Oy Vey, again with the morally grey?

The way trends in the video game industry develop are very different than any other aspect of social culture. Usually, all it takes is for one prominent figure in the community to come out in support or against an accepted standard. From there, it trickles to all other published and wanna-be analysts who continue to a parallel view. Then it slowly seeps to the bloggers and forumites who post their thoughts on some godforsaken forum in the depths of the internet. From there, the idea plants its foot with the masses, and is horribly mutilated till it loses its original implication.

 As an excessive forum goer, I’ve seen the moral choice in videogames debate do just that. The most common perspective is that the set choices of “evil” versus “good” options are outdated, since morals differ from person to person. Surprisingly, the idea itself may have validity itself since ironically, these overly one sided options only end up building a wall between the player and the protagonist. Thus was birthed the “morally grey”.

 The evolution of gaming culture demanded a sense of ambiguity ever since titles like ICO came around and changed perspectives of what we expect from gaming as a median of entertainment. But it was only a matter of time before the idea was horribly disfigured.

The ever popular Fable series was an easy target for the grey-rights activists. Before the product even hit concept art, it had the most ambitious plan for moral choice systems. An ambition, the hallmark of the Molyneux design philosophy, that it couldn’t deliver on. I can understand why gamers were upset, instead of a game where their moral choices affected the world in unique and individual ways, each play through rewarded you with unique items of bonuses for going to the polar extreme of ‘good or ‘evil’.  There was no room for moral ambiguity, or at least, there wasn’t if you wanted that goofy looking hat.

Fable 2 is definitely a good example problems with moral choice systems gamers had. In Fable there were far too many moments in which the player was only presented with black and white options, and is incapable of making anything beyond those two choices. The Spire level being an example where even doing nothing was considered evil. I literally left my decisions in almost each situation up to a coin flip. That's hardly the amount of player interactivity that should be available.

Oversized Novelty Boots: Only available if you slaughter orphans

Another popular source of hatred is the original Bioshock, a game so deeply immersed in philosophy and satire, received a critical tongue lashing for ending with either of possibly the two of the most obviously one sided decisions in gaming history. Again, the upset public can be justified in its response. But if I’ve learned one thing about gamers, it’s that they can do nothing in moderation.

One title after another failed to meet the rising expectations of moral ambiguity from gamers, and were rewarded with vitriolic hatred. Titles like Overlord, Infamous, and even Spiderman: WoS fell to this new crusade for greyness. These games never promised the experience that Fable did, not did they provide an equivalent experience to Bioshock.

What gamers wanted, in effect was a moral sandbox. Gamers had been treated to open-world games for quite a while and wanted the level of morality in their games to go beyond the good/evil dichotomy. It felt rather….linear.

Does it really matter if games have a player tied down to a good or evil path though? Not every game has the aesthetic appeal of Crysis, does that mean that every game with lesser graphics will forever disappoint? Not every game can have the soothing melodies that blessed our ears in Ocarina of Time, does that mean that they can’t be appealing?

No, the appeal lies elsewhere.

To focus on one particular aspect of game design in appraisal of a game is to focus on the ground coffee atop a tiramisu. If you focus on what leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, the enjoyment of the game goes out the window. Why is it gamers are so eager to criticize and disregard games because of this one aspect?

While Overlord can't provide the same level of philosophical and moral contemplation of Mass Effect, being a stereotypically megalomaniac evil-doer can be just as fun. If we keep on expecting a nuanced and complex moral choice system from our games, we’re invariably going to be disappointed. So what do you say gaming community, can we relax a bit? Who knows, maybe then we might be able to enjoy games again.

- Peter


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