Morality. It can be a tricky concept in the day to day life of humanity. Every single person on this planet builds up their own moral compass as they grow from infancy, taking in new information and amending their previously held thoughts and beliefs as they further develop. I would argue that one’s morality continues to change into adulthood: perhaps not as drastically as earlier stages of life, but it alters nonetheless as further scenarios are experienced and amalgamated into one amorphous concept of good vs. evil. It can be the cause of friendship, love, animosity, and hatred. Of peace and war. Of life and death.
But forget that garbage philosophy junk!!! We’re here to talk about vidya gaemz!!!
Countless video game adventures have attempted to incorporate measurable morality systems into their makeup: some quite successfully, while others have left a lot to be desired. My first experience with a true morality system in a game was Fable for the original Xbox. Players were thrust into the role of an orphaned child who had to forge their own path in the world of Albion after receiving extensive training at the Hero’s Guild, becoming a force to be reckoned with in the process. The Hero of Oakvale’s moral disposition impacted everything from physical appearance, available titles to be known as, and even the way that civilians interact with you. Heroes gained a radiant halo and were warmly cheered on by townsfolk as they approached, while villains would scare the masses back to their homes with fiery red eyes and demonic horns sprouting from their forehead. It was a simple system, but it got the point across and made it fun to enjoy adventures as either a suave savior or a slimy scourge.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic incorporated its own system of right and wrong into the already-established lore of the franchise: the light side and dark side of the Force. Players are free to portray an upstanding Jedi and rely on positive abilities such as buffing your allies, healing damage, and utilizing basic pushes and knockdowns. Contrarily, they can also walk the line of a true Sith and gain access to darker skills, like Force Choke and Lightning. Dialogue changes in the game based on which path your character is currently walking, altering not just your choices in minor conversations but potentially altering the fate of the entire game at its conclusion. Much like Fable (which actually released the year after KOTOR), Knights of the Old Republic was a delight to play regardless of which path you chose. This same formula was carried over into the next two series BioWare would develop: Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
As much fun as it was to play specifically as a hero or villain throughout an adventure, other games eschew a morality system entirely and allow you to explore worlds with different rules. For example, The Elder Scrolls series tosses morality to the wolves and only utilizes a bounty system for monitoring player behavior. If your character earns a bounty by stealing, fighting, or killing, the realm’s guards will bring you to justice (via jail time, a fine, or even death). The most recent entry, Skyrim, even sees Hired Thugs, Mercenaries, and Assassins come after you, sent straight from the folks you wronged in the first place. It’s an enticing system at times, but it also has its flaws. It feels odd to be able to walk the streets of a town after openly slaying civilians in a tavern, but then following protocol by paying the fine, being searched for stolen goods, and then let back into the town as a free individual. Your character’s morality also holds no footing in regards to the story or quest lines, or even much ground on how the NPCs treat you when you pass through town. I’d love to see this system overhauled and modernized whenever The Elder Scrolls VI releases!
But what exactly do I mean by modernized? To put it simply, games are not the same kind of entertainment they used to be: they have grown and matured. Just as literature evolved across millennia from primitive scrawling on cave walls, video games are no longer a simple matter of “good guy defeats bad guy.” They pose questions about the very fabric of our human morality. Many protagonists now walk in the misty veil that separates the light from dark and beg the question “What exactly defines a hero?”
Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher. He hunts monsters for pay alone, only agreeing to place himself in danger for the clink of coin in his pocket. However, during my time in The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, he frequently broke this rule at my own behest. You see, The Witcher III gives players the opportunity to uphold their witcherly lack of humanity and operate strictly by business, or open up Geralt’s heart to the pleas of those in need. Doing jobs for cheaper, sometimes even for free. Taking on additional duties on contracts. Going out of the way to find lost family trinkets. But the freedom of morality doesn’t end with questing: even the game’s dialogue offers layers upon layers of freedom. Will your Geralt be a kind-hearted warrior who betters the world, a snarky sell-sword who fights only for his wallet, a sarcastic vagabond who goes out of his way to pick fights and get his way, or a hateful mongrel who has no regard for any human life? The life of a witcher is truly what you make of it.
Red Dead Redemption 2 presents a similar taste of grey with Arthur Morgan: a career criminal of the Old West who becomes doubtful that his way of living will endure in a rapidly-advancing America. Robbery is the only life he knows and so he pushes on with it, but always questioning if there is a different way to live. And even if there was another path, Arthur doubts the likelihood that he could find a place for himself within it to live peacefully. Or if he even deserves such an opportunity. Choosing between the paths of hardened criminal and reluctant robber is a crucial part of the game’s missions and dialogue choices, affecting numerous NPCs in the game and ultimately the story’s finale. Arthur’s tale, much like John Marston’s in the original game, takes a different spin on the question of how a hero is defined: it casts off the argument of heroes/villains altogether to focus on the flexibility of morality and how people use their ends to justify the means.
While simpler games like Fable and Knights of the Old Republic made morality an exciting variable of play, The Witcher III and Red Dead Redemption 2 made me feel. I had a difficult time committing to actions that benefitted myself while throwing others under the bus, especially given the realistic portrayals of humanity that these latter games now employ. It’s a simple and enjoyable task to annihilate a tavern full of cockney-voiced caricatures with a fiery death-spell in Fable, but I can’t for the life of me turn down a hut full of feeble, starving children who simply need a little money to get by in The Witcher III, even on my most heartless playthrough. It has gotten harder and harder to play as a morally-dark character as games have evolved into more realistic ventures.
While part of me sometimes longs for the silliness and whimsicality of older video game morality spectrums, I can’t deny the appeal of modern storytelling with weighted choices. Experiences become much more impactful when your decisions make a difference: even if it is just digital NPCs at stake. I’m excited to see how these systems are even further expanded as time goes on!
Tell me about your own experience with morality in games! Do you enjoy the simplicity of years past, or is your preference for the reality-tethered systems of the modern age? What are some of your favorite examples? Heck, tell me a whole story of one of your characters if you want! I’d love to hear about it! Thanks for reading, friends, and game on!