While browsing through the Alganon website for publicly available data on the game, I was angered by the insistence on using the horrible good-evil dichotomy that has become the standard system of moral choice in games.
There are two factions in the game: The Asharr and the Kujix. Guess what they represent? Just pick the easiest possible dichotomy that has been used the most in videogames: Good vs. Evil. Alganon doesn’t stop there, though! It folds all of of the positive “good-aligned” traits—light, nature, heart, mind, order, obedience, and protection—into Asharr and similarly it folds the opposites into Kujix. They went all-in on this cliché. This kind of design laziness borders on the obscene. Reading about Alganon’s weak backstory brought memories of a certain AGDC session flooding back into my thoughts.
Mot and I attended a group session at AGDC ‘09 entitled “The Jesus-Hitler Problem” where we had a series of small-group discussions about how to make moral choice in games less banal and ludicrous. Everyone agreed that the good-evil dichotomy is weak, overplayed, and should be relegated to the trash heap, but few people had much to say about how to replace it. Some suggested avoiding the question all together and divorcing moral choice from game mechanics. Some suggesting having some kind of faction system in games to represent a players alignment with the wants of different important groups in the story.
It’s definitely time we ditch the good vs. evil dichotomy in games. Both sides are stupid. No one actually ever fits into either of the sides accurately. They’re caricatures that have been dulled by overuse. (And I find it ridiculous that people don’t have a problem how MMOs imply that the moral caliber of one’s being has to do with one’s race.) We should keep moral choice as a mechanic, though, because leaving it out doesn’t encourage players to try different paths. The stakes become very low if moral choice doesn’t actually have an effect on the game world—we almost shouldn’t bother with moral choice at all in that case. Faction systems are a better idea, but don’t fit a wide range of genres.
My suggestion is that we keep moral choice, but change its gamut radically. Moral choice shouldn’t run from perfect good to perfect evil separated by a vanilla neutrality of uselessness. For moral choice to be effecting and memorable, players have to be forced to choose between two equally appealing (or equally disastrous) options. There should be a solid case for either choice being good or evil.
Here are some dichotomies that arise in moral dilemmas; one’s beliefs on a dichotomy need not be either one or the other, there can be some degree of dithering:
- Idealism vs. Pragmatism (Hope vs. Reason)
- Material vs. Spiritual
- Mercy vs. Justice
- Need vs. Deserve
- Impulse vs. Reason (Heart vs. Mind)
- The Many vs. The Few
- Authority vs. Equality
- Self vs. Others
- Present vs. Future
- Certainty vs. Opportunity (Fate vs. Free Will)
- Intent vs. Consequence
- Unity vs. Diversity
If we profile NPCs through using their positions on these dichotomies, we can construct almost lifelike belief systems. Once we have belief systems, we can present the player with options that will either appeal to or disgust NPC groups that with which the player interacts. The tests of morality can occur relatively frequently, probing at the player’s conceptions of each of these dichotomies. Different factions react in different ways depending on how the player has behaved earlier in the game.
Through expanding the moral quandaries and removing the pretense of good vs. evil, we can create arresting moral decisions, and then have those decisions have deep-rooted effects on the way the game progresses. Such a system will be significantly more engaging, replayable, and thought provoking.