Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I (heart) Great Design: Morality in games

I just recently acquired the Platinum Trophy in Dark Souls, and I’ve been looking back on the experience quite fondly. It was a great 130 hours; about 20 hours longer than it took to get the Platinum Trophy in Skyrim. It was a long and challenging road and one of the best gaming journeys I’ve been on in a while.

I had such a good time that I even decided last night to start the whole thing over again, with a new character. From scratch. It started off well enough, I was able to breeze through the introductory section of the game easily enough. But then I encountered something quite jarring… I was griefed. Hard.

For those not entirely familiar with the “Souls” games (Dark Souls and its spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls): players can invade other players’ game worlds and attack them to gain souls (the game’s currency system - and other circumstance-specific rewards). Because Dark Souls is such a difficult game, things get especially tense when an additional opponent is thrown into the mix. It puts you on edge as much as classic survival-horror games used to.

Pictured Above (from right to left): an honorable knight(on stairs), and an asshole

Because I started playing the game immediately at launch (I had the game pre-ordered months in advance), I guess I was progressing alongside most other players in the world. The times I had encountered invading players, we were (mostly) evenly matched. I’ve won (and lost) many tense 1-on-1 duels with invading Black Phantom players.

Getting back to the story of griefing… Starting with my fresh, new Level 12 character, I was traveling through the game’s first area. Suddenly I was invaded by another player. I’ve experienced this before, so I was ready for what was to come. As a Level 12 character (a very basic low-level character), I was fully expecting to go head-to-head with a similarly powered phantom. It did not happen that way. I was completely overmatched by someone decked out in high-level gear and a giant flaming sword that struck me down in one hit. Only, it wasn’t quite so quick. He stood in place, taunting me repeatedly, and even invited me to strike him a few times with my pitiful broadsword that barely even scratched him.

After he killed me, I revived. I did not take long, however, for another crazily overpowered Black Phantom to invade my game and ruin things for me. With no possible way to fight back, it was a rough and thoroughly unpleasant experience. It took some searching on some forums online, but I was able to find out that there is a practice going around where players are beating the game at a ridiculously low level, starting a New Game+ (which lets them keep all of their end-game gear), and then thoroughly trouncing low-level beginner players.

This brings me to my topic: Morality in Games.

Many games offer morality as a very superficial narrative device. A common occurrence in modern RPGs, you’ll meet a character who will have a problem. It’s up to you as a player to either do something “good” or you could do something “evil”. It’s quite cut and dry. And often times, your decision will have very little to no impact on the game’s story and outcome.

What is even more effective is when the game allows you, the player, to express your own morality through the game. Not with “A or B” choices, but through your actions and how you carry yourself.

I’ve Platinum’d both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, clocking in about a combined 300+ hours of gameplay, and I’ve never, ever invaded another player. I just can’t do it. That is to say, I don’t hate those who do. Invading is an integral part of these games, and I will always welcome a (fair) challenge. I much prefer to assist others by joining them as a White Phantom (entering another player’s game world, with the express intent on helping them).

Pictured above: the Dark Souls equivalent of an upstanding
citizen helping someone murder a 20-foot rat

More games need to include this kind of subtlety. When it comes to something like morality, don't give me a binary "good vs evil" dialogue choice, let my everyday game actions define who I am as a player.


  1. I agree. I haven't played either of the 'Souls' games, but I do like that idea of morality. The good or bad choice was cool at first, but it's old now.

    I kind of like the way KOTOR did it(I can't believe how long ago that was..) where you were given more choices, each with varying degrees of 'goodness' or 'badness' that you as a player weren't unaware of, but would slowly transform your character to the dark side or light side.

    I guess morality can be difficult if a game is more focused on one player with a bunch of NPC's, though.

  2. Interesting read. I've always felt as though 'morality' need not fit on a parameter defined by the game myself, and the Souls games are awesome by the way. If you're interested in third person games, Spec Ops: The Line seems like it takes an interesting approach to morality, because all moral choice moments are unscripted. You're not even forced to make a choice as I recall. Check it out sometime, it's probably one of my more anticipated games this year.

    1. That sounds really interesting about Spec Ops: The Line. In fact, that's interesting enough to land it on my radar. I'll keep an eye on it up until release and I'll check it out when I get a chance.

      Thanks for the comment, btw!