Designer Talk: Morality In Games

What is the intention of moral decisions in a video game setting? Does that intention come across properly, and is it better to simply ignore it to begin with?...

What is the intention of moral decisions in a video game setting? Does that intention come across properly, and is it better to simply ignore it to begin with? This time on Designer Talk, let’s talk about an example of morality in games that did work.

What defines an important decision? I think that’s a pretty easy question to answer. We all know what makes us feel important. Our decisions have impacts on us, this is always true, but few decisions mean more to us than the ones that have an impact on other people.

That an idea could impact those around us is a feeling associated with many emotions both positive and negative. A prime example of this is the inFAMOUS series.

For those unfamiliar, inFAMOUS stars Cole MacGrath, who is forced to become humanity’s defender or destroyer as you live out each day making decisions. Your lightning based super powers force you to rise to the challenge as other powered beings threaten to destroy the world around you. This game handles morality in a way that ties directly into its mechanics. Your powers, your style, your interactions, and even your power supply are tied directly to your morals.

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Whether or not you leech an enemy’s health to recover your own or do a live capture to prevent a massacre, the types of powers and missions you get are different. Your morality doesn’t just interact with the outcome of the narrative, but it changes the way you experience the game as well.

In most cases, the bad karma powers are objectively better, doing more damage, sapping health, and otherwise. The game almost encourages you to take the bad karma route, with the game’s title even sharing in the name of its worst karma rating.

I would argue that this is the most effective way to deliver morality. Do you want to experience the game in a way where you’re far more empowered, or have you grown to care enough for the world’s vibrant characters where you’ll stand to protect them? Either way, you’ve got a wild experience ahead of you, and a story worth enjoying, but the emotional implications that come with the bad karma route of the game will really shake you up.

That being said, the lesson to be learned from this Designer Talk is that morality should impact mechanics in a way that offers temptation on both sides. But we should remember that how we reward bad choices might influence perception of character, and a few other major things.

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Mustapha is a young yet spirited university student majoring in Game Art and Development. While he's but a senior in college, he has an extensive history with the art of gaming journalism. Managing his own game review blog for several years, as well as attending events such as Boston FIG and PAX East has given him extensive experience in covering game news. His knowledge of game design also serves as a tool to develop finite understanding of what makes games work.
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