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Morality in Games, Part 1.

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Chris Avellone

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I recently did an interview regarding morality and games for a student's Master's Thesis, and I wanted to share in case anyone was interested. Or wanted to quote me in or out of context for fun.

 

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What is your name and professional title?

My name is Chris Avellone, and I'm Creative Director (and Lead Designer on our Alpha Protocol CIA RPG) here at Obsidian Entertainment.

 

For how long have you been working in the computer games industry?

Over ten years (yikes) - I got my start in pen-and-paper gaming (Dungeons and Dragons, Champions), but the last decade has been primarily at two companies: as a designer at Interplay Entertainment, and then I went on to be one of the founders of Obsidian Entertainment.

 

Could you outline your professional relation to moral aspects and choices in games? For example, have you worked on titles where these kinds of choices have been a premiere aspect of the game?

Almost all the titles I've worked on have dealt with player choice and moral consequence, either in terms of a character alignment (good, evil). The moral consequences of choices you make in computer games is one of the hallmarks of a role-playing game, so it's core to what we do.

 

If so, which titles?

Planescape: Torment (the alignment system - you start out as a blank neutral slate, then your actions make you more chaotic, lawful, good, or evil), Fallout 2 (the karma system), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords (you can fall to the light side or dark side of the Force, depending on your actions, and it has consequences for your companions as well through the "influence" system), Neverwinter Nights 2, Neverwinter Nights: Mask of the Betrayer (both feature improved versions of the influence system, where not only can you become more good or evil, but the respect of your companions also increases or diminishes based on your actions).

 

Do you consider moral choices in games to be an important aspect of game design? If so, why?

At the risk of being quoted out of context, I don't think it's important. I think that the player should have difficult choices to make and moral choices are one of the best ways to present it, but the most important thing from a role-playing game standpoint is that there be reactivity and consequence to your actions, whether they are moral choices are not.

 

In what game design phase do you think one should begin to think about moral issues in the game world, and why?

Generally, I think it should be considered as early as possible in the game design, preferably at the time that you decide upon the game's "theme." For our Aliens project, for example, the moral theme that we're trying to communicate was considered an important establishing point in our early pre-production phase (as it was for Mask of the Betrayer).

 

What do you consider to be successful use of morals in a game?

Fallout 1 and Mass Effect come to mind. In Fallout 1, part of the dilemma in retrieving the water chip for your home has the potential to cause another community to be extinguished. This ultimately doesn't have the impact it could because you have the ability to save both, but it's a choice that makes you pause for a moment, since your choice can condemn one civilization or another to death.

 

There's several moments in Mass Effect where I had to pause before making a choice because the game had done an excellent job of painting what the consequences of each action could be as I was making the choice. I don't want to give any spoilers unless you've played the game, but I had to struggle with some of the choices while making them, which makes them successful in my book.

 

In our latest title, Alpha Protocol, we're presenting some of the moral choices within the context of the CIA operation itself - and the choices you make to achieve your mission or your goal can depend on how much you're willing to place others at risk.

 

What do you think (in an ideal case) should be the consequences game-wise of a moral decision made by the player in the game? (for example: branching plotline, different reward/penalty, story related or functional character development, NPC-PC relationship development)

All of your examples would be appropriate. The most important thing is that the world react to the choice, and the player sees the consequences of the action.

 

To what degree do you think the consequences of such moral decisions can affect the player's progress without damaging the game experience?

What, if any, non-game sources do you draw upon when contemplating moral choices in games (i.e. works on moral philosophy, current events, movies, literature etc)?

A good many of the choices we make in daily life are the best indicators. Usually, the game sources we draw on are the situations that take place in the game - for example, when doing area summaries for a locale, usually a number of moral choices will suggest themselves just from the overriding idea for the location.

 

What do you think a game design team should do in order to impart a coherent view on morality in a game?

At Obsidian, either the lead designer or the lead creative designer (the designer responsible for the narrative and character) is the enforcer of the morality and choice in the game, in tandem with the game's theme. They act as the policeman across all quests, interactions, and NPCs to see that the theme and any moral arcs in the game are maintained.

 

Have you ever during your professional career made any efforts to ensure a coherent game world regarding morality? If so, what have these efforts been?

Not so much morality, but presenting balanced lawful, chaotic, good, and evil choices in Planescape: Torment, and in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, the main characters in the game frequently questioned the over-arching influence of the Force on the lives of individuals and whether surrendering to its Light or Dark sides served the purpose that was intended for good or evil, or whether the true enemy was the predestination the Force seemed to lay out.

 

...and that's it for Part 1. I'll post the answers for Part 2 in the coming week.

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