RPG a few months back, I was shocked that I got in trouble for looting everything from a house – I’m the hero, aren’t I allowed to just take all this junk and use it for a good cause? Sure, in real life I know that stealing is wrong, but in games we’re conditioned to run around mowing the grass or breaking all the pottery in the hopes of finding something of value hidden away inside. What would a Legend of Zelda game be if Link didn’t go about smashing all the pots and taking the Rupees left behind?

But isn’t this sort of what we do in all games? I yell at my assassin characters for not doing parkour well enough when I can’t even do a pull up at the moment. There is a suspension of disbelief in games as our characters do things that we never could – from physical acts of might to blurring moral lines. Half the time in games I find it easier to just stealth kill almost everyone than actually sneak past them. In real life, how could I cope with casually killing 10 people in the space of five minutes just to steal some stuff? Probably not well.

But with morality such a subjective concept, does it really make a game better? Do you like playing as the “good guy” even if that can include some morally ambiguous activities? While I enjoy the intricacies that it can add to the gameplay, I do feel a bit cheated when a game decides that I’ve played it “wrong” and don’t get the optimal ending, whatever that might be.

Last Updated: November 11, 2015

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