-The following contains spoilers for Undertale, if you haven’t played it, please do-
Doesn’t Matter if You’re Black or White
Morality choices have been a thing in games for quite a while now, usually under the tagline of “choose your own destiny” or something similar. These are all fine, but when you realise that you are being tested on this morality, it becomes so binary. Giving in game actions a value, +1 good, or +1 evil just takes all the actual decision making out of the turmoil.
Take a game like Infamous for example, this explores the idea of your protagonist possibly being evil. However, all of the strongest abilities are locked off at either end of this spectrum, so there is no incentive to deviate from your path following the first decision. You’d only be underpowered if you did so. This means that the choices you must make throughout the game don’t matter, you’re always going to choose the option most beneficial to you, regardless of how absurd the debates are. I remember one choice early on where you have a box of resources and the public come to grab some, from here you have two choices:
- Share the food with the crowd and have a lovely picnic
- MURDER EVERYONE
These are so far either side of the spectrum, turned up to eleven, where is the middle ground? What about if you want to fire a warning shot to assert authority? What if you wanted the largest share of food? After all, you earned it. I wanted to just tell my character to chill the eff out. The only consequence to any of these decisions is moving your morality bar, with absolutely no incentive to stay neutral. The same situation arises from edgy action adventure Shadow the Hedgehog, but the less said about that title the better.
A Decision in Sheep’s Clothing
Sometimes the moral choices and building relationships with characters is emphasised, but in practice, the actions you take only imply an effect on the story. A key culprit of framing choices and decision making like this is none other than Telltale Games. This includes much beloved games such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. Famously, these games were designed and marketed as open-ended experiences, however, in order to be exploitable for sequels and further content, this is just an illusion. When looking at these choices from a map-like decision tree, it can be seen to be a diamond, not unlike that “Ride the Bus” drinking game you played in uni. The whole experienced is framed and enforces this idea that Toad will remember that, and you better be careful what you say to him. The reality is Toad will not remember that and you can be a total arse to him if you like.
This formula was later refined by Until Dawn which I have written about previously. In this game, as you make choices, real consequences occur – i.e. if one of your characters dies, that’s it, they’re gone, bye bye. The entire game was designed around this, and so the web keeps getting wider, as the butterfly wings begin to flap in the beginning of the game, hurricane level changes can be made in the final act. Want to throw a rock at that squirrel? Your funeral.
In order to illustrate these differences in design and decision making, I have charted out (in broad strokes), how a Telltale game looks, and how Until Dawn looks. This highlights just how linear these decisions can really be, once again, removing your morals, ideology and rationale from the experience.
The Telltale “Ride the Bus” Design
Until Dawn “Butterfly” Design
Can It Be A “Good” Thing?
So, can morality decisions be implemented in a game without this drawback? Absolutely, but it takes care, a vision and excellent writing. Qualities all exhibited by one of my all-time favourite games, Undertale.
Undertale starts you off from the very beginning teaching you that violence isn’t the answer to every conflict. Heck, you can finish the game without resorting to conflict at all, and that is where this amazing morality choice comes into play. There are no meters, no bars or charts, the moral choices of Undertale affect you as the player. The game won’t tell you that you are evil for killing Papyrus, but the characters within the world will mourn their loss. The factors which must be weighed up are whether you will feel bad for committing these atrocities. Eventually this is conveyed to you, through an exchange with Sans near the end of the game, but until this point, the player may feel like they have “gotten away with it”.
This is made more difficult and more impactful in subsequent playthroughs. You begin to know these characters, you learn what they grow to become if you spare them, therefore when you knowingly cut their life short, you really do feel like you are a monster. This works both ways, making you really miss characters you have dispatched of, and shocking you as people believed to be friendly and welcoming become cold and hostile. The whole game tells you time after time that what you are doing is wrong, you’re only doing this because you can. This makes each evil decision more and more difficult to get behind. This is true as actions from one playthrough reverberate through to subsequent adventures, meaning that a true pacifist run can never follow a true genocide run, characters react differently or feel uneasy around The Human if you have been evil in a past life. This makes you think of the impact outside of even the campaign you are currently in.
An example of how this writing paints morality in game is Sans, the meme skeleton who plays the funny internet music. Throughout neutral and pacifistic runs, or anything in between, he is a real joker. He has no shortage of cheesy puns, he has a loving relationship with his brother, he is a little lazy, adding to his charm and he has a curious relationship with Toriel, your mother figure from the start of the game. All of this is conveyed through great writing. As you start to become more ‘evil’ however, his tone with you becomes more sinister, and a much darker side begins to emerge.
“You’re gonna have a bad time”
There was no way you could have seen this side to the character in violence-free campaigns and it really helps flesh him out, this is the same for all the characters you meet. The two knights who, if you spare them, admit their feelings towards one another and go on a date to get some ice cream. If you didn’t spare them, you would have no idea about that story beat. The list goes on and it is bloody genius.
This is a real morality system. Not dictated by stats, but how it makes you feel as a player, it is way more subjective. That is the real beauty of Undertale’s “morality” system and what leads to the choices feeling legitimately weighty, it is down to you, not the systems of the game to decide.
I Suck at Philosophy
Overall, morality is not binary, it is not black and white, there are different strokes of grey between, and these can also be celebrated. Games which shout from the rooftops about making the journey your own, carving your own destiny or whatever often fall short of this goal. Real morality in games is far more understated and much harder to come by. That is why I think that Undertale succeeds so well in this field.
I haven’t played Mass Effect, but I heard that handled these choices pretty well…