Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Real Moral Choice

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Moral choices, when present in video games, seem to mostly boil down to either saintly behavior or satanic cruelty. Will I save the little sisters from their cruel bonds, or will I tear them into pieces for my own purposes (BioShock)? Should I give the woman her baby for free or threaten its life so she’ll fork over a few gold coins (Neverwinter Nights)? Do I want to end up with a halo or some really gnarly horns (Fable 2)?

I’ve only played about two hours of Dragon Age: Origins, just enough to get through one of the origin stories the game offers, but in that limited amount of time I was presented with the first real moral challenge I have ever faced in a video game. I was a young female elven rogue whose wedding day was ruined by a cruel human noble interposing himself on our modest ceremony. Elves in the world of Dragon Age were, in recent history, an enslaved people. Since we’re still treated as second-class citizens, no one raised much of an outcry when a group of armed men broke up my wedding day and took me and several other women hostage.

With the help of a childhood friend, I broke out, killing the human guards who got in my way. I managed to rescue most of my friends before anything terrible happened to them, but one of the women and my husband-to-be were killed. When I finally reached the so-called noble, he and a group of his men were standing over the sobbing form of one of my closest friends. I gripped my sword in mute fury as the man turned to face me. And that’s when I reached a moment, purely in dialogue, that was more difficult than any series of jumps or room full of well-armed enemies in other games.

The man presented me with a choice: I could fight him, and maybe I would win, but if I killed him his father would probably storm the slum where I lived, killing most of the people I grew up with and burning their homes to the ground. Or I could just walk away, a little richer, and pretend that these atrocities never took place.

I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a longer time to make a dialogue decision. There was no right answer, no clear moral solution. I wanted to do the right thing, but I had no idea what that was.

I told him I would walk away if he let the women go. He refused, saying that he would still be keeping them for the night, all of them but me. That’s when I stabbed him in the gut. It felt good, but I had no idea whether I had done the right thing. I might have doomed us all. Only time would tell.

And that moment, with all of the actual, real-life internal conflict that it elicited from me, was one of the most impressive video game moments of my life. I haven’t played much more of Dragon Age since then, but if that’s all I get out of it I will consider this game an important milestone in video games: a game that finally establishes that morality is not a simple thing, with one good answer and one evil one. Finally, I was asked to make a decision and I had no idea what to do. This shows that games are finally maturing, and that difficulty is no longer just a question of game mechanics. This was challenging to my conscience instead of my reflexes, just like any real, difficult moral choice.


  1. This was my revelatory experience of the game, too: any number of moments where I became frozen, unable to choose between dialogue options. I had enough information to appreciate the situation and make the decision in terms of principles that meant something to me, the decision wasn't forced or false, and yet it was still difficult. It was difficult even knowing that there would be no gameplay penalty for either option, but merely story consequences.

    It's extremely well done, and I can't for the life of me understand how they did so well for so much of the game and then dropped the ball for the ending.

  2. I completely agree, although, having played through the game once and running a second character now, I feel there is an unfortunate flipside to this.

    1) Programming capabilities and budget/time constraints make it impossible for the game to really accomodate for all the interesting moral results. Ultimately, even if there are 5 morally complex choices to make, there tends to be 1 of 2 outcomes with only menial acknowledgment of the specificity of your choice. In other words, often times the moral consequences of your complex moral decisions rest entirely on your own view of your character and not on anything that happens in game.

    2) By elminating an overall morality scale in favor of every choice being weighed individualy, the choices actually begin seeming less important. In KOTOR, when gaining/maintaining your +6 light or darkside bonus is at stake or being able to access certain powers based on your moral standing is in play, it makes you feel like each choice is really building towards something. In Dragon Age, many of the choices start to feel inconsequential because you can flip back and forth as you see fit.

    I applaud the fact that Dragon Age took a step in the right direction in terms of creating a genuine roleplaying experience in a video game, but the formula is far from complete.


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