Dark Side 'Cause It Looks Cool: The Failings of Moral Choice in Games

For their latest WRPG-focused editorial, Joystiq has published a look on the handling of morality in various RPGs. There's praise for some fairly recent title like Fallout: New Vegas and Mass Effect, and also for some older titles like Ultima IV, while the normal binary morality system, used in titles such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, is criticized. Here's a snip from it:
But by and large, games don't make morality difficult. The biggest problem is that they treat good and evil decisions as roughly equivalent. Your process through the quest is roughly the same, and your rewards are roughly the same. Perhaps the greatest example of this is just outside of the realm of role-playing games, in 2006's BioShock. Your character is given the choice of harvesting small, corrupt children called "Little Sisters" for their power. It's portrayed as a difficult choice, where you get much smaller improvements in power if you let the girls live, but much more power to save more people generally if you sacrifice the Little Sister. The problem? If you save the Little Sisters, you get the power gifted to you anyway -- the only penalty is a slight delay.

The Old Republic's nature as a massively multiplayer game causes major problems in terms of meaningless moral choices. MMOs like The Old Republic are rigidly designed so that every aspect of the game can be understood and controlled. Meaningful choice doesn't exist, except in terms of how you spend your time in the game, so the choices offered become strictly aesthetic. Pick one thing, and maybe your companion likes you a little more, or you can wield a particular weapon. Nothing important later in the game will be taken away from you. You'll never have the opportunity to switch sides.

Perhaps the worst example I encountered in my time playing The Old Republic occurred on Tatooine, as an Imperial player. I was sent to uncover proof that the Jawas had a shaman who could use the Force. After a few quests, I uncovered proof, and confronted a Jawa leader. A game that allowed a truly moral choice would have given me the opportunity to leave the Jawas in peace, or even to join them and fight for their freedom. Instead, all of my "choices" forced me to fight the Jawa, and then capture or kill it and give that information to one Imperial or another. Either way, I was fighting those Jawas, even if my Light Side character's sympathies were with them, and having the freedom to actually step into that character's role would have presented options that the structure of the game couldn't allow. The game's shallow "morality" system was one of the primary reasons I stopped playing -- the choice was so obviously an illusion that it felt downright manipulative.