When there are no real world consequences, why do players choose to be morally good?
A great many games feature choices and the capacity for players to make the story their own. It’s what sets games apart from other mediums and it’s part of what makes games both an interesting diversion and a reflection of the player.
Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing which guns to carry or whether you want to drive the car or man the turret. Sometimes it’s a choice between a male character or a female one.
There are other instances though, when players are presented with moral options. RPGs thrive on these decisions, dry-cut and ultimately final as they tend to be. So when given such starkly good or bad choices in a game, why do most players choose to do the ‘right’ thing?
Sucker Punch has admitted that the decision to have a new hero for inFAMOUS: Second Son, Delsin, is due to the fact that Trophy data for inFAMOUS 2shows an overwhelming 80 per cent of players opted for the ending which saw Cole cement his reputation as a hero and sacrifice himself to save New Marais.
It’s unfortunate for the 20 per cent who decided Cole should absorb The Beast’s power but it’s also understandable given the overwhelming number of players who decided to be good.
Another example of this is Metro: Last Light. Players of the prequel, Metro 2033, have a choice; they can wipe out the Dark Ones or let them live. In Dmitry Glukhovsky‘s novel Artyom opted to rain missiles down on the mutated creatures and in Last Light, it’s assumed this is the choice players made.
Genocide, even against some as mysterious and potentially threatening as the Dark Ones is a severe choice, and the decision haunts Artyom in Last Light. Is it the right choice? Given the nature of the Dark Ones, twisted and animalistic as they might appear, perhaps not. Why should one species have the right to survive in lieu of the other?
While the Dark Ones may well be what stands against humanity’s survival as a species, it’s a hard to say. Humanity virtually wiped itself out in Metro’s world, redemption is perhaps beyond reach, but surely not for this new species which emerged from the nuclear fire.
In both cases, developers selected an option for players though 4A Games, like Sucker Punch, presumably went with the more popular choice.
What then, of player agency?
Speaking to Gamasutra in 2009, former Lionhead president Peter Molyneux commented on PC god game Black & White. Of course, as anyone’s who’s followed Molyneux’s career with any degree of attention and played through the Fable series will know, it’s generally wise to take his comments with a grain of salt; even so, he offered some interesting insights into player choice.
“When we first designed it [Black & White]… we had an option on the screen,” which allowed people to simply choose whether to follow the path of right or wrong.
In time, Lionhead realised that the importance of making this choice mechanic a key component of the game so that the player truly experienced the choice they made. Molyneux then revealed some interesting player behaviour noting that when given the choice in a game between good and evil a large and sometimes staggering number of players will select the good option, seemingly reinforcing Sucker Punch’s experiences with inFAMOUS 2.
40 per cent of Japanese players choose the evil path in Black & White compared to merely 10 per cent of Americans. Molyneux also revealed some interesting reflections on cultural differences when it comes to making these choices, saying: “Most people find it very very hard to be evil… especially Americans.”
Apparently, when comparing good versus evil paths in the game: “As Europeans we are somewhat more free and liberated, and the Japanese are the most liberated of all.”
The Japanese who, more than anyone, view gaming as a means of escapism still largely shied from the evil options.
There are likely any number of cultural differences to account for this more “liberated” European and Japanese play style but even in the Land of the Rising Sun, 60 per cent of players opted to do the right thing – in so far as such a thing is possible. The Japanese who, more than anyone, view gaming as a means of escapism still largely shied from the evil options.
In some games, it’s a matter of narrative and characters. Characters you care about. The overwhelming majority of my playthroughs of the Mass Effect trilogy, the one series I’ve likely replayed more than any other, Commander Shepard has typically chosen the Paragon options whenever they appear. The first human Spectre has been the hero (or heroine) where possible.
Then I decided to try the other path.
Going Renegade was tough. Tougher than I had anticipated certainly, but it was fun too. Not caring, being the badass, finally getting to take out Vido Santiago during Zaeed’s loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2 after watching him escape so many times. And yet… there were moments when I pulled away from the outright negative option – typically selecting something neutral instead.
I adored many of the characters BioWare created and say what you will of the Mass Effect series’ other faults, but the crew of the Normandy are some of the finest characters in games. Characters I cared about, characters I loved.
In other games, I’ve gone for the good decisions first time round and the bad when I’ve found time to play again. Dragon Age: Origins, for example, where I found it so much easier to choose the more questionable decisions. Morrigan loved me – I was okay with that. Alistair hated me – I was okay with that too.
So perhaps it is simply a matter of the characters who inhabit a world defining the choices we make in it but perhaps it’s something else.
Games provide us with an outlet to make morally reprehensible decisions without practical real-world impact and yet most of us choose to shy away from these darker options. Inherent perhaps in players is the desire to be a hero and an unwillingness to see the negative impact of their actions borne out on others within the game world – a collection of polygons though they are.
The weighted impact of evil decisions can be felt not only across the length and breadth of a single game but sometimes, in those cases where save transfer options exist, across an entire series.
Sometimes, it’s good to be bad but it can be hard too.