Morality: The Good and The Bad of Karma

-David Ruddock

If you’ve ever stolen a candy bar from a shop, you’ll know that the wrongness of this event is not stacked up along with every other negative action you’ve ever performed. Likewise, if you help an old lady cross the road you are not forgiven by law for stealing that candy bar from before. Yet videogames have championed the bizarrely arbitrary method of weighing all such options on a sliding meter, in the process throwing up questions about destiny, choice and the true value of morality. Also, is any of this viable for videogames?

Case in point: Infamous. Throughout the game you are asked to make moral choices through plot points and in the way you protect the people on the streets (heal the injured or be unconcerned about collateral damage) which is represented on a sliding bar with three levels for each alignment. Depending on your choices, you have different powers to unlock, each representative of your character.  It is a long process to switch between alignment as points are acquired considerably slowly, meaning that once you have set out on a path it is pointless to change it. This ultimately makes every moral choice after the first needless because there is no good reason to make an ‘evil’ choice if you are already a ‘good’ hero. There is also nothing available for maintaining a neutral karma, though maintaining one would narratively make no sense as your character would see-saw between killing innocent bystanders to make a statement and sacrificing himself for the good of others. This would suggest that your alignment is defined within the first hour of gameplay, and that the rest of these opportunities are false and pointless.

Why have a morality system though? Most of the time it only facilitates to close off part of the gameplay available to you increasing a game’s lifespan. Very rarely does it have any meaningful impact on anything that the game makes you feel, with notable exceptions in RPG’s such as the Knights of the Old Republic games. Fable: The Lost Chapters, for instance, does not punish you for making the ‘light’ option by destroying the Sword of Aeons (one of the most powerful weapons in the game) because through a simple quest you can obtain an exact replica. The point about being the hero is that you have to make sacrifices, so to undermine your own efforts with cheap rewards means there is no strong difference between playing as a paragon or a renegade.  Other games like Mass Effect make more sense in that the hero must always fight for the greater good but their choices reflect a deeper personality as they decide how best to handle a situation.

The main problem with a morality meter is that it does not accurately reflect how good and bad choices affect the opinions of those around you.  In videogames any crime can be forgiven with enough hard work, but in the real world things are not so simple.  In order to better reflect this every individual character would require their own meter which reflects how they feel personally about you and which is only altered by actions they know about.  A fuller solution would obviously require more than just sliders but such a complicated forumla is hardly about to make it’s way into a videogame anytime soon.