Moral choice systems have seen a resurgence of popularity in the current generation with several titles in the past few years offering the player varying degrees of choice. These may not always be dubbed as “moral” systems, serving instead to just offer some variety between playthroughs, but there is very often an aura of “good” and “evil” about each of the options.

Now this doesn’t extend to sandbox games, like Skyrim or Saints Row: The Third, because those games feature a host of choices by their very definition. I’m talking about games with clear cut characters and plots that contain pivotal moments where the player choice has an impact on the storyline; be it the death of a character, a shift in opinion or a radically different ending.

It’s easy to see what the developers are trying to achieve by including these sorts of choices. If each player has a different experience they’ll have more to talk about to each other, and they’re also more likely to play the game a second or third time to see how it would have panned out had they chosen differently. You could also be forgiven for thinking that giving the player the opportunity to steer the game at certain times would add depth and meaning to it, but unfortunately the opposite is true.

Let’s take Sucker Punch’s InFamous 2 as an example of this system as it uses it in a very measurable way. Player actions shift the protagonist, Cole, along a binary “good vs. evil” bar with a coded colour gradient from blue to red. If the player is good, the public will revere them and they will shoot blue lightning with their powers. If evil, however, the character will be reviled as a villain and have accompanying red lightning and a pale complexion. These are two completely different characters,as you’d imagine; one is a benevolent hero and the other a ruthless villain, for the most part.

Usually the problem with this sort of system is that the writers are forced to craft an ending that is viable for both good and evil options, with only slight deviations either way. InFamous 2 took this to a much larger extreme with two completely different endings depending on the character’s disposition, one of which involved the death of a main character. Unfortunately, both of these endings can’t be canonical, so for any continuation of the story Sucker Punch will have to abandon one of them, rendering the playthroughs of about half of their consumers useless, at least from a narrative standpoint. This already happened with the first InFamous game and it’s succeeding comics which showed that the good ending was canonical. This would be fine, except InFamous 2 ran off of this assumption as well, meaning all the of the players who received the “bad” ending in the first game were ignored.

A large problem with this sort of binary system is that the options are often cartoonishly designed; save these people or slaughter them for no real reason. These improved somewhat in the second game with the idea of “greater good” over “immediate benefit” coming in, but it’s always clear which of the options is good and which is evil; it’s basically up to the player to decide which powers or ending they want and just keep choosing the relevant option.

What hinders these sorts of systems the most, however, is that they always come to down to a single choice right at the end that dictates the ending. This was another criticism for Mass Effect 3’s ending as it rendered the rest of the three game saga largely irrelevant; people were hoping their choices throughout the games would directly affect the outcome.

Games that handle this system a little bit better, though they lose some of the morality aspect, include Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Both of these have several moments throughout their storlyines that allow the player to choose to do something, or fail to succeed in something, that results in a change for the characters and the rest of the game. This is what alternate endings and choice systems should feel like, though it’s important to note that the decisions in these games aren’t labelled as “good” or “bad,” simply as different. These do lead to a richer experience, for the large part, though they suffer the same issue with continuation as any other game with multiple endings; you have to pick one if you want a sequel, or worse; make it so that none of them matter.

In the end, it’s difficult to impart a moral choice on the player that is both meaningful and recognisable as a moral choice. In real life, moral choices are complex and often don’t have a polar divide between good and evil, or selfish and selfless for example. In video games the choices have to be crafted so that both options are viable and reasonable, but distinct, and this is a very difficult thing to do. The result is either unrealistic choices, that are often laughably exaggerated, or similar ones where it’s not evident which is correct. The latter are more interesting for the player, certainly, but many people feel unfulfilled because they wanted to do the right thing, but didn’t know what is was. Unfortunately, this is the true nature of moral questions a lot of the time, so perhaps it’s not that moral problems are done badly in games, but more that we don’t want them to be done too well.

All in all it may benefit many games to leave out the moral choice system altogether and focus on the gameplay and core events of the story. Again, which branching plotlines can offer an additional level of depth and intrigue, be wary of them if you ever want to make a sequel as you’ll probably leave a decent chunk of your fan base unsatisfied.

We deal with these issues in this week’s episode of VGS: Video Game Sophistry on AM640