Decision making and doing the ‘right’ thing in video games

Video games have long been interested in the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ sides of their make believe worlds, generically you play the hero, saving the girl, beating up some bad guys, yada yada yada. Then came stories where you played the villain, sometimes turning out to have a heart of gold and sometimes not. Next come the games that give you a choice, do you choose the light or the dark? Think the original Knights of the Old Republic, choosing whatever side of the force you desired, were you formally Darth Revan, Sith Lord turned Master Jedi and liberator, or were you a stronger, darker force than the original Revan ever had been, come to put your former apprentice back in line?

There are so many games out there we could discuss, but I’m going to pick two which I loved and contrast well, Fable and Dragon Age Inquisition. The Fable series is a fan favourite, known for its hero, destined to save all of Albion, or use the devastating power of their bloodline to plunge the world into their own special brand of chaos. Actions are generally black or white, stealing and murder are bad, giving money and killing highwaymen are good. There’s also the whole playful/gross, attractiveness/fear issue but putting that aside, you make decisions in game, both part of the main story and in your wanderings and interactions with the townspeople. What people have loved about the game is how dramatically your decisions affect your appearance, be good and you will glow, be bad and before long you’ll be sprouting horns!

But – and here’s the kicker with the Fable series, for the most part the effect of those actions is cumulative. It’s a good or bad end result and each little action adds or takes away from your totals. There’s some nuances to this in the third game, which I’ll get to in a moment, but for the first two games this meant morality became a thing of the greater good, or the ends justify the means. Say you were determined to be a completely good character, you could do this despite spending the majority of the game stealing, pillaging and murdering your way around Albion as long as you were good enough or were wearing good enough armour to counter the bad. People wouldn’t fear you and would in fact be madly in love with you even immediately after you robbed their store blind and paid off the guards. Is that good? Probably not, but Fable has recognised that sometimes being bad is oh so fun, even if ultimately you want to do what is right. The major decisions in the game can be treated in a similar way, use your accumulated goodness to do the evil thing and take the extremely powerful weapon, or do the right thing, but still be the bad guy because you’ve got devil horns and dark armor and are frankly terrifying.

The third game mitigates this effect a little by the change in the upgrades and levelling as well as an addition of ‘promises’ and royal economic system which effects the entire Kingdom and gives some consequences which cannot be avoided despite all your accumulated goodness. For example, build a brothel in Bowerstone because that seems hilarious, or you’re after some in-game achievements and the town will hate you with a passion. You can’t placate them en masse and must instead earn them back one by one. This is intended to force you to choose a side, which side is still entirely up to you. The extra element again is the threat of the oncoming invasion, break promises and do things to make money instead of protect the people and you have more in the treasury to save those same people. You are doing wrong, to do right, much more a dilemma of the political system, the thankless leader with enough knowledge to do what’s best in the long run. This too though can be rorted, you don’t need to be sacrifice anything at all if you are able to put in your own money to assist the treasury, in the same way that you could just as easily be a stock standard evil ruler, taking from the treasury for yourself and saving nobody. 

Binary morality doesn’t really make for much in the way of realism, or make choices as tough as they’re probably meant to be. So now we go to the ultimate in decision making, Dragon Age Inquisition. Dragon Age Inquisition is the third of the series set in Thedas, operating in a complex political and social world in which you really get to make decisions. In this game you are the inquisitor, bearer of the mark and charged with saving the world from Coryphyeus. You interact with a set of complex and in depth characters as well as making wider decisions that impact the course of the world.

Morality isn’t measured in a scale of light and dark, good and bad, and there’s nuance to each course of action that takes into account the complexity involved in trying to do the right thing (or not). Dragon Age lives in the grey area that Fable’s system tends to avoid. Early in the game you’re faced with big decisions, such as supporting the Mages or the Templars and time and time again decisions are so harrowing as to cause you to go back and try them again multiple times just to make sure you’ve done the right thing. A good example of where they could have done more though is the decision between Iron Bull’s Chargers, and the Qunari dreadnought. Aside from the lameness of the fact that you are forced to choose (let’s face any half decent player could have stormed off the cliff or attacked at range and saved them both) the decision either has a deeply personal impact of one of your inner circle, or on the strength of your inquisition. Both choices have consequences, such that making a ‘good’ or ‘correct’ decision is nonsensical. Like many other players you often find yourself dealing with his uncertainty by playing trough the consequences of a decision one way or another and keeping the save file you preferred or lead to the outcome you wanted.

This game comes much closer to the challenge of everyday life and gives you the ability to shape a world. Not only in Inquisition but also in the games that came before. The player is able to set up the decisions you would have made in the earlier games and import them. The world is yours, your politics, your companions, your life. You need to follow through the story, to triumph over Corphyeus, but the legacy you leave and the path you take to get there is yours. The characters that surround you will respond to those choice, if they like you there is more opportunity to interact with them and even quests, if they don’t the choices you make they may cease to follow you entirely. In the most basic way your actions have consequences beyond what you usually find in a game, even for rpg’s. While the system of light and dark in Fable is enforced by an external tally, it tends to be the response of your companions, each with their own worldview and ideals that impose an idea of right or wrong in Dragon Age.

What does all this say about gaming? About morality? Well, the ‘right’ thing is a lot more complex and nuanced then most games are able to imitate, but that’s not what gaming is really about. A game can suggest to us what may be good or bad and it can force us into facing consequences if we choose to act in a certain way, but the beauty of RPG’s is that we are still the ones making the decisions. We, as gamers, become really become attached to the life they allow us to nurture and this choice in my opinion is what keeps us coming back.

What’s your favourite RPG? What factors will influence your choices in the game?

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