Steve Butts said:
There are two fundamental perspectives of morality. The first and more basic perspective relies on Shame. In a shame-based system, the society's perception of a person's actions is more important than the person's own reality. The more advanced perspective relies on Guilt. In a guilt-based system, what the individual feels about their own intentions is more important than society's opinions. The disconnect for most games with a moral element is that the game invariably views morality in terms of shame, while the player views it in terms of guilt. The developer focuses too much on the former, and too little on the latter.
I think a good game will need to include both. One that has started to is the Fallout
series (at least the last two entries): separating "karma" from "reputation." Karma is based on the morality of a particular action--taking something that doesn't belong to you is stealing, whether it's for noble or ignoble causes. This even applies if someone isn't looking. Reputation is how others
view your actions... though not necessarily from a moral standpoint.
It doesn't go far enough in any direction to really be stellar, but it's the start of a decent system. Your karma is similar to your internal or guilt-based morality--though it is a bit more objective, not allowing you to justify a typically immoral action. Stealing to feed your starving children is still stealing, after all (and what about the people you're stealing from, and their children?)
Reputation is a more honest look at external morality (or the shame-based system). If you kill someone I like, I hate you. If you kill someone I hate? You're my best bud! The morality of your actions, as I perceive it, has to do with whether or not you're working in my interests. And the same action can be seen as heroic or villainous by two different groups.
It would be nice if games could reliably predict what would or would not make a player feel "guilty," but that's just too personal a metric, I think. Instead, systems like "karma" rely on a more external, objective morality. "Stealing is bad. Lying is bad. Killing is bad." You know, basic Ten Commandments type stuff. In the end, though, isn't that kind of where we learn
guilt? Some external set of rules, whatever the source, and the consequences for breaking them? It's an imperfect solution, sure, but it's at least understandable.
Separating a character's overall morality along these two axes opens up a lot of possibilities. Fallout
doesn't really explore them in any meaningful way (karma is basically meaningless in New Vegas
, and really only impacts companion options in Fallout 3
)... but it's the raw materials I'm recognizing here.
Let's say they expand on this idea. Now, your karma and reputation both matter a bit more. If you're helping a group of people, they'll see you as good. If you're helping them by doing bad things (like theft or genocide) they might still be happy to hire you... but perhaps not really trust
you. Maybe only half of that group likes you, while the other thinks you're a loose cannon just looking to turn your guns their way. Find ways to implement complex relationships like this, and you're really in business.
But all of this just sets up the "points system" within a morality engine. It still doesn't make choices particularly meaningful or weighty. That can only come through mature writing.
The morality system in the game, which is so rigid that it immediately tells everyone everywhere whether or not the person I just gunned down in the street deserved it
And that's exactly where most writing goes wrong. Assigning consequences
to actions is a necessary part of the process... but assigning value
to those consequences is not. Let the player decide whether or not it was a good or bad thing that event X happened, or whether side effect Y outweighs the benefit of event X.
Too often, the game pops up some math that tells you, "You were naughty just then," or "This is a really sad/bad thing that just happened." Other games do the same thing via all the other characters unanimously declaring it so, thus telling you what you should
I think it's an issue of the writers not stopping long enough to really create weighty consequences, so instead they just have other people or systems tell
you that the consequences are weighty, in hopes that you'll just play along. It doesn't require a total overhaul of the game mechanics to make this work, though. The consequences can be entirely based in the characters and the story, rather than in the mechanics of what spells or items you'll have access to.
And let's face it, if you really don't give a rat's ass about the story in a game, you're not going to get too wrapped up in a morality system, either, so it would be foolish to design a morality system around that sort of player.