Red Dead Redemption had an honor system, though if you pulled a bandana over your face, outlaw-style, you could commit murder, robberies, and other evil acts with impunity. In the sequel, your honor rating changes regardless of whether you hide your face. It has a more pronounced impact, changing the way people in the game react to you, the way the central character Arthur Morgan carries himself, and how things end. It used to be so straightforward. When I think back to games like Black & White, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Fable, there was no moral ambiguity. Every action had a judgment attached. For example, in Fable, the more atrocities you committed, the scarier you’d look to those around you. In other games, it would link directly to a points system. As games have matured, morality systems have grown more complex. Many developers simply don’t give you the option of taking the high road anymore. Sometimes there’s so much gray you can’t see what’s right. It might be choosing the least bad path, rather than the good path.
“Fiction imitates life, and to create a believable world for an audience to immerse themselves in, it needs to contain some portrayal of a moral system,” Starks says. “Because if you have absolutely no wrong or risk of wrong, there is no conflict, and if you have no conflict, you have no story that an audience is interested in experiencing.” Without choice, things can get boring fast. It’s important to feel like you’re steering events and that you have some say over who your character is and where you’re going. That’s especially true in open-world games with the freedom of mobility and involved plots.
The Gray Area “We could say, ‘Well then, why bother making a less morally good path at all? That’s a lot of time and resources to develop a choice that most players won’t ever experience.’ But having the choice itself is what’s important,” Starks writes in an email.
While Obsidian’s data might show its players are often choosing the good path, that doesn’t mean all gamers are usually on the side of right. A Baylor University study researched how people approach moral choices in video games and focused on three scenarios: Source Moral Choices
I spent a long time agonizing over whether to hook up the sole power station to Edgewater or the Botanical Lab in The Outer Worlds, knowing it would condemn the faction I didn’t choose. After a lot of back and forth, I managed to find a compromise that made both parties happy, persuading the leader of Edgewater to leave. But that depth of choice is rare. “If the choice is always easy, it becomes boring and also causes us to spend a lot of time developing content no one will experience,” Starks says. “If we make the choices ‘shades of gray’ or types of ‘good to neutral’ or ‘low-stakes jerkish,’ players are more likely to weigh the pros and cons of each and select more variety in the options.”
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