No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

In a game with morality choices, would you choose the Good options if the results were often worse?

Most of the games I can think of that had moral choices ended up rewarding you the most if you chose the Good options. In Bioshock, for example, you could either “harvest” the Little Sisters for extra upgrade currency, or you could Cleanse them for a smaller reward. As it turns out though, if you end up Cleansing the Little Sisters they would start dropping off care packages containing ammo and extra upgrade currency, such that you might even come out ahead by going the Good route. The choice also ends up reflecting the tone of the ending, but it luckily skews towards Evil Ending rather than Bad Ending per se.

In thinking back to Bioshock, I started wondering if I would have been more inclined to harvest the Little Sisters if they did not “sweeten the deal” with the gift baskets later. I would like to say “No,” but I also feel like the “Pick the Good option and get bigger reward later” is such a ingrained gaming trope that I am beginning to question which inclination came first. Would the promise of a “better” ending be incentive enough to make Good choices, even if the game proper was made more difficult thereby?

Or to go all the way: what if the only reward of a Good choice in a game was the personal satisfaction of having done the right thing? In other words, what if the player was punished in some way for choosing the moral thing to do? An example could be sparing a bad guy, only to have them return and kill an NPC teammate later. Would the average gamer behavior change? Would the moral players feel better about their choices, or worse?

Sometimes I feel like I want to be a game designer just to screw with people.

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Posted on April 26, 2013, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Fallen London (formerly Echo Bazaar) features many choices of this sort.

    In one of its storylines, you’re tasked with a murder investigation. The murderer is a rich, powerful and very influential man. There’s also another suspect who is completely innocent, but doesn’t have any notable power. You can declare either to be guilty.

    If you do the morally right thing, you’ll temporarily inconvenience the murderer, and his allies will completely ruin your social status in return, locking you out of many options until you undergo a long grind to get it back. If you pick the innocent guy, they’ll reward you for your silence instead. There’s no reward for picking the ‘good’ choice and no punishment for picking the ‘pragmatic’ one, apart from the feeling itself and cosmetic achievements.

    (I picked the evil option. Then again, my character has already sold his soul to the devils at that point)

    • See… ugh. Yeah. Already I’m sitting here thinking “that’s unfair!” and yet… that’s probably a more interesting and meaningful choice than what usually happens in these games (e.g. a blind faith in the good selections due to historically greater rewards). It’d be tricky to pull off though, as you would need the players to be invested in the moral outcome of their character.

  2. I used to be really worried about whether I was making the “right” decision or not, until I played the first Witcher game. The Witcher relies heavily on grey morality, and never has any “right” decisions. Making a seemingly good decision in one chapter can very easily come back to bite you a chapter or two later. the same can happen with seemingly “bad” player decisions, but everyone expects that those choices will have some kind of repercussions somewhere along the line. While making both a mix of “good” and “evil” decisions in titles with binary morality (i.e. Mass Effect) prevents you from taking full advantage of some game features, like perks for maxing out one side of the morality meter, it is a surprisingly liberating experience. I never realized how playing to maximize perks and morality rewards stilted my enjoyment of a game, until I went back and replayed them without those features in mind.

    That doesn’t mean that altering gameplay decisions to earn specific rewards (like the Little Sister/gifts example) is a less valid form of gameplay. Those games have their place and I think that grey morality games are so effective because they’re played against a long history of good/evil storytelling. I do think though that games sometimes “punishing” players for making “good” decisions is beneficial though. The introduction of player consequence for both good/bad decisions hopefully makes players focus more on the story itself and less on getting the game “right”.

    • Ha, good call on bringing up The Witcher, as that was a game whose choices I felt were too arbitrary precisely due to their grayness. The early quest to choose between letting the weapon shipment through to the elves, for example, resulted in my contact in the next chapter being killed by those same weapons. I felt kinda cheated because the choice felt “blind” to me; how in the world was I supposed to know that something like that mattered? It felt like I was playing some twisted version of Myst: choose between twisting the knob or flipping the switch, but beware that one of those actions results in your love interest dying.

      Hmm. It is definitely something to think about; if game choices feel too arbitrary or punishing, I actually stop caring about choosing anything because it doesn’t seem to matter.

      • But see, it’s supposedly arbitrary choices like that that are more “realistic” for lack for a better term. I’m not one to be gungho about imposing realism on a fantasy game, because … well … it’s fantasy. That said, I found the weapons shipment quest particularly interesting for the very fact that it was a seemingly throw-away decision that actually had an impact you in no way could have forseen. Instead of feeling cheated, I remember finding it all quite fascinated. I’ve since watched a number of blind Witcher 1 LPs, and people do seem to have mixed reactions to that quest. Most of them, however, seem to be quite taken with the idea that their actions affected the world that way. It’s almost like CDProjektRED was preying on gamer complacency and the god like complex we so easily wear when it comes to making “minor” decisions about what is done with NPC’s goods/belongings. So in the end, instead of not caring about what I chose (b/c it’s all going to end in badness dontcha know?), I found that my Geralt stopped thinking about immediate consequences of his actions, and became more concerned about who may eventually/potentially be hurt/helped by his actions. The whole process was a major eye opener for me.

  3. Fallen London is an excellent game.

    In general I do what my character would do , even if that eventually renders the character unplayable. Who really cares about “winning”? Having a morally consistent character is more satisfying than any “material” reward could ever be.

    Of course, I am human and weak and suffer the inevitable lapses that render my characters less complete than I would have them be. I’m ashamed of it. As I should be.

    • I typically oscillate between what I would do as a person in the game, and what makes sense for the character. Indeed, part of what elevated the Mass Effect series so high in my eyes (and why I was so betrayed by the poor quality of the original endings), is that I started feeling like Shepard was a better man than I was. My avatar ceased to be me, and instead became the kind of person I wanted to be. I still executed some bad guys (i.e. Renegade) when it made sense to tie off that loose end, but otherwise Shepard was making all the right decisions that I wouldn’t have made myself. Because that’s who he was, and who I am not.

      Of course, that sort of submersion in the narrative isn’t particularly common, unfortunately. I don’t even remember the main character’s name in Bioshock; that choice to cleanse all the Little Sisters was likely made under the auspices of which ending I wanted to see first.

  4. The poster child for branching decision making is still Planescape: Torment where every choice pretty much led to Unexpected.