The world is not black and white. It is a wide rainbow of different shades of gray. There’s no such thing as good and evil. Morality is subjective and can be different for everyone. The best fiction, in my opinion, explores this concept. With very few exceptions (Lord of the Rings, for example), I dislike any story that deals with a clear purely good heroes fighting purely evil villains. Those stories tend to be boring, unrealistic, and simplistic. Good stories take human nature and explore both the good and the bad. Morality is a subject that I wish was explored more in games. Most games that explore morality tend to just be telling a specific story, and does not offer choices. The Last of Us is a good example of this. When it comes to offering moral choices to the player, most games don’t touch it, and many that do tend to boil moral choices down into a clearly good choice and a clearly bad choice. The few times I have experienced truly interesting moral choices in gaming are some of my absolute favorite moments in games.
I don’t need every game to allow me to forge my own story through choices. If a developer has a specific story that they want to tell, then they should feel free to. I mentioned the Last of Us briefly before, but I think that it was a masterpiece of storytelling and offering choices could have easily ruined it. The player was not meant to play Joel as they would act in his place. The player was meant to experience this story through Joel’s eyes. His character is specific and unambiguous. Other games that do this are Bioshock, Uncharted, Wolfenstein, and many more. As long as the story is good, I am fine with not having true agency.
There are some games that are story based but fail to explore any kind of interesting morality. I think that these games have boring and unrealistic stories. Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor is an example of this. The gameplay is fun and the nemesis system was fantastic, but the story, itself was boring. I couldn’t care less about the main character. The outcome is predetermined because everyone knows the Lord of the Rings story, so there are no real stakes in that respect, and there is no exploration into the morality of the characters. Sauron and the orcs are clearly evil, and the humans are clearly good. The only character with any amount of moral ambiguity is Celebrimbor, and he was really just a good person manipulated by evil.
Most games that include moral choices take the simplest and easiest path, that of a binary morality system where you are given a good choice and a bad choice. It becomes more of a role playing decision where you decide if the player character is a good person or a bad person. Infamous does this. I love the first and second Infamous games but when you either choose to be Good Cole or Bad Cole, it doesn’t make you, the player, really think about what the moral choice is. You just decide that you want the evil powers or the good powers this playthrough and decide accordingly. Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic do this as well. You can never truly place yourself in the shoes of the player character because the immersion is broken by an unrealistic morality system. If you were truly in that situation, it wouldn’t even be a question. You wouldn’t ask yourself: “Hmm, should I steal all of the food from the starving people or nah?”.
Occasionally a game will come along that really makes you think about what is the right decision. These are amazing moments. One of my favorite examples of this was in the Witcher 3. You come across a small settlement that was almost entirely massacred. Geralt assumes, at first, that it was some monster that did this, but after examining the bodies, he discovers that they were killed with a sword. He followed the killer’s tracks to a wounded witcher. The wounded witcher reveals that he was contracted to kill monsters by the settlement but after he finished the contract they tried to get out of paying him by trying to stab him in the back. Wounded and furious, he killed most of the settlement. He knows that what he did was wrong and is prepared for you to execute him. But Geralt has experienced the discrimination and hate that most people have for witchers every day. He understands the pain and frustration of the constant mistrust and disdain that could lead to this mindset, and Geralt has not always done the right thing in the past. The player is given the option to duel the other witcher to the death or to let him live. I sat and looked at the screen thinking about the situation for at least 20 minutes. It really made me think and consider every factor. I loved it. The Witcher 3 had several really good moral choices like this.
Prey 2017 has several interesting choices as well. Spoiler warning for any game I mention, by the way. In the end you have to choose if you will sacrifice yourself and any remaining humans on the Talos 1 space station in the chance that you will stop the alien threat from spreading to Earth or if you will find an escape pod and try to return with help. The whole game, you have multiple characters insisting on the correct choice, including videos of yourself before your memory was wiped. Prey does an excellent job of making you mistrust every single person and thing on the space station, including yourself. You have no idea who to believe, so it’s a choice you must make for yourself. Life is Strange has some interesting choices as well. In the alternate timeline where Chloe’s dad is alive but she is paralyzed. After spending time with her, she asks you to help her end her life. The choice is agonizing, which makes it amazing. Some people criticized that moment because since Max immediately changes the timeline back, the choice ultimately doesn’t matter. I disagree. Perhaps it doesn’t affect gameplay, but it is a choice that Max will have to live with. I like to live through the characters I play and empathize with them, so Max’s impossible decision is my impossible decision. When a game truly makes me think deeply about my own personal morality, those are the moments that I remember.
Sometimes games create choices that have potential to create either gameplay or emotional impact, but ultimately fail to. Wolfenstein New Order and its expansion Old Blood have these choices. In both of these, you are forced to choose to save one of two people. Unfortunately, these choices come ten minutes after meeting the characters so you have no emotional investment, and the gameplay doesn’t change based on your decision, so the decision is also not functionally different. These feel like missed opportunities for powerful moments.
Ultimately I love when a game explores human nature and morality, but not when the morality is binary and simplistic. I also love having gameplay consequences to my choices.