It may have started in RPGs, but one of the big features publishers and developers like to tout in games of any genre is a morality system. There was a time (back in the days of the first KOTOR) where the option to resolve situations in blatantly good or evil ways was enough for me to feel a connection with my character and a sense of agency within the game world. However, as the years go by, this approach is showing its age. The world is not a morally black-and-white place, and as games have evolved, the choice between idealistic paragon and nefarious despot has grown less compelling.

As I see it, the heart of the problem is these games are trying to be everything to every player all at once. Titles with prominent morality systems go out of their way to present players with good, bad, and neutral options for every major decision and sidequest. As an example, let’s say that a woman is looking for her husband who disappeared in the woods – do you vow to help her and demand no reward, tell her you’ll do what you can, or murder her and rip a family heirloom from her cold, lifeless hands?

Though I don’t have any hard data on the subject, I’d wager that most gamers decide at the beginning of a game which side of the moral spectrum they’ll lean towards throughout the course of the entire story. Assuming that’s true, the real question is this: If players have already made the decision to be good or evil, why even waste their time by giving them options they’ll never select?

I generally play evil when given the choice. In the previous example of the woman with the missing husband, there is only one option for evil: murder and theft. Players like me go through games selecting the most ethically reprehensible options. Players with good characters follow a similar pattern, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with me shaping my vision of a character; I’m really only following through on a choice I made at the outset.

I don’t have an issue with the fact that many quests have multiple resolutions. What I don’t like, however, is how these quests often feel like they’ve been contorted in bizarre ways in order to accommodate three distinct and incompatible play styles. If developers want those situations to feel truly satisfying, they need to make me feel like I’m actually choosing something rather than conforming to some ideal of good, evil, or neutrality.

Instead of a bad option held up against a good option, wouldn’t it be more fun to show the varying shades of morality? The selfless paladin versus the noble general. The crazy, diabolical scientist versus the subtle, deceptive assassin. Let players choose – from the beginning – which general path they’d like to follow for a given playthrough. It isn’t like a player who has been playing a Light Side Jedi for 30 hours is suddenly going to want to kill a helpless civilian for fun, anyway.

Once the alignment is set, each quest could offer choices that follow from your initial decision. Back to the missing husband in the woods example: Instead of good, evil, and neutral options, a sinister player could do more than just murder the poor wife. You could lead her into the woods and abandon her, or masquerade as her supposedly lost spouse in an effort to drive her mad.

This isn’t about being cruel for fun; gamers on the good side of the spectrum would appreciate the same array of options. As an upstanding hero, wouldn’t it be nice to not have to say “No gold is necessary. Helping you is reward enough!” for once?

If this approach were to be implemented, developers would still be creating various outcomes for characters with different alignments, but they aren’t being forced to shoehorn all of them into a single playthrough only to have several options discarded automatically by certain players. I don’t know if my solution is the best one, but I know that something needs to change. I’m sick of being presented with the illusion of choice while being given no subtlety in how the game world responds to my character.

I’ve been playing a ton of Dragon Age: Origins lately, which is a good example of a developer going in a less traditional direction. There is no meter that represents your morality, and your dialogue options aren’t clearly divided into the good and evil sides of the spectrum. Furthermore, there is less of an emphasis on good versus evil in general; the paths are less obvious, and most major choices yield both rewards and punishments. I’d like to see more of that in the future, since it shapes a more believable world than one driven solely by selfless acts of compassion and selfish acts of depravity.

Do you think I’m totally off-base here? Do you ever intentionally play a neutral character, or do a mix of good and evil things in these games? Or do you just want things to stay the way they are? Drop me a line and let me know.