Wednesday, May 9, 2012
So there's a new blog by game designer Liam Burke, whose Dog Eat Dog I intend to buy at some point. He's got an interesting post on moral choices in games - he argues that if you want to explore morality, rewarding good behavior is actually counterproductive.
He's right, but the principle doesn't apply everywhere. In a game where rewards are largely mechanical (World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons) players will to do the expedient thing regardless of its rectitude. It's only in games where the player can relate to the narrative and characters (Burke's example of Bioshock is probably only a border-case) that you have the kind of real moral conflict that makes the point relevant.
Dragon Age: Origins is probably a much better example - and a game that wholeheartedly follows Burke's strategy (spoilers follow). At the end of the game, the player is informed that a Grey Warden must die in order to permanently destroy the arch-demon. In most play-throughs, there are only two living wardens: your character and Alistair, who is a real decent guy (and possibly the future king of Ferelden). The player is presented with three options:
- Sacrifice Alistair.
- Make a deal with a witch that results in her bearing a child with the arch-demon's soul.
The first option is the only "moral" choice - and results in not getting the full, final ending of the game! In order to "win", you have to either sacrifice someone else or (almost literally) make a deal with the devil.
There are a lot of choices like this in the first Dragon Age game, especially near the end. Kill the mother to save the child or kill the child to save the village? (Walk away and let everyone die? Go get help and hope they're not all dead when you get back?) Put an incompetent friend on the throne or install a capable ruler who has previously betrayed you? (Install them both, dooming your friend to a miserable, loveless marriage?) Kill a guy who deserves it and anger a friend, or let him live to win a powerful ally? (Recruit him - alienating your friend - but then send him on a suicide mission in your stead?) Wheels within wheels within wheels.
The constant choices between moral and expedient made DA:O a compelling game and one of my favorite computer RPGs. I want to see more of that in tabletop games, and I'm glad people like Burke are working to make that happen.
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