Games and morals

Very recently, Steam held a quick sale on Darkest Dungeon. I have a huge line of games I own and still need to finish (or at least play), so even though I've been meaning to give DD a try for a while now, I was putting it off, because of this huge queque. Well, the sale won. I'm somewhere around 7 hours in the game at this point and getting a hang of it much more than I expected.

The game has a number of really simple, but interesting mechanics that nicely show, how you can reforge the limitations you face in development into beneficial design choices. However, there was one mechanic that really got me thinking. One I consider an excellent excuse to talk about moral choices in games. To simplify, I will break down how games approach the moral choices into 3 "levels". Level 1 being - in my highly subjective opinion - the lousiest and level 3 being the crowning achievement of how games approach morality. Let's get this over with.

Level 1: Morality scales
We all know those. Mass Effect's Renegade vs. Paragon. Catherine's Loyal vs. Cheating bastard. Fallout's karma. Elder Scrolls' popularity (or whatever it's called). Baldur's Gate's reputation. There's a lot of games that try to quantify the morality. To put everything on a single axis between good and evil and then make the game's world react to us accordingly, or in most cases, just giving us a few more dialogue options. Yes, I consider this the worst thing a game can do with morality. Because no matter how robust the system seems to be, it always boils down to where we are on a scale from 1 (bad) to 100 (good). It does pave the way for some interesting scenes sometimes, but it rarely teaches the players anything about themselves. How would they react in a certain situation? Who knows - the game only gives them a few predefined options, none of which usually gives the players the reaction they're after. Stack up enough of this communication bondage and the end result of the game will vary greatly from what the player was expecting. Not to mention how in your face most of these games are about these choices. Come on, BioWare - color coding?

Level 2: Moral choices
This is kinda the Telltale category. The game puts you in front of obvious choices. Be it dialogue choices or gameplay choices like in BioShock. There is always some build up for these moments. Whenever they arrive, you know the consequences of your action will affect the game, or at least you're to believe they will, because in most games they really don't (that's probably a topic for a whole other article, but to keep it short: even games that are "not linear" are often on rails anyway and the moments where you make a decision that splits the gameplay timeline are often kept as short as possible and the game gets back on track very shortly after while giving the player an illusion of actually changing the story). This kind of approach is in my opinion much better than morality scales. You make your decision and no statistic tells you what percentage of you is a good person. In many cases, these choices don't give us an obvious right or wrong answer, so you can feel like your decision is meaningful. Mass Effect did that on few occasions when they didn't scream red or blue to us. The Witcher series is doing pretty well in that department as well.

There's just one problem I have with those. In most cases, you can be at least 90% certain what the consequences of your choices will be. Gameplay consequences. Remember the choice in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty campaign, when you had to choose whether you believe Nova or Tosh? What was the decission really about? Who you believed or whether you wanted Ghosts or Spectres in your campaign? Way too often these choices end up not being about our morality or what we'd do in a certain situation. It's about what loot we get or what mission we unlock. And even when the choice isn't tied to a gameplay reward, knowing the results of your decission is a complete game changer for making up your mind. With no risk factor involved, the moral choice turns into calculation and can quite easily remind you that you are only playing a game. That you can take a step back and just disconnect from this decision.

Level 3: Gameplay
Yes, this is the moment when I get back to Darkest Dungeon. It's a roguelike in which you explore a dungeon - nothing special so far. Unlike many roguelikes however, you don't have to play till you cannot reach further and die, but you can withdraw your party, failing the quest but keeping the little loot you collected. Like in roguelikes, dungeons are procedurally generated and you have no idea what you will find a step ahead of you.

The game tells you from the very beginning that the adventurers you hire will die. A lot. Still, I refused to treat them like cannon fodder, even though I was getting a handful of new ones after every quest - failed or not. You rarely know what lurks behind the next door when you're exploring the dungeon. Merely telling your party to move forward can make the difference between life and death. Every loot crate or book you encounter can give any of your party members a lasting disease or personality quirk. And if you want to progress in the game, eventually one of your party members will die. And when that first one died on me, I just replaced him with a new one. A bit less familiar face and skillset, but still quite useful. While some of the adventurers in my roster died, some eventually got stronger. When I mix them with noobs I get, I now focus on not getting the experienced ones killed, but sometimes the temptation to open just one more door is just too strong and one of these veterans of mine dies of heart attack anyway.

Darkest Dungeon never gave me any morality scale and never really told me that there's a choice ahead of me. A choice with consequences. Still, I was making such choices all the time. StarCraft II confirmed that I prefer blondes to dudes with dreadlocks and Mass Effect confirmed that a racist with boobs is still worth more to me than some random guy. That wasn't news to me. Darkest Dungeon however showed me how much my curiosity could make me devaluate human lives. How in just a few hours I could shift my focus from saving everyone to pushing forward, just to make these sacrifices worth it. I don't know where it puts me on the scale between an angel and an asshole, but I couldn't care less.

This is the type of moral choices I want to face in games. Ones that make me think, not calculate. Ones that make me invested in finishing the game for the sake of sacrifices I made. Ones that leave enough impression to write an article about them.